What to do in Fresno on a Highway 99 road trip in California
Located along Highway 99 in the Central Valley, Fresno doesn’t immediately grab you as a place worth spending much more than a night. But appearances can be deceiving. There are quite a few historical, cultural and culinary gems waiting to be explored in California’s fifth-largest city. Read on to know what to do in Fresno.
Driving up California’s Highway 99 isn’t always the most attractive with seemingly desolate towns shimmering in summer heat or bathed in winter ground fog. This is something I know really well, having grown up in Fresno smack in the middle of the Golden State. Yes, I couldn’t wait to leave for college, but in the years since, I’ve discovered some great reasons for a visit to Fresno.
When traveling through California, Fresno offers a beacon along never-ending Highway 99. Don’t be misled by the rather bleak appearance from the highway, though. There are a few secrets worth your time, so do exit and explore to discover some traveler’s gems in Central California. Plus, for fans of ethnic food and culture, Fresno remains one of the largest Armenian communities outside of Armenia, meaning plentiful Mediterranean food and culture. Yes, I am Armenian and, yes, I know which places the Armenians went to get their yummies!
One time of year I always enjoyed driving along Highway 99 to Fresno or on its backroads was late winter to spring when expanses of almond and fruit trees burst into bloom. Get ready for OMG moments when you’ll want to park (safely) take some photos (do respect private property).
As a Fresno native, here is my summary of just a few Fresno travel highlights for your next Highway 99 California road trip:
What to do in Fresno for history and culture
Forestiere Underground Gardens is a pure oddity right off Highway 99 in Fresno that every traveler needs to take the time to see. Yes, it is an underground home and garden built by an Italian immigrant starting in the early 1900s to help him escape the summer heat and winter chill. A guided tour will explain the history and wind you through a labyrinth of caverns and rooms.
Armenian culture / Blessing of the Grapes. The San Joaquin Valley town in the late 1800s became a magnet for those immigrating from Armenia, partly because of the farming and climate. With so many Armenians still living in the Fresno area, there are of course many churches, food festivals, and cultural events – any event must have food! A highlight is the annual Blessing of the Grapes ceremony and picnic held by two different churches in August on consecutive weekends – not to be missed if you are passing through Fresno on a California road trip.
Armenian history. If you have a deeper interest in learning more about Armenian history as well as its roots in Fresno, you can visit the non-profit Armenian Museum of Fresno established in 2003. There you can learn more about author William Saroyan (see below), as well as find information about a number of area tours you can take on your own, including those focused on for example culture, monuments, or even Saroyan himself.
For the literary-minded, Pulitzer Prize- and Oscar-winning author William Saroyan was born in Fresno and lived there half the year as an adult. His house was transformed into a gallery, museum, and research center called the Saroyan House Museum in 2018. Book in advance to visit the home.
Fresno history. Fresno began in 1872 as a station for the Central Pacific Railroad, but of late it’s known more for its agriculture. Raisins were allegedly discovered (by accident!) there during the hot summer of 1875, and since have become a mainstay of the area and its growth. Take the time to visit the Fresno County Historical Museum, opened in 2015 on the fairgrounds, but you must either book in advance or visit during the Fresno Fair in October. It is a tight, well-curated, entertaining lesson in the city and county, its agricultural legacy, the founding fathers, athletics, its Armenian history, plus there is a collection of iconic neon signs.
For more history, on a corner in downtown Fresno is the Meux Home Museum, a Victorian home built in the late 1800s and now a museum and garden. Take a walking tour to see Victorian architecture and artwork. Check its calendar for any special events.
Go to Central California for blossoms and a rodeo
The Fresno County Blossom Trail is just what it says – a beautiful drive along roads lined with blossoming almond and fruit trees. The blossoms start coming out in February most years and will continue into the early spring. You can download a map at the Fresno County Tourist information website. The driving tour can be followed at other times of the year to explore the area’s rich agricultural heritage.
Clovis, a sister city to Fresno in the county, has deep Western roots and hosts one of the top rodeos in California that is also part of the pro circuit. Usually held in April, the Clovis Rodeo is a great, family-friendly destination on an upcoming California road trip.
You’ll love the food scene in Fresno
Armenian food. Fresno is a mecca for great Armenian food and baked goods. There is still a large population of Armenians – meaning a good number of restaurants and cafes. Tops among Armenians themselves are George’s Shish Kebab Bar & Grill and AJ’s Armenian Cuisine. Shops and bakeries to buy home-made food and bread to go include Bread Basket Bakery on East Ashlan Avenue, Nina’s Bakery on North West Avenue (marvelous, no website), and Valley Lavosh Baking Company, operating in the same downtown spot since 1922. Trust me, my relatives always insisted on going to one of the above.
San Joaquin Valley agricultural bounty. Fresno is known as the “breadbasket of California,” although its almonds, grapes and other fruits and agricultural products actually end up all around the world. I recall as a kid walking the vineyard rows with my dad checking on grapes drying on paper the old-fashioned way. With this heritage, it’s no surprise that California State University, Fresno, has a renowned agricultural and wine program. You can purchase some of the goodies students produce, from raisins and other dried fruits to ice cream and wine, by stopping into the Gibson Farm Market on the university campus. A great place to stock up for the rest of your California road trip! I was so impressed with the student-staffed and -run store where they learn business, customer service and marketing. You can also taste the wine and, if you are confused by all the varieties of raisins, ask if they have some open you can taste. You will be stunned at the different flavors that go way beyond the little packaged stuff available in a grocery store.
Enjoy the outdoors in Fresno
Fresno is the gateway to several national parks, which is where you may be headed on your road trip in California. From Fresno, you will have access to Yosemite (need we say more), Kings Canyon (home to the nation’s third-largest tree, the General Grant Tree), and Sequoia (home to the largest living tree on earth, the General Sherman Tree). As a kid, I remember camping trips and even “Sunday drives” to one of these parks to gawk at the giant Sequoias. A great cool place to head on a warm summer day for hiking.
In Fresno itself, you will find Woodward Regional Park, with its rolling hills, trails and lakes, as well as covered picnic shelters and summer concerts. You can follow the main paved trail north onto the San Joaquin River Parkway along the Lewis S. Eaton trail and onto several other loop trails. The non-profit trust running the parkway continues to expand the current six-mile trail, with the goal to take it another approximately eight miles to Friant Dam and Millerton Lake, a popular boating and recreation area. The Eaton path is well-developed and even has drinking fountains for thirsty walkers, cyclists and runners — a boon in warm weather!
We are planning to explore more of Fresno County and the Central Valley area on a series of our own California road trips! To find out more about other sights, seasonal events, restaurants, farmers’ markets, special events, museums and concerts, go to the Visit Fresno County tourist information website. If your California Road trip takes you farther along the Central Valley, take a look at Visit Central Valley with tourism association members from Bakersfield to Sacramento.
Other things to do not too far from Fresno
- Liberty Cemetery: A California ghost town burial ground
- Plan a trip to California Gold Country: A Gold Rush road trip
- Apple Hill: Yummy visit promised in Northern California foothills
- Modesto Almond Blossom Cruise a California road trip delight
Just for fun, you may also enjoy reading about Michael’s hike with President Bush (yes, he really did) in Sequoia National Park.
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