Bakersfield! No one goes to Bakersfield for vacation! Well, I do, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s been paying attention — it’s an interesting place, a great example of some aspects of California’s geography, industry, and society that most tourists either never see at all or just pass on by while going to Disneyland or somewhere else like Yosemite.
Bakersfield and the surrounding region are probably most interesting to the casual visitor for three things: Oil, Country music (think Bakersfield Sound, with Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, at least, but Bob Wills also makes an appearance, as do hundreds of other lesser names), and Big Agriculture. All three of them are pervasive in the region, but I’m going to concentrate here on the oil and the physical landscape (because that’s what most intrigues me as someone who once briefly worked in an oil refinery).
No, it’s definitely not for everyone — and especially not for people who’ll go there to condescend to or sneer at the people and places — but if you’re in the area and you can spare a day, and you’re not expecting lush sylvan landscapes, lots of hipster food places, and progressive liberal politics, you might enjoy the experience a lot. It’s Another California — one that has more in common with Texas in many ways than with a lot of the rest of the state.
Note: it can get very hot in Bakersfield in summer, so be prepared.
Where It Is & How To Get There
Bakersfield is at the southern end of California’s Central Valley, a little over 100 miles north of Los Angeles:
Bakersfield is easy to get to. From the SF Bay Area, get on Interstate 5 South and take State Route 58 east at exit 257; follow SR 58 all the way to Bakersfield. Alternatively, get onto State Route 99 south and get off at Bakersfield (it goes right through Bakersfield).
From LA, take Interstate 5 north, and take Highway 99 north to Bakersfield from I-5 exit 221.
These activities are based on the sorts of things I like doing; your tastes will vary, so take these with a (large) pinch of salt. And as always, treat them as just starting points — there’s a lot more to do in and around Bakersfield than I can possibly cover here (for example, if you’ve got the time, drive up to Lake Isabella for a few hours, or drive across the Tehachapis and through the large wind farms there (e.g. the Alta Wind Energy Center) on the way to the town of Mojave (take Tehachapi Willow Springs Road from East Tehachapi Boulevard off SR 58 (turning left on Oak Creek Road) and see what happens…), or visit the town of Weedpatch, etc.), and my own tastes are heavily skewed to just driving and walking around (after all, this is part of the California Driving Guide…).
Note also that oil production is dependent on the economy and seasonal factors, and there may be times when the pumpjacks (those nodding-donkey oil pumps that help define Bakersfield) are mostly stationary and not much seems to be going on in the oilfields.
Short Drives: Chester Avenue, China Grade Loop, A View of Oildale, and More
Some suggestions for destinations and short drives in and around Bakersfield:
- Panorama Park — this park sits on the bluffs overlooking the Kern River (see below), and gives you great views of the Kern River oilfield across the way (see image to the right). It’s also, of course, a pleasant place in its own right, but hey, the sight of all those pumpjacks toiling away on the dry slopes in the middle distance is worth the price of admission (free!) on its own.
- Chester Avenue — Bakersfield’s main drag, approximately. Start at either end and just drive — all the way to Oildale and back, or whatever. You’ll see a lot of different Bakersfields here, is all I’ll say…
- China Grade Loop and Round Mountain Road — these roads will take you through the local oilfields themselves as well as (in the case of Round Mountain Road) through some beautifully golden-brown rolling hills and low mountains. I filmed a significant amount of both the “Drive-by: Oilfield” (below) and “Pumpjack” videos on these two roads.
- On the way to China Grade Loop or Round Mountain Road, you might (or might not — it’s not to everyone’s taste, to put it mildly…) want to visit the Old Corral for a drink or some food or music — and to learn a bit about the Indian On The Circle, a statue that’s been intriguing me and other passers-by for fifteen or more years now.
A Kern River Walk
The Kern river goes through Bakersfield. Note I didn’t say “flows” through Bakersfield — for most of the time, the river downstream of about Chester Avenue is dry due to damming and diversion upstream. You can walk along the Kern, or on it (when it’s dry!); in either case, you’ll get a good feel for Bakersfield as a working city. There are pumpjacks right next to the path; railroad tracks, locomotives, freight cars, etc., close by (and even overhead when you go under the bridges…); paved and marked paths along the river banks (but you can also traverse the dry river bed yourself or do probably-illegal side excursions exploring this-or-that next to the paths); and some nice riverside parks with shade and places to rest or eat that picnic lunch or BBQ.
I usually start at Beach Park next to the river east of Highway 99 and walk along the south bank for as far as I can, passing under the bridges where possible, and returning on the north bank, but anything’s possible…. The walk is pretty safe for all the length of the marked and paved sections, but (again…) it gets hot around here, and there’s not a lot of shade.
A Pumpjack Drive
State Route 33
State Route 33 (SR33) from about Blackwell’s Corner south to about Maricopa is a classic two-lane blacktop that goes through a sometimes other-worldly oilfield landscape of pumpjacks, tubing, weird machines and trucks, and bone-dry desert. Sometimes the pumps and tubing seem to stretch for miles in each direction, glinting and moving slowly up and down everywhere as far as the eye can see. I love it, but it’s not for everyone. And note that this drive isn’t in or even particularly near Bakersfield itself, but if you’re in the area and like surreal industrial landscapes, and have a morning or afternoon to spare (longer if you end up taking as many photos and videos as I always do…), do it!
To get some idea of what you’ll see, take a look at my “Drive-by: Oilfield” video below, made from a slow-moving car on SR33 and other similar roads a few years ago:
I usually start and / or end this drive at Blackwell’s Corner (SR 33 and SR 46), a destination in its own right — it’s basically where James Dean was killed, and the gas station there on the corner has become a sort of unofficial memorial to him, with a cheerily cheezy gift shop, etc. I’m not much of a James Dean fan, but, if nothing else, it’s one of those “I’ve been there and you haven’t!” places a bit off the usual tourist track. Getting there from Bakersfield (or anywhere else, really) should be “obvious”.
From that point on, just keep driving up (or down) SR 33 all the way to either Taft or Maricopa. You can stop at a bunch of places along the highway to get a closer look at the pumpjacks, etc., but be aware that the entire area is patrolled by oil company security guards, few of whom like you taking photos, so don’t be too obvious about it, and remember that nearly all the land on either side of the highway is privately-owned. The town of Taft is worth exploring — it’s in many ways Ground Zero for California’s oil industry — and will give you a good idea of what life in the oilfields is like for many.
The Bakersfield Sound
Sadly, I’m not a lot of use here — while I know quite a bit about the music and personalities, I don’t have a lot of experience with it on the ground in Bakersfield itself.
You can visit Merle Haggard’s childhood home, now relocated from Oildale to the Kern County Museum and part of the Bakersfield Sound exhibition there (I missed seeing it at the original site by about a month, dammit). You could always visit Buck Owens’s Crystal Palace just off Highway 99 at Highway 58, but I haven’t been there — ironically, it always seemed so Nashville to me from the outside and from what I heard about it (but I’m probably wrong about that).
And there’s probably a bunch of places on or off Chester Avenue in both Bakersfield and Oildale that put on a good Country show, but, again, I’m no expert on all that.