California Back Roads

Guest Contributor Steve McCarthy

It’s Road Trip Time. This is a great time to set up that summer Drive that you, and maybe a few friends, also who have neat cars, want to take to set out for the backroads.

The one I have planned here is a Three Day Trek, some of which I've written about before, some is new, and all of it is a challenging quest to find, (drum roll here): The Center of the Earth. Or at least, the California Road Trip Earth. To be more specific, the EXACT Geographical Center of the Golden State.

First, it’s not where you’d guess. I’m betting that most folks, when asked to point on a map where the center of California is would put it somewhere around the stockyards in Kettleman City. Nope. Now remember, our Great State isn’t like Colorado or Kansas. It’s not a nice neat rectangle. That would be too boring. California is kinda boomarang shaped, taking most of it’s eastern boundary from the vaguaries of Mother Nature. The Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Colorado River do most of the defining and mountains and rivers don’t run in nice neat straight N/S/E/W lines. So, our border bends somewhere around Tahoe, then again near Needles.

Now I can’t say what Genius of Geography and Geometry figured this out, but the actual Center of California is in the southern Sierras, not far from Sequoia. Huh. Who’d a thunk it? Now, a few years ago, we described a trip through the Gold Country, and yeah, this one mirrors some of that, but there’s a few twists. Like going by way of Ojai and Morro Bay. Wha? Ya ask? Well, several people wondered aloud to me if a great drive could be made using both the coast and the Sierras. I took up the challenge and here it is.

Day One will take us from up near Magic Mountain at a neat little eatery called “Eggs n Things”, over 126, up to Ojai, then the challenge of Wheeler Ridge. The 166 will take us towards the coast and give a couple of great lunch opportunities. One is Jockos, the great steak house in Nipomo, the other is the Rock ‘n’ Roll Diner in Oceano.

This is one of those times that a little local knowledge is a good thing. Bikers, it seems have discovered Jockos, and on a weekend, it’s JAMMED for lunch. I’m not saying anything against Bikers. Great folk. But count on the place being pretty crowded. If you have a group, you might want to head to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Diner in Oceano. This is a neat place that I’ve also talked about before. It’s in two old railroad passenger cars just off of Hwy 1 near Pismo. Great place with pretty good Santa MAria Style Tri-Tip. Hell, can’t go to wrong with that!

From there, we’ll head along the coast and up over See Canyon. This has a bit of dirt road, but it’s well maintained and even the my TR3 doesn’t object. From there, you’ll hit Morro Bay (where, if you wanted to hold off for lunch, Taco Temple is a great place, and head back east.

Over CA 41, past the James Dean Memorial, up and over to the great Central Valley and through the fields to Visalia. Yeah, I said Visalia. This is a good jump off spot and the Old Town has acquired several decent eateries and even a brew pub. It’s a good place to spend the night, lots of decent motels for good prices.

A couple of other notes about Visalia: the Brewbakers brew pub in Visalia is pretty good, but my steak was REALLY tough, esp. for the price, and Bravo Farms was good, but overpriced, pretensious and they slapped an automatic 18% gratuity on our table of 6. If we’d sat at seperate tables, no such charge! I told the poor waiter that if those are the rules, then he’d been cheated. I WOULD have given him more, but...Rules are Rules! I’d honestly give this place a miss, it’s just not worth the money.

Out of Visalia, there are a huge number of options. When we did the “Gold in Them Thar Hills” about five years ago, we went all the way up to Jackson in the heart of the Gold Country, and used Hwy. 49 for a lot of it. That on it’s own is a great drive, but there are also a bunch of side roads that make this whole area great Road Trip territory.

The one thing you have to keep in mind is time of year. Many of these secondary roads are closed in the winter. They don’t want to spend the money to plow them. That dough is better spent keeping the main roads in the southern Sierras open as much as possible. Most should be open by May, but it’s always a good idea to check first, especially after a wet winter. It’s also worth noting that even in the spring, a snow storm CAN hit. Keeping an eye on the weather is an important idea. In the summer, these mountains can also get surprisingly hot, and the hill climbing and heat can challenge an Auld Crate’s cooling system. Make sure your’s is up to snuff!

The key to this whole drive is located on a little back road called “Italian Bar Road.” I need to do some research on how it got it’s name. Was there a bar for Italians? Were Italians barred from crossing further south or north? Some kind of 19th century Pale? Who knows. Anyway, it’s on this road that you will find the exact geographical center of California. Now you know. Don’t all jump up and cheer at once, you’ll wake the kids.

The better part of this bit of esoterica is that just up the road, near a little mountain town called North Fork, is a great barbeque spot, called the Buckhorn Saloon & Restaurant
(32992 Road 222 North Fork, CA 93643-- ). This place is a classic mountain resort with lots of dead heads on the wall (and no, I don’t mean Jerry Garcia, I mean moose and deer, and such.). The menu has the usual suspects, and the burgers are big and juicy. It’s one of those classic bits of Mountain Americana that shouldn’t be missed.

From there, it’s more back country to Oakhurst, where you’ll find the least outrageous gas prices, then, by the usual indirect route, back to your digs in Visalia. It’s actually not that grueling day in the saddle, but the fresh mountain air and the scenery are spectacular. In April and May, there should be plenty of wildflowers and flowering trees to liven up the backdrop of evergreens. What more could you ask for?

Now, when we actually did this drive, we learned some important lessons about this area. Like, in the Sequoia/Sierra Foothills, GPS, Googlemaps, Real Maps and Reality have no real relationship! And to make things even better, it seems like a) every other road is named “Auberry Rd” and b) the locals seem to think it’s GREAT fun to turn street signs 90 degrees. I kid you not! We all discovered this the hard way. Just note, IF you do this drive, just head to North Fork what ever way you can. You’ll get a good meal at the Buckhorn, then, head back to Visalia however you can.

The Day Three Drive takes me back to my old bus driving days, and adds some new roads that are FANTASTIC! Yokohl Valley Road is freaking SPECTACULAR!!! It nay be my new Favorite Road! It certainly ranks up there! Following that is the Dreaded Road to Quaker Meadows. Constant readers will remember that I drove charter buses in my callow youth, and one run made a Man out of you. Quaker Meadows. It’s all the way at the top of Hwy 190 out of Porterville and has some hellacious hairpins that in a bus...well, lets just say you were a REAL driver if you made them in one cut.

At the top is a neat little place called the Pierpoint Springs Resort. We weren’t ready to eat again, but DAMN, did breakfast smell good there! Past there, WAY past there is a crossroads with another intriguing eatery, the Tapatio Cafe. It’s where Hot Springs Road and Old Stage Road meet. Good place to take a pee break. The place was empty, but it smelled good. Out side, E. Clampus Vitus has erected a monument to the most successful horse rustler in California history, Peg Leg Smith, “El Cojo”. It’s a great story and thank God for the Clampers for keeping the REAL history alive.

From there, it’s off to Woody, then the edge of Bakersfield and up to Tehachapi, Lunch at a new place called Red House BBQ or the old standby, the Village Grill. From there it’s an easy drive home over Angeles Crest. I was tempted to call this drive the Jerry Dunphy Memorial Jaunt, because in the words of that legendary LA newscaster, we went “from the Mountains, to the Deserts, to the Sea, and to All of Southern California.”

Steve McCarthy is the editor and main contributor to The Ace Magazine visit his site for the complete turn by turn directions for this road trip so you can take it yourself!