If California has a heartland, Yolo County may just be it. One of the original 27 counties formed at statehood, its 1,021 square miles of fertile farmland are located directly west of Sacramento, spanning the fruitful Central Valley and Sacramento Delta. While small-town life is in full effect in Winters or Woodland—historic towns with charming main streets lined with old brick mom-and-pop shops—the city of Davis is home to the majority of Yolo County’s residents. The University of California at Davis is the county’s largest employer, and often the center of its cultural fingerprint. Still, plenty of adventures await beyond the campus, in locales as diverse as wetlands and wineries, sunflower fields and museums.
Get a Taste—and an Eyeful—of Yolo County’s Bounty
UC Davis originated in 1905 as a farming extension for the UC system. Today the school is ranked No. 1 in the nation for its agriculture program, owing in part to its bountiful environment that doubles as a natural teaching ground. Fortunately, enrollment is not required to experience the Yolo County countryside. Wander the Davis Farmers Market—an award-winning Saturdays-only event in downtown’s Central Park—for county provisions like Yolo Press olive oil, Skyelark Ranch eggs, and McDonald Orchards walnuts. Or hop aboard a River Fox Railbike for a 10-mile, open-air pedaling excursion along a decommissioned length of track through fields of sunflowers (their nutrient-rich seeds are sourced for cooking oil at local mills like Woodland’s La Tourangelle), almond orchards (the nut is Yolo’s biggest commodity), and seemingly endless grapevines.
Those acres of sunflowers are more than just a colorful backdrop. During high season—mid-June to mid-July—they are the star attraction, with people traveling from all over to witness and photograph their vivid grandeur. Take note that these farms are on private land, so be mindful when visiting. Before going on a sunflower excursion, take a look at these suggestions for making the most of it, and how to do so safely.
Yolo County is hailed by many as a gateway to wine country. With good reason: While Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties can all lay claim to Highway 128, the winery-filled 120-mile route actually begins in Winters. The town, located on the banks of Putah Creek, is the hub of a short wine trail that includes small family wineries like Berryessa Gap, Turkovich Family Wines, the off-the-beaten-path upstart Matchbook Wine Company, and Capay Valley Vineyards, where vintages are fermented solely from estate-grown fruit. (The Capay Valley’s terroir is so distinctive that in 2003, it was designated an American Viticultural Area, or AVA, one of 107 official grape-growing regions in California.) Nearby Clarksburg is also an AVA featuring more than 58,000 acres of Delta-fed vineyards. A central tasting room at the town’s Old Sugar Mill, a defunct beet-sugar refinery from 1934, features sprawling grass lawns, food trucks, and 14 local wineries pouring flights inside a handsome heritage brick building.
Where there’s great wine, great food tends to follow—and as a cradle of agriculture, Yolo County’s dining options are quite vibrant. For the ultimate Yolo County produce sampler, head to the acclaimed Farmer’s Kitchen in Davis for the aptly named Bioregional Salad, heaped with more than 15 different fruits, vegetables and nuts from different local farms. Morgan’s on Main is a Woodland mainstay, a cozy steakhouse famous for its fork-tender prime rib and glacier-size iceberg wedge. Head there after browsing nearby shops like Haven for letterpress greeting cards and doggie bowties, or Sweet Ville Candy for nostalgic and obscure confections from all over the world.
At Preserve in Winters, the grilled pork chop is sprinkled with a confetti of in-season bounty, from chopped asparagus to torn leaves of red-oak lettuce to marigold petals. You can thwart the inevitable food coma with a post-meal stroll in Rotary Park along Putah Creek or a shopping spree at Winters Collective, a mercantile of hometown vendors like The Local Floret plant shop and Christian’s Corner, a surf-inspired clothing boutique. Or you could just fall into a marshmallow-soft bed at the historic Park Winters. In addition to the four-room inn, the location is also a popular nuptials venue for its beautiful gardens, elegant barn, and the wedding-cake-like architecture of the restored 1865 Victorian farmhouse.
For a deeper dive into the region’s rich agricultural history, pay a visit to Woodland’s 45,000-square-foot California Agriculture Museum, which shows off one of the nation’s most unique collections of tractors and farming artifacts. The museum’s interactive exhibits and special events tell the story of how California, thanks to its plentiful natural resources and a lot of innovation, became one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. Both docent-led and self-led tours with cellphone audio are offered. And for parents: The museum will provide a scavenger hunt on request.
Hike Yolo’s Marshes and Canyons
The unsown wilds of Yolo County are best explored on foot. The Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, located between Davis and West Sacramento, is a 16,600-acre wetland conservation area that’s home to 200 bird species including mallards, marsh wrens, and yellow-billed magpies. You’ll also find mammals with a particular fondness for bogs, like muskrats and river otters. In summer, thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats put on a daily show at dusk as they emerge from their shady hangout under the bypass in search of a supper of insects—time your self-guided tour of the wetlands to witness this so-called “batnado.”
There’s another easygoing hike at the nearby UC Davis Arboretum, a 3.5-mile loop tour featuring lush gardens sustainably planted with species suited to the region’s Mediterranean climate, from acacia trees to agave to the state flower, the California poppy. For a real quad-burner, try the popular five-mile loop at the Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve in Winters, part of the UC Davis Natural Reserve System. This strenuous, hilly trail traverses wildflower fields, dense oak forests, and open chaparral—all quintessential Northern California landscapes.