This might sound a bit strange coming from someone who is passionate about Yosemite, lives for Death Valley, and sees the Golden Gate Bridge as the perfect marriage of man and nature but the most iconic vista in California is just east of Bakersfield.
I never tire of seeing the abrupt rise of the Sierra from the valley floor as the lower Kern River Canyon makes a dramatic “V” with a patchwork or orange groves and barren ground as I crest Highway 178 on the edge of Bakersfield heading east toward Walker Pass.
It’s a stunning and vivid scene of the raw forces of land and civilization clashing.
It might have a bit to do with the fact Kern County in 2017 was the most productive county in the nation for farm products. It might have to do with the power of nature given the waters of the “Killer Kern” have claimed 280 plus lives of those foolish enough to get into its unsuspecting waters without proper life vests since 1968. A sign at the mouth of the Kern River Canyon keeps tabs of the running total.
Bakersfield is indeed a powerful place where the endless bobbing of oil well pumps reminds you that California is the third largest state for oil production.
It’s a place where the walls of the Sierra rise abruptly to provide a stunning visual backdrop to the skyline of California’s ninth largest city.
For the past 35 plus years I’ve made it a point to stop in Bakersfield to take in its offerings on my annual pilgrimage to Death Valley. It’s not a place to simply fuel up both car and stomach. Bakersfield is the quintessential Central Valley city from its low-key yet teeming attractions to the breadth of nature in its backyard.
It goes without saying that this is the home of the Bakersfield Sound made famous by native sons Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Its claim as the Country Music Capital of the West Coast is re-enforced by the endless musical offerings of the 550-seat nightclub, museum, and restaurant that Buck Owens built and dubbed “The Crystal Palace.” The venue where Garth Brooks proposed to Trisha Yearwood on stage in 2005 is in itself well worth the trip.
Bakersfield is more than just country music. It has staged a jazz festival since 1986 and is the birthplace of Korn, an alternative metal band.
For a real unique experience, several Manteca couples have ventured to The Crystal Palace using Amtrak out of Modesto. It afforded them a different view of the San Joaquin Valley than you get from either Highway 99 or Interstate 5. The overnight trip included a hotel stay. They relied on Uber with a driver that gave them extra insight to places to eat and visit that are tucked away including a shoe repair place that is housed in a building that looks like a giant shoe.
Bakersfield is also a place where food is king whether it is raising it or enjoying it. While restaurants abound, the main culinary attraction in Bakersfield is its abundance of Basque restaurants. The only place you will find more is in the Pyrenees Mountains. Among the venues are Noriega’s, Pyrenees, Chalet Basque, Woolgrowers, Narducci’s, and Benji’s to name a few.
If a dining experience is what you want, staying overnight in Bakersfield and savoring Basque cuisine can easily be combined with low-key sightseeing. The emerging arts and culture district on downtown that features theaters, state houses, murals, galleries, sculptures and other static art can be combined with a drive toward the Sierra or Tehachapi Mountains to take in seemingly endless spring wildflowers, enjoy the downtown linear park with several lakes that is dubbed Mill Creek where you will also find the Bakersfield Museum of Art, or explore the 6,000 acre nature preserve known as the Kern River Parkway.
I’d be lying, though, if I didn’t admit the biggest draw for me is the short drive from downtown Bakersfield when you pass through the mouth of the Kern River Canyon.
Within an hour of Bakersfield you are in an outdoor paradise that displays the pedigree of the Southern Sierra like nowhere else.
Lake Isabella, a 580,000-acre-foot reservoir at 2,500 feet that dominates the idyllic Kern River Valley that’s 14 miles long and 10 miles wide, is a popular destination. But to be honest the lake is a mere drop in the bucket compared to what the surrounding Sequoia National Forest lands offer. There is extensive hiking, mountain biking and rock climbing opportunities as well as fly fishing and such. Winter offers snow skiing and snowshoeing while spring brings some of the most accessible and best white water rafting around as well as boating.
My favorite hike is a 9.4-mile excursion that takes you from a mile north of the Forest Service’s Havilah Station to Brown Meadow. Along the way as you climb from 3,000 to 9,400 feet you cross creeks, hike past oaks, brush, and pine trees. It is an entirely different experience than making a hike that covers the same elevation in the 209 portion of the Sierra. The wildflowers on this route are reportedly abundant at the lower and middle elevations in the spring. And while there weren’t any during a trip I made in June, the scenery is still more than worth the trip.
Then there is the 8.5 mile trail that parallels the Kern River from Highway 178 and Delonegha Road that ends in Keyesville. Hiking all of a portion pats dividends in calming your soul or rewarding your eyes — and camera lenses — with an abundance of scenic wonders. Mid-March through April often offers massive wildflowers.
The Kern River Valley also is where you will find Silver City, a ghost town with 21 historic structures. When you first visit it you may have the feeling you've been there before. That's because it's been featured in movies, TV shows, music videos, commercials, and The History Channel.
There are plenty of camping options. I prefer base hiking, though, which means finding a small hotel and then travel to and from trailheads. In the case of the Kern River Valley, however, I forgo funding a local spot in favor of a stay in nearby Bakersfield so I can combine ventures into nature with more civilized offerings in the evening.
Bakersfield is a vibrant city having grown 55 percent to 388,000 from 2000 to 2017 and has the offerings that reflect that fact.
For more information go to visitbakersfield.com.