CENTRAL VALLEY:
California’s vast and fertile heartland

By Jill K. Robinson

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The Central Valley is considered by many to be the greatest garden in the world. The 400-mile-long fertile pocket of land, wedged between the Sierra Nevada range and the coastal mountains in the center of California, is filled with farms, orchards and vineyards. If you haven’t visited, it’s still likely you’ve benefited from the region, as it supplies as much as 45 percent of the food eaten in the United States.

The Central Valley contains thousands of acres of land under cultivation and small farming communities that seem to have been frozen in time. In the larger cities (Modesto, Fresno and Bakersfield) there’s still a small-town friendliness that encourages visitors to slow down and look beyond the farmland. From the quiet, northernmost towns of Orland, Yuba City and Davis to Visalia, Tulare and Maricopa at the southern end of the valley, it’s easy to feel at home and see what some call “the Other California.”

Travelers using Interstate 5 to get through the Central Valley may believe the agricultural region is nothing more than a sleepy little farming area, but it also has a wealth of spectacular scenery, opportunities for outdoor recreation, highlights of California history and funky roadside diners. The best way to discover the area is by slowing down and taking Highway 99, which feels more like a back road. Cities and towns cluster along the route, giving you a chance to pull off and explore at your leisure.

Two river valleys—the Sacramento and San Joaquin—dominate the majority of the region, and the area waterways serve as opportunities for sport (fishing, rafting, waterskiing) and bird migration rest stops, as well as a necessary element of farming. In the hot summer months, the area’s rivers and lakes help residents and tourists alike cool off, and a shady swimming hole is an ideal spot to spend an afternoon.

The most notable souvenir from a trip through the Central Valley comes from any of the unbeatable roadside produce stands. Be sure to enjoy them before you return home, because the edible treasure of the region is best sampled fresh.

City & Town

Bicycles outnumber cars in college-town Davis, with more bikes per capita than any U.S. city. Hotrods and Modesto were the stars of American Graffiti—and auto fans still flock to the valley city. Fresno’s architectural history includes brick warehouses along the Santa Fe railroad tracks and the 1928 Pantages Theatre.

The Great Outdoors

A sprawling web of rivers twists through the Central Valley—from the Sacramento to the San Joaquin to the Feather. The best place to enjoy river life is in the Sacramento Delta, with lush wetlands and vast orchards. The Sutter Buttes—considered the world’s smallest mountain range—rise above the flat valley at its northernmost point.

Heritage & Culture

Agriculture has drawn a diverse group of people to the Central Valley over the years, including migrant workers from Latin America, Dust Bowl-era farmers and entertaining country music masters. Visitors are always welcome to join regional celebrations, from Basque festivals to harvest days to Portuguese festas—which include bloodless bullfights.

Family Fun

Families who love wide-open spaces will find plenty to do in the Central Valley. Escape the summer heat by tubing down the Sacramento River, discover the amazing Forestiere Underground Gardens in Fresno, wander through the delta town of Locke, or gawk at restored military aircraft at the Castle Air Museum.

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