Alta California Guide: Central Valley

Beyond the farms that feed the country, you’ll find a diverse landscape of communities rich in history.

alta california guides, central valley
Michael Schwab

The Central Valley is rightfully known as America’s agricultural heart: the region of small towns and dusty back roads grows much of the country’s produce—particularly citrus—and almonds. But don’t let the farm equipment and baking summer sun pull your eyes away from the wonders of the place, from protected grasslands to a stunning subterranean garden carved 25 feet into the Fresno soil.

1 Carrizo Plain National Monument
carrizo plain national monument
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This 200,000-acre parkland between Bakersfield and San Luis Obispo, along Highways 166 and 58, hearkens to the area’s earlier days as a vast grassland. Low, rolling hills and wide-open spaces are the hallmarks of this protected piece of the state, suitable for year-round use. Camp for free or just swing through in the spring for bursts of wildflowers. Better yet, do both—and stick around for a day trip to Painted Rock, an alcove with historic tribal art inside, left behind by Yokuts, Chumash, and Salinan people.

2 West Kern Oil Museum
west kern oil museum
Alamy

A little old and definitely underutilized, this museum is nonetheless enthralling thanks to a robust collection of antique oil-drilling tools and other artifacts that tell the story of advancing technology across this stretch of the state. Oil and natural gas are still important players in the economy west of Bakersfield, but it’s at this museum in Taft that the past comes back to life, via black-and-white photos and a working replica of a century-old oil derrick that once stood on the property.

3 Forestiere Underground Gardens
forestiere underground gardens
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A labyrinth of hand-chiseled caves, rooms, and archways that spans 10 acres of prime Fresno real estate, these more than 100-year-old functioning gardens were the life’s work of Baldassare Forestiere. The Sicilian immigrant and former East Coast subway digger moved to the West Coast to grow citrus but ended up creating one of the most breathtaking sights in the state. Guided tours take visitors from room to room, exploring century-old plants, stone pots, hand-carved shelves, and other features tucked as deep as 25 feet belowground.

4 China Alley
china alley
KVPR

California has a deep and uncomfortable history with its Chinese American residents, dating to the exploitation of immigrant labor during the gold rush and the building of the rails. Many traces of that fraught past have been carelessly demolished over time, which makes places like the small China Alley in Hanford all the more remarkable. The short street comprises nearly a dozen buildings from over a century ago, including grocery stores, gambling halls, and restaurants. It’s a living testament to preservation and perseverance—particularly the restored Taoist temple from 1893—that serves as an ongoing reminder of the vital and vibrant Chinese American community that has lived in California for generations.

5 Woolworth Diner
woolworth diner bakersfield
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Who would guess that perhaps the last fully intact, still-operating Woolworth luncheonette in America would be hiding inside a multistory antique mall in Bakersfield? And yet there it is, dolled up with the classic checkerboard floors and bright red swiveling counter seats, a relic from a time when Woolworth department stores operated like community centers, stand-alone malls, and lunchtime meeting places all rolled into one. Belly up to the long counter for a cheeseburger, Coca-Cola, or chili dog and bask in the glow of neon lights and history. •

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