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Any seasoned cross-country cruiser knows that sometimes, the highway is the best route. Sure, the back roads are awesome, but the interstate is quick and efficient, and can have as many cool hidden gems as a route further off the beaten path. In California, if you're looking to get from the south half of the state to the north (or the reverse) as effortlessly as possible, I-5 is the way to go. It starts in San Diego near the border and zips north to the Oregon state line, running through the center of the state. It highlights a unique side of California once it veers off from the coast around LA, and it's an interesting drive on its own, with plenty to see and do.
Yreka is a perfect example of a cute little Northern California town. Learn all about the history that makes this area so special at the Siskiyou County Museum. You'll find a bounty of information on local indigenous tribes, trappers and miners, early Chinese immigrants, and pioneers who settled in this paradise. Among the displays are a recreated general store and pioneer kitchen, as well as artifacts and photos. The museum also has an outdoor display of historical mining and logging equipment, along with historical buildings. A stop here is a great way to stretch your legs before hitting the road again.
You can see the signature rock formations of Castle Crags State Park from the highway, but take the time to visit the park itself: The 170-million-year old, 6000-foot tall granite spires are worth more than a passing glance. The park has 28 miles of hiking trails, so you can take a quick stroll out to Vista Point, or a longer hike on Crags Trail. The Sacramento River flows through the park, offering fishing opportunities, and Castle Crags has a really nice campground as well. The park is at the edge of the Crags Wilderness area, so it has a lovely, untouched feel.
Lake Shasta Caverns is one of the more adventurous and mystical stops along I-5. The ancient caves (which are 200 million years old) are now a National Natural Landmark, and touring them requires a scenic boat ride and then a bus trip to the cave's entrance. From there, you get to explore the various rooms in the cavern. Admire striking cave formations like cave coral, helictites, stalactites and stalagmites, cave drapery and flowstone as you wander through the passageways. Be on the lookout for the name and date of the first recorded explorer, James A. Richardson. He wrote on the wall using carbide from his miner's lamp on November 11, 1878, and it's still clearly visible in the Discovery Room. You'll also learn about the Native American history here, which predates Richardson's discovery.
Grab a bite to eat after a long day of driving at the I-5 Cafe and Creamery. It’s open from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m. for any of your early morning or late evening cravings, and has a big menu. You'll find all-day breakfast, steaks, salads, burgers, wraps, and more. And make sure to save room for dessert. The Cafe and Creamery features an ice cream shoppe with sundaes and milkshakes. Watch for daily deals and specials, like free dessert on Tuesdays or ‘kids eat free’ on Mondays.
Another great local museum on the route is the Sacramento Valley Museum. Located in a hundred-year-old former high school building, it tells and interprets the history of the Sacramento Valley through mid-19th to mid-20th century artifacts, textiles, and documents and more. You'll learn about fashion, medicine, industry, home life, and tons more through the ages as you peruse the exhibits. Pro tip: Make sure to leave time to browse the old books for sale in the basement. They're a total bargain at $1 apiece.
For a more in-depth look at one important aspect of California's history, check out the Heidrick Ag History Center. You don't have to know a ton about farming to appreciate the massive, world-class collection of tractors, harvesters, horse-pulled vehicles, "kid-hack" buses, farming equipment, and more. Dozens of restored machines from the 1910s through the 1950s are on display. The center also has a really fascinating exhibit on the tomato-growing industry in California, complete with a tomato-red UC-Blackwelder #104 harvester. All in all, it's a great look at what life in rural California looked like back in the day.
The crown jewel of the city of Lodi is Micke Grove Park. It's not hard to spend a full day exploring here, since the park contains tons to see and do. There's the Micke Grove Zoo, home to snow leopards, bobcats, marmosets, tamarins, and more; the three-acre Wortley Lake, with its 40-foot water fountain; a beautifully landscaped and incredibly detailed Japanese Garden featuring cherry trees, a pagoda, a tea house and a koi pond; the San Joaquin County Historical Museum, made up of four historic buildings to explore; and Fun Town at Micke Grove, a theme park with carnival rides, treats, and more. Whether you just stop at one attraction, or visit as many as you can, this beloved park has something for everyone.
Take a break and enjoy the scenery at the San Luis Reservoir State Recreation Area. There's a visitor center with tons of information and telescopes for enjoying the views if you just need a quick break. Or spend more time here and cool off at North Beach, the only designated swim area. There are also options if you're hoping to rent a boat, jet ski, canoe, or paddleboard. Book these online in advance if you're able, especially during the summer. If you're looking to spend the night, there are four campgrounds in the Recreation Area as well.
Another spot where you can appreciate the natural beauty and wildlife in the area is the Kern National Wildlife Refuge. If you look closely, you might spot coyotes, lizards, snakes, and of course, tons of birds, as the wetland habitat is ideal for waterfowl. While the refuge is mostly for hunters, there's a 6-mile gravel auto tour scenic route that makes for a good break from the endless ribbon of highway. There are a few parking lots along the way with trails. Note that the auto tour road closes on Wednesdays and Saturdays between October and January for waterfowl hunting during the season.
Fort Tejon State Historic Park gives visitors the chance to step back in time and experience life on the California frontier. The 1850s and 1860s were an interesting time in California history, and you'll get to explore restored adobes from a real-life former army fort. Talk to costumed interpreters, including servants, cooks, officers, carpenters, blacksmiths, laundresses, and more, and watch as they show how everyday life looked at Fort Tejon. You'll find plenty of artifacts displayed around the barracks, officers' quarters, and jail. There's always something going on here: games, demonstrations, holiday events, or living history performances. Add in a gorgeous setting with 400-year-old oaks, and you've got a fun, memorable afternoon stop.
If you've only got time for one stop in Los Angeles, make it Griffith Observatory. During the day, the free museum offers a look at the history of the gorgeous old building and park and a nice overview of the science of astronomy. At night, the big telescope is turned on for visitors to use, and smaller (but still powerful) telescopes are set up around the observatory. For even more space-themed fun, you can buy a ticket to a show in the planetarium. And make sure to admire the views of the city and the Hollywood sign from the various viewpoints around the building. The park where the observatory is located has plenty of hiking, an abandoned zoo, and much more to see and do. Plus, the observatory will scratch any itches you might have for Hollywood history: Countless TV shows and movies have been filmed here, including (and most famously) Rebel Without a Cause starring James Dean.
The Bowers Museum of Cultural Art is an incredible celebration of cultures from across time and space, through collections of artifacts ranging from works of art to everyday objects. West African masks, Native American beadwork, jewelry from Japan and China, paintings from America, and antique furniture are all among the objects you might find while exploring the museum. There's also a lovely courtyard with a restaurant where you can relax after admiring the displays. Bowers has a great calendar of traveling and rotating exhibits, as well as screenings, talks, workshops, and concerts, so it's worth coming back to visit time and time again.
I-5 ends in southern San Diego. Take a moment to reflect on the changing landscapes you've seen at the Tijuana River Regional Park. It's a huge, 1,800-acre park with lots to offer. There are trails through the forest and scrub for hiking, biking, or horseback riding. The Bird and Butterfly Garden is a popular attraction, as it's filled with plants that attract winged creatures of all sorts. Other features include a sports complex and community garden. And soon, a campground with tent, RV, and equestrian sites as well as yurts will open in the southern end of the park, only a mile from the Pacific Ocean.
Driving across California, even on the highway, is a dauntingly long trip. Every true road warrior and cross-country cruiser knows the importance of stopping often to explore, relax, and enjoy the attractions and landscapes along the route. Side trips, detours, and unplanned adventures make long road trips into unforgettable adventures, and make great stories to tell after the trip has ended.
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