— VISALIA, CALIFORNIA — Visalia, the closest town to Sequoia National Park, is a vibrant and lively town holding and exhibiting a significant history.
Visalia was named after eccentric Nathanial Vise from Visalia, Kentucky. Vise, a bear hunter, land promoter, horse trader, preacher, and restaurateur in his colorful lifetime, opened a restaurant in San Francisco and served bear meat. As a surveyor and doing his work in Four Creeks, California, Vise helped settle Visalia, named after his family. Four Creeks is the oldest continuously inhabited inland European settlement between Los Angeles and Stockton.
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1. Self-Guided Tour of Early Visalia
Orient yourself with a 45-minute walk of Downtown Visalia. The Historic Visalia Trail is four blocks long by three blocks wide. The preserved buildings have a story to tell, and Questers International helps to tell those stories.
Questers International’s Visalia Chapter, Kawea Kollectors, has researched and placed plaques on many downtown historic sites. This volunteer organization supports the restoration and preservation of historic buildings, antiquities, and sites.
Train tracks run through the city, bringing lumber products to the central rail station for outbound shipping. Locals like to say the length of the cross-city train shows how prosperous the town is. As we watched the train running down the tracks, my guide exclaimed, “We are pretty prosperous today”!
When horses were the means of transportation in early Visalia, a traveler would “park” in front of the business and tie his reins to the ring. There are still a dozen on Main Street from the late 1800s to early1900s.
2. Mural Tour
Many murals line the streets of Downtown and throughout the city. Some are commissioned and paid for by the Visalia Veterans Committee, and students directed by art teachers paint others. The murals depict life in Visalia and express historical and cultural appreciation.
3. Restaurant Tour
Visalia has an incredible lineup of outstanding restaurants, all in walkable Downtown. Three of my favorites are:
Pita Kabob Mediterranean Gastropub specializes in rice bowls, pita wraps, shawarma, vegetarian, and vegan selections. Their fresh, colorful Mediterranean meals are so appealing.
Brewbaker’s Brewing Company is the original brewery on Main Street. Typical brewpub classics on the menu include Fish & Chips, Blackened Salmon Chowder, Homemade Chili, and more.
Crawdaddy’s with New Orleans flair makes traditional Creole/Cajun cuisine to write home about. A casual crowd parties in the downstairs sports bar. The upstairs dining room boasts tablecloths, napkins, and club-style furnishings with upscale, formal touch.
4. Brewery Tour
The Visalia Brewery Tour includes several breweries along Main Street. At Brewbaker’s Brewing Co., I enjoyed some generous samples and settled on a local craft beer, of course.
When Brewbaker’s started construction on their building in 1999, excavation at their current location produced artifacts from previous times that indicated the locals came to this location for their spirits.
A brewery tour/pub crawl is easily accomplished in Downtown Visalia.
5. Art on Fire Tour
In addition to the many murals around town, anyone can experience art on many street corners in the way of painted fire hydrants and trash bins. Nothing is sacred from the artist’s brush in Downtown Visalia.
To learn more about each work of art, a plaque placed on the pavement near the art contains a QR code. By holding your cell phone over the code, a link activates and takes you to more information about the artist and the sponsor—a truly interactive experience with public art.
6. Naturally Nuts
While Naturally Nuts is not necessarily a tourist destination, it should be included in your itinerary when traveling to Sequoia/Kings Canyon and Yosemite National Parks. A few short blocks from the main road on the way to the parks, this destination holds the freshest nuts, dried fruits, sugar-free chocolate nut clusters, and caramel pecan logs.
There is no middleman between the farm and the store in this Central Valley business. Owned by John and Barbara Oneto, Naturally Nuts, is a three-generation family-owned farm growing crops in this agriculture-rich region. John’s grandfather emigrated from Italy to farm in the San Joaquin Valley. His father and uncle joined the farm, and John and his wife are now carrying on the tradition of growing cherries, tree nuts, and row crops.
When I spoke with John recently, he proudly told me of his farming heritage. To date, he is responsible for processing 2-billion pounds of nuts in his career. He also co-developed a pistachio roasting technique that is the industry standard today. I really enjoyed the bag of pistachios in my goodie bag.
If you have a chance to talk with John about the landscape, water, and history of the San Joaquin Valley, it will be time well spent. He is knowledgeable and passionate about agriculture and sharing all he knows. He frequently speaks to 4-H clubs, tour groups, gardening clubs, personal tours, and corporate tours.
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7. Mooney Grove Park
Valley oak trees covered a 400 square mile area when pioneers first arrived in the San Joaquin Valley. By the 1890s, most of this forest had disappeared due to agricultural clearing and timber harvest.
In the early 1900s, Hugh Mooney, a Tulare County rancher, donated 100-acres of his ranch land to be maintained as a public park. He was concerned that the oak woodlands in the Valley were disappearing. Mooney required that none of the trees in this park be cut unless they were diseased or dying. He also left $5,000 toward building the county museum, located at the park.
Mooney Grove Park commemorates Mooney and his favorite hunting dog with a statue at the front of the park.
The End of the Trail sculpture, found at the entrance to Mooney Grove Park, depicts a weary Native American man hanging limp as his tired horse comes to the edge of the Pacific Ocean.
The sculpture is a bronze replica of James Earle Fraser’s original work, which is now in the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma. The statue is a commentary on the damage the Euro-American settlement inflicted upon Native Americans. The central figure embodies the suffering and exhaustion of people driven from their native lands.
8. Sequoia Tree Legacy
Known as the “Gateway to the Sequoias” for almost a century, Downtown Visalia is home to the Sequoia Legacy Tree.
A pair of trees were planted as saplings in 1936 on either side of the Art Deco post office by Guy Hopping, Superintendent of General Grant National Park (now Kings Canyon), and Nathan Levy, the Visalia Postmaster. Only one tree remains today because Arborists removed the tree on the east side of the building in the 1980s due to poor health.
A close look at this small park will compare the General Sherman Tree (found in Sequoia National Park) circumference, about 102 feet, indicated by stone and fencing around the Sequoia Legacy Tree. General Sherman Tree is 275 feet tall compared to the Sequoia Legacy Tree, which is about 65 feet tall because of the difference in growing conditions.
The Sequoia Legacy Tree stands as a symbol of the resilient relationship with its mountain neighbors.
9. The Darling Hotel
At Courthouse Square on the northeast corner of Center Avenue, an Art Deco-style annex was added in 1935. Granite edging, quarried from nearby Rocky Hill, around the property (the entire block) remains from the 1890s. Not ADA compliant, the granite curbs are a unique demonstration of life in the 1800s.
After sitting empty for decades, the annex was restored as The Darling Hotel, a boutique property with a rooftop lounge that begs a visit. A 360-degree view of the city creates a magical experience after dark.
Note – The removed granite curbs are in storage to preserve and record the history. Find out more at Visit Visalia.
10. Sequoia Headquarters
Make your home base in Visalia at the Wyndham Hotel, located conveniently at the freeway for easy access and transit to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. The rooms are comfortable, and it’s a pleasant place for the family with a pool, hot tub, breakfast, quiet, and very comfortable beds and linens.
11. The Oldest Living Thing
General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park is one of the top destinations for your drive from Visalia. A 45-minute journey, without stops, will transport you to the park entrance. The General Sherman Tree grows at 6,000+ feet above sea level and is an extraordinary sight. It is the oldest living thing on our planet.
Many interesting stops along the way include restaurants, the ranger station where you can get a stamp in your National Parks book, and restrooms. Numerous turnouts along the drive guarantee that you won’t complete the trip in only 45-minutes. I found that I had to stop, admire, and photograph the breathtaking flora and landscape around every turn. I also noted the change in plants and flowering trees during the climb in elevation.
12. Farmer Bob in Ivanhoe
Dedicated to education and affordable fun, Robert McKellar, aka Farmer Bob, carries on two-generation citrus growing production at Farmer Bob’s World in Ivanhoe, California.
You can’t talk about Visalia in the agriculture-rich region of the San Joaquin Valley without mentioning the surrounding citrus-growing fields as far as the eye can see.
Visalia is the closest town to Sequoia National Park. Ivanhoe and Farmer Bob’s World is between the park and Visalia. If you are looking for something interesting to do, plan a visit and learn about oranges, how they grow, how they are harvested, and how they reach our table. On the farm tour, you’ll learn how to pick an orange and take it home with you.
If you go in the spring, the scent of citrus blossoms is so strong that you can almost taste it. The fragrance is delicious and palpable, and you’ll find yourself looking around to see its origin.
McKellar Family Farms began in 1927 when Bob’s father, Hugh Angus McKellar, and his wife, Vernice, purchased the land. Crop production included grapes, olives, oranges, and mandarins. Bob and his wife, Norene, began managing the farm when Hugh passed away in 1972.
I like what Bob had to say when asked what he liked best about being a farmer. He said, “The lifestyle. It’s challenging, relaxing, risky. You get to work with nature and be close to God.”
In addition to farm tours, Bob has diversified by adding a wedding and event venue called Historic Seven Sycamores Ranch. The 80-year-old McKellar family farmhouse offers farm stays to folks who want to experience a working orchard. And Bob actively participates in the national CSA program, a community-supported agriculture system for home and office deliveries. It’s a co-op with other small farmers in the area.
On my visit, I sampled an orange and a mandarin. The perfect gems were luscious and juicy. I won’t take citrus for granted again.
13. Arts Consortium
The Arts Consortium is an inclusive and enriching arts program that celebrates and rewards artists throughout the region. The Art Center is home to aerosol artists, among others, where they learn to hone their craft of the art behind graffiti.
Twice a year, major art productions serve the community. In the spring, the South Valley Art Tour is a unique event during which artists share their artistic process and work environment with Tulare County residents and visitors. In the fall, downtown Visalia is home to Taste of the Arts. This free community event celebrates art, food, and fun.
Year-round visual art exhibitions create and enhance the quality of life in the Visalia community.
Visalia is not only an open history book of the San Joaquin Valley. It is a record of the progress of our country over the last 150+ years. It’s easier to understand this history when you can see and touch it – experience it.