Once well-known as the major stop between Los Angeles and Stockton on the Butterfield Stage route, the oldest city in the San Joaquin Valley was later bypassed by the railroad and major freeways.
Nowadays, Visalians are happy they were off the beaten track and able to preserve some small-town flavor. Visitors will especially enjoy a tour of the vintage tree-shaded neighborhoods and historic Mooney Grove Park.
For travelers on California 99, it’s a relaxing detour just five miles east of the freeway. As the gateway to Sequoia National Park, Visalia also is a pleasant stop before ascending the Sierra Nevada mountains.
The town began in 1852 as a stockade built by settlers to protect themselves from the Yokuts Indians. Ft. Visalia was named by one of the pioneers, Nathaniel Vise, after Visalia, Ky., which had been named for his family.
All traces of the fort and most early structures are gone, but two walking tours show off various Visalia homes built between 1878 and 1936. Pamphlets guide you past Queen Anne Victorians, Craftsman-like bungalows and many other styles of architecture.
A Sidewalk Stroll
The tours cover about a dozen blocks and include 49 homes. Figure 90 minutes to stroll along the shady sidewalks.
The brochures, Heritage Tour 1 and 2, feature buildings in the Visalia Historic District that were established a decade ago. Free copies are available from the convention and visitors bureau, 720 W. Mineral King Ave. Phone (209) 734-5876.
Even without the tour guides you can make a four-block circle of the heritage homes by going north on Encina Street, west on Grove Street, south on Willis Street and east on Race Street. Turn south on Locust Street to view another block of houses from the 1890s.
Only one of the homes is open to the public. Do not trespass or disturb occupants at the others.
At the corner of Grove and Encina streets you can spend the night in an 88-year-old house that Peggy and Wayne Davidson renovated as a bed-and-breakfast inn. The owner of a lumber company, W. R. Spalding, built the home in Colonial Revival style at the turn of the century.
Curl Up With a Book
Guests can choose between three upstairs rooms, including the Aviary Suite, which originally featured a built-in bird cage. All accommodations have sitting rooms and private, modern baths. Also, guests can curl up in the library with a selection of 1,500 books, or listen to music from a 1923 Steinway player piano.
Rooms at the Spalding House are $85 a night, including a full breakfast. Call (209) 739-7877 for reservations.
Some of Visalia’s old buildings have been reborn as restaurants. Popular is the Depot, a 1914 railway station near the center of town at 217 E. Oak St. Just opposite, in the old jail, is Las Fajitas, a Mexican restaurant.
Two blocks away at 417 E. Oak St., another early building is home to neighboring Chinese eateries, Lum Lum’s and Hong Kong. The decor is Victorian at one of Visalia’s top dining spots, Vintage Press, at 216 N. Willis St.
To reach the heart of Visalia from Los Angeles, drive north on Interstate 5 to join California 99, then exit east on California 198, a boulevard-cum-freeway that continues toward Sequoia National Park. Take the Central Visalia/California 63 North exit and turn left onto one-way Court Street.
If you continue east on the freeway frontage street, Noble Avenue, look for a small sign at No. 2519, Moore Miniature Roses/Sequoia Nursery, a major grower of the small flowers.
Grounds and Greenhouses
Its owner, Ralph Moore, started hybridizing more than 50 years ago and holds more patents on roses that anyone else in the business. Eighty varieties of miniature roses are grown at the unassuming nursery that covers five acres.
You can wander through the grounds and greenhouses between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. daily. Rose plants in three-inch pots cost $4.25. Call (209) 732-0190 for more information.
More than flowers, Visalia is best known for its valley oak trees. A forest of the majestic oaks that covered the area in pioneer times is gone, but some were saved when a county park was created in 1909.
Mooney Grove Park covers 155 acres and offers protection to the valley oaks as well as to eight historic structures that faced destruction.
A mini-village has been created, including a 130-year-old log cabin, an 1890 one-room school, a furnished ranch house from the turn of the century and the Visalia jail of 1872.
There’s also an old library that houses early printing equipment and a blacksmith shop with a display of branding irons. The museum building is filled with Indian and pioneer memorabilia, plus a potpourri of items from a foot-powered dentist’s drill to a 1915 V-8 Cadillac.
The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m except Tuesday and Wednesday. Admission 50 cents. Park hours are 8 .m. to 5 p.m.; closed Tuesday and Wednesday. Hour are longer in spring and summer. After March 26 there’s an entry fee of $1.50 per car.
A Day in the Park
Mooney Grove Park is three miles south of California 198 on Mooney Boulevard (California 63). Look for a bronze sculpture of an Indian on a horse called “End of the Trail.” The original 1915 plaster artwork is at the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.
Visalia’s major hotel is off California 99, the Holiday Inn Plaza Park, at the Plaza Drive exit. It has a swimming pool, a whirlpool spa, a putting green and a shuffleboard court.
Sunday champagne brunch overlooking the pool costs $9.95 and is available from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. A feature of the Brass Elephant restaurant is its appetizer and salad bar with 30 items.
Double room rates begin at $76. Call (209) 651-5000 or toll-free (800) 821-1127 in California for reservations.
Contact the Visalia Convention and Visitors Bureau for a complete list of lodgings and restaurants, (209) 734-5876.
Round trip from Los Angeles to Visalia is 370 miles.