San Joaquin Valley
The southern half of California’s Central Valley – named for the San Joaquin River – sprawls from Stockton to the turbine-covered Tehachapi Mountains, southeast of Bakersfield. Everything stretches to the horizon in straight lines – railroad tracks, two-lane blacktop and long irrigation channels.
Smack in the arid center of the state, Fresno is the biggest city in the Central Valley by far. It may not be scenic (it's a testing ground for every new chain store), but it is beautifully situated, just an hour's drive from four national parks (Yosemite, Sierra, Kings Canyon and Sequoia), making it the ideal last stop for expeditions.
Nearing Bakersfield, the landscape has evidence of California’s other gold rush: rusting rigs alongside the route burrow into Southern California’s vast oil fields. Black gold was discovered here in the late 1800s, and Kern County, the southernmost along Hwy 99, still pumps more than some OPEC countries.
Its agricultural prosperity and well-maintained downtown make Visalia one of the valley’s convenient stops en route to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks or the Sierra Peaks. Bypassed a century ago by the railroad, the city is 5 miles east of Hwy 99, along Hwy 198. Its downtown has old-town charm and makes for a nice stroll.
The smoldering streets of Red Bluff – one of California’s hottest towns due to the hot-air trap of the Shasta Cascades – are of marginal interest in themselves, but a glimpse towards the mountain-dominated horizon reveals what brings most travelers this way. Peter Lassen laid out the town site in 1847 and it grew into a key port along the Sacramento River.
You can jog over to Yosemite from many of the small towns in this part of the valley, but this is a convenient staging area, right on Hwy 140. The machine of progress has not been kind to Merced, as it suffers more than its share of strip malls, but at its core are still tree-lined streets, historic Victorian homes and a magnificent 1875 courthouse.
Cruising was banned in Modesto in 1993, but the town still touts itself as the ‘cruising capital of the world.’ The past time's notoriety stems mostly from homegrown George Lucas’ 1973 film American Graffiti. You’ll still see hot rods and flashy wheels around town, but they no longer clog thoroughfares on Friday nights. This is a good spot for getting off the dusty highway.
Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta
The Sacramento Delta is a sprawling web of waterways and one-stoplight towns plucked out of the 1930s. On weekends, locals gun powerboats on glassy waterways and cruise the winding levy roads. This wetland area encompasses a huge swath of the state – from the San Francisco Bay to Sacramento, and all the way south to Stockton.
Kern River Area
A half-century ago the Kern River originated on the slopes of Mt Whitney and journeyed close to 170 miles before finally settling into Buena Vista Lake in the Central Valley. The lake is long dry. Now, after its wild descent from the high country – 60ft per mile – the Kern is dammed in several places and almost entirely tapped for agricultural use.