It has been called California’s Main Street.
It splits from Interstate 5 some 90 miles south of Mt. Shasta – the state’s most imposing volcano – and reemerges with Interstate 5 at the base of the Grapevine that takes you over the Tehachapi Mountains and dumps you into the Southland.
Interstate 5 is all business. It is a sleek ribbon of asphalt and concrete that takes you through the mostly rural western edge of the Central Valley passing only through two big cities – Stockton and Sacramento – while occasionally passing through wide spots in the road such as Willows and Patterson.
Highway 99 is a 425-mile milk run taking you through places such as Red Bluff, Chico, Corning, Gridley, Live Oak, Los Molinos, Yuba City, East Nicolaus, Sacramento, Galt, Stockton, Manteca, Ripon, Salida, Modesto, Ceres, Turlock, Merced, Madera, Livingston, Kingsburg, Chowchilla, Fresno, Delano, Bakersfield, and a list of dozens of other towns and burgs.
It was one of California’s originally highways approved by voters in a bond election in 1910. The last asphalt was poured in 1920. A bond issue last decade – Proposition 1B – was part of a grandiose plan to elevate Highway 99 to virtual interstate status with major improvements including what was built along 14 miles from Stockton to Manteca where the freeway was widened to three lanes in each direction.
The Main Street moniker is as much a nod to it being the primary highway of commerce for California’s Heartland as much as it is the nation’s premier route for moving much of the county’s fruits, vegetables, and milk to market that is raised and produced virtually along every country road that runs east toward the Sierra or west toward the Costal Ranges.
A California many never associate with the Golden State
Traveling Highway 99 you see a California that few elsewhere associate with the Golden State. There are no golden sandy beaches, towering redwoods at the ocean’s edge, endless desert, Transamerica office tower, Malibu mansions, stunning glacier monoliths carved from ice, clanging cable cars, Hollywood Hills, or movie stars. People of fame have heralded from the Central Valley but they tend to be as gritty and practical as the land where they were born – Merle Haggard, Del Webb, and Randolph Mantooth, to name a few.
The journey southward starts in the heart of true Northern California – Red Bluff – just below a bend in the Sacramento River where Highway 99 is born in an eastern merge from the speedway known as Interstate 5. In the near distance, Mt. Shasta soars to 14,180 feet standing as a lone sentinel against the backdrop of the Cascades. The last eruption was in 1786 while its cousin that’s visible to the northeast – Mt. Lassen – last erupted in 1917.
Immediately after leaving Red Bluff you start passing orchards and fields. The entire 450-mile length of the Great Central Valley – just a few more miles longer than Highway 99 – is lined with farms, orchards, and endless pastures and even rice fields.
The valley – formally known as the Great Central Valley of California – is indeed great. It is the largest and most fertile valley on the planet.
The sediment remains of what was once a great island sea combined with sediment debris from the early building of the Sierra to the east — a relatively young mountain range in the scheme of things — created some of the world’s most fertile soil.
The mixture of Mediterranean climate combined with redirected and stored water via the largest waterworks ever built by man – the Central Valley Project, State Water Project, and California Aqueduct – made the Central Valley what it is today.
California's two longest rivers flow through the valley down to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and out into the San Francisco Bay. They are the mighty Sacramento River flowing from the north and the mellower San Joaquin River flowing from the south.
While almonds, peaches, rice fields, and cattle ranches dot the Sacramento Valley, it is in the San Joaquin Valley where agriculture flourishes like it never has anywhere else or in anytime in man’s history.
San Joaquin Valley puts 13 percent of USA’s food on the table
Almost 13 percent of all agricultural goods are produced here. Six of the nation’s biggest producing counties in terms of growing food can be found in the San Joaquin Valley. The region varies from a large concentration of family farms in the Northern San Joaquin Valley around Manteca, Stockton, Modesto, Turlock and Merced to large corporate undertakings of 40,000 acres plus such as Boswell in the western Southern San Joaquin Valley.
The farther south you drive, the more intense farming becomes.
Highway 99’s first big city is Chico. It is best known for California State University at Chico. The campus has a solid academic history and is a well thought of institution for educating teachers. But its lasting claim to fame was at one time being voted the No. 1 party school in the nation.
There is more to Chico than just Chico State. Among the big box retailers, chain stores, mom and pop businesses, and antique stores you will find the fingerprints of pioneer John Bidwell.
Bidwell was more than just the man that founded Chico. He was a close friend of California stalwarts such as John Sutter and John Muir. He was at the forefront of California’s first environmental movement to stop hydraulic mining for gold in the Sierra. He also was key promoter and biggest importer of the bane of suburban weekend warriors everywhere in the Golden State – Bermuda grass. He understood it could hold soil together and stop the erosion of levees and dust problems as well.
Chico among top 25 USA cities when it comes to having a large park
It is also in Chico you will find the third largest municipal park in California behind Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and Griffin Park in Los Angeles. At 3,750 acres Bidwell Park is a unique urban park and nature preserve. It is so vast it ranks among the top 25 largest parks in the nation.
Annie Bidwell – John Bidwell’s widow – donated much of the land to Chico for a park in 1910.
South from Chico the landscape for a while is almost devoid of many trees.
In the distance as freeway turns into highway several miles out of Chico you can see the Sutter Buttes — a small range of eroded volcanic lava domes that at their highest point reach 2,122 feet.
Near the Sutter Buttes is the 4,507-acre Colusa National Wildlife Refuge. The largest of five refuges in the area, it is one of the most important wintering spots on the Pacific Coast Flyway. It hosts every year more than 200,000 duck and 50,000 geese.
Driving through Gridley and Live Oak toward Yuba City you enter California’s peach bowl. Many orchards have been farmed there for more than a century by Sikh families.
The next stop of consequence is Sacramento – the valley’s largest city.
Highway 99 joins Interstate 5 near Sacramento International Airport and takes you past Old Sacramento – the largest restoration of a Gold Rush town and historic waterfront in the West. It is also home to the California State Railroad Museum – the largest of its kind in the Western Hemisphere.
Sacramento is also home to California’s Capitol. When a $70 million restoration project was completed in the 1970s it was acclaimed and panned as the most expensive project of its kind in the country. The opulent details of the 19th century were carefully brought back to life including using paint with real gold fakes to paint the dome.
Today $70 million wouldn’t even build half of a typical California high school campus.
Highway 99 jogs to the east on an elevated freeway before again heading south toward Elk Grove, Galt and ultimately Stockton.
Stockton often gets a bad rap as the Oakland of the Central Valley given its ills.
But when push comes to shove, what’s good about Stockton outweighs the bad by far.
It is the home of the oldest chartered university in California, the University of the Pacific having been founded in 1851. It also has all the trappings of a city of 310,000 plus with minor league sports teams, a symphony, and cultural endeavors.
It also has the most accessible waterfront in all of the Central Valley. The downtown renovation focuses on the water and the downtown marina along with Weber Point, where everything from concerts to free outdoor movies take place.
Stockton is also California’s “sunrise seaport” as there is no place farther east that ocean going vessels can navigate.
Stockton starts the 209 that brings you through home territory – Manteca, Ripon, Salida, Modesto, Ceres, and Turlock.
The next sizable city after Turlock is Merced. Besides being home to the newest University of California campus it is posed to be a major stop for California High Speed Rail. It is here where the bullet train will head west toward the Pacheco Pass. Plans call for at least heavy rail in the form of the Altamont Corridor Express to connect to take passengers toward Sacramento. Eventually high speed rail could head north out of Merced to Sacramento.
High speed rail is snail compared to SR71 found at Atwater Air Museum
But when it comes to speed, the high speed rail can’t hold a candle to what you will find next door in Atwater at the Castle Air Museum. Among the 60 restored military planes is the SR71 Blackbird. The spy plane’s speed was 2,350 miles per hour.
From Turlock south, the view from your car is an endless array of orchards, row crops, and trains. Vineyards start sneaking their way into the landscape as you near the Raisin Capital of the World, Fresno.
It is near Fresno where you will see Allensworth, a unique state park that was preserved as an historic black settlement.
Other surprises wait in Fresno, a city that often gets less respect than Rodney Dangerfield. It’s the home of the Fresno State Bulldogs, a team that has been nationally ranked and can fill stadiums.
The city’s size draws big names to fill its entertainment venues but at prices and ticket availability much easier to deal with than the Bay Area or Los Angeles.
Perhaps the most unique thing about Fresno is the Underground Gardens that you can tour. Sicilian immigrant Baldassare Forestiere created a subterranean network of over 100 niches, courtyards, patios, rooms, and passageways using native stone.
By the time most travelers reach Bakersfield they are happy to see the Tehachapi Mountains in their windshield.
In their eagerness to cross into the Los Angeles Basin they will overlook Bakersfield.
It is more than just a bustling city that boasts the highest per capita of fast food restaurants in the nation (yes, even higher than Manteca).
It is the home of the Bakersfield Sound made popular by such notables as Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and Willie Nelson. Bakersfield not only has a museum dedicated to the music genre and its stars that is impressive but it is also home to Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace just off Highway 99 that draws folks from 400 miles away for dinner and entertainment.