Iconic destinations, historic Gold Rush towns, and adventure galore are the name of the game in the gateway to Yosemite. Connecting Northern and Southern California, the Central Valley is not only the country’s fruit and veggie basket, but the gateway to national parks, full of cultural diversity, award-winning wineries, lakes, and rivers. Whether you’re planning a bucket-list national park trip or looking for a getaway off the beaten path, you can find it in California’s Central Valley.
This story was created in partnership with California’s Central Valley.
Mariposa County: The Mother of Counties
Yosemite National Park needs no introduction– its towering rock walls, stunning waterfalls, and ancient forests are iconic worldwide. And when you think of Yosemite, you’re probably thinking of Mariposa County. Here is where you’ll find the park’s greatest hits, and of the four entrances to the park this is the most accessible from the southwest. Whether you’re looking for a strenuous, heart-pounding trek up the cables of Half Dome or a gentle stroll through the wildflowers in Cook’s Meadow, Yosemite is a hiker’s paradise. If you’re planning on visiting during the high season, be sure to plan ahead– some of the more popular destinations require advance permits, such as Half Dome.
A visit to Yosemite wouldn’t be complete without a stop in one of the region’s gateway towns. Named a winner of the Best Small Town Cultural Scene award by USA Today’s 10Best, Mariposa punches well above its weight when it comes to small-town charm and world class culture. Brush up on the area’s rich climbing history at the Yosemite Climbing Association Museum and Gallery, explore the shops downtown, and when you’re ready to kick your feet up, treat yourself a cold one at Sierra Cider. To immerse yourself in California’s Gold Rush history, step back in time to Coulterville. Here was a key stop on one of the most vital arteries of the Gold Rush era, now known as Highway 49, which connects the area to Madera County to the south. The Northern Mariposa County History Center houses artifacts and antiques from some of the area’s historic visitors, from John Muir to Theodore Roosevelt.
Madera County: Yosemite’s South End
If you’re looking for a Yosemite getaway without the Yosemite crowds, make your way to Madera County near the park’s south entrance. Bass Lake is the crown jewel of the county, offering some of the best hiking, fishing, and boating in the region. Inside Yosemite National Park, walk among the giants in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoia, an ancient stand of over 500 mature Sequoia trees.
For a unique opportunity to explore the area and learn about its history, take a ride on the Yosemite Sugar Pine Railroad. From one-hour educational rides to dinner shows and moonlight tours, you can take in the views from aboard an historic steam locomotive. If you’re feeling lucky, you can even try your hand at panning for gold.
When your done hiking, another trail beckons: the Madera Wine Trail. Family-owned vineyards and estate grown wines define the region, which is one of the oldest designated wine growing areas in the country. Find your way by downloading the trail map, guiding you to the eight wineries in the area.
Visalia: Your National Parks Basecamp
Emily Taylor photo
For an epic, multi-day trip through three of the country’s top National Parks, start your journey in Visalia. The Majestic Mountain Loop winds through Kings Canyon, Sequoia, and Yosemite National Parks. If you’re looking for the maximum amount of views in the minimum amount of time, this is your trip. Highlights include a stop at the world’s largest tree in Sequoia, underground caverns in Kings Canyon, and jaw-dropping views in Yosemite.
If you don’t have time to visit all three parks, relax and let someone else do the driving– the Sequoia Shuttle runs throughout the summer, offering visitors a stress-free way to enjoy the park.
Fresno: Dig Deeper
Right smack in the middle of it all, Fresno is he fifth largest city in the state, home to the region’s only international airport and a metropolitan hub near three National Parks. It’s renowned for it’s farm-to-table fare as well as a thriving brewery and winery scene. To see firsthand what it means to be a top agricultural producing region in the country, visit one of the many farmer’s markets, some of which operate year-round.
In an area full of agricultural experiences, the Forestiere Underground Gardens is perhaps the most unique. Built by Baldassare Forestiere, a Sicilian immigrant who settled in Fresno in 1901, the artist and gardener spent four decades crafting his vision of a lush underground garden. Inspired by the catacombs of his hometown, he built a subterranean network of fruit trees, courtyards, and tunnels spanning across 10 acres– all by hand.
Hanford: Raising Young Farmers
Children and adults alike will find plenty to learn about agriculture, nature, and healthy eating at the Children’s Storybook Garden and Museum in downtown Hanford. This educational museum aims to teach children about the region’s agricultural legacy and give them an opportunity to get their hands dirty in the gardens.
With the westward expansion of the Central Pacific railroad in 1877 came a wave of Chinese immigrants. A small community remains today, squarely located in the China Alley Historic District. Once a sprawling “city within a city,” 11 buildings remain today, many of which have remained largely unchanged for over a century.
Bakersfield: Whitewater and Wildlife
Located at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, Bakersfield offers easy access to the Kern River. Guided rafting trips are the best way to explore the corridor, from relaxing Class I floats to raging Class V whitewater. Bird watchers and those looking for a more relaxed outing should check out the Kern National Wildlife Refuge, an 11,249 acre sanctuary for wetland and migratory birds. If you’re planning on staying the night before heading north, treat yourself to the historic, beautifully renovated, and oh-so-hip Padre Hotel.
Photo courtesy of Rivers End Rafting
With experiences ranging from one-of-a-kind agricultural experiences to bucket-list hiking and outdoor adventures, it would take a lifetime to fully explore all that California’s Central Valley has to offer. After ticking some of the highlights off the list, you’re bound to find plenty more worth coming back for.