California’s grand garden

By Jill K. Robinson

This fertile green strip in the center of California is considered by many to be the greatest garden in the world. The 400-mile-long Central Valley, wedged between the Sierra Nevada range and the coastal mountains, is filled with farms, orchards and vineyards growing everything from almonds to peaches to grapes. You’ve likely benefited from the region even if you haven’t visited before, as it supplies as much as 45 percent of the food eaten in the United States. California’s Central Valley contains thousands of acres of land under cultivation and small farming communities that seem to have been frozen in time.

The larger cities of the Central Valley (Modesto, Fresno and Bakersfield), still have a small-town friendliness that encourages visitors to slow down and find out that there’s more going on 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 don’t speed by and discount the wealth of spectacular scenery, opportunities for outdoor recreation, highlights of California history and funky roadside diners. The best way to discover the area on a leisurely itinerary is by taking Highway 99, which feels more like a back road. Cities and towns are clustered along the route, giving you a chance to pull off and explore any time you want.

Two river valleys—the Sacramento and San Joaquin—dominate the majority of the region, and the waterways serve as opportunities for sport (fishing, rafting, waterskiing) and bird migration rest stops, as well as an essential 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 a weekend.

Swing by one of the roadside produce stands for the best souvenirs in the Central Valley. Be sure to enjoy your prizes before you return home, because the edible treasure of the region is best sampled fresh.

City & Town

College-town Davis has more bikes per capita than any U.S. city. Modesto and its hot rods were the stars of American Graf?ti—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 among 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 harvest days to Basque festivals to Portuguese festas—complete with bloodless bullfights.

Family Fun

Families who love the ourdoors and wideopen 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 historic delta town of Locke, or gawk at restored military aircraft at the Castle Air Museum.


Old Sacramento Underground
Walk along Sacramento’s underground sidewalks and see doors and windows to buildings from old Sacramento before the streets were raised to prevent flooding. The Gold Rush may have made the city rich, but more than 30 inches of rain in the winter of 1861 submerged Sacramento for three months.

Bakersfield Sound
Get to know the distinctive country music style known as the Bakersfield Sound, popularized by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard in one of the best places to hear it: Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace in Bakersfield.

Wine Tasting
Pay a visit to one of the 85 wineries in Lodi, with more than 100 varieties in production, and producing more than 40 percent of the state’s premium Zinfandel.

Middle Mountains
Hike the Sutter Buttes, remnants of an ancient volcano and known as the “world’s smallest mountain range.”

Old Town
Wander through the delta town of Locke, the only U.S. town built exclusively by the Chinese for the Chinese.

Visit Mammoth
Pismo Beach
Del Norte