California 99 is easy to overlook as a route to San Francisco and points north. It's not as scenic as the coastal highway or as fast as Interstate 5, and it has more than its share of cows and dirt pastures. Yet it also offers many things its north-south counterparts don't — easy access to small towns with quiet parks, unusual museums and food you'd be hard-pressed to find in L.A. There's also a sentimental element: In John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," the Joad family traveled this road.
My husband, John, and I drove California 99 again in early spring on a jaunt to Sacramento, and this time we were bolder. With our two young sons in tow, we followed billboard signs to bug museums and pistachio farms, sampled orange-blossom honey and chipotle-laced cheese and toured a massive military aircraft museum. Once again, the old road urged us to slow down and look around a bit.
We weren't able to visit all of our desired destinations along 99 — weekday-only hours were against us at Sun-Maid Raisins and Sciabica olive oil in Modesto and the Antique Farm Equipment Museum in Tulare — but the places we did see didn't disappoint; here are some favorite discoveries between Bakersfield and Modesto.
Bugs, beef and bombers
The Insect Lore Bugseum in Shafter appears like a huge green mirage a mile or so off California 99. The building is the headquarters of a small toy company and doubles as a gift shop, but it was the cool science experiments on display that made this stop a highlight. Started by local entomologist Carlos White, Insect Lore breeds Monarch butterflies and ladybugs, ants and other insects and ships them all over the world. Visitors to Shafter get to see the bug metamorphoses in action, along with displays of hissing cockroaches, Egyptian scarab beetles and other rare insects.
By the time we left Shafter, it was time for a snack. Bravo Farms in Traver was the most touristy of our stops, but it yielded one of the tastiest sandwiches I've had in years: grilled marinated tri-tip with onions and peppers on a soft onion roll. The boys loved the Knott's Berry Farm-like jumble of ramshackle rooms, climb-able milk trucks and a five-story tree house that proved more entertaining than a portable DVD player. A bar with a pool table looked like a fine place to settle in and watch the parade of travelers passing through town.
Other nonchain food options on California 99 can be found in Kingsburg, a hamlet settled by Swedes in the 1870s and home to Sun-Maid's enormous dried-fruit packing facility. Kingsburg's main street is full of half-timbered architecture and anchored by a water tower shaped like an antique coffee pot. By the time we rolled through early Saturday afternoon, though, most of the restaurants and stores were closed, including the well-regarded Dala Horse restaurant.
There were greater signs of life at the Castle Air Museum up the road in Atwater. A former Air Force base, it is now home to dozens of painstakingly restored military aircraft, including a B-25 bomber with a life-size drawing of a semi-clad Lazy Daisy Mae on the side, and the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the world's fastest flier. We walked the entire 20 acres, awed by the size and quantity of the 54 planes and happy to have the opportunity to stretch our legs before getting in the car again.
Cheese and honey tastings
Isolated agricultural towns dominate California 99 between Fresno and Modesto, but that doesn't mean a lack of options for curious travelers. The cozy tasting room of Beekman & Beekman Honey Farm in Hughson welcomed us with samples of floral-infused honey and wine amid dried lavender displays and old family photos and farm tools. At the Buchanan Hollow Nut Co. in Le Grand, owner Sharleen Robson gave us a free tour "out back" of her 30-year-old farm, which includes organic pistachio, cherry, olive and almond trees. If there are kids involved and she has time, she might even lead you a half-mile to the duck pond. The gift shop, which doubles as an office, sells bulk items fresh off the trees (almonds are $3.50 a pound).
After these family-run farm operations, we weren't prepared for the big, modern Hilmar Cheese Co. just south of Turlock. With photo-op fountains and a gift shop the size of a downtown L.A. loft, the place seemed to be made for weddings and tour buses, though it did have its charm. The upstairs area takes a serious look at the history of California's dairy production, and picture windows overlook the processing facility, where 1.9 million pounds of cheese are made daily. Downstairs, fresh white cheese curds are available for sampling, and there's a gourmet prepared-foods counter that rivals those at Whole Foods.
If Hilmar reminded us of life in L.A., Mooney Grove Park in Visalia dropped us right back into the Central Valley's role as a turn-of-the-century agricultural hub. Huge old oak trees surround the 155-acre preserve's lovely but faded landmarks: low bridges stretching across a murky lagoon, cowboy statues, deserted docks and a museum complex with rusty farm equipment and replicas of a 19th century school and blacksmith shop. Even the plastic-free playground seemed of another era.
On our way back to L.A. a few days later, we paid our final respects to the highway's farming roots at Sal's original Mexican restaurant in Selma. Hidden in a residential neighborhood a stone's throw from the exit, the cheerful room was crowded with locals enjoying chile verde pork and "fancy" burritos beneath gorgeous murals of farm scenes. The original owner, Sal Salazar, worked in the nearby peach orchards before opening the restaurant in 1942.
Our young server nodded without surprise at the news that we had a long drive ahead of us after dinner. "We're in the middle of nowhere," she said with a braces-filled smile. "But we're good."