Modesto Almond Blossom Cruise a California road trip delight
Expanses of almond orchards blooming in Modesto make for the perfect California road trip in the Central Valley. Time it just right on a February-March almond blossom cruise for a sensory overload of white and pink almond blossoms, buzzing bees, and the most intoxicating scent you can imagine.
There are few sights quite so overwhelming as seeing miles of almond blossoms stretching endlessly into the horizon – pink and white meeting the blue skies above and the green grass below. Every year, typically between mid-February and mid-March, the California Central Valley’s 1.5 million acres of orchards burst into bloom, making it the perfect time to plan a road trip to Modesto and Stanislaus County to experience the Almond Blossom Cruise.
With its now-formalized tour of almond blossom orchards and farm stands, Modesto is inviting anyone to take a California road trip to enjoy the county and its wealth of orchards, blossoms, fruit, trails, history and farms.
“Produce does not come from the grocery store,” said Todd Aaronson, CEO of the Modesto tourist office. “There’s a lot going on in this region that people don’t know about.”
Having grown up down the valley in Fresno, Therese was familiar with the breathtaking plethora of blossoms that lines the freeway on drives through the area in late winter. However, did she plan a visit to Modesto to see more of them? Hadn’t really crossed her mind since even her opinion was clouded by the Modesto Highway 99 views of shopping centers and strip malls.
Michael, on the other hand, had passed by small orchards with almond blossoms on his travels, but had never seen anything quite like this. The first time he saw thousands of almond trees in full bloom, lining either side of the road as far as the eye could see, he was quite overwhelmed – he even had to pull over to the side of the road and compose himself.
While seeing the almond blossoms will affect everyone differently, taking the Almond Blossom Cruise is an emotional experience that will not soon be forgotten by anyone. And it certainly casts Modesto in an unexpected way for those who have not yet been here or taken the time to get off the highway and explore the country roads and byways.
“Don’t let the freeway color your opinion,” Aaronson noted, calling Modesto “a city of surprises.”
Modesto, city of surprises, county of blossoms
On this escape into Modesto, our focus was blossoms – finding as many and as much of them as we could. Oh, and we found them alright. Miles and miles of blossom-lined roads that left you wanting to just bounce up and down in unfettered glee, throw your head back, close your eyes, and inhale a scent that leaves you giddy — and then never stop snapping photos. The views are ever-changing depending on where you drive, what direction you head, and the direction of the sunlight based on the time of day. Head east and, on a clear day, the Sierra Nevada provides a fitting backdrop to white blossoms and rolling hills of farmlands lined with orchards. Check out the flatlands along the roads on the west side of Highway 99 to be engulfed in almond trees abloom on all sides. With a gust of wind, you’ll love the so-called “valley snow,” i.e., the layer of white petals dropping from the trees and covering the ground.
Almonds are in fact the king of crops not only for California but also for the United States, although they were not brought here until the mid-1700s by Spanish missionaries. Today, California supplies 80 percent of the almonds the world consumes. They are California’s top agriculture export and are the largest specialty crop export from the United States. Stanislaus (Modesto is the county seat), along with the counties of Fresno, Kern, Merced and Madera, grow 72 percent of all U.S. almonds, according to a 2020 report by the Almond Board of California. In other words, aside from gorgeous blooms that leave you dumbstruck in late winter, the industry is worth nearly $6 billion and adds nearly 100,000 jobs in the Central Valley of California.
That’s not peanuts, er, almonds.
Taking in the Almond Blossom Cruise in Modesto
Depending on where you stop on your road trip to smell the blossoms and take in the views, or if you plan to go for a hike, or go shopping at farm stands, you could spend a couple of hours or a couple of days enjoying the almond blossom tour in Modesto.
The Visit Modesto team has plotted a west Almond Blossom Cruise route, which also includes some of the downtown areas east of Highway 99, as well as an east route, which leads you into the rolling green hills and past other historic points in the countryside. No matter which one you select (and you can certainly do both!) – or if you take some of the suggested side roads, as we did – you will experience the practically heart-stopping sights and smells of almond blossoms stretching for miles.
The west route is at a slightly lower elevation, a bit warmer and, since it is flatter, potentially more vulnerable to winds that knock off blossoms. This area could be better earlier in the blossom trail season. Nevertheless, in late February, we found trees in full bloom in some orchards, right next to other orchards with trees that were already leafing out. Microclimates are quite different in the area.
The east route of the drive has more rolling hills and winding roads, meaning you will need to pay particular attention to driving safety. Plus, the far eastern reaches of the mapped route take you through rolling, oak-studded, sometimes rocky countryside sans orchards. Take this route if you want more of a country drive in addition to blossom beauty — and if you are comfortable on curvy, narrower roads.
Don’t miss the side roads on the Modesto blossom trail
Although the “official” map east of Highway 99 takes you on state routes 108, 120 and 132, we would highly suggest getting off those larger roads where possible. Our recommendation is to head north on McHenry Avenue from 108, go east on East River Road, and follow that until it turns into Rodden Road (the Stanislaus River will be on your right). It then turns into Orange Blossom Road, which becomes East Sonora Road that drops into the historic burg of Knights Ferry. All along this route you will, guaranteed, find yourself stopping for photos and views. If an orchard in the distance catches your eye, then head that way, too. There is no fast-and-firm route, just suggestions.
For a return to town on the eastern route, there are several options we recommend as an alternative on your California road trip:
- If you do the entire loop as suggested by Modesto, you will cover about 120 miles from downtown and back, go up to an elevation of nearly 1,700 feet in the foothills. And you will need three hours … without stops.
- You can also from Keystone (on 120 on the north) or La Grange (on 132 on the south), cut the drive down to about 90 miles and closer to two hours (again, not counting stops) by cutting across on LaGrange Road, which will also go through rolling rock-studded hills.
- Another option is to cut down the loop a little more by cutting between Knights Ferry and Roberts Ferry on Willms Road / Crabtree Road. The section north of Warnerville on Willms Road also turns into rolling hills sans blossoms and is more winding. If you are not comfortable with that, you can also go north a short distance on Crabtree Road near Roberts Ferry and then return to 132. That drops the drive to about 70 miles and a little less than two hours.
- Yet another option for a much shorter eastern loop that is focused on blossoms and remains in the flat valley is to cut across between 132 and 120 on Albers Road (from the north on 120 it intersects at Oakdale). Starting and ending in downtown, this loop is about 35 miles and only about an hour drive time. However, Knights Ferry, one of the key historic sights (see our list below), is not on this short loop. If you just add an out-and-back to Knights Ferry on your Almond Blossom Cruise, the route becomes closer to 60 miles and about 90 minutes.
The west side area is much smaller in scope, so you really can simply circle, backtrack and crisscross as much as you’d like to take in your fill of almond blossoms. We highly suggest including Shoemake Avenue.
Key sights along your Almond Blossom drive
Other than all the things that Modesto has to offer on your California road trip, there are a few noteworthy or historic sights you should not miss:
Town of Knights Ferry (east loop, north side)
Founded in 1848 by Dr. William Knight, the historic town boasts a population of 100, give or take a few. It is a perfect spot to take a break on your almond blossom tour to grab a meal, snack, beverage, or ice cream. Be sure to stop into the general store, there since 1852!
Knights Ferry Covered Bridge and Recreation Area (east loop, north side)
Located just east of the town of Knights Ferry is a beautiful area for hiking, picnicking or exploring the Knights Ferry Covered Bridge. There are several designated parking areas that are fee-based ($5 day use per car at the time of this story). From the parking areas on either side of the Stanislaus River, there is an easy 1.5-mile hiking trail that will take you past historic buildings and across the 330-foot-long wooden covered bridge. Interested in a longer hike? Go farther up the river. The bridge is the longest covered bridge west of the Mississippi River.
Roberts Ferry Covered Bridge (east loop, south side)
On the southern leg of the eastern loop of the Almond Blossom Cruise — and a short distance from the Roberts Ferry fruit stand — is another covered bridge. Unlike the Knights Ferry Bridge, this one is still in use by vehicles and has been since 1865. It was, at one time, the principle crossing point over the Tuolumne River on the old Stockton-Mariposa Road.
Wood Colony Walnut tree (west side)
At 104 years old, this tree is thought to be the oldest and largest living walnut tree in the state of California. It is over 100 feet tall! You can see it and take a photo, of course, at the corner of Dakota and North avenues, west of Highway 99 in Modesto. Indeed, it dominates the area.
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