The Road to Disney: Best Stops Along the Way
By Joyce Kiefer

"Mom, how long will it take us to drive to Disneyland?

"Well, from here in San Jose it should take about six hours to go the 400 miles, mostly on the Interstate 5 Freeway. That is, if the traffic is good around Los Angeles and the weather’s OK on the Grapevine Pass.

"Everyone says that’s the most boring drive in the world."

"Well, Sweetie, Everyone thinks there’s nothing to see until you get to LA. But they miss some fascinating places because they’re in such a hurry to get there. Every place has its own story about the people who live there and something special about its natural setting. Why not think of this drive as a family adventure and see what we can discover along the way? You know, that’s what travel is really about."

"How much longer would it take to get there?"


I wish I’d had this conversation with my own kids the first time we drove to Disneyland. Since then we’ve discovered some interesting places along those boring stretches of highway - a ramshackle fruit stand transformed into a mini-amusement park, a Civil War-era fort, and spots to examine the brilliant wild flowers that carpet the Tehachapi Mountains in spring.

Our usual pattern has been to visit Disneyland the day after the drive down. That way, the kids can’t argue that each stop comes at the expense of precious time at the "happiest place on earth."


A great way to start off the journey is to wake up the kids with breakfast at Casa de Fruta on Pacheco Pass (Highway 152) on the way to the Central Valley. When I was a kid, this place was a simple fruit stand and a good place to stretch your legs. Since then, they’ve added Casa de Restaurant, Casa de Sweets, Casa de Sluice (miners traveled this way to the Sierras during the Gold Rush) Casa de Choo Choo, and Casa de Wine. My favorite is the 2-story hand crafted carousel called – you guessed it – Casa de Carousel. You can even sleep in their RV park.

The restaurant is open 24 hours and offers typical coffee house fare. Many people still recall the famous "Cup Flipper," co-founder Eugene Zanger, who even showed his talents on David Letterman. Zanger has retired but you can read about him in the posted press clippings. After breakfast you can have sandwiches for a picnic made up at the Casa de Wine deli, which opens at 8:30. The kids can catch a couple of the rides if they are open. Finish your stop by exploring the fruit stand itself. It offers far more than the original cherries from the family orchard.

I found jars of Scuppernong jelly that a friend suggested I look for when I go to the Deep South. Never thought I’d see it west of Tennessee. The piles of fresh fruit and bins of colorful dried fruit, nuts, and candy look like feast from Arabian Nights. Ask a clerk for a free sample to help decide what treats to buy for the road.

Now you’re fortified for the long drive. The large San Luis Reservoir at the crest of Pacheco Pass is the first reminder of how precious water is to California agriculture. There’s a visitor’s center, but I suggest a stop several hours later at the new, state-of-the art exhibit at Lake Pyramid on the Grapevine. By then you will have crossed the Central Valley and the kids will have noticed the contrast between the arid hills and the miles of green, thriving orchards and fields. Point out the California Aqueduct and the huge pipes that run up the side of the Tehachapi Mountains and ask them to consider the state’s Big Question: How do farms and cities get enough water when it doesn’t rain for half the year in most of the state?

Along the way ask them to think what it might be like to grow up in the valley, past or present? I recommend bringing an audio book of short stories by one of the many writers who have covered this ground in their writings. My favorites: William Saroyan, Gerald Haslam, John Steinbeck, Gary Soto. In "Baseball in April" stories, Soto gives a wonderfully wry insight into thinking of kids around 11-13 years old. Most stories involve Mexican-American kids in the Fresno area where he grew up.


SocalJun10-2.jpgBy the time you reach the roadside rest areas and restaurants around Buttonwillow, you might start thinking of food again. But resist the urge to stop, unless it’s to get take-out that can be eaten in about 45 minutes. Fort Tejon awaits you at the top of the Grapevine Pass as you leave the valley. It’s a lovely place to enjoy a rest, as travelers did in the time around the Civil War. Fort Tejon State Historic Park is nestled in a small, lush valley with a huge American flag in the middle of the parade ground. It has picnic tables and restrooms but no food concessions. In the mid-1800’s the horse soldiers of the US Army’s lst regiment of Dragoons were sent to the fort to protect travelers and settlers between Stockton and Los Angeles and to manage a nearby Indian reservation. Camels were brought in to be trained as service animals, but the experiment failed.

Over the years the park has been doing a nice job of restoration. After SocalJun10-3.jpglunch, stretch your legs and stroll over to the barracks to check out the uniforms and various kinds of equipment used by the dragoons. Not everything is under glass. I walked right up to a collection of swords lined up on a rack and looked over the trousers and shirts hung up on pegs. Out in the yard the cook for a Civil War reinactment was cleaning up after lunch. From a huge pot he fetched me a tasty sample of yams and agave.

Walk further up the hill for a look at the Commander’s Quarters. Beyond lies the cemetery. Now all they have to do is bring back the camels. Civil war reenactments and living history demonstrations are staged on certain weekends. Call the park for schedule information. (661) 248-6692. The fort is 3.5 miles north of the town of Lebec. The turnoff is well-signed from the freeway.


SocalJun10-1.jpgThe Grapevine can be full of surprises. Snow swirls through in winter, sometimes closing the highway. The last time I drove through, the wind gusted up to 70 miles per hour. But on a sunny day in March, April or early May the wildflowers swath the hillsides in yellow, blue, pink, orange. One of the best places for a close-up look at the flowers is along the frontage roads around the town of Gorman, about 6 miles south from Fort Tejon.

Turn off for Gorman from I-5, go left under the freeway and turn right on Gorman Post Road (the frontage road). Drive about a mile from Carl Jr’s. and look on the left for a small canyon with pathways through the fields. Take lots of pictures but resist the urge to pick a bouquet. Return to Gorman, cross back under the freeway and turn left on the frontage road called North Peace Valley Road. Look for a stretch of California poppies. The road will connect again with the freeway.


Before descending into the Los Angeles Basin, you’ll find the Vista del Lago Visitors Center overlooking Pyramid Lake. Here’s where you can learn how water gets moved around the state to where it’s needed. The display of the hundreds of water bottles it takes for a shower or doing the wash may come as a big surprise. A giant mock pipeline serves as the gateway to a 3-D model of how water is moved through various elevations on its way to power and pumping plants and to reservoirs like Pyramid Lake. Finally, a video takes you soaring over the entire state water project.

A few miles south in Valencia, Six Flags Magic Mountain and Hurricane Harbor loom right off the freeway. A question floats from the back seat: "Can we stop here for just a little bit?" Consider that admission for Magic Mountain is $59.99 for adults, $29.99 for kids plus $15 for parking. Hurricane Harbor is $24.99 and $19.99 plus $15 for parking. You’d want at least half a day to make either of these parks worthwhile.


So, now you’ve done Disneyland, Knotts Berry Farm, Universal Studios, been stuck in LA traffic, and you’re ready to head home the way you came. If it’s spring, heaven-on-earth awaits you on a detour to the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve. These 1,800 acres contain the most consistently blooming area of wild poppies. Goldfields, lupine, cream cups, and daisy-like coreopsis poke through the fields of orange. The 30-mile detour on Highway 138 might add about 2 1/2 hours to your trip, including viewing time and the return to the Grapevine. If you have time, check out the nearby Jane Pinheiro Interpretive Center. Keep an eye on the weather. Poppies curl up when it’s windy or cold. Check the wildflower hotline (661) 724-1180.


A couple of hours back on I-5 a question will drift from the backseat: "When are we getting home?" And a statement comes from your little princess: "I have to go potty" You’re in the middle of nowhere. Pacheco Pass is 67 miles away. Suddenly you spot a pink stucco oasis nestled in a stand of palm trees on the turnoff to Lemoore. Here’s a place to satisfy everyone, Harris Ranch.

Treat yourself to lunch or dinner, shop for gifts and candy, or stop for the night and enjoy their great pool as well. And do take your young lady to her own special stall in the women’s restroom. She’ll find a kid-size toilet she can sit on all by herself. Best of all, you can purchase or dine on the excellent Harris Ranch beef, which you smelled on the way in from the outdoor barbecue and from the feedlot across the road. The early California décor is pleasant and the restaurant pricy, but after all that driving you’re family deserves a reward. You’ve proved that getting there (and back) can be an adventure all by itself.



Casa de Fruta, Hollister

Casa De Fruta is 13 miles east of Gilroy on Pacheco Pass (Highway 152)

Phone: (408) 842-7282

The cup flipper has retired but his talent lives on through YouTube. 


Fort Tejon State Historic Park, Lebec

Take Ft. Tejon exit off I-5 at the summit of Grapevine Pass.

The park has Civil War battle demonstrations the third Sunday of the month, May – September and living history programs the first Saturday of each month. Call 661-248-6692.

Entrance fee is $5.00 for adults. Children under 17 are free. Battle and history programs are $7.00 for adults and $3.00 for children 6-12. (Under 6, free) Family fee is $18.00.

Vista del Lago Visitor’s Center, Pyramid Lake

Take the Vista del Lago turn-off from I-5 between Gorman and Castaic as you head south. Open 9 a.m.- 5 p.m. Admission is free.

Phone: (661) 294-0219

Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, Lancaster

Check the wildflower hotline before going (661) 724-1180 or call the local state park number (661) 942-0662. Admission is free. Parking is $8 per vehicle, $7 per vehicle with a senior on board (62 and over) and $4 per vehicle with DPR Disabled Discount Card.

Harris Ranch, Coalinga

Phone: (800)-942-2333


Joyce Kiefer is a regular contributor to Bay Area Family Travel.

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