Outdoor Adventures / Road Trips

On the Central Valley Back Roads

River Road

If I had to list only one occupation on my resume, I might be inclined to list “professional road tripper.”

I am always down for a good road trip, whether it’s for the day or for the week. I love to explore the vastness of California’s highways and back roads, and even after 13-plus years of living in this state and taking off on road trips at least once a month, I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface. The hubs and I have even started pinning a giant map of California with places we’ve been (really been, not just driven through), and the entire region above I-80 is embarrassingly bare. (One day!)

One of our favorite things about living in Southern California — and having family and friends in Northern California — is the opportunity to take a different route every time we visit them. We live for the back roads of the Eastern Sierra and the Central Valley, and relish any drive that doesn’t take us past the odoriferous ranches of Highway 5.

Over the holidays, Will and I jetted up the 5 to visit family in Marin… over the 80 to spend New Year’s Eve in Tahoe… back across the state for a friend’s birthday bash in Salinas… and from there, we had the freedom to choose our own path home.

Few people think of Salinas when they think of California’s vineyards, but this agricultural valley is actually the largest wine grape-producing region in the state (though the more chichi Napa and Sonoma take all the fame).

Besides being home to over 20 wineries (including one called Wrath — how perfect is that?), Salinas is also known as the “Salad Bowl of the World.” The valley grows over 30 percent of the world’s lettuce! If you’ve ever bought bagged lettuce, chances are, it came from this little-known region near the Central Coast.

We love driving through rolling hillsides and sprawling ranch land, so a scenic detour along River Road heading south was a must.

Known as the River Road Wine Trail, this two-lane road meanders through the Santa Lucia Highlands from Salinas to Soledad. We were well past the harvest season, but it made for a more interesting view of the vineyards with their grapevines bare and resting for the winter. The few grapes that did remain had dried naturally in the sun to become raisins!

River Road winery

Raisins on the vine

At the end of the Wine Trail, we made our way onto Highway 101 for a few minutes and exited Jolon Road near King City. We chose Jolon Road because it looked desolate; on a map, it’s bound by Los Padres National Forest on one side and the Santa Lucia Mountains on the other. The lone road took us through groves of California oaks and acres of idyllic ranches.

River Road landscape

River Road landscape

Mossy tree

Oaks in winter

Oaks in winter


Central Valley ranch

We passed the site of the former Dutton Hotel, an adobe structure built in 1829 on what was then the El Camino Real. The hotel (turned stage stop turned general store turned saloon turned post office turned army bivouac area) changed hands several times in the course of history (newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst was an owner at one point), eventually ending up in ruin after decades of vandalism and exposure to the elements. The remnants of the building are now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Former Dutton Hotel

We continued on Jolon Road past Fort Hunter Liggett, the largest United States Army Reserve command post and, ironically, a live-fire training facility with the most tranquil views out their barracks.

Winter oaks on Jolon Road

Central Valley back road

Winter oaks on Jolon Road

From Jolon Road, we turned onto Interlake Road for a glimpse of Nacimiento Lake.

Nacimiento Lake

Interlake Road

The road straddles two lakes, and somewhere over that ridge lies Lake San Antonio (we could barely see the speck of blue from the road).

Interlake Road landscape

Interlake Road landscape

As the sun was starting to set behind the range, we reveled in the last few turns on these forgotten roads before making our way back to a civilized highway. What could’ve been a straightforward five-hour drive home turned into eight — but we wouldn’t trade getting “lost” for anything.

Homeward bound

About Author

I'm a plant lover, passionate road-tripper, and cookbook author whose expert advice and bestselling books have been featured in TIME, Outside, HGTV, and Food & Wine. The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook is my latest book. Garden Betty is where I write about modern homesteading, farm-to-table cooking, and outdoor adventuring—all that encompass a life well-lived outdoors. After all, the secret to a good life is... Read more »


  • Frank Ciccarelli
    March 8, 2020 at 4:08 pm

    Keep taking those photos…

    • Linda from Garden Betty
      March 9, 2020 at 7:45 pm

      I will! 🙂 Glad you enjoyed this.

  • srini1990
    May 25, 2015 at 1:03 am

    Great post. I look forward to taking one these roads soon.

    • Linda Ly
      May 29, 2015 at 8:25 pm

      Thank you! You’ll certainly enjoy the drive. 🙂

  • Laurie
    January 22, 2014 at 12:10 pm

    So pretty! The photo at the top makes me want to cycle. What a perfect road for a nice long (40-60 mile) bike ride.

    • Linda Ly
      January 23, 2014 at 2:51 pm

      I was thinking that on our drive as well! Those wide open hills are so ideal for mountain biking.

  • Cary Bradley
    January 16, 2014 at 8:01 am

    Thanks for the photo trip! Spent some idyllic weekends at Nacimiento with dear friends who were fortunate to build a beautiful getaway house there. Lovely, lovely place. One of my favorite in California, which as you know, has many, many, many!

    • Linda Ly
      January 16, 2014 at 2:46 pm

      I haven’t been to Nacimiento yet, but friends have said that’s one of their favorite places to take a boat out and just relax. I’m looking forward to it one warm summer day!


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