About The Central and Owens Valleys
The Central Valley is a mind-numbingly flat expanse of land filling the 150-mile gap between the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas and the coastal mountains. It was once barren but – thanks to decades of ecologically ruinous diverting of rivers – it has been turned into one of the world’s most productive agricultural areas. There are two ways of passing through here: fast and medium. Interstate-5 (known as I-5) and Hwy-99 respectively, pass through the Central Valley beside mile after mile of raisin and almond groves (just two of the many money-spinning crops), encountering a change of scene only in the south, where hundreds of oil derricks litter the area around Bakersfield.
Agriculture and oil may make money but they don’t make for exceptionally interesting towns. Central Valley accommodation is uninspiring as well, limited to ordinary mid-range chain hotels and two-a-penny motels. Consequently, it is easy to see why Californians who live elsewhere spend more time joking about the Central Valley than touring it. Nonetheless, a couple of well-chosen days here are a chance to discover a different side of the state – one where prices and pretensions are low, and the mood is more middle-America than wacky, surf-and-sun Californian.
Furthermore, the region’s own produce and the culinary skills of farmworkers settling from Europe mean that there is some damn fine eating to be done in the Central Valley, the Basque restaurants being particularly worth sampling. A more practical consideration is that the valley is on the route to the tremendous Yosemite National Park and the under-rated Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks – three of the best places to visit in the whole state.
Unlike the sedate Central Valley, the Owens Valley (on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevadas) is a geological wonderland, regarded as the most geologically active area in North America. Bubbling springs, basalt formations, and eerie bristlecone pine forests are among the strange phenomena within reach of our slow route, Hwy-395 (parts of which may be blocked by snow in winter). In general, the communities strung along Hwy-395 are no more memorable than their Central Valley counterparts but the scenery around them is second to none and they provide the only food and shelter for those who come to marvel at it.
In the Central Valley, AMTRAK operates six trains a day travel between Stockton and Bakersfield, making stops at Madera, Merced and Hanford and Sacramento (http://www.amtrak.com). Nine Greyhound buses operate daily between Sacramento and Los Angeles, making stops at Stockton, Fresno and Bakersfield on the way. The only public transport in the Owens Valley is a daily Greyhound bus between Reno (in Nevada) and Los Angeles, linking the communities along Hwy-395; Truckee, transferring at Sacramento, then going onto Los Angeles (www.greyhound.com).