Central Valley California Road Trip

Northern California’s Central Valley region, sometimes called the Great Valley, is a 400-mile stretch of flatlands that runs from north to south between the Sierra Nevada range and the western Coast Ranges. It starts up near the towns of Red Bluff and Chico and heads south beyond the region east of San Luis Obispo, making it someplace you’re likely to at least cross through during any northern California vacation itinerary. It’s a definite must if you want to see where much of America’s food is grown.

In terms of places to visit, the Central Valley has three distinct regions:

  • The Sacramento Valley to the north
  • The San Joaquin Valley to the south
  • The Delta region that connects the two valleys

The largest city in the Central Valley is Sacramento, which you read about in Chapter 9. This chapter focuses on smaller cities such as Yuba City, Stockton, and Modesto, as well as the outlying regions of the Sacramento Valley, the San Joaquin Valley, and the Delta. Of course, any of these destinations can be easily included as part of an itinerary that also includes Sacramento.

It’s about 170 miles (or a three-hour drive) from Chico in the north to Modesto in the south. It is possible to traverse the entire length of the Central Valley in a day, but you certainly won’t have time to stop and see everything along the way.

The Delta

The Delta is the midsection between the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys. Most of its towns are tiny, with many serving as bedroom communities for commuters who work in Sacramento and San Francisco. Still, you can find a handful of things to do in places like Rio Vista and the Grizzly Island Wildlife Area.

Rio Vista

Rio Vista is a small town of about 4,500 souls on the Sacramento River. It’s not exactly a travel and tourism hot spot, but it is the closest town to the Western Railway Museum, which offers electric train trips over the historic main line of the Sacramento Northern Railway.

There are more than fifty restored railcars on display, plus additional exhibits and a picnic area where your family can enjoy a prepacked lunch. Admission is $7 for children between two and fourteen years old, and $10 for adults. Hours are 10:30 A.M. until 5 P.M. Saturday and Sunday, with expanded hours in the summer. For details, go to wrm.org.

Grizzly Island Wildlife Area

About ten miles southeast of Fairfield, you’ll find the Grizzly Island Wildlife Area, a 10,000-plus-acre region encompassing two islands where you can fish, take photographs, and sightsee among the birds, reptiles, and amphibians.

Sacramento Valley

The Sacramento Valley is the northern section of the Central Valley. Chico and the Wilbur Hot Springs resort are two of the main attractions.

You will likely want to incorporate a day or two in Sacramento into any itinerary you plan for the greater Central Valley, which will help determine how much time you have left to visit its other, smaller cities, such as Yuba City, Stockton, and Modesto.


Chico is home to Bidwell Park — one of the twenty-five largest municipal parks in the United States. It’s named for John Bidwell, who was part of the first wagon trains that reached California in 1843, when he headed west to work for gold pioneer John Sutter.

The city has grown quite a bit since then. It now has a branch of the California State University system and all the restaurants and businesses that you’d expect to go along with it. Two must-see spots for tourists are the Chico Air Museum and the National Yo-Yo Museum.

Chico Air Museum

The Chico Air Museum opened in 2004, boasting indoor artifacts as well as an outdoor aircraft display. Its particular focus is on local aviation history, which includes aerial firefighting — a great resource given the prominence of California wildfires.

Special events at the museum include presentations by legendary pilots, as well as demonstrations of aircraft maneuvers. Learn more at chicoairmuseum.org.

National Yo-Yo Museum

Admission is free at the National Yo-Yo Museum, where you can see Big-Yo, the world’s largest working yo-yo, which weighs a staggering 256 pounds. It’s more than four feet wide and reads “No Jive” along its side — no doubt making it the most popular photo op in town.

If you happen to be visiting Chico during the first Saturday in October, you can attend the National Yo-Yo Contest that’s held at the museum. Learn more at nationalyoyo.org.

Wilbur Hot Springs

The Wilbur Hot Springs is an 1,800-acre private nature preserve in the town of Wilbur Springs, which is about an hour and a half southwest of Chico. It takes advantage of the natural hot springs from which the town got its name, adding to Mother Nature’s offerings with its own hotel, massage spa, and yoga classes. This is a resort for anyone interested in connecting with nature on a spiritual level. Details, rates, and room descriptions can be found online at wilburhotsprings.com.

Yuba City

Yuba City, which is about forty miles north of Sacramento, officially turned 100 years old in January 2008. Its history continues to live in its downtown, which includes Plumas Street, lined with 1920s buildings that are now home to more than 100 shops and stores. On Second Street, you can see the courthouse built in 1899 as well as the county hall of records built in 1891. The city continues to be the seat of Sutter County.

As with most cities and towns in the Central Valley, Yuba City is the home of at least one major agricultural company: Sunsweet Growers Incorporated. It’s the largest prune-packing plant in the world, though it’s also known for dried fruits and juices made from apricots, pineapples, mangoes, and other fruits.

What sets Yuba City apart from its Central Valley neighbors is that it is also home to one of the largest Sikh populations outside of Punjab, India. If you plan your visit to Yuba City during early November, you can attend the annual Sikh parade, which draws tens of thousands of Sikhs from the United States, Canada, Britain, and India. There are also a couple of interesting attractions worth noting just outside Yuba City, including Sutter Buttes, the Sleep Train Amphitheatre, and the Bok Kai Temple.

Sutter Buttes

Sutter Buttes, located northwest of Yuba City, is the one place where the Central Valley isn’t flat. It’s a series of eroded volcanic lava domes that stretches for about ten miles from north to south. The highest peak is just over 2,000 feet tall — certainly not majestic when compared with northern California’s major mountain ranges, but definitely impressive in the middle of the agricultural plains.

It’s believed that Sutter Buttes was formed a million and a half years ago by a now-extinct volcano. Today, cattle and sheep ranchers control much of the land around the mountains, but you can take walking tours with groups such as the Middle Mountain Foundation, which incorporates local Native American lore about the mountains into its presentations. Learn more online at middlemountain.org.

Sleep Train Amphitheatre

If you head south of Yuba City for about ten miles along Forty Mile Road, you’ll come to the Sleep Train Amphitheatre. It’s an open air music center with about 8,000 seats plus an area where concertgoers can bring lawn chairs at a reduced price. The lawn area also includes a “Kid Zone” where smoking and drinking alcohol are prohibited.

For a look at the acts that will be there during your visit, go online to www.livenation.com. You can also scroll through the Ticketmaster Web site, www.ticketmaster.com, for a look at the upcoming schedule.

Bok Kai Temple

It’s not often that you find a significant Chinese monument that describes its location as “two buildings behind the Silver Dollar restaurant.” Such is the case with the Bok Kai Temple in Marysville, which is less than two miles outside the Yuba City limits, just across the Feather River.

The original temple was built in 1854, about five years after the first group of Chinese laborers arrived in California to work in the newly created gold mines. The temple that stands today was constructed in 1880 and remains the only one of its kind in the entire United States, since no other temples pay tribute to Bok Eye, the “water god” or “god of the dark north” who has the power to banish evil.

Even if you don’t want to tour the temple, you can take part in the springtime Bok Kai Festival, whose date changes every year with the lunar calendar. The festival includes a parade filled with dancers and dragons, plus children’s activities, food, and games. Learn more at bokkaifestival.com.


If you’re a sports fan, then you know that Stockton is the home of the San Francisco 49ers training camp. It’s about an hour and a half east of the bigger city, well within a day’s driving range if you want to make Stockton your only stop in the Central Valley. A lot of people do just that every April, when the city hosts its annual Asparagus Festival.

Close to 300,000 people live in Stockton, which is home not just to agricultural companies but also to other industrial headquarters, helping to keep its economic base diversified. There are a few interesting highlights within the city limits, some geared toward adults and others designed to keep the whole family happy.

Bob Hope Theatre

Previously known as the Fox California Theatre, this venue has hosted musicians, dancers, and other acts since first opening its doors in 1930. It’s received hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding for recent renovations and now has one of the most innovative sound systems of its kind.

All kinds of acts still come here to perform, from big-name comedian George Lopez to dancer Michael Flatley and his Lord of the Dance troupe. You can also see musicals, musicians, and individual singers depending on what dates you’re in town. For directions, a schedule of upcoming performances, and information about how to buy tickets online, go to bobhopetheatre.com.

Haggin Museum

The Haggin Museum is a “grown-up” institution, focused on preserving great works of art instead of building interactive exhibits. Its art collection includes pieces by noted painters including Albert Bierstadt, while its history displays showcase the work done by local residents such as Benjamin Holt, who invented the Caterpillar-type tractor. There are also rotating exhibits with titles such as “PreColombian Art” and “The Age of Armor.”

The museum is open from 1:30 P.M. till 5 P.M. Wednesday through Sunday, and from 1:30 P.M. till 9 P.M. on the first and third Thursday of every month. Admission is $5 for adults and $2.50 for children between ten and seventeen years old. Children younger than ten get in for free.

Children’s Museum of Stockton

If your kids are more interested in playing with their art than looking at it, then you should skip the Haggin Museum and head straight for the Children’s Museum of Stockton. It features a tiny “town” where kids can play at being everything from the local postmaster to the town’s banker.

This isn’t an all-day museum, but you’ll find enough fun here to keep your kids entertained for at least an hour or two, depending on their ages. Admission is $4.50, with children younger than two getting in for free. Learn more at stocktongov.com.

Minor League Sports

If you can’t get in to see the San Francisco 49ers train during their summer camp, then you might want to check out the local minor league soccer, baseball, ice hockey, and arena football teams.

The Stockton Ports are perhaps the best known. They are a minor league affiliate of Major League Baseball’s Oakland A’s. The Ports play their home games at Banner Island Ballpark, which opened in 2005 and seats about 5,000 people. For tickets, go online to bannerislandballpark.com.

The Stockton Arena is the home for minor league soccer’s California Cougars, minor league hockey’s Stockton Thunder and arena football’s Stockton Lightning. For tickets to any of their games, check out the Web site stocktontickets.com.

Pixie Woods

Pixie Woods is sometimes called a small amusement park, and sometimes it’s known as a children’s playground. Regardless of its description, it’s always fun, having entertained kids for more than half a century now. Located inside the city’s Louis Park, Pixie Woods has rides like a Merry-Go-Round and a Pixie Express Train that are meant to put smiles on the faces of your youngest children.

Days of operation during the summer are Wednesday through Sunday, from 11 A.M. till 5 P.M. on weekdays and 11 A.M. till 6 P.M. on weekends. Admission is $3 for children ages twelve and younger and $3.50 for everybody else. In addition, you have to buy tickets for the rides. They’re $1.75 apiece, or $4.25 for three. Learn more at stocktongov.com/pixiewoods.


Modesto is one of the southernmost towns in northern California’s Central Valley region, with a population just shy of 200,000. Getting here is easy by car or by train; the city grew up as one of the original stops on the earliest railroad lines. It actually developed quite a reputation for being wild with brothels and opium houses, which have been replaced during the past century with establishments of a more proper business nature — assuming that you consider wine to be in that category. The Gallo Winery is one of the biggest in the region, with its headquarters based in Modesto.

Gallo Center for the Arts

Giving back to the community where its headquarters is located, the winemaking Gallo family endowed $10 million to help create the Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto. It opened in September 2007 following a decade’s worth of research and planning.

The facility has two venues, the 1,250-seat Mary Stuart Rogers Theater and the 444-seat Foster Family Theater, both named for patrons of the center. Events include live theater, music, dance, corporate gatherings, and wedding receptions. For a list of upcoming shows and ticket availability, go online to galloarts.org.

McHenry Mansion

The Gallo family also has quite a lot to do with the existence of the McHenry Mansion, which the Julio R. Gallo Foundation bought and donated to the city of Modesto in 1976. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the mansion dates back to 1883, which is the period from which its current antiques are taken. It’s open for tours as well as special events such as weddings. Learn more at mchenrymuseum.org.

Great Valley Museum of Natural History

The Great Valley Museum of Natural History is part of Modesto Junior College. It has permanent as well as rotating exhibits that focus on plants and animals. A “discovery room” lets you look at a snake skin under a microscope, work on a five-foot puzzle, and more.

Note that the museum is closed during the month of August (remember, it’s part of a college campus). Its regular hours are 9 A.M. till 4:30 P.M. Tuesday through Friday, and 10 A.M. till 4 P.M. on Saturday. Children six and younger get free admission. General admission prices are $1 per person or $3 per family.

Final Word

If you plan to drive to the Central Valley, the two things you have to consider are fog and dust storms. The thick fog that frequently descends on the Central Valley is so well known that it has its own name: tule fog. It is named for the tule grass wetlands from which it rises. Tule fog is most common during the rainy season from November to March. Sometimes, a blanket of tule fog stretches the entire length of the Central Valley, creating what looks like a giant inland cloud in satellite pictures.

The rainy season does end, typically in April, which ushers in the dry season that lasts until about Thanksgiving. As the wetness brings fog with it, the dryness brings dust storms — particularly in the San Joaquin Valley, which would be naturally bone dry without all the manmade irrigation channels and water redistribution efforts.

As with fog, dust storms can sneak up on you quickly when you’re driving down the highway. Do your best to slow down without stopping short, keep your low beams on, and get out of harm’s way if there’s a lot of traffic on the road around you.

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