Top: Santa Barbara, California
Above: High Sierra Landscape in Kings Canyon National Park, California
We make our penultimate journey of The Greatest Road Trip Ever Taken with an examination of central California. As rich and varied as any full State in the Union, central California has it all! From pounding surf and towering forest to the breadbasket of the world, this part of California has what we need. No matter what we need. Let’s map it out.
We cut our examination of southern California off on Interstate 5 at Grapevine Hill, and on the Pacific Coast Highway in the Thousand Oaks area. East of L.A. we examined Palm Springs.
So today we will discuss and travel through California from Santa Barbara to Santa Cruz, across the San Joaquin Valley, and to awe-inspiring Yosemite National Park. It’s quite a trip. And that’s just the way we like it!
Central California doesn’t have an official “capital,” but, if it did, Fresno would fit the bill. Fresno sits in the heart of one of America’s most important areas. The Central Valley is made up of the San Joaquin Valley in the south and the Sacramento Valley up north. The numbers boggle the mind and tax the imagination.
The United States consumed 63,652,440,000 pounds of food last year. (In words, that starts with 63 billion.) In addition, we export over 14 billion pounds of food to other countries. (And that number doesn’t count live animal exports.)
How much of this bounty comes from that stretch of land roughly between Bakersfield and Redding in California? Just over 90% of it.
How important is central California? Answer me after you swallow.
As important as it is, Central California faces some challenges. Suburban sprawl is encroaching on the farm lands. Rural and agricultural when John Steinbeck wrote “The Grapes of Wrath”, the Valley is experiencing growth unprecedented in its history. Fresno’s population will hit a half million any time now. Bakersfield’s population is over 330,000. Salinas has 150,000 people. It goes on and on.
With the population explosion currently underway, the Central Valley’s farms and ranches are shrinking, and the air quality is suffering. There is a palpable texture in the air during much of the year.
So far, water isn’t an area of crisis. The snowfall in the mountains provides enough moisture. But, as climate change becomes ever more real…
Santa Cruz Beach and Boardwalk. Photo: David Litman / Shutterstock
Airports in Central California:
Santa Barbara Municipal serves about 350,000 customers a year. An equal number fly to Phoenix and San Francisco.
Fresno Yosemite International serves almost 700,000 passengers annually. Phoenix is the most popular destination.
San José International serves 4,000,000 flyers a year. Los Angeles is the favorite destination.
Famous Central Californians:
Actors: Mia Talerico, and Vanessa Hudgens.
Entertainers: Katy Perry, and George Lucas.
Authors: William Saroyan, and John Steinbeck.
Weird and Wonderful Facts About Central California:
In 1925 a giant sequoia located in California’s Kings Canyon National Park was named the national Christmas tree. The tree is over 300 feet in height.
More turkeys are raised in California than in any other state.
The riparian brush rabbit calls Caswell Memorial State Park (near Manteca) its home. Only common in the state’s park system, it lives on 255 acres stretching along the once vast hardwood forest.
In Pacific Grove, there is a law on the books declaring the molestation of monarch butterflies to be illegal.
In Atwater, the Castle Air Museum has the largest display of military aircraft in the State.
Reputed to be the most corrupt politician in Fresno County history, Joseph Spinney was mayor for only ten minutes.
Sequoia National Park contains the largest living tree. Its trunk is 102 feet in circumference.
Fresno proclaims itself the Raisin Capital of the World.
Castroville (drive to Prunedale and turn west) is known as the Artichoke Capital of the World. In 1947 a young woman named Norma Jean was crowned Castroville’s first Artichoke Queen. She went on to become Marilyn Monroe.
Hearst Castle grounds, wide angle view of main house. Photo: Aimee M Lee / Shutterstock
Let’s Take a Trip Through Central California:
The second leg of our trip through California begins in Santa Barbara before winding north. We’re going to see pounding surf, at least one castle, and some of the loveliest scenery available anywhere in the country. Then we’re driving across the State to see even lovelier things. Do you think that’s unlikely? Then you don’t know California like we know California. So pack, friend! We have 531 miles to drive and the kind of sights to see that is a magnet for those not fortunate enough to be raised here. Let’s go!
We start our journey in Santa Barbara’s Shoreline Park. It is appropriate to begin this part of the festivities by paying homage to the Pacific Ocean. Shoreline Park is a beautiful walk anytime. But at sunset, with the lights of the city winking on, and the surf orange from the falling sun, the magic is palpable.
Magic doesn’t come without cost. We’re spending one night at The Wayfarer for $178.
Up Highway 101, we go. You were promised a castle, and a castle you will see. We turn on to Hwy. 1 and, in the town of San Simeon, we arrive at the Hearst Castle.
Hearst Castle is the largest of all the historic house museums in the U.S. And it has the most sophisticated guided tour program in the country. Once the home of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, the estate is kept looking like a private residence. That is thanks to the efforts of the State of California Parks Dept.
The pools alone are worth the stop, but the highly-trained guides interpret to visitors the castle’s glory years. We ascend the castle’s winding staircases to discover the most personal rooms of the mansion. This place puts the “Oh My Goodness” in opulence. It is not to be missed for its grandeur…or as a cautionary tale of cold-blooded conspicuous consumption. Either way…
Just 65 miles up the road, we arrive at Pfeiffer Beach. After the ostentatiousness of Hearst Castle, it is nice to walk the free trails and see the ocean from here. Pfeiffer is a beautiful, unspoiled beach that’s popular with locals, but somewhat unknown among tourists. It is well worth our time.
Besides beautiful offshore views of rocks and sea stacks and some nice surfing waves (Hang ten, baby!), this beach has some unusual purple sand. That comes from manganese garnet particles washing down the hillside. The further north on the beach we go, the more purple it becomes.
It’s been a great day. We’re going to drive on up to Monterey, just 35 miles or so, to stay two nights at Lone Oak Lodge. At $115 a night, it is a really good value for this part of the Golden State.
The Lone Cypress, seen from the17 Mile Drive, in Pebble Beach, California
The first thing we’re going to see the next morning is a tree. But not just any tree. At the beginning of the famous 17-Mile Drive, just past Pebble Beach Golf Course, we come upon the Lone Cypress.
Standing on a granite hillside, the Lone Cypress is a western icon, and one of the most photographed trees in North America. Battered by the wind, fire, and wave spray the Lone Cypress stands undaunted against nature’s fury. It is a testament to perseverance and is a great object lesson for our children.
We continue the 17 miles around the bay to Cannery Row. Named and made famous by local writing legend John Steinbeck, Cannery Row can be taken either of two ways. Both are valid for a vacationer.
As a historic reminder of the days when Monterey thrived and faltered by the success rate of the commercial fisherman, Cannery Row is a historical gem. Some of the decrepitude has been kept intact for those who want to see it as Steinbeck saw it. For others, who like to see old buildings restored and repurposed, Cannery Row is also a gem. A leisurely walk finds shops for all wants and needs, and restaurants for all tastes.
We have driven about 24 miles, right back to where we started out this morning. Get a good night’s sleep. There’s some old-fashioned boardwalk fun on tap for tomorrow.
Forty-five miles north of Monterey we come to the city of Santa Cruz. We will drive through the city, and soak up its college-town spirit. But, before long we will be at the Boardwalk.
The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk may be the best seaside park in the world. The vibrant, bustling park is renowned for its great rides, remarkable history, spectacular beach setting, and friendly attitude.
The Boardwalk has been operating since 1907, and is a tremendous bargain in that, too often, overpriced world. Admission is free, summer concert entertainment is included, and ride tickets are affordable.
It’s large enough to hold everyone’s interest. Yet it is also small enough that we don’t need to dedicate most of a week to see it. This is one of our favorite stops on the whole Greatest Road Trip Ever Taken.
Yosemite National Park, Mountains and Valley view with El Capitan in the background
We will spend the night at The Islander Motel for $110. Another hidden value on a trip that could be pretty expensive if we weren’t diligent.
Two hundred miles across a State that isn’t much wider than that. We cross the great heartland, where so much of that food is grown. We tip our hats to the man on the combine. He is worth our respect and admiration.
We cross Hwy. 99 at Merced. This is the highway that has always connected the small towns with the travelers and the produce stands they love. There are, bar none, no sweeter strawberries than the ones found at these stands on a hot summer day.
The road starts to wind as we climb into the Sierra’s. On a clear day, we can see Mt. Clark, Mt. Hoffman, and Cathedral Peak. But dominating the surrounding high points is El Capitan.
El Capitan (Spanish for The Captain, The Chief) is a vertical rock formation located on the north side of the Yosemite Valley, near its western end. The granite monolith rises about 3,000 feet from base to summit. It is an impressive sight and is one of the world’s favorite challenges for rock climbers.
We will check into Yosemite View Lodge for one night. At $199 it is the best value we could find for quality lodging.
The next day is devoted to beautiful Yosemite (pronounced Yo-Semm-ih-tee, btw).
Yosemite Village is first. It’s right in the middle of the valley and has establishments to purchase food, equipment and get free information before going on our journey.
The journey itself begins with a short drive to Bridalveil Fall. The waterfall is 617 feet in height and flows year round.
There is a Native legend about this place. Listen carefully.
The Ahwahneechee tribe believed that Bridalveil Fall was home to a vengeful spirit named Pohono. He guards the entrance to the valley and says that those leaving the valley must not look directly into the waterfall lest they are cursed. They also believed that inhaling the mist of Bridalveil Fall would improve one’s chances of marriage.
Breathe deep. Or don’t.
The Cannery Row Monument, featuring Literary Nobel Prize winner author John Steinbeck, Monterey, California. Photo: Denise Lett / Shutterstock
Next, we come to Tunnel View. It is a photographer’s dream and the most popular viewpoint in the Park. We will see the many different topographical strata Yosemite has to offer. And that’s what makes this place so great! There are lowland foliage and high-point tundra, all in a few miles. Tunnel View shows it all off from one easy-to-find spot.
Tuolumne Grove of the Sequoias is next. This is where we will get the Greatest Road Trip Ever Taken’s first look at trees that were full-grown during Biblical times. The height and width of these trees are awe-inspiring and magnificent. We will see much larger groves when we travel in Northern California. But words can’t do justice to the feeling we have standing amongst the giants.
Olmsted Point is our next stop. Most people spend the majority of their time in Yosemite near the Village. They should travel with us! Olmsted Point may be (probably is) the most beautiful viewpoint in the Park.
The scenery at Olmsted Point is breathtaking! The site is named after landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and his son, Fredrick Jr. It offers a view of the northern side of Half Dome and a view of Tenaya Lake to the east.
This is a good place to stop and ponder our trip through central California. We saw some unforgettable places and learned some unforgettable things. We’re sorry to see it end.
Northern California is next. (But first, did you breathe deeply of the waters at Bridalveil? I won’t tell anyone.)