What to Do in Bakersfield, California

Sunset landscape view of rolling prairie hills, Bakersfield, California

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There's more to do in this California Central Valley town than you might think. Bakersfield is also an economical place to visit. In fact, the best-rated hotel in town costs less than $200 a night, and you can find plenty of well-rated lodgings for $100 or less.

Bakersfield's climate is generally pleasant, with only 20 days of rain per year and more than 270 sunny days. High temperatures in January average 38°F. March, April, May, October, and November are the best times to go. 

Unfortunately, because Bakersfield's geography creates a bowl that traps air pollution, it's better to avoid it during the hot summer months.

01 of 08

Enjoy Country Music and the Bakersfield Sound

Bakersfield sign

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There are a number of venues to enjoy great music in Bakersfield.

Crystal Palace

Legendary country and western singers Buck Owens and Merle Haggard are credited with creating the Bakersfield Sound, a reaction to the slickly-produced, string orchestra-laden style of country music which was becoming popular in the late 1950s. 

Owens built his Crystal Palace music hall in Bakersfield as a high-class alternative to the smoke-filled bars and honkey tonks he performed in for much of his career. Its interior resembles the 19th century in the American Old West. Today, the complex also includes a museum of Owens' memorabilia.

Rockwell Opry at Trout's

Today, Trout's is an authentic holdover from the heyday of the Bakersfield Sound, the last real Bakersfield honky-tonk-style bar. It hosts up-and-coming country music artists six nights a week. 

Fox Theater

This classic theater dates back to 1930 and is as gorgeous inside as it is outside. Rescued from near demolition in the 1990s, it presents a broad range of performers and events.

Rabobank Arena

The Rabobank Arena is Bakersfield's modern event venue, the place where performers like Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, Elton John, and Alice Cooper have appeared.

02 of 08

Sample Basque Food

Bakersfield is well known for its Basque restaurants and cuisine.

The local Basque community goes back to immigrant sheepherders who came to the area in the 1800s. The restaurants sprang up around the hotels where the workers stayed. Several restaurants in Bakersfield specialize in the cuisine and serve their big meals on Sundays.

American Basque food is hearty, served family style on enormous platters on long, communal tables. No matter which restaurant you choose, the menu will be similar: cabbage soup with beans and spicy Basque tomato sauce, followed by thinly sliced pickled tongue, cottage cheese stirred with mayonnaise, boiled vegetables with white sauce, and a fresh, plain salad made with lettuce grown nearby.

And of course, there's a meat dish, which might be oxtail soup, fried chicken or a lamb dish. All of that can be washed down with free-flowing red wine.

You can also enjoy Basque cuisine and culture at the Basque Festival, which happens in May.

03 of 08

Go Whitewater Rafting

Scenic View Of Lake Isabella

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The Kern River near Bakersfield offers whitewater experiences from easy Class I through adrenaline-pumping Class V, depending on the year's rainfall and where you go. The whitewater is near Lake Isabella, about a 50-mile drive northeast from Bakersfield.

The season begins when the snow on Mt. Whitney starts to melt, which is usually in March or April. It may last into September in a good year. The 21-mile stretch of the Kern River below the Lake Isabella dam is where you'll find the best whitewater.

You can get an idea ahead of time about what the spring and summer rafting season will be like by checking the snow levels in the Mt. Whitney area.

Local outfitters offer whitewater rafting trips that last from one to three days. Licensing for these outfitters limits the number of days they can operate, and you should reserve as far ahead as possible, especially for large groups, holidays, and weekends. They include Kern River Tours, River’s End Rafting, and Kern Tours.

04 of 08

Watch a Car Race - Or Drive a Race Car

If you love to watch car races, you can indulge yourself in the Bakersfield area.

The Kern Raceway is a 0.5-mile (0.80 km) oval speedway located on just off Interstate 5 in Bakersfield

Great American Days offers you a chance to see what it's like to be a NASCAR driver at the Kern Raceway, zipping around behind the wheel of a 400-horsepower late model stock car.

If you love fast cars but don't have the patience to watch a long race, try the Auto Club Famoso Raceway instead. The dragstrip is best known for its annual March Meet, which is now a strictly a nostalgic hot rod and dragster event. They also host fuel-altered events and the annual California Hot Rod Reunion in October.

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05 of 08

Revisit the Dust Bowl at Sunset Camp

If you remember John Steinback's novel "The Grapes of Wrath," this place may look familiar to you. In fact, scenes from the 1940 movie adaptation of the novel starring Henry Fonda were filmed there.

In the late 1930s, it was called the Arvin Federal Government Camp, created to house approximately 300 people in one-room cabins and tents. The camp provided a refuge for distressed migrant workers fleeing the Oklahoma Dust Bowl during the Great Depression.

Today it is known as the Sunset Camp or Weedpatch Camp. It still aids migrants and is on the National Register of Historic Places. It is at 8701 Sunset Blvd. The old buildings are at the northeast corner of the camp in a fenced area, and you can take photos of the camp's exterior. Tours are also available by reservation.

06 of 08

Watch Wildlife

The Kern National Wildlife Refuge is just north of Bakersfield. You can tour it on a 6-mile driving tour. Pick up a brochure at the refuge headquarters which details what you can see at each of eleven stops.

The refuge is known for its pristine grasslands and marshes. Among the animals who live there year found are the endangered Buena Vista Lake shrew, San Joaquin kit fox, and the blunt-nosed leopard lizard. 

The Tule Elk State National Reserve is about 30 miles west of Bakersfield and is home to a small herd of tule elk, which is most active from late summer through early autumn.

07 of 08

Take Some Instagram Photos for Your Inner Sign Geek

If your Instagram feed is full of #signgeek, #vintagesigns, and #vintageneon, Bakersfield is the place for you.

You can find some great vintage neon graphics at the Woolgrowers Restaurant (620 E 19th St) and Andre's Drive Inn (1419 Brundage Lane), and a crazy neon cat at Guthrie's Alley Cat (1525 Wall Street). The big Bakersfield sign on Silect Ave near the Crystal Palace is also neon-lit.

08 of 08

Other Things to Do Around Bakersfield

Lake Isabella is about 55 miles east of Bakersfield. It's a recreational lake in the Sierra Nevada foothills at an elevation of approximately 2,500 feet. 

Located near Lake Isabella, Silver City Ghost Town is a different kind of a ghost town, created in the 1960s and 70s from local historic structures, many of which were facing destruction. Today, it's an outdoor museum kept in a state of arrested decay.

Folks with a sweet tooth rave about Dewar’s Candy Shop, which has been making taffy for more than a hundred years. They also say it may be the best old-fashioned ice cream parlor in the country, famous for its banana splits and dreamy flavors like lemon flake and cotton candy.

Agriculture Near Bakersfield

The New York Times called California's Central Valley "the land of a billion vegetables," but veggies are only the beginning. Kern County crops also include almonds, melons, citrus, cotton, grapes, hay, and stone fruits like nectarines, plums, and apricots. They even find space to grow rose plants, too. There aren't any tours or visitor centers dedicated to the local agriculture, but you can't miss seeing it, either. In fact, a drive through the surrounding countryside might make you so hungry that you'll have to head straight to one of those Basque restaurants when you get back - or to the ice cream parlor.