The 404-mile leg of Interstate 5 between the Bay Area and Los Angeles is widely used and abused by speeding motorists who complain that the route is unbearably dull. But this unglamorous highway, which was completed in 1979 and cuts through the state's breadbasket, only looks like an endless stretch of crops and cow pastures. There is actually reason to slow down and enjoy the ride.
In addition to roadside fruit stands and greasy-spoon truck stops, you'll find man-made wonders (the California Aqueduct snakes along the interstate the entire way) and natural highlights like the Tule Elk Reserve, just three miles west of I-5 near Buttonwillow. The bull elk lock antlers for mating rights in late summer and early autumn.
Zipping past Coalinga, try counting the head of cattle at Harris Ranch. Better yet, drive into town and stop at the R.C. Baker Memorial Museum to look at the tusks of a mastodon whose fossilized remains are on display along with Native American artifacts and old farm equipment. The former mining town gets its name from coal. Santa Nella is better known for a stronger energy source: pea soup from Andersen's restaurant. A bowl ($6.95 for all you can eat) will keep you going southbound until you get to the Grape-vine, where the the morning fog can grow as thick as the soup itself.
Beware the high winds on the Tejon Pass, but don't worry about the guys with guns at Fort Tejon State Historic Park. They're doing Civil War reenactments. The Korean War Memorial, farther north in the San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery, pays tribute to the 2,496 Californians who died in that conflict.
The speed limit on I-5 is 70 miles per hour, which means you can get from San Francisco to La-La Land in under six hours. But what's the rush? Like a lot in life, the trip goes by faster than you'd think.
Where it is: Starting 65 miles east of San Francisco, I-5 runs south through the Central Valley.
Who will like it: Truckers, history buffs, and day-trippers in need of a break.
When to go: Anytime is fine, but the drive is nicest in the spring (before the summer heat) and fall (before the winter rains and tule fog).
Illustration by Michael Klein
This article was first published in January 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.