Weekend Escape: Hike the Sequoias & Eat Like a Local in Visalia, California
There's nothing quite like a meditative hike through the woods. My husband and I love visiting Mount Laguna on the weekends for a quick getaway, but we were ready for a change of scenery and a chance to check another National Park off our lists.
Yosemite might be the big name, but we opted for Sequoia National Park, which is a few hours closer, and arguably, just as gorgeous.
The big question was: to camp, or not to camp?
The benefits of camping are many–cooking under the stars, saving money on accommodations, having a fully immersive outdoor experience–but the downsides can be almost as compelling when it comes to the effort involved in packing, setting up, breaking down, and trying to reserve a campsite with less than six-months notice.
We opted for an easier path. Visalia, a town about 45-minutes from the park entrance, would serve as our home base; a well-located Marriott at the Convention Center, a block off historic Main Street downtown, would serve as our campsite, and our evening fire under-the-stars would take place at one of fire pit tables in front of The Planing Mill, where we would enjoy the addition bonus of having access to a dozen taps of local brews and seriously good bar food.
I have family history in Visalia. When I was little, my grandfather owned a fruit orchard off of route 156 and my aunt worked for the local paper. This was decades ago, long before there was a convention center or hipster coffee shops off of Main.
I described our plans to my aunt and we compared notes on the old school places she remembered and the new school places that had been recommended to me. I added a few classics to my list.
Armed with hiking maps and restaurant recommendations, we set off on the five and a half hour* journey north.
Over the weekend that followed we soaked in the natural splendor of the towering sequoias, ate chocolate at a 50-year-old roadside candy shop, fueled up at a cool coffee shops surrounded by young families, and feasted our way through historic downtown.
Camping is great, but for a best-of-all-worlds weekend escape, head to Visalia.
*That’s 5.5 hours without traffic. If you hit it at the wrong time, like say, a Friday afternoon, this little jaunt can quickly become a 7-hour trip. (Still worth it.)
A Guide to Eating & Drinking Like a Local in Visalia & Sequoia
Mornings in Visalia
“Hike" to Component Coffee Lab (513 E. Center Ave) for on-site roasted drip, pour-over, and espresso drinks. The housemade pastries, like earl gray donuts, banana bread mini-loafs, and seriously good beignets and gluten-free coconut oatmeal cookies, are perfect for a lighter breakfast.
They also make a mean breakfast burrito, stuffed with fried potatoes, fried egg, bacon, roasted chilies, and an excellent avocado crema. If you go with the burrito, be prepared to wait. This town is on chill-time and the burritos are made to order, so it will likely take about 20 minutes to get your food.
If you’re there on a Saturday, hit the Visalia Farmers Market on your way out of town to pick up bottles of fresh-squeezed orange and pomegranate juice for your drive up to the National Park.
There are a number of food trucks on site as well if you didn’t grab breakfast downtown.
Afternoons on the 198
Head for the hills on the early side. The drive up to Sequoia National Park only takes about 45-minutes, but you’ll want to stop at the roadside fruit stands and anywhere you see smoke billowing from a barbeque where they’re no doubt cooking that central california specialty, tri-tip steak, for sandwiches. (Pro tip: One such grill is fired up in front of the Main Squeeze Market every Saturday around lunchtime. The market itself is a great place to buy local honey and olive oil.)
Entrance to the National Park costs $35, but the pass is good for seven days. Once you’re past the gate, scenic switchbacks lead to iconic trails, including the one that leads to the General Sherman, is the world's largest tree, which stands 275 feet tall and is over 36 feet in diameter. Snap a picture with The General, then head for the quieter Congress Trail, which winds through the lesser known giants, over babbling brooks, and through scenic overlooks. The trails are paved, making them very easy and accessible for even lightweight hikers.
After exploring the park, stop at Reimer’s Candies and Gifts (42375 Sierra Drive) in Three Rivers. The family-owned shop was opened over 50 years ago, and they continue to produce hand-made chocolates from cashew and almond clusters to mocha truffles. The shop sells gifts like local preserves from neighboring farms.
Evenings in Downtown Visalia
Start (and possibly end) your night with beer and bites at The Planing Mill (773 E. Center Street). The restaurant was opened by Tim Lewis in the old Visalia Planing Mill, which was founded in 1851, and the industrial chic interior, fire pits, and weekend entertainment have made it a popular hangout for locals.
Though known for what Lewis describes as “Pacific Northwestern-style pizza” (essentially a hearty, well-made crust topped with premium ingredients), our favorite section of the menu was the hot wings.
The sweet and spicy boneless Thai wings in particular were a perfect pairing for the Stone Notorious P.O.G. Berliner Weisse and Barrelhouse Fest beers we selected from the impressive tap list.
There are seemingly endless dinner options in town, from hip Mediteranean at Pita Kabob, to casual burgers at Wimpy’s, to a wide range of Laos restaurants, and classic fine dining at The Vintage Press (which my Aunt remembers from her reporter days), opened since 1966.
Our favorite was one of the newer options,Bistro di Bufala (208 W. Main Street), a restaurant launched by James Jessen, a chef and local business owner who has been part of the local dining scene for decades and also owns several other haunts, including the popular breakfast spot, The Butcher & The Baker.
Originally opened as a coffee shop, Bistro di Bufala is a completely food-forward, chef’s restaurant. The space is bright and cheerful, with large windows overlooking Main, the wine list is solid, but the true star here is the organic, California-style Italian food.
Classics like pasta alfredo are lightened-up, and ingredients are allowed to shine in simple preparations of seasonal salads, bruschetta, and understated dishes like pasta dressed in olive oil, garlic, and chili. The woodfire oven turns out perfectly blistered flatbreads with toppings the likes of herbaceous, garlicky chimichurri and burrata.
The nightly specials are where Jessen really shines, as he plays with local, seasonal ingredients. On our visit, he made a blackberry-pinot noir-braised short rib, served over delicately fried ravioli, that was one of the best things I’ve eaten in recent memory.
For a nightcap, head to the town’s speakeasy, Jack & Charlie’s, for a cocktail in the basement of the old courthouse (look for the red telephone booth), or head to one of the many breweries lining Main Street, including Sequoia Brewing Company, Brewbakers Brewing Company, or Visalia Brewing Company. Only Visalia Brewing Company is open late (until 1:30am), so plan accordingly.
Upcoming Events in Visalia
This month, on October 19th, The 10th annual Taste the Arts is the Central Valley’s largest outdoor art festival featuring more than 100 artists and workshops.
Two packed stages will feature musical acts, dance troupes and cultural performers. A variety of artwork will fill the streets. Visitors can participate in aerosol art and printmaking workshops or get messy in the Visalia Farmers Market “Fun with Food” sculpture contest, a crowd favorite.
The event is is free to the public and will take place in Visalia’s downtown arts district from 10am to 5pm.
Also on October 19th, the 6th annual Tastemakers Festival will kick off at 5pm.
The event is one of the San Joaquin Valley’s most eclectic music and arts festivals. Aspiring musicians as young as 7 years old will perform alongside emerging artists in the music industry. This year’s lineup includes: SNV Band, The Box, The Charities, Brim, Call Me James and PIMS.
The Tastemaker Festival immediately follows the Taste the Arts Festival, with performers taking the stage at the Lumberyard from 5pm to 10pm. This event is also free.
Annual events are another great excuse for a trip up to Visalia, check out the Visit Visalia calendar for the most up-to-date event listings and for other information on planning a visit to Visalia.