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Visalia is the best little town you’ve never heard of. Or at least we hadn’t. The city of Visalia, nicknamed “The Gateway To Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks,” in the San Joaquin Valley, is the last metropolitan area visitors encounter before they step into the verdant volumes of redwoods and wildlife in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Even Yosemite National Park is an easy 2-hour drive from its borders.
Situated about 3-hours from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento, Visalia has the makings of the perfect place to start a family national park adventure. We got the chance to explore Visalia, Three Rivers, Ivanhoe, and Sequoia National Park during a long weekend and we couldn’t be more thrilled to share the best of what we discovered as we played through city, country, and park.
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Things To Do In Visalia
ImagineU Children’s Museum
After having to sit still in the car or airplane for what will seem like forever to a young child, there is a great place to check them out of boredom and into the world inside their fantasies at ImagineU Children’s Museum.
The word museum is used loosely to define this extensive playhouse. Children access life-sized plastic cars, hoisted high so they can slide beneath and use the tools scattered around the “garage” to fix them.
Kids conduct laboratory experiments with beakers, test tubes, and slime. With a nod to the local agriculture economy, a farm with animals, branding irons, and fruit sorters beckons to budding cowgirls and farmers.
There is a performance stage set in a castle, indoor trees up which to scramble, and walls that beg for paint and fingers. An outdoor playground hosts a river stocked with “fishing poles” and “fish” to catch, giant legos to build huge forts, and a field of instruments made out of pipes, poles, and plastic drums.
This is where I would have spent every day with my toddler or young child if it was anywhere near Los Angeles. The hours are weird so check their website. They’re only open from Friday to Monday.
Admission is $15 for children and $10 for adults
Visalia Adventure Park
If you have older kids, like mine, they would love to spend hours hitting, bumping and shooting their way through the Visalia Adventure Park, an amusement park offering more activities in one location than we’d ever seen. Managing General Partner, Roger Hurick is the grandpa you wish you had. His whole mission in life is to make sure the children around him are having fun. “And we want to do that at an affordable price,” Hurick told me as we walked around an arcade filled with bleeps, dings, teens, and tweens. Kids blasted aliens, threw basketballs, and traded in “tickets” for prizes they’ve won. He’s exceeded all expectations by packing several days’ worth of fun into seven acres.
Kids, and kids at heart, can float through the bumper boat pond, hit home runs at the batting cages, get a hole in one at the mini-golf course, and race against their friends on the Go-Kart track.
There’s even laser tag and a birthday party room. No need to leave for lunch! Pizza and other hot food and snacks are available at the snack counter. And this pizza isn’t just any ‘ol cardboard cutout pizza. No, this is the real deal created by an Italian using a recipe passed down from his mom.
During the warmer months, Visalia Adventure Park opens Sequoia Springs to water lovers. Four slides, an enormous bucket tipping 900 gallons of water onto a pad filled with eager bodies, and all types of wet fun meet summertime here.
We had a blast, literally, playing old-school video games like Space Invaders and Galaga, shooting baskets against a clock and I even took a few swings in the batting cages. I thought I’d impress my boys when I hit 13 out of the 15 balls but that didn’t really happen.
There is no Entrance Fee for the amusement park but arcade games and activities vary by attraction. However, Sequoia Springs is $20 per wet participant and $10 for dry spectators. Kids under “32 are free with the purchase of general admission.
One of the best things is parents can drop off their kids and load up an “Adventure Card” with a preset amount of money that kids can use in the entire amusement park. Plus, depending on the amount loaded, visitors get bonus bucks on the card. That’s free money to play and eat. Winning “tickets” for some games are also stored on the card to redeem prizes at the prize booth.
Check prices for adventure activities here.
A Day Wristband giving unlimited access to Bumper Boats, Mini Golf, Go Karts, and the Laser Maze is available for $40. Check the Specials and Promotions page to save money!
Valley Oaks Golf Course
Sure a family can play 9 or 18 holes in most places but the thing about the Valley Oaks Golf Course is that the employees are all trained to be aware and sensitive to the needs of autistic kids. So families looking for something a little quieter, can enjoy the fresh air and vast carpets of green fields on the courses. Then enjoy a meal at the onsite restaurant, Ironwood Grill, without worrying about having to manage the feelings of staff.
Mooney Grove Park
In an effort to preserve a grove of old-growth oaks, Hugh Mooney donated 100 acres of his land in 1909 to Tulare County, making Mooney Grove Park the first California county park. In the center of Mooney Grove Park is a duck pond stocked with trout where families can actually fish! Kids are free but adults need to buy a fishing permit. Located a few minutes from downtown, the park has picnic tables and regularly hosts local events. It is also the home to the Tulare County Museum.
Hours of Operation: Monday through Friday 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Saturday & Sunday 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Park is open until 8:00 June 1-Sep 8 Entrance fee: Friday-Sunday between March and October. Fee is $6 per vehicle and $3 for seniors.
Tulare County Museum
Step into the past by walking into the preserved homes in Pioneer Village.
Dating back to the 1800s, history buffs moved these historic buildings onto museum land where tools, furniture, and gadgets are displayed inside the structures, for visitors to appreciate the comforts of today while seeing how things were in the old days. A one-room schoolhouse, the first Visalia jail, and an old caboose are on display. A great hall leading to the Pioneer Village has the original signs from businesses that occupied the town in the early 1900s. Some have facades and replicas of what a typical day may have looked like inside the shop.
The museum also has the largest collection of Native American Yokut baskets in the state of California.
Kids can try their hand at using a mortar and pestle from the museum’s vast collection.
A newer building houses the History of Farm Labor and Agriculture Museum, where the 16 cultural groups who had a part in the advancement of Visalia through farm labor and agriculture are featured.
Admission to the museum is included in the park entrance fee.
Historic Downtown Visalia
This is the thing. Visalia has a long history that started way before 1852 when a preacher/hunter/horse trader from Kentucky named Nathaniel Vise blew through town. Before he left, he and his friend, Mr. O’Neal, surveyed and registered the new town, Visalia, “in the finest part of the Four Creeks.”
Visalia has made a great effort to uncover and restore many of the original buildings from this time period. That’s one of the things that makes it so cool. We stayed at the Darling Hotel which was originally the annex of Tulare County Courthouse with offices for administrators. Its charm is derived from the many details preserved throughout. It is also Stop 2 on the self-guided early Visalia walking tour. Stop 4 is the old Tulare County Jail from which a notorious train robber once escaped. Today, there is a speak-easy style restaurant named Jack and Charlie’s Restaurant in the basement. Stop 9 is the iconic Visalia Fox Theatre. Opened in 1930 with a Spanish-style exterior and an East Indian interior, complete with carved elephants, genies, and a pagoda, the town has restored the theater and today it is home to the Sequoia Symphony Orchestra and hosts big names that come through the small town.
Families will get a great feel of the newly revamped downtown Visalia and kids can claim their reward for their patience at How We Roll Ice Cream, close to many of the historic attractions.
Check out the 13 other stops on the Visalia Historic Walking Tour
Meet Local Visalia Artists
Young artists will appreciate the ease of viewing the offerings at the Arts Consortium. The Arts Consortium has events and arts festivals all year long to showcase the talents of local artists who use various mediums to express and provoke intimate ideas. Walk through the gallery on Court St. to easily sample and appreciate their contributions.
Yes, Visalia even has a minor league baseball team that plays at Rawhide Ballpark, aka Valley Strong Ballpark. If you have baseball-obsessed kids like mine, they would love seeing a game at this local favorite attraction.
Things To Do Around Visalia
Farmer Bob’s World
Kids from around the world visit Bob McKellar Family Farms in Ivanhoe, about 8 miles from Visalia, to learn firsthand how the orange sitting in their lunch bag actually got there. And at the end of their tour, they get to play farmer and pluck their own orange right off the tree!
Farmer Bob’s World offers guests wagon and walking tours around his groves, about eight miles from Visalia, to get a first-hand look and learn about the labor-intensive process of growing citrus trees and ensuring their health and integrity through pest control using ladybugs and other friendly critters and all the other ways they must protect their precious crops. Bob grows four varieties of citrus (Navel, Valencia, Shasta Mountain Mandarin, and W Murcote Mandarins aka Halos or Cuties) on his land which his parents bought in 1927. A third-generation citrus farmer, Bob McKeller really loves his life and is excited to share it with young people and visitors from all over the world.
We rumbled through his orchard in a covered wagon pulled by a John Deere tractor, inhaling the tangy scent of the trees. The tractor made regular stops so Bob (and an onboard video) could share the many steps he and other citrus farmers take to ensure their oranges and mandarins are the juiciest and healthiest possible. Bob is constantly working with his employees, whom he considers the best part of his job, to create new programs for Farmer Bob’s World. Farmer Bob’s World offers venues for weddings, birthday parties, and memorials.
Jennifer Nicholson didn’t want to take over Riata Ranch International and the Cowboy Girls trick riders. “I had no choice,” Jennifer told me as she walked us around the new location of Riata Ranch, in Three Rivers, about 30 miles from Visalia, before she took us out on horseback through the nature trails of the lush 1,200-acre property.
The previous owner, Tommy Maier, who started the company in 1957, died in 2002 after a long illness that had bankrupted Riata Ranch International. But after visiting 22 countries and meeting the Queen of England after performing at Windsor Castle for her Diamond Jubilee, Jennifer wasn’t about to just give up. So, she strapped on her boots and got to work.
Today, she has diversified the business to include an AirBnB guest ranch experience for visitors to see what it feels like to work on a gorgeous ranch before they head up to visit the national parks. Jennifer also mentors young girls like 10-year-old Ava, who accompanied us on our ride. Ava told us she’s been riding horses since she was four and is training to become a Cowboy Girl.
Jennifer is committed to the Riata Ranch mentorship program that she says makes leaders out of previously shy girls. “Not just anyone can participate in the trick riding program,” Jennifer told me. “They have to agree to abide by the five tenants of the ranch, which are:
Our trail ride took us along the North Fork Kaweigha River, through bright green pastures and bushes exulting in spring air. The ranch was part of the original stagecoach trail that had a stop on its property about 100 years ago.
Before our ride, Jennifer took us into the same rink where she trains her young riders and went over the basics of communicating with our horses as we rode them around the arena.
All Riata Ranch horses were once show horses, so they are the most talented horses we’d ever ridden. For some reason, the saddle on my horse, Curly (a curly-haired mare who is hypoallergenic) was the most comfortable saddle I’ve ever sat upon. No one could tell me why but the entire experience was unlike any other horse rental trail ride we’d ever taken. Curly was super responsive and I felt very safe. Perfect for kids of all ages.
Sequoia National Park With Sequoia Guides
We finally made it to Sequoia National Park and after a major miscalculation on the amount of time it would take to arrive to meet our guide (our GPS said it would be a 45-minute drive to the General Sherman Tree but it was wrooooong! That was just to the park gate. The actual trip took about 1.5 hours), we found Krista Simonic from Sequoia Guides patiently waiting at a bench sitting in front of the trailhead of the General Sherman Tree Trail at the Giant Forest Grove. “I usually give people about an hour’s grace,” Krista told us. I liked her immediately. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones to make this mistake even though had I looked more closely at her very helpful email confirmation, I would have seen the time she had estimated it would take to get to our meeting spot was the time it actually took.
Regardless, giant cinnamon-colored trees dwarfed us all around and soothed the anxiety I felt from being so late.
Those tannins also protect the trees from fire. Although the heat allows the sequoia cones to open and unleash their seeds, the tannins protect the bark from easily catching on fire like other trees. “Then the tree grows its bark around the burn spots to protect it,” Krista said, almost bursting with the enthusiasm of sharing something she loved so much with us. In fact, she bounced and hopped more than she walked through the entire .8 mile paved Sherman Tree Trail, which she said has an elevation difference, from start to tree, that equals the height of the tree, 275 feet! There are placards along the trail that tell you where you are in relation to the tree height.
There are 75 sequoia groves in the world and they all grow in the western Sierra Mountains in California at between 4000-8000 feet elevation.
“Unlike other trees, giant sequoia trees control their growth based on environmental conditions,” said Krista. This means they can literally stop growing if they feel claustrophobic or crowded by other trees. However, the super interesting thing about the sequoias too is they really are a communal tree. “Their roots are shallow, only about 6-12 feet, but they grow as wide as they are tall,” Krista told us. And because of this, they share dirt space with their neighbor trees. Their roots grow all around and between each other and this is how they also hold each other up during extreme environmental conditions.
We moved onto the 3-mile loop Congress Trail near the General Sherman Tree.
We visited the world’s oldest tree, The President. The President is about 3,200 years old. The President started growing around the time that the Bronze Age ended and the Trojan War began.
Scientists measure the age of a tree by extracting a pencil-sized core 30 feet above the base and counting the lines. Each line is a year that the tree grew.
The most densely populated grove of Congress includes the House and the Senate.
DON’T MISS! Flying Over Trees! Ziplining in Wrightwood, CA
Our shoes crunched through snow when we went off trail to unmarked spots Krista knew about where we found trees with hollow middles and trees with wild-looking exposed root systems.
We trekked an extra couple hundred yards to see an old cabin named the Cattle Cabin. Cattlemen used the Cattle Cabin as a slaughterhouse and milk station. They owned the land around Giant Forest Grove and used it as a pasture for their cattle to graze. They sold meat and milk out of the cabin to park visitors and soldiers until the National Park Service bought the land from them in 1916.
Krista from Sequoia Guides offers Stargazing and Day Tours. When there is snow, she provides snowshoes for the hikes. She limits the groups to small numbers for the best experience and can cater to all tastes and fitness levels.
Admission to the park is $35 per vehicle and is good for seven days.
Although we recommend Sequoia Guides, there are other options in case she’s booked when you want to visit. To get discounts on tours in the area, we recommend Get Your Guide or Viator (which offers 51% off last-minute tours!).
A Sequoia National Park shuttle service is available to pick families up from their hotel if they’d rather not drive. The $20 round trip fare includes park admission. After the 1.5-2.5 hour ride, the shuttle drops riders off at the Giant Forest Museum where families can take any of the four free in-park shuttles to popular destinations and trailheads.
The entire day, marked by a thawing ground, the powerful yet peaceful trees, and the pillows of clouds drifting through a cerulean sky, made us grateful that it was a newspaperman from Visalia, George Stewart, who played such a large part in President Harris’s decision to declare Sequoia National Park, in 1890, the second National Park in the nation. Years later, Visalia again played a role in the park’s preservation when, at the Palace Hotel in 1915, (Stop 15 on the Historic Visalia Walking Trail) a group of influential men, assembled by Stephen Mathers, met for dinner before embarking on a two-week journey through the Sierra Mountains to experience for themselves the vision of these mystical trees and climb Mt. Whitney. It was from this adventure that the men, nicknamed the Mathers Mountain Party, committed themselves to becoming stewards of these groves by cementing the legislation to create the United States National Park Service, which President Wilson signed into law in 1916. Mathers became the first director of the NPS a year later.
One could say that Visalia is not only the “Gateway to the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks,” it’s also their best friend.
When You Go
Getting To Visalia From Los Angeles
This is an easy, pleasant drive (as long as there’s no traffic) along the I-5 N and CA-99 N and is about 188 miles, depending on where you start. It took us about 3 hours because there was no traffic.
Where To Stay In Visalia
The 5-star Darling Hotel hosted our stay and we couldn’t have loved it more. The art deco-inspired hotel has new and sylish decor. It has reimagined vintage touches that combine modern-day convenience with old-world charm. Check out the room reveal below.
Want to SEE the inside of a room at the Darling Hotel? Watch THIS room reveal!
The centrally located Darling Hotel is a local family-owned boutique hotel situated on the edge of downtown Visalia. The Darling Hotel has a rooftop restaurant with an unobstructed city view. The top floor has a speak-easy style bar that perfectly matches its retro design.
Rooms offer king, queen and double queen options. Rollouts are available upon request. There is also an outdoor pool and fitness center.
Another great option is the Visalia Marriott at the Convention Center. This Marriott also has an indoor/outdoor restaurant on the ground floor called the Greatroom. The restaurant has live entertainment and the night we went, it was a comedian/singer who made everyone laugh and dance all night. This hotel also has an outdoor pool and fitness center.
The Hampton Inn Visalia has large rooms at an affordable price. Morning breakfast is included with your stay. This property also has an outdoor pool and fitness center.
Visalia is the best little town you’ve never heard of. Here are fun things to do in “The Gateway To Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks”
Where To Eat
A Mediterranean deli and fabulous, casual restaurant, Pita Kabob Mediterranean Gastropub is tasty and fun. It offers indoor and outdoor seating and great service. Make sure your entire party is present before you try and get a table though. The hostess is strict about this policy. It gets busy so reservations are recommended.
If you’re going to eat at the Darling Hotel rooftop restaurant, The Elderwood, you’d better make reservations because it’s definitely a hotspot in town. The Elderwood serves creative California cuisine. It’s a great place for happy hour too because you can watch the sunset over cocktails and snacks.
We also enjoyed the atmosphere at the Greatroom at the Marriott. We ate on the patio but they also have an indoor dining room at the California-inspired cuisine restaurant. Weekends bring live entertainment.
A great place to stop after horseriding at Riata Ranch is the Main Squeeze Market in Lemon Cove on the way back to Visalia on the juncture of the CA-98 and CA-216. Main Squeeze Market sells juices made from the fruit they’ve grown on their farm, Lindcove Ranch.
They have pastries and light meals too. Picnic tables in their outdoor yard are available for seating. The market also has a cute gift shop with products made by local artisans and farms. This is where we picked up all of our souvenirs.
Another great restaurant and a great excuse to dress up is the Vintage Press. They have an extensive wine list and an abundance of craft cocktails. The California-style cuisine was superb. It’s a great place for a date night or a fun night out.
You won’t believe you’re in the central valley when you step inside the Component Coffee Lab. A hipster refuge, they have creative and healthy options for breakfast and lunch.
A casual eatery where you can watch your favorite sports team on TV over burgers and brew is the Sequoia Brewing Company. Families won’t have to worry about their kids being too loud here.
If you do decide to do the self-guided walking tour, Stop 7 at the Presbyterian Church has a community coffee house, the 210 Cafe, where guests can linger over their coffee or grab a pastry to finish the tour. There’s live music on Saturday mornings.
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