California’s Heartland

Courtesy of Travel California

Experience the essence of the state by following country roads through the broad and fertile Central Valley. Start in Redding with a walk across a remarkable bridge, then steer your car south to hang out with locals at farmers’ markets (and taste amazing food too), and sample big wines in low-key wine country.

This relaxed city has some secret gems that make a pleasing start to your trip. Start at Sundial Bridge, a functional work of art, the remarkable pedestrian bridge, designed by renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, spans the tree-lined, trout-filled Sacramento River in Redding’s Turtle Bay Exploration Park. The 700-foot/213-meter-long span is undeniably striking, with its glass block walkway and soaring white tower and suspension cables forming a functioning sundial– a nod to human creativity and ingenuity, both important themes of the 300-acre park.

Before you cross the bridge, visit the adjacent visitor center. Outside, Paul Bunyan’s Forest Camp lets kids learn about what it was like to be an early logger in the region; there are also recreations of a traditional Native American bark house. Inside, interpretive displays shed light on local wildlife and natural history.

Now walk across Sundial Bridge—if there are fly fishermen nearby wait a few minutes and you’ll probably see them snag a fish or two. (The river here alive with trout.) On the far side of the bridge, opposite the museum, is the relax in the California native and drought-tolerant gardens in the 200-acre/81-hectare McConnell Arboretum & Botanical Gardens, or rent bikes or join a guided Segway tour to follow paths along the riverfront.

Continuing east then south from Redding, you reach a surprisingly verdant region near the leafy and cool Sacramento River. It’s a surprisingly leafy and fertile area that’s a prime place for farms and ranches, and many invite visitors to come by to buy fresh produce, artisanal olive oils, and other local food products.

Established by local farmers, the Tehama Trail meanders through rural communities, linking together nearly two dozen vineyards, orchards, and grass-fed beef ranchers and other specialty meat producers. Though you can hop onto the route at any point, the driving tour technically begins in Corning, a town that has been linked with olives for generations. Stop in at the iconic Olive Pit for samples of traditional black and green olives, or try more exotic options, like herb-and-garlic-cheese-stuffed Sicilian olives. Head over to sleek and shiny tasting room at Lucero Olive Oil to sample artisanal olive oils and vinegars and shop for classy gifts.

Continue along the Tehama Trail to sample and buy heirloom tomatoes, juice-down-your-chin peaches and plums, and just-picked berries, as well as fresh pies and honeys. Swing by New Clairvaux Vineyard in tiny Vina, just south of Redding, where Trappist monks (yes, monks) invite you to sample their Barbera, Pinot Grigio, and other varietals in a large tasting room that’s on the monastery grounds.

This leafy town west of Sacramento has become something of a hip gem in the Central Valley. Maybe it’s the velvety warm summer evenings that tempt people to linger at tables outside relaxed eateries. Maybe it’s the friendly, hi-neighbor feel when step into places like Steady Eddy’s, billing itself as “more than your hometown coffee shop,” for a microbrew or a glass of local wine. Maybe it doesn’t really matter why Winters is so nice—maybe it’s okay that it just is.

The town has turned into a mini mecca for foodies, where talented chefs show their stuff at places such as stylish Preserve Public House (innovative dishes showcasing local ingredients) and classy Ficelle (excellent tapas). Get great beef at acclaimed Buckhorn Steakhouse, and crispy wood-fired pizza cooked in a street-side outdoor oven at Putah Creek Cafe. Find chocolates, wines, and olive oils at RootStock; stick around on Friday nights for low-key local music.

Here’s a chance to experience a bustling town with a university at its core. Started as the agricultural extension for University of California, Berkeley, U.C. Davis soon became its own campus, with strong veterinary, viticulture, and agricultural departments. As for that flatness, it makes the town a haven for bicycles—it’s said there are more bikes than people here, and the town is home to the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame, with memorabilia and gear from top racers and events. Rent a bike to follow some 100 miles of bike lanes and paved paths: loop through the lush U.C. Davis Arboretum, then pedal downtown along streets lined with shops, galleries, and restaurants serving world cuisine. Time your visit to sync with the twice-weekly farmers’ market, or to catch a performance at the soaring Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts.

Best known for big red wines, particularly old-vine Zinfandels, this American Viticultural Area 83 miles/133 kilometers east of San Francisco is also a leader when it comes to going green. Upwards of 25,000 vineyard acres are certified sustainable, and this is the birthplace of Lodi Rules, California’s first third-party certified sustainable winegrowing program. A variety of tasting rooms have sprouted up in recent years, with most of the action located within a 15-minute drive from downtown. A great place to start is the Lodi Wine & Visitor Center, offering a rotating selection of varietals from nearly 80 local vintners.

Though the range of wines has grown, the rich, concentrated New World varietals are still the region’s hallmark, and more than 40 percent of the state’s Zinfandels are produced here. ZinFest, an annual three-day tasting party each May, offers a chance to sample some 250 wines from Lodi’s best producers.

The Central Valley’s largest city makes for a surprisingly lively getaway. Seven stadiums and a pair of arenas satisfy sporty types, and an annual Woodward Shakespeare Festival in lush Woodward Park reveals Fresno’s cultural bent. But make no mistake: Agriculture is king in this centerpiece city of the San Joaquin Valley, California’s most prolific growing region. In early spring, get a closer look by driving or biking along the 62-mile Blossom Trail, with the route lined with fruit and nut trees in full bloom. In summer, the route morphs into the Fresno County Fruit Trail, and fruit stands overflow with ripe seasonal produce.

Back in town, explore a subterranean living space at Forestiere Underground Gardens, hand-dug by an Italian immigrant who saw that going underground was a great way to keep cool and comfortable during the Central Valley’s hot summers. Kids love Chaffee Zoo, especially the frolicking pinnipeds in Sea Lion Cove. Find quality handmade gifts in Fresno’s Mural District, a hotbed of artists’ studios and gallery spaces; monthly Art Hops are a great way to explore. After dark, restaurants and clubs light up the neon-bright Tower District.