Modesto Murals

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Modesto, California, boasts an incredible mural scene.

Stockton Culture

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Cambodian Buddhist Temple in Stockton

California's Grapes

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Vineyard in Fairfield, California

Pacific Ocean to Lush Forest: Explore California’s Northern Central Valley

Imagine a place with easy access to multiple national parks, flavor-filled farmlands, and mountain landscapes. Throw in rich history, international culture, and welcoming towns and cities, and you have California’s Central Valley. Follow this itinerary for a delicious, beautiful, authentic tour of the northern Central Valley.
Prepared By:

Tobey Schmidt

Adventurer & Photographer

Northern Central Valley, California

Start / End

San Francisco, Sacramento, or Fresno

States Covered
National Parks

Yosemite National Park

Total Distance

1,025 miles (1,650 km)

Suggested Days

11-14

Suggested Seasons

Year-round

#ThisIsMyRoute

Preparation

As you may already know, California has fairly temperate weather all year round. At higher elevations in the winter months, you may find snow and cold weather, but far fewer people. Our favorite time of year to visit is during the shoulder seasons of spring and fall. 

This route is worthy of two weeks of vacation, but it could be done in a week depending on how often and how long you stop.

Itinerary

SAN FRANCISCO

Golden Gate Bridge from Baker Beach

Along our route there are three major airports in three different cities: San Francisco (SFO), Sacramento (SMF), and Fresno (FAT). We are starting the itinerary in San Francisco and ending in Fresno, but you could start and end wherever suits your flight itinerary best! We suggest getting on the road and starting your trip, but if you’d like to spend some time in San Francisco first, below are a few of our favorites. 

 

Best spot to photograph the Golden Gate Bridge:
Baker Beach

 

Best hike:
Tennessee Valley Trail

 

Best experience for the whole family:
Alcatraz Island

 

Most unique dessert:
Matcha Ice Cream
FAIRFIELD

Girl and Jelly Belly character on bench

50 MINUTES – 47 MILES/76 KM

Cruise out of the big city northeast towards Fairfield. Located just 15 miles from Napa Valley, Fairfield is surrounded by farmland, rolling hills, country roads, and acres of vineyards. The beauty of Fairfield is that while the north is full of wineries, the south is bordered by wildlife refuge areas, waterways, and bays that are just waiting to be fished and paddled through. 

If you love seeing native wildlife or birds, head over to the Suisun Wildlife Center or Grizzly Island Wildlife Area. For something unique, visit Il Fiorello Olive Oil Company to see how this family-owned company grows and produces oil from their own groves—you can enjoy tastings, too!

 

For the adults:
Any of more than a dozen wineries

 

For the kids:
The Jelly Bean Candy Factory

For the beer drinkers:
Go kayaking on the Suisun Marsh

 

Unique to Fairfield:
Local farm stands
VACAVILLE

Strawberries at fruit stand

15 MINUTES – 10 MILES/16 KM

Cruise north 15 minutes into the city of Vacaville, which prides itself on having a perfect small-town atmosphere and community, with all of the amenities and luxury of a bigger city. Go on a shopping spree at the beautiful, outdoor shopping center Nut Tree, or get a tour of the organic winery and regenerative Be Love Farm. Whatever it is that you choose, Vacaville is known as the city where “boredom is hard to come by.”

Must do:
Discover a hidden swing at Browns Valley Open Space

 

Best baked goods:
Pure Grain Bakery

 

All ages will love:
Imagine That!

 

Can’t miss:
Menagerie Hill Alpaca Farm
YOLO COUNTY

Blooming almond trees

40 MINUTES – 34 MILES/55 KM

Continue along Interstate 80 towards the city of Davis and the rest of Yolo County: Woodland, Winters, and the Yolo Countryside. If you don’t have time to check out each individual town, we recommend choosing at least one to visit so you can at least sample all that Yolo County has to offer.

Davis is an energetic university town full of interesting restaurants, art galleries, retail shops, and the famous Davis Farmers Market. Walk the UC Davis Arboretum, a 100-acre public garden, or cycle your way through over 100 miles of bike paths.

Woodland is a city known for its thriving entrepreneurial spirit, historical downtown district, and its rich diversity of amazing cuisine. A local favorite activity is walking or biking on a self-guided tour through town to explore the many styles of historic architecture in the area. 

Winters is a classic strip of Americana filled with small-town vibes and charming locals. Voted “Best Small Town Food Scene” by  USA Today, spend some time tasting your way through locally owned restaurants, breweries, and wineries. 

The Yolo Countryside is dotted with quaint, very small towns full of charm and overflowing in ag tourism experiences. Pick your own flower bouquets, farm tours, agricultural events and celebrations, farm-to-fork meals, and a handful of amazing wineries make this area one not to miss.

 

Best wine experience:
Yolo County Tasting Pass

 

Best family adventure:
River Fox Train

 

Best outdoor experience:
Hike at Stebbins Cold Canyon Trail

 

Best farmers market:
Davis Farmers Market

 

Best farm tour:
Capay Valley Lavender
 
Best foodie experience:
Woodland Dining Pass

 

 

RIVER FOX TRAIN

Couple on River Fox Train in California

13 MINUTES – 8 MILES/13 KM

Head east to the edge of California’s capital, Sacramento, and prepare to see some countryside without having to drive. Board the River Fox Train and chug along at a leisurely pace through the California countryside. A wide variety of train excursions are on the calendar, so find the right fit for you and your travel buddies or family, and “aaaaall aboard!”

 

For the wines:
Old Vine Express

 

Keep it classic:
Fancy Hat Tea Train

 

For gold fever:
Train Excursion

 

Before dinner:
Happy Hour Express
STOCKTON

Cambodian Amgen in Stockton, CA

1 HOUR – 60 MILES/97 KM

After passing through Sacramento, continue south to the next biggest city, Stockton. Stockton is located at the furthest inland point of the California Delta, an expansive inland river delta formed near the coast. For an adventurous way to see the city, head over to the H20 Excursions at Village West Marina  to rent a kayak, stand up paddle board, or a water bike. 

Afterwards, you’ll want to check out one of the multiple farmers markets in town. The biggest and most well-known is the Downtown Stockton Certified Farmers Market, held every Saturday all year round and considered one of the oldest and most successful markets in the state of California.

 

Try something new:
Korean BBQ at Seoul Soon Dubu

 

Unique to Stockton:
Stockton Cambodian Buddhist Temple

 

Take the kids:
Pixie Woods Amusement Park

 

For the produce & famous peach pies:
The Fruit Bowl
MODESTO

Person in front of mural in Modesto, CA

30 MINUTES – 31 MILES/ 50 KM

Drive barely 30 minutes south to Modesto, a city famously known for farm stands, entertainment, car culture, and public art. If Modesto sounds familiar, it’s because it is the home of George Lucas and the inspiration for his biopic “American Graffiti.” In addition to fresh goods, Modesto is home to the Gallo Center for the Arts featuring national artists, a symphony, and plays. 

Go for a walk and enjoy a picnic in one of Modesto’s lush city parks. Love to fish? Bring your fly rod or fishing pole along and cast into the Tuolumne and Stanislaus Rivers! Oh, and don’t even get us started on the taco trucks—there are SO many local, authentic taco trucks in Modesto, you really can’t go wrong.

 

Best baked goods & pastries:
Mocha Magic Cafe & Bake Shop
 
Bike trail by the river:
Tuolumne River Trail

 

Best spot for dinner:
Galletto Ristorante

 

For all the foodies:
Sciabica Family California Olive Oil & Tasting Room
OAKDALE

Rodeo in Oakdale, California

30 MINUTES – 15 MILES/ 25 KM

As we begin the portion of our route that heads into the mountains, stop into the small city of Oakdale, known as the “Cowboy Capital of the World.” Oakdale’s historic town gives visitors a feel for what California in the 1800s was like: Old West. Gold was discovered along the Stanislaus River in 1848, and the town of Oakdale was established in 1871. To experience what  life was like for the pioneering ranching families in those days, visit the Oakdale Cowboy Museum, located in the historic Southern Pacific Railroad depot. 

Oakdale is always “happening” with events from the annual Oakdale Rodeo the second weekend of April to the annual Oakdale Chocolate Festival the third weekend in May. 

 

Longest covered bridge west of the Mississippi:
Knights Ferry Bridge

 

Go hiking or rafting:
Knights Ferry Recreation Area

 

Bur from a fresh cut flower farm:
Backroad Blooms Farms

 

The Adult Drink Trail:
1. Dying Breed Brewing
2. Last Call Brewing Co
3. Grains of Virtue Brewing Co
YOSEMITE MARIPOSA

Two people watching sunrise at Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park

45 MINUTES – 31 MILES/ 50 KM

Mariposa County is known as home of Yosemite National Park, which is one of California’s greatest gems, to be sure. It’s also home to so much more, including Sierra National Forest and Stanislaus National forest to the Merced River which offers fun and leisure activities galore, to gold rush and ghost-town history. We recommend getting to know Mariposa County a bit before entering the bucket-list park on this itinerary.

 

Learn about the Gold Rush:
The whole town of Coulterville

 

Wildflower Waltz:
Hite Cove (just remember not to pick or trample!)

 

Eat local:
Ask the Sierra Foodies

 

Best bike ride:
Smith Peak
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK

Vernal Falls in Yosemite National Park

2.25 HOURS – 93 MILES/ 150 KM

From Mariposa County ascend more than 2,000 feet as you cruise into the foothills of Yosemite National Park. Within the park, the elevation spans from 2,127 feet to 13,114 feet at the top of Mount Lyell in the Cathedral Range. Yosemite is known for its waterfalls like Yosemite Falls and its massive granite faces like Half Dome and El Capitan.

 

Best spot for a hike:
Day hike in Tuolumne Meadows

 

With the kids:
Ranger & Interpretive Program

 

For the advanced hikers:
Half Dome Trail

 

Best spot to stay:
Curry Village Canvas Tents
YOSEMITE MADERA

Family kayaking on Bass Lake in Madera County, California

30 MINUTES – 16 MILES/ 26 KM

The gateway to Yosemite awaits! The two big-name gems of Madera County are Yosemite National Park and Bass Lake. Throw in award-winning wines and fascinating museums, and it will be hard not to spend more than one night here. We recommend heading straight to Oakhurst and then spending a couple days here. Once called Fresno Flats, Oakhurst is the largest community in the foothills of Madera County (it’s even home to a talking bear)! Be sure to take a scenic tour of the Sierra National Forest aboard the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad.

 

For those who don’t love wine:
South Gate Brewing Co.

 

Most peaceful adventure:
SUP on Bass Lake

 

Scavenger hunt for the whole family:
Fossils to Falls Road Trip

 

Most obvious attraction:
Yosemite National Park via the Southern Gate
FRESNO

1 HOUR – 46 MILES/ 74 KM

Continue south on CA-41 towards Fresno, set in the beautiful San Joaquin Valley. An area boasting approximately 300 days of sunshine a year, Fresno County is the only metropolitan hub in California located between three national parks—Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia. 

Besides the national parks, Fresno has so much adventure of its own to offer, such as the Forestiere Underground Gardens. Located right in Fresno, these are a series of subterranean structures built by an immigrant from Sicily, over a period of 40 years. The 10 acres of rooms, passages, and garden were excavated by hand using only farming tools. The California State Historic Landmark hosts tours and events all year round.

 

For the birders:
Gray Lodge Wildlife Area

 

For fishign, camping, and views:
Shaver Lake

 

Best vintage shopping:
Bebe O’s Vintage Boutique

 

Best American food:
House of JuJu

 

Whether you fly out of Fresno, or complete the loop by driving back up towards Sacramento and then again towards the coast, the choice is yours. Depending on your time, maybe even continue south towards Visalia and Bakersfield! Whatever you decide, we hope your legs are tired from adventure, your bellies are full of California-grown foods, and your hearts are happy from the memories you’ve made!

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