Tuesday, December 5, 2017 - by Scott S. Smith
Bakersfield in Kern County a couple of hours north of Los Angeles might not be the first place that springs to mind when you think about going somewhere to celebrate Christmas (whether the sacred or secular version or other seasonal holidays like Hannukah, Diwali, or Kwanzaa). Traditional carols that conjure up caroling in the snow don’t quite fit a place that lives up to its name June through September with temperatures in the 90s.
And outsiders don’t seem to think this county seat is much of a destination otherwise. It merits two paragraphs in the AAA Tour Book Guide to Southern California, noting that it is a “marketing center for oil, natural gas and farm products” and for having an annual hot rod race nearby (no doubt very hot).
The rest of the county fares worse. AAA plugs the tours of wind-generating turbines as the highlight of Tehachapi. The Ridgecrest listing only mentions hotels, without providing a reason to stay over. Kernville does earn a paragraph about water recreation on Lake Isabella and the Kern River, though people regularly drown in the latter (nearly 300 since 1968).
I only discovered that Kern County is the most overlooked destination in the state when I dropped by its booth at a travel show and was surprised by the enthusiasm of advocates (try to get their impressive publications for visitors—see Resources below). Few outsiders realize that the average high for its largest city from October to April is usually 56° to 79° (and May is only 83°). And there is a lot more to do than anyone could cram into one long vacation, regardless of preferred activity (see “Many Other Things” sidebar).
Christmas for the Kid in All of Us
I picked a few places in and near Bakersfield to visit with holiday themes from the long list on the city’s events website that includes two parades, decorated home tours, two Breakfast with Santa fundraisers, multiple “Nutcracker” ballets, the Master Chorale Christmas, as well as Fox Theater’s “Irish Christmas” and “Acoustic Krab Christmas.”
The California Living Museum www.calmzoo.org 661/872-2256. CALM, as it is known, is a community zoo that takes in injured wild animals, with hundreds visitors can see that include mountain lions, condors, bears, owls, and beavers. It is also Tripadvisor’s No. 2 visitor favorite and has an extraordinary holiday lighting show 5:30-9 p.m. (normally open daily 9 a.m.-4 p.m.). Each year, over three million bulbs are used to create seasonal designs, requiring an astonishing amount of work. The Los Angeles Times rated this one of the top 10 holiday lights shows in the state (even better than Disneyland’s). All monies earned by this event go to improve this facility that saves so many animals and provides invaluable education.
Down the road from CALM in Arvin was Murray Christmas on the Farm www.murrayfamilyfarms.com 661/330-0100. The Murray Family Farm is ranked by Tripadvisor the No. 4 visitor favorite for the Bakersfield area because of its popular spring and fall activities that entertain and educate the whole family. This is the second year Steve and Vicki Murray have reworked their unique rides, games, and mazes with a Christmas theme.
Christmas Town www.christmastown.net 661/927-7353 has established itself as a local tradition, but moved to a new location this year: 3825 Riverlakes Drive in Bakersfield, open daily except Christmas Eve and Christmas until Dec. 31, Sun.-Thu. 5:30-9 p.m., Fri.-Sat. until 10 p.m. (it will be at another location next year). It is another ideal place for the entire family, with millions of lights in holiday scenes to be seen on a hayride, sledding down a hill on real snow, a faux ice skating rink, paintball shooting at reindeer, a chance to have a (fake) snowball fight, holiday bounce houses, a train ride, light shows, and, of course, Santa and his helpers.
In downtown Bakersfield, The Kern County Museum www.kerncountymuseum.org 661/437-3330 hosts annual Holiday Lamplight Tours in horse draw carriages through its Pioneer Village, which has 56 buildings of every kind from the late 19th century through the 1950s, many with dioramas or décor to illustrate their use, from a dental office and mobile sheepherder’s cabin to the undertaker’s and a blacksmith. The “Black Gold” interactive exhibit tells the story of the wealth that still gushes form Kern’s wells. There is also an excellent museum about local history, including the rise of the Bakersfield Sound, which included local stars Merle Haggard and Buck Owens (whose Crystal Palace still hosts popular concerts. Early next year, a new exhibit will feature 80 vintage cars. The museum is Tripadvisor’s No. 3 visitor favorite.
Some of the other Kern holiday festivities I missed: Tehachapi’s Christmas Parade and Santa at the historic Railroad Depot; Kernville’s Candle Light Stroll, Live Nativity, and Parade of Giving; Ridgecrest’s Santa’s Art Shop and Children’s Christmas Parade, and Altrusa’s Home Holiday Tour. Of course, there are many reasons to visit in other seasons.
One of these is the Bakersfield Art Museum www.bmoa.org 661/323-7219. Small, but very well curated, it has a fascinating section on the area’s tradition of surrealistic art and current exhibits with the wonderful stylized nature paintings of Astrid Preston and the beautiful wood sculptures of Gwynn Murrill. After strolling through the sculpture garden, we saw the Federal Courthouse behind the museum, which is a notable piece of architectural art.
Another is the Buena Vista Museum of Natural History and Science www.SharkToothHill.org 661/324-6350. Its 16,000 square feet might lay claim to the world’s most tightly-packed collection of natural history objects, from gems to animals preserved by taxidermy. Nearby Sharktooth Hill has produced many world-class Miocene Era fossils (14-16 million years old) found here and the exhibit on prehistoric sharks is impressive. The hands-on Science Discovery Center makes this a favorite family destination.
Ghost Towns, Ancient Rock Art, and Naval Weapons
Among the county’s other unusual attractions are its ghost towns, including Johannesburg, Caliente (which still has residents), and Randsburg (with a museum and some open stores).
The most interesting is Silver City Ghost Town in Bodfish, a 40-mile drive north from Bakersfield through a beautiful canyon along the banks of the Kern River on the way to Lake Isabella. It is actually a composite of 20 buildings as old as 1858, which were hauled here from mining camps and towns in Kern Valley to preserve them www.silvercityghosttown.org 760/379-5146 (open seven days, contrary to some articles). Over 20,000 hours of restoration were required to bring them into a state of “arrested decay,” rather than being modernized, making it a favorite for videos and films about the Old West (a subject that fascinates Europeans, who make up a sizable portion of visitors). For a small fee, anyone can view the town on their own, but I recommend taking a guided tour with proprietor Jay Corlew, which includes an up-close view of thousands of artifacts. Silver City is also notoriously a real ghost town, one of the apparently most haunted places in America (Corlew said he was skeptical until strange things kept happening). Nearby is the Nuui Cunni Native American Cultural Center, which I had hoped to visit, but it was not open at the time.
I also spent a day in Ridgecrest, an hour east of Lake Isabella, which serves as a gateway to the High Desert, Mount Whitney, Death Valley National Park, and the National Parks of Sequoia and Kings Canyon. It is a jumping-off point for rock climbing, off-roading, and hikes to geological wonders like Fossil Falls, Trona Pinnacles, and Red Rock Canyon (where over 70 Westerns were shot). Ridgecrest is also next door to the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, some of which can be toured if one passes a background check (the Naval Museum of Armament and Technology is in the process of moving from the base to Ridgecrest, to make it more accessible to the general public).
I was there for two things. One was the Maturango Museum www.Maturango.org 760/375-6900, which has an extensive collection of artifacts from the region, including meteorites, minerals, fossils, and those made by Native Americans. It also has presentations on geothermal energy and mining, a hands-on children’s discovery area, and hosts lots of community activities. But what it is best-known for is leading tours to the greatest concentration of ancient rock art in the Western Hemisphere, with some 10,000 examples just in Little Petroglyph Canyon, which I visited (it is part of the historic landmark Coso Rock Art District, which may have ten times that number). For details about signing up, see the Petroglyph Tours section of the museum’s website; tours get booked up very early and you should be in good physical shape (otherwise checkout the museum exhibits and events).
We started out at the museum at 6:30 a.m. and would return at 4 p.m. The long ride in (with cameras and cell phones stowed away for security) was fascinating because of what one could learn about the base, which covers 1.1 million acres (bigger than Rhode Island). Not only U.S. military, but allies go there to make use of the 19,600 square miles of restricted airspace (12% of the state’s total) for testing every kind of defense technology, because of the variety of landscapes and weather, rising from 2000 to 8000 feet above sea level.
The mysterious figures and geometric designs we saw were carved by various native peoples, perhaps as far back as 8,000 years, peaking around 500 A.D., but some recently. According to the museum’s booklet Coso Petroglyph Landmark: Archaeology, Ethnography, and Rock Art, a wide range of scholarly interpretations have been put forth about their meaning, including magical symbols to improve the success of hunts, depictions of group rituals, storyboards for transmitting oral traditions, and reports of shamans about their visionary experiences. Even our veteran guides kept noticing new examples. With cave art sites elsewhere in the world being closed off for preservation, going on one of these tours is likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime truly magical experience.
But go to Kern County with an adventurous mind and you can create your own magic anywhere.
A Few of the Many Other Things to Do in Kern County
*Dine on exotic and tasty Basque cuisine.
*Visit several aerospace museums and tour Edwards Air Force Base (a lot of jet and space technology has been tested in the high desert).
*Listen to the stars at country and western nightclubs.
*Golf and camp.
*Learn about alpacas and ostriches on specialty farms.
*Appreciate the work of artists at galleries, studios, and on walls.
*Enjoy local theater and music.
*Support a breeding center for endangered big cats.
*Explore historic forts.
*Discover local Native American history.
*Find out about the life of farm worker champion Cesar Chavez at a center devoted to it.
*Visit museums that claim to make even drilling for oil and borax mining interesting.
*Do some of the best bird-watching, star-gazing, and wildflower sightings in the state.
*Watch cars and motorcycles compete on famous speedways or drive your own.
Be Here Kern County Visitor Guide www.VisitKern.com
Bakersfield: More to Explore! www.VisitBakersfield.com.
Visit Ridgecrest and the High Desert www.VisitDeserts.com
Tehachapi Visitor Guide www.Tehachapinews.com/Visitor-Guide
Kern River Valley Visitor’s Guide www.KVSun.com
Where to Stay and Dine Out
The Padre Hotel, 1702 18th St. 661/427-4900, http://www.thepadrehotel.com
Built in 1928, this AAA Four-Diamond landmark is the best and hottest local hotel, with well-reviewed restaurants, bars, affordable rooms with very comfortable beds, and excellent WiFi connections.
Hodel’s Restaurant www.hodels.com 661/399-3341—famous for its $12 high-quality buffet, holiday décor, and operating model trains.
Springhill Suites by Marriott, 113 E. Sydnor Ave 760/446-1630,
This has been a frequent winner of top hotel and hospitality awards and Marriott has the world’s most popular rewards program. Free WiFi and buffet breakfast, plus a fitness room and outdoor pool.
Xin Bowl www.inbowlca.com 760/446-3888—fusion Asian food, known for top flight sushi.