Check out the Central Valley city of Modesto for the almond blossom cruise, cool downtown murals and more
By J.C. Thomas
[Note: This post was originally published in March, 2021 and was updated in March, 2023. Due to this year’s unusually cold, wet weather, Modesto’s almond blossom season is later than average. You might still have time to go on the almond blossom cruise!]
The Central Valley gets a lot of credit as California’s agricultural heartland. Produce from its far-reaching orchards and fields feeds the state and much of the nation, and often makes its way all around the world. But the region deserves a lot more love as a travel destination. Don’t overlook the urban hubs along historic CA-99 for your next road trip or long weekend away – especially the culturally rich, unassumingly cool city of Modesto.
Modesto, home to around 200,000, sits midway between Fresno and Sacramento. In the other direction, it’s about halfway between San Francisco and the north entrance to Yosemite National Park. As a geographic crossroads with ample accommodations and amenities, the city is a popular stopping-off point for cross-California travelers. Modesto is much more than that, though – it’s a very agreeable destination in its own right.
Though the city, founded in 1870, has a rich railroad and farming heritage, its most visible cultural icons evoke the 1950s and ‘60s. Modesto-born George Lucas paid loving homage to his hometown with his 1973 movie “American Graffiti.” Major themes of the classic movie, cruising culture and rockabilly music, are top among Modesto’s claims to pop-culture fame. They are still celebrated through downtown’s 100-plus works of public art and a well-preserved vintage vibe. Further, with vastly rich farmlands surrounding the city, Modesto is a pioneer in farm-to-table cuisine, with bonus points for bucolic beauty. For today’s visitors, this all translates to plenty of sights to see and fun things to do in Modesto.
Modesto’s Famous Almond Blossom Cruise and Farm Stands
The Central Valley grows 75% of the world’s almonds, and a significant portion is from almond orchards all around Modesto. From late-February to mid-March (in a typical year) they put on a spectacular display of blossoms, a gorgeous explosion of pink and white blooms brightening neat rows of spindly trees.
Visit Modesto offers an Almond Blossom Cruise Map detailing a scenic route around the region’s many almond farms. Stop at local farm stands for fresh produce and all manner of almonds and almond-based treats. Farmers ask that you don’t enter the orchards or drive onto farm roads, but the cruise route features plenty of safe spaces to pull over for photos nearby.
One stand-out feature of the cruise route is California’s oldest and tallest walnut tree. It sits on a private lot next to fields and farmhouses, an unmistakable giant among much smaller specimens.
Even when the almonds aren’t in bloom, the driving tour reveals the rustic side of Modesto along with some interesting year-round landmarks. Stop at Robert’s Ferry Nut Co. for a made-to-order almond milkshake, and pick up fresh produce and artisanal goods from some of the 30-plus farm stands in Visit Modesto’s directory. Among them are specialists in flowers, cheese, honey, strawberries, olive oil, and of course, almonds. Another place to peruse the agricultural bounty of the region is the Modesto Certified Farmers Market, held downtown on Thursdays and Saturdays from March to November.
Downtown Modesto Murals
Modesto is rightfully proud of its striking murals, painted each year since 2015 by muralists and graffiti artists recruited by the city. More than 100 public works of art adorn downtown Modesto in an impressive and enjoyable outdoor display that’s well worth exploring on foot. Download a mural guide to locate the artworks, and also find recommendations for local eateries nearby.
Look out for the sprawling “Hillside of Poppies” by muralist and tattoo artist Vincent Cabrera. It features the state flower along with the Modesto Arch, a city icon proclaiming its official motto, “Water, wealth, contentment, health.” The real-life arch is a stone’s throw away.
Boomers! Family Fun Center
If you’re visiting Modesto with kids, or just love some old-fashioned, family-friendly fun, be sure to spend some time at Boomers! Family Fun Center. Outdoor attractions at Boomers include a mini-golf course for all ages with water features and wacky windmills galore. There are also two go-kart courses (suited to different age groups), bumper boats, the Flamer Thrower thrill ride, a rock wall and batting cages. Inside is a large arcade, Lazer Tag and Spin Zone Bumper Cars, along with a full-service restaurant and bar with indoor and outdoor seating. (Some attractions might be closed due to pandemic restrictions.)
Visitors can pay per attraction or opt for an all-day pass. Height and/or weight restrictions apply to some attractions. Boomers is open until 10 pm on Fridays and Saturdays (and 8 pm other nights). With an extensive food and bar menu, it’s a great place for families to go for evening activities with a meal. Daytime excitement is guaranteed, too!
Dryden Park Golf Course
Meandering along the Tuolumne River, Dryden Park Golf Course in Modesto is a highly regarded and beloved community facility with a park-like atmosphere. With an elevated par-4 to start, followed by holes two, three and four running parallel to the Tuolumne River, it’s a scenic and serene course from the very first tee. Mature trees, wide, forgiving fairways and strategically guarded, medium-sized greens add to the pleasant state of play at Dryden Park. The 18-hole, par-72 course with three sets of tees is suited to beginners yet also gives experienced players and single-digit handicappers a memorable golf experience.
A municipal course, Dryden Park is open to the public seven days a week. It features two practice putting greens and a driving range, and lessons are available.
McHenry Mansion & Museum
Modesto’s most notable historic attraction is the McHenry Mansion, a Victorian Italianate beauty built in 1883 by Robert McHenry, a wealthy local banker and rancher. The mansion is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its interiors are lavishly decorated and furnished in the late-19th century style. A visitor center, gift shop and tours are available to the public on select days. For more local history, visit the McHenry Museum, just a block away. The building was Modesto’s original library, and today it presents exhibits about the city’s history to the public, for free.
Parks and Outdoor Recreation in Modesto
Modesto has some stand-out parks ideal for walking, hiking, biking, running, fishing and picnics. If you’re looking for outdoor recreation destinations, consider Dry Creek Trail at Dry Creek Regional Park, a 6-mile loop that’s partially paved; the riverside James Meyers Park; and the scenic, 2.3-mile Tuolumne River Regional Trail.
The Knights Ferry Covered Bridge, a few miles outside Modesto, is another popular outdoor destination. It was built in 1863, is open only to foot traffic, and with a 330-foot span it’s the longest covered bridge west of the Mississippi. The little town of Knights Ferry features gold rush-era relics and a century-old general store. Opportunities for fishing and rafting on the Stanislaus River also draw visitors to the area.
Where to Stay in Modesto
The Holiday Inn Express and Suites Modesto-Salida hosted my family of four on a recent trip to Modesto, and I heartily recommend the hotel. It’s in a quiet spot, yet close to the freeway for easy coming and going, and just 5 miles from downtown Modesto. The hotel is across the road from Boomers, which made it a no-brainer to spend an evening at the park having fun and eating dinner – we just walked back across the street and up to our room when it got late.
The hotel has 95 guest rooms, available in various configurations to suit your needs. Roll-aways and connecting rooms are available upon request. We stayed in a two-room suite, which had one queen bed in its own private space attached to the master bedroom with a king bed, living area and bathroom. The décor is sleek and contemporary, and every inch of the hotel is exceptionally clean. Along with all the essentials – two flat-screen TVs, sofa, writing desk, mini-refrigerator and microwave – we appreciated special touches like black-out drapes, super-plush bedding with a choice of pillows, premium cable channels and plenty of USB ports.
A Grab ‘n’ Go breakfast is included with every stay at the Holiday Inn. During our visit this was modified due to pandemic restrictions. A comprehensive list of hot and cold items was available, but instead of self-service we ordered custom breakfasts, contact-free, with a member of staff. We also had an ample supply of tea, coffee and a coffee-maker in our room. Another consideration is the onsite fitness center, which is open to guests by booking a time slot. The system allows for thorough sanitization between users. It’s fully equipped with a treadmill, elliptical, stationary bike, free weights and more. The hotel also features an outdoor pool and spa.
4300 Bangs Avenue, Modesto, CA 95356
You might also like to read “12 Beautiful Botanical Gardens in California.”
Disclaimer: California News Press and its contributors received goods, services and/or other professional courtesies to facilitate this review. All opinions are those of the author.