This Road Trip Proves Central California Is the New Coastal California

Sure, there’s a lot of beauty along the California coastline. But California is a BIG ol’ state, and most of it exists far away from any ocean. Central California – as in the Central Valley, not Santa Barbara – has been slept on for far too long. Home to two of the most underrated national parks in the country – Sequoia and Kings Canyon, full of towering trees, thundering waterfalls, and sparkling alpine lakes – this part of California is due for its time in the limelight.

The Fresno Yosemite International Airport (FAT) is the closest international airport serving this part of California, with direct flights from many major cities throughout the US including Los Angeles, Denver, Dallas/Fort Worth, and Chicago. Fly into FAT, rent yourself a car, and hit the road!

The drive itself is part of the adventure: Many of the highlights of this area take several hours of driving tight, winding roads through mountains and canyons with limited cell reception and services. Don’t be fooled by proximity on a map – “as the crow flies” might be a short, straight shot, but as the car drives, you’ll have to go allllll the way around.

This is also the joy of discovering this part of the Golden State – driving the incredibly scenic and improbably isolated winding roads through remote, unspoiled areas that feel a world away from the densely populated metro areas crammed full of tens of millions of people (in reality, even the deepest part of King’s Canyon is still only five hours from LA). The best part is, you can start and end in Fresno, making for an easy roundtrip road trip.

Tioga-Sequoia Brewing Company

Fresno (1-2 nights)

Admittedly, Fresno is probably not at the top of many people's California travel wish list, but as with any underrated city, Fresno is full of its own unique charm and fun ways to spend a weekend.

Stay at the Sequoia View Vineyard, located on 20 acres of the Cedar View Winery estate vineyard. Book one of three individually decorated suites, each with incredible views of the surrounding vineyards, orchards, hills, or Sierra Nevada Mountains. It’s a little bit fussy in the way that staying on an estate winery can be, but it’s certainly a unique lodging option. And at under $200/night on peak summer weekends, it's probably one of the least-expensive estate winery stays in the entire state of California.

From there, enjoy the urban outdoors by visiting Forestiere Underground Gardens, a registered historical landmark of hand-carved stone subterranean grottoes, archways, passages, and garden courts full of lush green vines and fruit-bearing trees. Spend some time roaming around Woodward Park, a 300-acre regional park with five miles of trails, a mountain bike course, BMX course, disc golf course, and more. It’s also home to the Shinzen Friendship Garden, an authentic Japanese sister-city garden developed in the post-WWII era. It features a “living museum” of over 100 bonsai trees, a tea garden and tea house, a moon bridge, and a koi pond, with beautiful views of the lake and gorgeous landscaping all around.

Drive 15 minutes south from the garden to spend a sunny afternoon at Chukchansi Park watching a Grizzlies game. Located in the heart of downtown Fresno, this stadium is known as one of the most beautiful and modern Minor League sports facilities in the country, with outstanding views of the downtown skyline and surrounding Sierra Nevada mountains. While you’re there, grab a beer at the Tioga-Sequoia Brewing Company Beer Garden just around the corner from the park.

Art and architecture buffs, be sure to also check out the Fresno Art Museum showcasing ancient and modern Mexican art and contemporary American works, the Gothic Revival Saint John's Cathedral, the 19th-century Victorian Meux Home Museum, and the Postmodern Futurist Fresno City Hall.

The Padre Hotel

Bakersfield (1-2 nights)

From Fresno, make your way down to Bakersfield as your home base for a few must-do hikes and outdoor experiences. Stay at the AAA Four Diamond Padre Hotel, a historic property dating back to 1928 that is now a stylish boutique hotel with excellent food and beverage options.

While staying in this area, head to the Seven Teacups, a chain of seven connected pothole waterfalls along the Kern River. The scenery is gorgeous and while this is a route especially popular with canyoneers (who rappel down the waterfalls), you can also hike on the sprawling slabs along the sides. There are lots of pothole “pools” in this area, and plenty you can swim in (just not these, as the current can be very strong). Be aware that while the hike itself is relatively short, about 4-5 miles depending on how far you go, it also requires route-finding and scrambling skills, and there’s a creek crossing that can be dangerous if the water is high (say after several months of heavy rain in the area and heavy snow pack in the mountains melting throughout the summer, for example).

Not far from the Seven Teacups trailhead you’ll find the Trail of 100 Giants — an easy 1.3-mile walk along an accessible paved trail that winds through a grove of 125 giant sequoias that are more than 10 feet in diameter and up to 1,500 years old (plus another 700 or so “smaller” sequoias).

On your way back from these hikes, make a pit stop to soak in some natural hot springs. Hot springs are found all over California, but few remain as rustic as those found at Remington Hot Springs, which features three well-maintained, man-made tubs located along the Kern River that average around 103 degrees. Given the remoteness of the area and low light pollution, this is a great spot for some nighttime stargazing after a day of hiking.

The Darling Hotel

Visalia (1-2 nights)

After your stay in Bakersfield, head back north toward Visalia, the Silver Lake of Central Valley. Stay at The Darling, a boutique hotel located within a recently renovated and fully restored 1930s Art Deco building. Spend the day lounging poolside, then enjoy the panoramic views of the Sierras while having dinner at Elderwood, the hotel’s rooftop restaurant and bar.

For a perfect Visalia weekend itinerary, make sure you’re in town on the first Friday of the month and explore the Downtown Visalia Art District during the F1rst Friday art crawl. On Saturday, start your morning with house-roasted coffee and house-baked pastries from Component Coffee Lab, then stroll over to the Visalia Farmers Market and peruse dozens of local vendors selling handmade artisan items and fresh produce grown exclusively in the Central Valley. (There are three farmers markets in Visalia, but the main one is held every Saturday year-round.) That evening, enjoy live music while sipping on craft beers at BarrelHouse Brewing Co., where you can find musicians on stage every Thursday through Sunday.

On Sunday, plan a fancy brunch at the lovely Vintage Press, an institution of fine dining in Visalia for over 50 years. But do plan – if you want a table on their charming outdoor patio surrounded by lush greenery (and you do), be sure to reserve ahead of time. Consider this your last little bit of “treat yo’ self” pampering before you go full mountain man on the next couple of legs of your Central Valley road trip.

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Mineral King Valley (2-3 nights)

From Visalia, it’s a relatively short yet hair-raising drive to Mineral King Valley in the High Sierra. The only road into this valley is Mineral King Drive, a road first built in 1873 during the silver boom. It’s a notorious white-knuckle drive along 25 miles of steep, narrow road with steep cliff drops, no guard rails, and hundreds of hairpin curves (the Internet spits out numbers ranging from 398-698, but when you’re driving it, there is a point at which the numbers of hundreds no longer matter).

It takes about an hour to make the drive, and there are some places for scenic stops along the way (where you can also catch your breath and slow your heart rate), but once you reach the end of the paved road you’ll find yourself at Silver City Mountain Resort, a hidden gem of a destination and a true escape from the world. Book one of its more upscale private cabins and enjoy the soaking tub next to the window surrounded by dense forest, as well as a lack of Wi-Fi, television, and cell service. (There is some spotty cell service at the resort’s main building if needed.)

The resort serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner at its restaurant, all made from scratch using ingredients sourced from local Central Valley producers and growers, as well as California beers and wines. Every meal is outstanding, and you can enjoy it all on the spacious deck surrounded by cedars and towering pines while soaking in the total seclusion. Save room for pie!

While you’re in Mineral King, you need to check out the stellar hiking. This is a subalpine glacial valley of wide-open meadows, twisting waterfalls, crystal-clear alpine lakes, dense conifer forests, and jagged granite peaks. And bears! Practice bear safety while out on the trails, and also be sure to bear- and marmot-proof your car at the trailhead so that you don’t come back to a mauled car with a chewed-through radiator hose. (This really cannot be emphasized enough if you are new to the High Sierra.)

There are many trails of varying length and difficulty in Mineral King that take you past meadows and waterfalls, through forests, and up above the tree line to alpine lakes surrounded by granite peaks. Eagle Lake (~7 miles), Monarch Lakes (~10 miles), and Franklin Lakes (~12 miles) are among the most popular trails, and all can be completed as a day hike for conditioned hikers. Be prepared for some serious elevation gain with each of them; you’re starting out at an elevation of about 7,500 feet in the valley (altitude sickness can start at 8,000 feet) and some of these hikes take you above 10,000 feet, where the air is noticeably thinner and even the fittest, most elevation-conditioned hikers can struggle breathing. Hike smart and know your limits, and also be aware of the symptoms of altitude sickness (it’s a serious thing; so take it seriously).


Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks (2-3 nights)


After you’ve spent a few days unplugging, unwinding, and communing with nature in Mineral King, head back down the white-knuckle Mineral King Drive toward Three Rivers, then hang a right onto Highway 180 (Sierra Drive) as it becomes Generals Highway, a 32.5-mile drive that takes you through the heart of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. (Be sure to check current conditions; while the parks are projected to re-open in mid-April, some areas may remain closed until late May.)

Just minutes after entering Sequoia National Park, you’ll encounter the first scenic stop and photo op along the route, Tunnel Rock: a big boulder covering what was once a roadway that creates a “tunnel.” Get out of the car, take the picture, and keep on truckin’ – there are many stops like this along Generals Highway.

While there are countless opportunities for hiking and camping and you could easily spend a week(s) out here exploring it all, for those who only have a day or two, you can still see a lot. Generals Highway – and, later along Highway 180, Kings Canyon Road – is full of scenic views, roadside pull-outs overlooking vast vistas, and awe-striking landmarks.

Along this route you will see General Sherman, an utterly massive Sequoia known as the world's largest tree (more technically, it’s the largest known living single-stem tree). Estimated to be 2,200-2,700 years old, General Sherman stands 275 feet high and measures 103 feet around at its base. It is incomprehensibly huge.

There are several groves of giant sequoias located within Sequoia and Kings Canyon parks – fun fact, seven of the 10 largest trees in the world grow within these two parks – but the aptly named Giant Forest is the largest of the unlogged sequoia groves (and home to General Sherman). Get out of the car to explore these natural wonders on the Big Trees Trail (0.75 miles) and the Congress Trail (2.7 miles); both are accessible paved trails. Another popular, short (1 mile) hike located in the Giant Forest will take you up 350 stairs to the top of Moro Rock, an imposing granite dome that looms prominently over this section of Sequoia. The view from the top is worth the quad burn.

You’ll have to briefly leave Generals Highway and take Crescent Meadow Road to the Moro Rock Trailhead, but even if you don’t plan any further hiking in Crescent Meadow (although, not for nothing, the High Sierra Trail is right there), do drive on just a little bit farther past Moro Rock. You’ll then pass through Sequoia National Park's Tunnel Log, another massive sequoia, which once stood 275 feet tall, that fell over the road. Because these sequoias are so huge and so heavy (General Sherman weighs about 4.2 million pounds), instead of removing it, the park service just cut a tunnel through it. Et voilà: tunnel log!

Another diversion off Generals Highway near the Giant Forest will take you to Crystal Cave, one of at least 240 known caves located within Sequoia National Park. This marble cavern is worth a few hours of exploration – book one of the park’s guided cave tours to see some of the cave’s fragile formations, and if you’re really in for an adventure, book the 3.5-hour Wild Cave Tour that will have you crawling on your belly and climbing through narrow passageways.

There are also many waterfalls to chase between these two parks. Tokopah Falls is an easy 3.4-mile roundtrip hike that starts at the Lodgepole Campground near the Giant Forest and leads to a 1,200-foot cascading waterfall surrounded by granite cliffs.


Kings Canyon

Just after passing the Redwood Mountain Overlook, Highway 180 splits. Continue by turning right (heading directionally north) as this stretch of Generals Highway becomes the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway.

This is where you’ll find General Grant, another big boy sequoia and the country’s only living national shrine. Hume Lake is worth the short detour, where you can go kayaking and mountain biking (rentals available). The Sandy Cove Day Use Area is a great spot to go swimming, have a picnic, or go for a walk around the lake.

As you continue to head east to Road’s End (literally, where the road ends!), pop out of the car to see Grizzly Falls and Roaring River Falls, both very short walks from their respective parking lots. Once you reach Road’s End, spend some time hiking in Zumwalt Meadow, one of the most iconic, scenic meadows in these parks. Go for a swim at Muir Rock, hike the 1.5-mile trail around the meadow, or make the longer trek to Mist Falls, a roughly 8-mile, relatively flat hike (save for the stairs at the end) through jaw-dropping scenery to one of the largest waterfalls in the parks.

There are many, many, many places to camp within Sequoia and Kings Canyon, from all manner of developed campgrounds to areas where dispersed camping is allowed (though you do need a campfire permit). Find all the details you need here, but FWIW, some of the favorite sites are Azalea, Sunset, and Sheep Creek. For non-campers, there are plenty of lodges in the parks, too. None of them are fancy, but if it’s a bed and indoor plumbing you’re after, they get the job done.

After hitting Road’s End and heading back the way you came to the main Generals Highway, follow 180 West back to Fresno. And there you have it: a week-long-plus road trip without ever leaving the Central Valley! Coastline is overrated, anyway.