In our family of die-hard Dodger fans, Fourth of July means baseball and fireworks. But this year we skipped the hometown team in favor of the Bakersfield Blaze. The Seattle Mariners' single-A advanced minor league team plays in a rare west-facing stadium (think bright sunshine in the batter's eyes), so games start as the sun sets and the breeze kicks up. Sam Lynn Ballpark (4009 Chester Ave., Bakersfield; www.milb.com) is a cozy, older stadium and an all-American venue in which to cheer on the local team with 3,500 other fans. Remaining home games are Aug.12-18 and 23-28. On this trip, instead of dashing past on Highway 99, we peeked inside a city that began as Col. Baker's Field (Col. Thomas Baker was "known for his friendliness toward travelers, letting them graze horses in his pasture," explains a display at the Kern County Museum) and has a rich history of oil-drilling, as well as a surprising number of inviting open spaces along the Kern River, plus canals, nearby lakes and springs. The tab: We spent $122 a night, excluding taxes and fees, for a one-bedroom suite, $80 for restaurants and groceries, and $60 for tickets, admission fees and donations.
Our roomy one-bedroom suite at the centrally located Homewood Suites by Hilton [1505 Mill Rock Way, Bakersfield; (661) 664-0400, www.lat.ms/homewoodbakersfield] had a sitting area and kitchenette; a generous breakfast was included. It's adjacent to the Marketplace shopping center and Cal State Bakersfield, with the Kern River Parkway trail nearby.
The popular Johnny Garlic's hit home [9000 Ming Ave., Bakersfield, (661) 665-1860, www.johnnygarlics.com] with eclectic offerings (smoked bison tri-tip, lava-rock-shrimp street tacos and focaccia) and big-screen baseball playing above the bar. We stopped by Buck Owens' Crystal Palace for the well-advertised "Dwight Yoakam's Baby Back Ribs" but were too early for chow or the live music and dancing.
Oil, a major area lifeblood, is everywhere, from pump jacks to pipelines to storage tanks. At the Kern County Museum's Black Gold exhibit, [3801 Chester Ave., Bakersfield; (661) 437-3330, www.kcmuseum.org] we got a thorough briefing on the colorful industry's history and its current very productive status. History of another sort is on view at the 90,000-plus-acre Wildlands Conservancy's Wind Wolves Preserve just outside town [16019 Maricopa Highway, Bakersfield; (661) 858-1115, lat.ms/windwolves]. You can hike, bike and picnic (plus you can take bus rides up and down San Emigdio Canyon most weekends), so visitors can see the land as explorer John C. Frémont might have in the 1850s. Along a dry trail surrounded by golden hills, we came across green spots fed by underground springs as well as expansive views of the crop-rich valley below. We didn't glimpse the reintroduced tule elk, but a confident coyote supervised our stroll in the lower canyon.
The lesson learned
Bakersfield, population 369,505, gets a bad rap. It may be hot in the summer, but we found people at any number of outdoor spots, including Lake Ming, along the Kern River Parkway trail or at sunset on the bluffs at Panorama Park.