The 1875 Italianate Merced County Courthouse is now a museum.
Highway 1, with its quaint seaside towns and ravishing views, may be California's prettiest road. And big, faceless I-5 is certainly its fastest. But there is no road more thoroughly alive—more colorful, vigorous, unpretentious, and underappreciated—than the southern stretch of Highway 99 as it bisects the Central Valley from Modesto on down to Bakersfield.
The route marked out in the early 1900s along this corridor was initially paved with a single 15-foot-wide strip of concrete. As the region's farm economy burgeoned, the little road grew to link big cities with small, isolated agricultural towns like Hughson, Le Grand, Tulare, Selma, and Hilmar. In John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, it is on 99 that the fictional Joads travel, as did so many real-life Dust Bowl migrants looking for work in the fields. Today, hardly a nectarine, cotton boll, or walnut exits the Central Valley without being ferried up or down 99.
But the road has never ranked high on sightseers' agendas. Most people who drive 99 these days do it because they have to—truck drivers delivering goods, people visiting relatives. As Joan Didion wrote in "Notes from a Native Daughter" 36 years ago, "99 would never get a tourist to Big Sur or San Simeon, never get him to the California he came to see."
This may be the key to its charm. Driving along 99 today, you'll find a vibrant, unfussy, authentic California, a fitfully lovely landscape of almond orchards, mangy farmyards, rusty train works, peach trees, Depression-era hamburger stands, and Dairy Queens from more recent days. The highway passes some of the state's fastest-growing towns; with their handsome old Main Streets and messy, sprawling outskirts, they offer a rich array of attractions. In Atwater, you can visit a world-class air museum. Fresno boasts not only a terrific zoo but the wonderful Forestiere Underground Gardens and a handful of top-notch restaurants, including the Chez Panisse-inspired Echo. The country-western scene in Bakersfield, home of Hee Haw veteran Buck Owens, is legendary. You'll find great, eccentric places to visit—a honeybee farm, a clock collection, antique shops, a 1903 opera house, and a cheese factory—in even the tiniest towns strung along 99.
Photography by Olivier Laude
This article was first published in March 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.