Jewels in the rough — Bakersfield, Calif.
California vacations evoke thoughts of Pacific Ocean beaches, glittery Hollywood, artsy San Francisco, wine country and mountain playgrounds.
Less likely for tourists, are stops through the San Joaquin Valley, the dusty mecca of agriculture and energy.
But amid almond groves and oil fields is one of California’s largest cities with a love for music, food and the outdoors.
There are wonderful experiences to be had when visiting or even just passing through — Bakersfield lies on the path from Paso Robles to Las Vegas — there are several family-friendly spots you’ll want to experience.
- Bakersfield is in the southern end of the valley with mountain ranges on three sides. Near the eastern foothills is the California Living Museum, or CALM aka Bakersfield’s zoo.
CALM is a bit special. Rather than your typical Lions and Tigers and Bears (oh my) the zoo exhibits California’s native plants and animals, from eagles and porcupines to black bears and bobcats.
If you visit in December, you may want to go twice — once in the morning, and then again in the evening to see the impressive holiday lights display. Some 2 million lights twinkle throughout the park. This is a real treat to kick up the holiday spirit and support the zoo’s mission.
- Hart Park is nearby, and you can enjoy a picnic lunch along the Kern River, walk or bike along the park’s trails, and make your way over to the lake.
- If you’re a country music fan, or just an all-round music appreciator, you may want to swing through Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace. It’s a concert hall, museum of Owens memorabilia and restaurant. I’ve never been. I can’t speak to the food or atmosphere. But it’s a mainstay of Bakersfield entertainment and you may want to go just to say you went.
- Head out of Bakersfield up Highway 178 east through Kern Canyon and (if you don’t get too car sick on switch back roads) you will be impressed by the pounding Kern River as it carves its way through the mountain carrying snow melt from the Sierra Nevada mountain range. There are a few places to stop and take in views, camp or dip your toes in when the road is river-level. It’s a popular place for white water rafting, kayaking and camping. You will notice warning signs for the dangers of the river. More than 260 people have drowned in the river since 1968. So swim at your own risk.
- Head to Kernville, just outside the mouth of the canyon, and treat yourself to a blue cheese burger or a local brew at the Kern River Brewing Co. Then head up the road a bit farther for some breathtaking hiking trails.
With Bakersfield’s desert temperatures, it’s almost always great weather for ice cream. OK, who am I kidding? Any weather is perfect weather for ice cream. No trip to Bakersfield would be complete without stopping at Dewar’s old fashioned soda fountain and candy shop.
I recommend the older, downtown location for the best atmosphere. But there are three locations so there’s no excuse. Sidle up to the counter and pick your poison. There are way too many options, small and really, really big, to list here. Just bring your sweet tooth. Enjoy the ice cream in the shop and leave with a box (or three) of their famous chews. Keep their web site on hand, too, because once you’ve been properly hooked, you can order the candies online and have them shipped home.
Breakfast or Lunch – 24th Street Café (A menu of everything) You may have a wait on the weekends, but once you’re in, you’ll understand why. They serve up generous portions of really good food in a fun, old town diner atmosphere. If you’re a carnivore, try the Tri-tip. I’d never heard of this cut of beef until I lived in Bakersfield. Apparently it’s a cut from the bottom sirloin and popular mainly in California’s central coast and central valleys. It’s often served with salsa and it’s delicious. The restaurant serves beer and wine, so you can sip a mimosa with your egg benedict.
Dinner – Mama Roomba’s (Caribbean) I’m addicted to their sweet potato fries and mojitos, although there are any number of wonderful dinners there. I’ve never been disappointed. The restaurant is small and cozy with colorful Caribbean art to make you feel, for a moment, that you’ve left the dusty city behind.
Bakersfield also has a wealth of Basque restaurants, according to some, the largest collection of the type of food known for its grilled meats and seafoods in the United States.
Bakersfield has its own style of music. The Bakersfield Sound, as it’s known, is similar to country music and made popular by Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. It’s twangy and makes heavy use of the slide of the steel and electric guitars.
Bakersfield is home to members of the 1990s metal band, Korn.
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