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CALIFORNIA'S GREAT GARDEN
 
(2015 - Fall Issue)

Writer: JILL K. ROBINSON



California’s Central Valley lies smack between the Sierra Nevada Mountains and national parks to the east and the popular coast to the west.

The 644-kilometre strip that runs through California’s heartland is considered by some to be the greatest garden in the world. The rich, green valley is filled with farms, orchards, vineyards and farming communities ranging from cities to small towns where a smile often leads to an invitation to see and taste the state’s bounty.

Balancing its historic Old Town and urban renaissance and museums, the state capital, Sacramento, reminds visitors of the breadth and wealth of the region’s Gold Rush. The valley’s larger cities—Modesto, Fresno, Stockton and Bakersfield—still retain a small-town friendliness that encourages visitors to slow down and look beyond the vast 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.”

Two river valleys—the Sacramento and the San Joaquin—dominate the majority of the region, and the area’s waterways are much more than a necessary element of farming. Migrating birds use the watery region for rest stops on their long journeys while humans enjoy opportunities for water sports and relaxation.

By far, the best souvenir from a Central Valley visit is sampling the edible treasures of the region. From almonds and cherries to peaches and olives, there’s never a need to go long between meals. And everything tastes best when it’s close to the farm where it grew.

Wine and Farm Stands

Best known for big red wines, particularly old-vine Zinfandels, the Lodi American Viticultural Area was first approved in 1986. Over the past two decades, the number of Lodi-labelled wines has skyrocketed. Noted for its classic Mediterranean climate, this laid-back wine region produces more than 40 per cent of the state’s Zinfandels, as well as rich, concentrated New World varietals. Tasting rooms abound within a 15-minute drive from downtown Lodi, but it’s always good to stop first at the Lodi Wine & Visitor Center, where you can taste the area’s best wines and obtain expert suggestions based on your preferences.

Farm stands dot the region, especially in summer. Take your time along country roads and look for painted or chalked signs announcing what’s fresh and in season. Once you find your favourite, pull over and buy some just-picked strawberries, peaches or cherries for a relaxing picnic in the open air. Weekly farmers’markets have become regular rituals, where locals and visitors alike buy fresh foods and support farmers, listen to live music, let the kids explore, and shop for handmade gifts. Standout markets include Stockton’s San Joaquin Farmers’Market (Wednesdays, year-round) and the twice-weekly market in downtown Davis.

Great Outdoors

A sprawling web of rivers twists through the Central Valley—from the Sacramento to the San Joaquin and the Feather rivers. The best place to enjoy river life is in the Sacramento Delta, a 1,609-kilometre network of inland waterways that lures boaters, birders and outdoor enthusiasts. This major drainage from the snow-capped Sierra Nevada is also a fisher’s paradise, home to catfish, striped bass, steelhead and sturgeon.

The Delta’s quiet waters are a major habitat for migratory birds, with birders spying up to 200 species (including swans and sandhill cranes) passing through places such as Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. The winding waterways also provide spots for exciting waterskiing and relaxed houseboating excursions in summer, with popular marinas in Lodi, Isleton and Stockton.

City and Culture

In Sacramento and Stockton, hot summer days create some of the nicest evenings anywhere in the state, where locals sit on porches and kids scamper in leafy parks until sunset. Hotrods and Modesto were the stars of American Graffiti and auto fans still flock to the valley city for its annual classic car festival.

Agriculture has drawn a diverse group of people to the 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 and harvest days to Portuguese festas, which include bloodless bullfights. Bakersfield is home to the twangy type of Country Western music called the Bakersfield Sound, and Buck Owens’Crystal Palace is the place to hear it.

A little more than a century ago, a group of citizens established the state’s first town founded, financed and governed by African Americans. Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park in Tulare County celebrates the utopian spirit of these individuals who worked to create their version of the American Dream.

Family Entertainment

Families who love wide-open spaces will find plenty to do here. Take advantage of the opportunity to escape the summer heat by tubing down the Sacramento River, houseboating in the Sacramento Delta or merely playing along the water’s edge and enjoying a leisurely picnic.

Quirky and historic attractions include the amazing Forestiere Underground Gardens in Fresno, which has more than four hectares of rooms, passages and gardens that were excavated by hand using only farming tools. Levees protect the tiny town of Locke, once a thriving Chinese settlement, which now offers a glimpse into the region’s past. Bicycles outnumber cars in college-town Davis, with more bikes per capita than any American city, and home to the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame.

One of the best times for families to visit the Central Valley is during harvest time, when festivals provide entertainment from corn mazes to hay rides, and the season’s bounty is at the ready for hungry folks of any age. Just watching a harvest and then holding the final product in their hands is often enough for kids to appreciate the work that goes into what stocks their supermarkets back home.

Road Trips

The fastest way to cover the region is along its main artery—Interstate 5. Even if you zip through, you can enjoy the wealth of spectacular scenery, opportunities for outdoor recreation, highlights of California’s history and funky roadside diners. Plenty of chances abound to turn off and investigate a little more closely, as long as you’re willing to take some time.

The best way to discover the area, however, is to take a tip from the relaxed pace of the region and meander along the slower Highway 99, which feels more like a back road. It’s the same road the fictional Joad family travelled in The Grapes of Wrath. This route, referred to as “California’s Main Street,” starts in oil-town Bakersfield and heads north toward Fresno, Merced and Modesto. Cities and towns cluster along the way, giving you a chance to pull off and explore at leisure.

Travel Planner

Central Valley is serviced by two airports. San Francisco International Airport is 151 kilometres from Modesto and 299 kilometres from Fresno while Los Angeles International Airport is 190 kilometres from Bakersfield.

For more information, visit:

Bakersfield Convention & Visitors Bureau: visitbakersfield.com

Central Valley Tourism Association: visitcentralvalley.com

Fresno/Clovis Convention & Visitors Bureau: playfresno.org

Modesto Convention & Visitors Bureau: visitmodesto.com

Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau: visitsacramento.com

Visit Stockton: visitstockton.org

Yolo County Visitors Bureau: yolocvb.net

 
 
 
 
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