Pull into these pit stops along one of the Central Valley's main arteries and discover a bounty of rich history, unusual dining, and one-of-a-kind exhibits.
Take the Central Modesto exit east. The McHenry Mansion, one of the finest restored Victorian houses in California, is furnished in period decor. 906 15th St., (209) 577-5344, www.mchenrymansion.org . The McHenry Museum recounts area history through exhibits that include an old schoolhouse, a dentist's office, and a five-and-dime store. 1402 I St., (209) 577-5366.The local A&W Drive-In Restaurant inspired American Graffiti, made by Modesto native George Lucas. Carhops on roller skates serve burgers and root beer floats. 1404 G St., (209) 522-7700.Galletto Ristorante complete with a bocce ball court and a romantic patio—offers fine northern Italian cuisine. 1101 J St., (209) 523-4500, www.galletto.biz . Follow Yosemite Boulevard five miles east to Nick Sciabica & Sons to sample their cold-pressed olive oils. 2150 Yosemite Blvd., (800) 551-9612, www.sciabica.com .
Exit Keyes Road and go east to Geer Road. Beekman & Beekman Honeybee Farm lets you taste honey and honey wines. 5236 Geer Rd., (209) 667-5812, www.beekmanandbeekman.com . Continue north to the Resendiz Fruit Barn for fresh fruits, vegetables, and home-baked pies. Enjoy the beautiful koi pond or visit chickens, goats, and pigs at the barnyard zoo. 4342 Geer Rd., (209) 883-0100.
Take the Keyes Road exit west to Ragtime Automated Music. Ken Caulkins's fantastic musical contraptions employ guitars, accordions, banjos, and drums. Factory tours by appointment only. 4218 Jessup Rd., (209) 667-5525, www.ragtimewest.com .
Exit Fulkerth Road and drive east to Blaker Antique Auto and Clock Collection, two warehouses and one shop full of restored antique clocks plus 75 cars—including an 1899 Baldwin steam car and a 1983 DeLorean. Tours by appointment only. 1301 Fulkerth Rd., (209) 634-4931. Wellington's Restaurant & British Pub serves upscale pub grub in spiffed-up railroad cars at the historic Turlock Southern Pacific Railroad depot. 10 E. Main St., (209) 668-8729, www.wellingtonstation.com .
Take the Lander Avenue exit south to the Hilmar Cheese Company, the world's largest single-site cheese plant. Watch cheese being made or check out the deli. 9001 North Lander Ave., (800) 577-5772, www.hilmarcheese.com .
Exit Buhach Road to the Castle Air Museum, where you can view more than 40 restored military aircraft dating from World War II to the present, from the famous B-17 Flying Fortress to the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane. The Castle Cafe's Bomber Burger alone is worth the stop. 5050 Santa Fe Dr., (209) 723-2182, www.elite.net/castle-air . Nearby, the Castle Science & Technology Center boasts hands-on science exhibits including a Tornado Machine. Groups can schedule simulated space missions at the adjoining Challenger Learning Center. 3460 Challenger Way, (209) 726-0296, www.challengersjv.org .
Take Martin Luther King Jr. Way and travel north. Turn left on Main Street to downtown. The Merced County Courthouse Museum depicts the rich history of Merced and contains a re-created Chinese temple and Yokuts Indian artifacts. 21st and N streets, (209) 723-2401, www.mercedmuseum.org . Take G Street east to Yosemite Avenue to Lake Yosemite, a 450-acre body of water with facilities for picnicking, swimming, fishing, and boating. (209) 385-7426. From downtown, take Martin Luther King Jr. Way south 10 miles to Sandy Mush Road. Turn right and drive eight miles to the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. A 5.2-mile auto tour gives you a chance to see birds such as lesser sandhill cranes. (209) 826-3508, sanluis.fws.gov/merced_info.htm .
Exit Le Grand Road east to Bright's Pioneer Exhibit, a collection of antique tractors and farm equipment. See an 1872 Aveling and Porter steam tractor from England and also the infamous school bus from the 1976 Chowchilla kidnapping. 5246 S. Plainsburg Rd., (209) 389-4511. Or take Le Grand to Minturn Road and the Buchanan Hollow Nut Company, where you can tour the organic pistachio and almond farm and packaging
facility. 6510 Minturn Rd., (800) 532-1500, www.bhnc.com .
Exit Robertson Boulevard and travel three miles east to Berenda Reservoir. Open June through Labor Day, the park is ideal for shaded picnics and quick dips. (559) 665-8640. West on Robertson Boulevard, four first-rate antique shops line a two-block stretch. Continue west for one mile and turn left on Road 15 to Aermotor Windmills. Owner Carmon Neff's amazing metal sculptures include towering dinosaurs and giant insects. 14371 Rd. 15, (559) 665-3379.
You can't miss the Mammoth Orange Drive-In—it's the large orange ball sitting alongside the highway. At one time, there were nearly 50 of these burger and fresh-squeezed juice joints along Highway 99, but today only one remains. Try a tasty "Alaska-sized" hamburger and an orange shake. 22507 S. Hwy. 99, (559) 665-2955.
Take Highway 145 south to the Vineyard Restaurant, one of the top dining spots in the Central Valley. 605 S. I St., (559) 674-0923, www.vineyardrestaurant.com .
Exit Manning Avenue and travel 12 miles east to Reedley, where the Mennonite Quilt Center sells quilts and exhibits private collections. The restored 1903 Reedley Opera House holds live performances on weekends and tours on weekdays. 1720 10th Street, (559) 638-1900. Try Uncle Harry's Classic Meals Restaurant for the shish kebab. 1201 G St., (559) 638-5170.
Exit on Second Street and head west, left on Wilson Street, and left on Park Street to Sal's Mexican Restaurant, one of the oldest eateries of its kind in the state. 2163 Park St., (559) 896-7257. Or exit Second Street and head east, left on McCall Avenue, to Dino's Bakery, famous for its raisin bread. 2430 McCall Ave., (559) 896-2042.
Exit on Mountain View Avenue for the Sun-Maid Growers Store, home of the world's biggest raisin box and raison d'être for all things raisin. 13525 S. Bethel Ave., (800) 786-6243, www.sunmaid.com . Or exit at Conejo Street to see the Coffee Pot Water Tower of Kingsburg's Swedish Village. The Dala Horse Restaurant serves crepelike pancakes with lingonberry sauce. 1531 Draper St., (559) 897-7762. The Svensk Butik gift store stocks Swedish clothing and goods. 1465 Draper St., (559) 897-5119.
Take Highway 198 east to the Central Visalia exit. Vintage Press is an upscale steak and seafood restaurant. 216 N. Willis St., (559) 733-3033. Brewbakers crafts some 30 types of beer, including pilsner and stout. 219 E. Main St., (559) 627-2739. Exit Highway 198 at Mooney Boulevard and drive south to Mooney Grove Park to see the powerful End of the Trail statue, originally shown at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. 27000 S. Mooney Blvd., (559) 733-6291. You'll also find the Tulare County Museum in the park. (559) 733-6616. Further down Highway 198, turn left on Road 182 to Kaweah Oaks Preserve for nature trails. 29979 Rd. 182, (559) 738-0211, www.sequoiariverlands.org .
Exit Tulare Avenue west to Aero Dogs, a hot dog stand inside a shiny cargo plane. 240 N. L St., (559) 685-1230. Or take Paige Avenue east to the Heritage Complex. Catch the film A Day in the Life of a California Farmer at the Agricultural Learning Center, or climb inside the cab of a massive tractor at the Farm Equipment Museum. 4500 S. Laspina St., (559) 688-1030, www.heritagecomplex.com .
Take Sierra Avenue west, drive six miles, and turn right on Road 88 to the Pixley National Wildlife Refuge. Stroll the 1.5-mile walking trail to an observation deck, where you may see sandhill cranes (through mid-March) and other waders as well as shorebirds, waterfowl, and birds of prey. (661) 725-2767, www.natureali.com .
Exit Lerdo Highway west and cool off in the Interactive Fountain at Central Avenue and James Street. At Giovanni's Italian Eatery, save room for the ultrarich peanut butter pizza. 130 Walker St., (661) 746-2000.
Photography by Olivier Laude
This article was first published in March 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.