Experience the essence of the state by following country roads through the broad and fertile Central Valley. Start in Redding with a walk across a remarkable bridge, then steer your car south to hang out with locals at farmers’ markets (and taste amazing food too), and sample big wines in low-key wine country. Bump up the fun with twangy country music in Bakersfield and a stay on a houseboat in The Delta.
This relaxed city has some secret gems that make a pleasing start to your trip. Start at Sundial Bridge, a functional work of art, the remarkable pedestrian bridge, designed by renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, spans the tree-lined, trout-filled Sacramento River in Redding’s Turtle Bay Exploration Park. The 700-foot/213-meter-long span is undeniably striking, with its glass block walkway and soaring white tower and suspension cables forming a functioning sundial-- a nod to human creativity and ingenuity, both important themes of the 300-acre park.
Before you cross the bridge, visit the adjacent visitor center. Outside, Paul Bunyan’s Forest Camp lets kids learn about what it was like to be an early logger in the region; there are also recreations of a traditional Native American bark house. Inside, interpretive displays shed light on local wildlife and natural history.
Now walk across Sundial Bridge—if there are fly fishermen nearby wait a few minutes and you’ll probably see them snag a fish or two. (The river here alive with trout.) On the far side of the bridge, opposite the museum, is the relax in the California native and drought-tolerant gardens in the 200-acre/81-hectare McConnell Arboretum & Botanical Gardens, or rent bikes or join a guided Segway tour to follow paths along the riverfront.
Your trip next takes you to a collection of farms and artisanal food purveyors discovered along shaded country roads.
Continuing east then south from Redding, you reach a surprisingly verdant region near the leafy and cool Sacramento River. It’s a surprisingly leafy and fertile area that’s a prime place for farms and ranches, and many invite visitors to come by to buy fresh produce, artisanal olive oils, and other local food products.
Established by local farmers, the Tehama Trail meanders through rural communities, linking together nearly two dozen vineyards, orchards, and grass-fed beef ranchers and other specialty meat producers. Though you can hop onto the route at any point, the driving tour technically begins in Corning, a town that has been linked with olives for generations. Stop in at the iconic Olive Pit for samples of traditional black and green olives, or try more exotic options, like herb-and-garlic-cheese-stuffed Sicilian olives. Head over to sleek and shiny tasting room at Lucero Olive Oil to sample artisanal olive oils and vinegars and shop for classy gifts.
Continue along the Tehama Trail to sample and buy heirloom tomatoes, juice-down-your-chin peaches and plums, and just-picked berries, as well as fresh pies and honeys. Swing by New Clairvaux Vineyard in tiny Vina, just south of Redding, where Trappist monks (yes, monks) invite you to sample their Barbera, Pinot Grigio, and other varietals in a large tasting room that’s on the monastery grounds.
Now continue south to a valley town with surprisingly sophisticated food scene.
This leafy town west of Sacramento has become something of a hip gem in the Central Valley. Maybe it’s the velvety warm summer evenings that tempt people to linger at tables outside relaxed eateries. Maybe it’s the friendly, hi-neighbor feel when step into places like Steady Eddy’s, billing itself as “more than your hometown coffee shop,” for a microbrew or a glass of local wine. Maybe it doesn’t really matter why Winters is so nice—maybe it’s okay that it just is.
The town has turned into a mini mecca for foodies, where talented chefs show their stuff at places such as stylish Preserve Public House (innovative dishes showcasing local ingredients) and classy Ficelle (excellent tapas). Get great beef at acclaimed Buckhorn Steakhouse, and crispy wood-fired pizza cooked in a street-side outdoor oven at Putah Creek Cafe. Find chocolates, wines, and olive oils at RootStock; stick around on Friday nights for low-key local music.
Continue east to the bike-loving, eco-friendly university town of Davis, known for its outstanding farmers' market.
Here’s a chance to experience a bustling town with a university at its core. Started as the agricultural extension for University of California, Berkeley, U.C. Davis soon became its own campus, with strong veterinary, viticulture, and agricultural departments. As for that flatness, it makes the town a haven for bicycles—it’s said there are more bikes than people here, and the town is home to the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame, with memorabilia and gear from top racers and events. Rent a bike to follow some 100 miles of bike lanes and paved paths: loop through the lush U.C. Davis Arboretum, then pedal downtown along streets lined with shops, galleries, and restaurants serving world cuisine. Time your visit to sync with the twice-weekly farmers’ market, or to catch a performance at the soaring Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts.
Head east to the state capitol, Sacramento, filled with great food, eclectic art, and history.
It’s a quick 15-minute drive to your next stop, but there’s easily enough to do here to fill a day or two. Like many cities, California’s state capital is undergoing an energetic renaissance. Young adults looking for an urban vibe are moving into this low-key city, with microbreweries, gastropubs, and trendy boutiques popping up to serve them. Award-winning chefs are gaining attention for their focus on hyper-local ingredients, and relationships between restaurants and surrounding farms and ranches have become not a novelty, but the norm. Hot summer days create some of the nicest evenings anywhere in the state, where locals sit on porches in elegant Victorian-era homes, and kids scamper in leafy parks until the sun goes down.
As the state capital, there’s plenty going on, and gatherings of various colorful groups around the cupola-topped Capitol are common. Museums are centered largely around the Capitol Mall area and in historic Old Town Sacramento, the renovated area along the Sacramento River that was a core hub during the Gold Rush. Getting around to all these different locations is easy, and traffic jams are fleeting. Granted the gold award for bike-friendliness by the League of American Bicyclists, Sacramento is also a great place to explore by bike, with wide designated lanes, and paved trails along the American and Sacramento Rivers. There’s also a convenient light rail system to linking popular sites around town.
Your road trip now heads south through the heart of the Central Valley, to a low-key, surprisingly undiscovered wine country.
Best known for big red wines, particularly old-vine Zinfandels, this American Viticultural Area 83 miles/133 kilometers east of San Francisco is also a leader when it comes to going green. Upwards of 25,000 vineyard acres are certified sustainable, and this is the birthplace of Lodi Rules, California’s first third-party certified sustainable winegrowing program. A variety of tasting rooms have sprouted up in recent years, with most of the action located within a 15-minute drive from downtown. A great place to start is the Lodi Wine & Visitor Center, offering a rotating selection of varietals from nearly 80 local vintners.
Though the range of wines has grown, the rich, concentrated New World varietals are still the region’s hallmark, and more than 40 percent of the state’s Zinfandels are produced here. ZinFest, an annual three-day tasting party each May, offers a chance to sample some 250 wines from Lodi’s best producers.
Continue south to view one of the region’s most impressive art museums in the diverse city of Stockton.
Housed in an early-19th-century brick building, this handsome art and history museum is the centerpiece of Stockton’s stately Victory Park. The 34,000 square feet of gallery space showcases masterpieces, including the unforgettable works of Albert Bierstadt, whose wall-size paintings of Yosemite Valley are the closest thing to being there. In fact, the Haggin has more Bierstadts than any other museum—worthy of a trip just to see these iconic works—but there’s plenty more to discover. History galleries include the California Room, which delves into the state’s Spanish and Mexican heritage. Turn-of-the-century storefronts have been reassembled to help chronicle the history of Stockton and the surrounding San Joaquin Valley. Check the schedule before you plan your trip; the calendar is filled with family programs, lectures, and musical performances year-round.
Now head out to explore the adjacent Sacramento Delta. While you can drive the levee roads that lace the Delta to the north and west, consider renting a boat at Paradise Point Marina in Stockton. Or splurge on an easy-to-maneuver houseboat for a unique overnight stay.
Located northeast of the San Francisco Bay, this 1,000-mile network of inland waterways—the major drainage from the snow-capped Sierra Nevada to the east to San Francisco Bay along the coast—is a dreamland for boaters, birders, and outdoor enthusiasts. Levees protect tiny towns like Locke, a once thriving Chinese settlement and now a fascinating glimpse at a bygone era.
Rent a powerboat at Paradise Point Marina for a close-up view of the vibrant network of channels. To extend your stay, and take back a signature memory of the region, consider renting a deluxe houseboat to anchor overnight—or longer. Quiet mornings and evenings can be particularly magical in the Delta.
In fall, keep the binoculars handy: the Delta’s quiet waters provide major habitat for migratory birds, with some 200 species, including swans and sandhill cranes, sited at places like Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, near Elk Grove. Fisherman also flock to the Delta to try their luck at snagging impressive fish in these brackish waters; a big prize is the California a green sturgeon—a creature that looks like an ancient river monster, living a century and reaching up to 7 feet long. The Delta’s winding waterways also make for outstanding water-skiing and house boating in summer, with popular marinas in Stockton, Lodi, and Isleton.
Next, it’s a 2½-hour drive southeast through farmland and vineyards on Highway 99 to Fresno, the Central Valley's largest city. (For a worthwhile detour, exit at Madera to visit low-key wineries along the Madera Wine Trail.)
The Central Valley’s largest city makes for a surprisingly lively getaway. Seven stadiums and a pair of arenas satisfy sporty types, and an annual Woodward Shakespeare Festival in lush Woodward Park reveals Fresno’s cultural bent. But make no mistake: Agriculture is king in this centerpiece city of the San Joaquin Valley, California’s most prolific growing region. In early spring, get a closer look by driving or biking along the 62-mile Blossom Trail, with the route lined with fruit and nut trees in full bloom. In summer, the route morphs into the Fresno County Fruit Trail, and fruit stands overflow with ripe seasonal produce.
Back in town, explore a subterranean living space at Forestiere Underground Gardens, hand-dug by an Italian immigrant who saw that going underground was a great way to keep cool and comfortable during the Central Valley’s hot summers. Kids love Chaffee Zoo, especially the frolicking pinnipeds in Sea Lion Cove. Find quality handmade gifts in Fresno’s Mural District, a hotbed of artists’ studios and gallery spaces; monthly Art Hops are a great way to explore. After dark, restaurants and clubs light up the neon-bright Tower District.
Continue south to Bakersfield for delicious Basque cuisine and a chance to learn country music history, and hear the distinctively twangy “Bakersfield sound.”
This rapidly growing city in the southern Central Valley is full of pleasant surprises. Once known for oil and agriculture, Bakersfield is morphing into a Central Valley hub for arts, culture, and sports, while still offering a glimpse of the region’s past. One fascinating historical site worth a visit is Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park, 45 miles/72 kilometers north of town. The site of an early 1900s settlement—an attempt by a group of African Americans to create a utopian society far from negative influences from the outside world—it offers a remarkable look at an unusual event in California history. Visit a reconstructed schoolhouse, church, and other structures.
Fast forward to Bakersfield’s newer attractions, including the gallery-filled Arts District, home the 1930 Fox Theater, where performances range from pop to ballet. Also in town is the Buck Owen’s ’ Crystal Palace, the place to hear the region’s signature Bakersfield Sound, a twangy type of Country Western music. The country’s largest concentration of Basque restaurants, including century-old Noriega’s, is reminders of the region’s rich Basque history (immigrants from the Spanish and French Pyrenees settled sheep ranches here in the late 1800s). Wildflowers blanket the nearby Tehachapi Range with some of the state’s best wildflower displays in spring.
Your trip ends here. You can backtrack to Sacramento via the Central Valley’s (and the state’s) main artery, Interstate 5. Los Angeles is roughly 2 hours southeast, also via Interstate 5.