Like many Californians, I've usually thought of the Central Valley as a place that is on the way to somewhere else, and if I weren't here for my residency, I would probably still think of it that way. Like most flat low population agricultural areas in the U.S., today the area is often more interesting for its history and the migration routes. Many of the towns and cities are struggling agricultural centers with less in common with coastal California than with rural communities in the rest of the intermontane West. A glance at the per capita incomes in each county makes that obvious.
But there is always stuff to do everywhere, and if you're setting aside a whole day to drive the length of California anyway, you're not doing much once you get to wherever it is you're going. So why not stop off and see or do something? I want to feel that my accumulation of information and tolerance of boredom during my drives along this corridor has helped somebody. This list goes from south to north and mostly focuses on the I-5 corridor.
Slide Mountain Lookout - even when you're still on the Grapevine, you can see cool stuff. There's the old Ridge Route connecting Santa Clarita and Laval (that one day I might run just for the hell of it), and the Slide Mountain fire lookout is plainly visible to the west. You can get up there, and it's still active.
For the record - NorCal does not start at Castaic Lake you SoCal goofs. The Central Valley is its own world, so most would say NorCal starts at absolute earliest in San Luis Obispo, and at least by Santa Cruz. But on the Grapevine? Those people must not get out of LA much.
Stop and get strawberries at any of the many, many produce stands you see off exits once you're down in the valley.
Fossil Hunting - check out Shark Tooth Hill near Bakersfield, which is exactly what it sounds like.
Casinos - if that's your thing, head over to Tachi, or wait until you're up around Sacramento and veer over to Cache Creek. I don't get anything out of gambling but casinos do often have excellent food, financed by other people's irrational habits. (Best tacos in San Diego County? Barona Casino. No kidding. I'm strongly in favor of irrational people financing my meals.)
The Carrizo Plain - this area contains a visible trace of the San Andreas fault (click here to see a brave attempt to stop future earthquakes), as well as some really excellent Yokuts or Chumash petroglyphs. (There was extensive contact between the Yokuts and Chumash languages here so for language nuts, there was a form of Barbareño Chumash spoken here that was heavily relexified with Yokuts.) It also backs up to Los Padres NF on the way to Santa Barbara or Santa Maria; drive 33 down to Ojai or 166 to Santa Maria, and you can really see the transition from greener coast range to dry-as-bone inland hills. In May I did some running in San Rafael wilderness, still kind of on the western side, and found it to be much like a very dry East Bay park. Mt. Pinos, also in southern Los Padres, is also mostly un-forested until the very top.)
Oil wells - even from the air you can appreciate a strange network of roads, not unlike the one near Culver City in LA, just MUCH bigger. There must be thousands of pumpjacks, but I can't explain what geology dictates oil in this area. Driving into them, you feel as if the Borg have already assimilated Earth. Plus there are funny names for roads. (Forgive quality, taken with cell phone camera in 2005.)
Those "Congress-Created Dust Bowl" signs - are apparently a bit of an astro-turf campaign by a group called Families Protecting the Valley. The water game in California is painfully zero-sum, and it's usually the conservationists and fishermen on one side, and farmers/ranchers on the other.
An extinct lake - Tulare Lake (above) is hardly the only dried up lake in California, but it was a big one, the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi; its western shore would have been at Kettleman City. Waters have been diverted due to agriculture. I don't know what they're growing in the lakebed now but the satellite images look different from the crops around it. Rice maybe?
The James Dean crash site - at the intersection of 41 and 46 (go west from Lost Hills or Kettleman City. He wasn't speeding at the time and the accident was not his fault but he probably wouldn't want you to know that. Tiny Parkfield, famous for earthquakes (it sits on top of where the Hayward and Calaveras Faults branch from the San Andreas) is north of there. Also years ago, somewhere on 41 or 46, I found a metal-looking dollar hanging by the road, much like the one described in Galt's Gulch in Atlas Shrugged. Could this be the secret valley of the Objectivists?
San Benito Mountain - the peak you notice to the west when you're passing by the Panoche Road exit is ~4,500' San Benito, naturally loaded with mercury, asbestos, and serpentine stone which in places keeps plants from growing, and keeps hikers away in the summer when the dust blows. (By the way, great example of 'natural' being toxic.) I've never been to the top and can't say it's super-high on my remaining list. From the pictures I've seen, it looks like a dry inland hill with some trees.
Harris Ranch Steakhouse - off exit 334, Route 198/Dorris Avenue (the same exit as San Benito Mountain depending how you get there), this place unsurprisingly has good steak and an interior that makes you feel like you're in the old California.
Coalinga - Used to be Coaling Station A on a rail line (thank goodness Coaling Station B didn't turn into a town or we English-speakers would've had a phonetic crisis). Demonstrating the cultural divide between coastal CA and the Central Valley, I once heard "in the wild" the phrase might could, restricted to the intermontane West (as in "you might could try the store down the street"). Famous for its horny toads (the ones that shoot blood from their eyes, yes they're seriously that metal), although I've only ever seen one in the Trabuco Unit of Cleveland National Forest (below).
Sadly, this one was just hanging out and not being metal, i.e. no blood shooting from the eyes.
He got a disappointed call from Gene Simmons later that day.
(To the east) Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks - hopefully no need to mention these. I plan to spend some time in the national forests in the Sierras between these as well.
Pacheco Pass - the people that lived in the southern part of Central Valley before the Spanish (that is, south of the Delta) were Yokuts-speakers. Pacheco Pass (now Route 152 connecting 101 and 5 between Los Banos and Gilroy) was a trade route between Chumash and Yokuts speakers, and later a route for Yokuts to come from the Valley and attack Spanish ranches closer to the coast. Hence the ranch built at the base of the pass being called Sentinel Ranch (Rancho Sentinela), which Anglo settlers misheard as "Santa Nella". Come on guys, look it up! There ain't no Saint Nella (if there were, she would have been patron saint of truck stops). Today, going up the 152 will get you to tourist trap extraordinaire Casa de Frutas, and also the wild and empty southern entrance of the gigantic Henry Coe State Park. And finally, the Butterfield Stage Route came from Yuma, through the Imperial Valley's desert, up the Central Valley, and crossed the Diablo Range here.
Butterfield Stage Route
The Delta - seals have come as far inland as Stockton, and whales have swum almost to Sacramento twice. This is oddly fascinating. (Ever read Dr. Seuss's McElligot's Pool?) I like the Delta because during the summer it feels like the East Coast - water warm enough to swim in, air hot enough that you want to, surrounded by flat marshy estuaries and un-pretentious bar and grill restaurants. If you've never taken a Delta boat trip you ought to.
Sacramento - on one hand, you'd expect the capital of the biggest richest state in the U.S. to be a little more intense, but it has some interesting aspects to it as well. It actually feels like a "normal" American city (tree-lined suburban houses that most people can actually buy, a couple nice rivers, four seasons) but has a lot of great history and the restaurants you'd expect the politicians would demand. Sutter's Fort is here (the southern extent of his New Helvetia).
The Siskiyou Trail - this native route connecting the Delta to Portland was blazed by people along its length (from Chinook speakers to Maidu and Yokuts) and then opened to whites by the British Hudson Bay Company when the whole northwest from the Yukon through Oregon were jointly administered by the U.S. and Britain.
Sutter Buttes - the world's smallest mountain range. Obvious to the east from near the 5-505 junction or especially from their if you're landing at Sacto International. The whole thing is still privately owned although arrangements have been made to preserve them, as both the government and the landowners want this. (I have been to them twice and in the "valley" inside the ring of mountains with a conservation group that does tours. They're really cool.) For years I argued that they should be counted as the southernmost Cascade, and now some geologists agree (no doubt due to my research and forceful rhetoric) but their conspicuous circularity is puzzling. They are in fact almost due east of both Mt. Konocti and the Mendocino Triple Junction.
Sutter Buttes from the ground.
Sutter Buttes from the air.
Rice fields - Yes, the northern Central Valley grows lots of brown rice, apparently very good for sake. It's also very good for bugs, and if you drive through here in the evenings during the summer make sure your windshield wiper fluid is topped off.
Mendocino National Forest - these are the mountains to your west when you're headed up the valley north of Sacramento. (You can't really see them clearly to your east when you're headed up 101.) They have a reputation for having a dense mountain lion population. I've been there once, but thought other than being really really remote and isolated, there wasn't a lot to write home about. Imagine a steeper, drier Marin County. That said, the highest flow spring I've ever seen is there (cold).
Williams - the town itself is a small Central Valley town, but here you will find Granzella's Italian restaurant, which has the best beer selection you will find between San Francisco and Portland.
Red Bluff - the turn-off for Mt. Lassen, coming from the south. (Mt. Lassen is the best national park in CA you've never been to.) Diners right at the exit from the 5.
Redding - A long pedestrian suspension bridge, and peaks named "Bohem [something]" (Bohem means mountain in the Wintu language, the last native speaker of which died 11 years ago - language extinction doesn't just happen in New Guinea). To the east of Redding and Red Bluff you'll find Susanville, which is right in the gap between the north end of the Sierras, and the south end of the Cascades. In summer you can swim in the nice big lakes around Redding. But after that you're out of the Central Valley and into the Cascades.