California from Sea to Yosemite: The Southern Central Valley
Traveler, writer, editor
Southern Central Valley, California
Start / End
Los Angeles, California
Yosemite National Park, Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon National Park
660 miles (1,062 km)
California’s temperate climate means this route can be stunning and full of adventure any time of year. Keep in mind that regardless of season, elevation gains bring cooler weather, sun and elevation require sunscreen, and that it never hurts to carry extra snacks and a map. California’s Central Valley has a great blend of small communities and big cities with all the amenities, so be sure to explore and connect with each of these stops because they’ll all be unique!
ARRIVE IN THE CENTRAL VALLEY
This route connects with at least four airports, so you can start and end your Southern Central Valley itinerary at the location most convenient for you. This also means drive times and mileage may differ from the calculations below (be sure to have a map and/or navigation app with you). This itinerary will start in Los Angeles and LAX airport, but you can hop on at the Fresno Yosemite International Airport, San Francisco Airport, or Sacramento Airport, too! If your entry into the Central Valley is LAX, here are a few experiences we recommend before you head north to Bakersfield:
Best spot to photograph the Hollywood Sign:
Eaton Canyon Falls (by moonlight!)
Museum for the whole family:
Off the beaten path:
2 HOURS – 116 MILES/187 KM
Turn your Spotify to the Dwight Yoakam channel for a sampling of Bakersfield country music and drive a couple hours northeast to Bakersfield. You’ll find a wide variety of experiences waiting for you, so we recommend spending a couple days here. Start with the roots of Bakersfield and head out to Murray Family Farms, where you can learn about farming tradition, pick your own fruit, pet farm animals, and much more. Then make another connection to the foundations of Bakersfield by grabbing a meal at Wool Growers Restaurant, one of many Basque eateries in the community.
Between getting your fill of Bakersfield flavors, there’s lots of fun to be found, whether it’s watching vintage drag racing at the Auto Club Famoso Raceway or watching the Kern River meander through town.
We like spending the night in Bakersfield at Padre Hotel, where history meets luxury in the perfect cap to your day of unique stops here.
1.25 HOURS – 79 MILES/127 KM
Visalia is known for having the famous Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in its backyard, but natural charm, welcoming locals and abundance of experiences are why this Central California city is much more than a gateway to the great outdoors. The ginormous sequoia trees that tower over everything in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks draw travelers from all over looking to experience the world’s biggest trees for themselves. The parks aren’t the only natural adventures in Visalia. Lake Kaweah is full of water-based fun like paddleboarding, boating and fishing, and you can get your thrill rafting the nearby Kaweah River. Golf courses, horseback riding and hiking trails are found in and around Visalia too!
After a day in the outdoors, grab a bite to eat at one of the sidewalk cafés along charming Main Street. Visalia is nestled in the heart of the nation’s richest agricultural region, so you can count on locally sourced, fresh ingredients in every bite. Drink in the views at one of the local craft breweries and treat yourself to dessert at one of the many delectable bakeries. Not sure what to try first? Ask a friendly local for some advice on their favorites.
SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK
KINGS CANYON NATIONAL PARK
1 HOUR, 10 MINUTES – 53 MILES/85 KM
Kings Canyon National Park is adjacent to Sequoia National Park, so today will be your opportunity to expand your familiarity with the protected area. Highway 180 into Kings Canyon National Park provides easy access to many hiking trails, and we recommend checking out those that follow its namesake, Kings River, to Zumwalt Meadow. From here, we recommend pointing the car toward your next city: Fresno.
1 HOUR – 53 MILES/85 KM
Underground Sicilian gardens, above-ground Japanese-American gardens, wine tastings, baseball, a plant nursery that turns into a beer garden and food truck hub at night, and great boutiques for shopping all make Fresno the city that it is. Fresno county grows more food than any other county in the United States, so you can bet that the locally sourced plates will be fresh and delectable. As California’s fifth largest city, Fresno has a lot to offer, so settle in for a day or two to experience as much as possible.
Escape the heat in a historical, underground oasis:
Take a wine journey:
Go back to class & love it:
Shop ’til you drop:
1 HOUR – 47 MILES/ 76 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.
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
45 MINUTES – 31 MILES/ 50 KM
California’s Central Valley is your launching point for a Yosemite adventure. From acclaimed rock climbing to iconic photography, from waterfalls to stunning hikes, Yosemite National Park captures the travelers’ imagination for a reason.
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.
1 HOUR – 47 MILES/ 76 KM
Oakdale is the ideal place to ease back into the city life of California following your time in Yosemite. The town bears the slogan “Cowboy Capital of the World,” so your first stop should be The Cowboy Museum where you can dive deeper into Oakdale’s rich rodeo and ranching history. From there you can head out to the Oakdale Cheese Factory to see how cheese is made and taste their award winning Gouda. Oakdale also has three local breweries that are a must-visit after a long day on the road. You could even simplify and spend a whole day unwinding at Woodward Reservoir, especially if you bring a picnic from Bloomingcamp Ranch.
HILMAR CHEESE COMPANY
20 MINUTES – 19 MILES/ 30 KM
Over one million pounds. That’s how much cheese the Hilmar Cheese Company produces daily. And you can join in! The headquarters of the company has a visitors center that offers tours, tastings, and a restaurant on-site.
Best road trip snack:
From here, you can loop back to Los Angeles for your departure or fly out of a nearby airport, such as Fresno, San Jose, or San Francisco. Either way, it won’t be long before you’re planning a return trip to California’s Central Valley.