Modesto is located in the heart of California’s agricultural center, surrounded by nut tree orchards, fertile fields, and sprawling cattle farms. Area residents will tell visitors that it is these roots in farming and ranching that make Modesto what it is: a great place to raise a family, with the feeling of small town living amongst a big city’s conveniences and population. Centrally located to San Francisco, Sacramento, and Yosemite, Modesto offers more than just a rest stop for travelers.
The Hilmar Cheese Factory, just four miles off highway 99, and in a small farm town outside of Modesto, is a perfect place to stop, stretch the legs, grab a bite of gourmet food while learning a little bit about dairy processing. The factory’s visitor center features interactive exhibits geared towards children which are packed with information summarizing how cows are milked, where the milk goes, how cheese is made, and what is done with dairy by-products. Put together a picnic basket of foods, cheeses, and beverages from local artisans, or place an order in at the café, which makes gourmet sandwiches, Panini, salads and a full range of child-approved kids meals. Eat inside or outdoors on the patio, near the waterfall on one of the many picnic tables, or just head back down the road with goodies in hand. Admission to the Hilmar Cheese Factory Visitor’s Center and its exhibits is free. Kid’s meals are $3.50 – $4.50; à la Carte items vary in price.
When considering making an overnight stop on a longer road trip, look into lodging at the Doubletree Hotel, which is conveniently located in downtown Modesto. Check in during afternoon hours, and then head to dinner at Harvest Moon, an independent, quirky restaurant whose food makes it local favorite. While praised for several menu items (Neil’s Toss salad, the Blue Moon Burger, and the Deluxe C Crab Sandwich), our family’s favorite indulgences are the sweet potato fries served with honey mustard dipping sauce and Spicy Thai Sticks with peanut sauce, which are always moist and savory. Little diners will enjoy that most kids menu selections are typical kid favorites, but parents will appreciate that the meals are true made-to-order foods — often simply smaller, less daring versions of the adult selections. While there is no kid’s menu listed, the servers have the standard-issue choices memorized.
Within walking distance from Harvest Moon is Modesto’s recently built cutting-edge Gallo Center for the Arts where patrons have said that there is not a bad seat in the house. The annual production of “The Nutcracker” and shows that highlight the local child talent are some of our family’s favorite shows. The Gallo Center for the Arts has been a stop for national tours, wonderful kid-friendly artists, and plays including the Golden Dragon Acrobats, Madeline and the Bad Hat, and even The Imagination Movers. If a children’s show is not in the line up, stop off instead at the Brenden Theater for a movie, which is just across the street from the Doubletree.
Before continuing the adventure down the highway, stop in at The Great Valley Natural History Museum, only one mile from the hotel. The museum is small enough to explore within an hour or two, and will provide a bit of educated playtime prior to getting back into the car. Upon entering the museum, visitors will learn about the Native American Indians who once resided in the area, the habitats and their animals that make up the Central Valley, the Tuolumne River Watershed and it’s amazing salmon population, and the critters that live in Modesto’s backyards but often remain unseen. The Discovery Room at the rear of the museum includes a wall of terrariums housing reptiles, amphibians, and arachnids; a food web creator; many puzzles and the space required to assemble them; and interactive games to explore. In an outer building, a world’s worth of exotic wild animals are on display in the Great Animal Hall. Admission to the museum is $1 per person, or $3 per family; 6 and under are free.
Enjoy a visit to Modesto, which is almost surely somewhere along the route of your next California road trip adventure!