ALLENSWORTH, Calif. — There's no reason to be bored on a drive through the San Joaquin Valley. Instead of following the freeways that speed through California's food basket, detour on California 43.
That rural two-lane road will lead to an unusual state historic park, a farm where visitors can pick their own vegetables, a reserve for the rare tule elk and a recreation area that's popular with fishing folk and campers.
From California 99 north of Bakersfield, take the Ducor/Alpaugh exit at Earlimart and go west on Tulare County road J22 (56 Avenue) to California 43. Turn left and head south about two miles to Palmer Avenue, a road that crosses the Santa Fe railway tracks to Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park.
Park boundaries encompass the center of Allensworth, the only town in California founded by blacks.
Today, ranger Phil Jenkins and a groundskeeper and their families are the only residents of Allensworth, which exceeded 200 people in its heyday.
The town owes its name and beginning in 1908 to a former slave and U.S. Army chaplain, Lt. Col. Allen Allensworth. He envisioned an agricultural colony in which blacks could be economically and politically independent.
With good soil and water wells, the town prospered. It had two general stores, a bakery, a barber shop, a livery stable, a drugstore, a machine shop, a hotel, a school and a library.
Allensworth's demise began in 1914 with the death of its leader in a Los Angeles traffic accident, followed by a declining water supply. Residents moved away.
Much of the town had disappeared by 1976, when the site became a state historic park as a monument to its black pioneers. Since then several structures have been restored or reconstructed.
Head first to the visitor center to view a 30-minute video about the town. Buy a park map (75 cents), then walk or drive to various buildings on the flat and almost treeless town site.
Signs describe past use of restored structures. Push a button at the elementary school, Grosse's Drug Store and Singleton's General Store for taped commentaries about those buildings.
Visit the furnished home of Col. and Mrs. Allensworth. Their prefabricated house was brought in in sections by the railroad and constructed in 1910; the ranger will open it upon request. The school and the Smith and Hindsman houses will be opened if requested.
Plans include a display of livestock and replanting of the town's experimental garden. The former hotel is to be reconstructed as an eight-room inn. Meanwhile, visitors can overnight in a campground with 15 sites (no hookups). There are shaded tables for picnics.
The visitor center is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. On May 13 docents will give guided tours of the town during the annual Allensworth Jubilee. The park phone is (805) 849-3433.
Continue south on California 43 through Wasco and Shafter and their fields of roses to Stockdale Highway due west of Bakersfield.
Turn right and go west three miles to entrance signs for the Al Bussell Ranch.
The Bussell clan has been growing fruits and vegetables on their farm for 29 years, and they let visitors pick in the fields. This is the first season the farm has been open to the public in winter.
You'll find ripe carrots, radishes, broccoli, cabbage and turnips. Those vegetables are also sold in the farm shed. Oranges, pears and apples are available, too. Open daily, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Youngsters can pet the farm animals and play in a maze created with bales of hay. Sandwiches and beverages are available at a refreshment stand. For an update of what is ripe for picking, call the Bussell Ranch at (805) 589-2324 or (805) 589-0595.
Thousands of tule elk once roamed California's valleys, but hunters and loss of grazing lands to agriculture almost destroyed this subspecies. Forty-nine of the rare animals still roam in the 350-acre Tule Elk State Reserve.
Continue west on Stockdale Highway more than a mile past the Interstate 5 overpass and turn left on Morris Road. At its end, go right on Station Road to the reserve headquarters. When there has been little rain, the elk frequently come to a watering hole near the viewing area; take binoculars to help see these shy animals.
Continue west on Station Road, turn left on Tupman Road that follows the California Aqueduct to Taft Highway/California 119, and turn left again to reach Enos Lane. Then turn right (south) to the Buena Vista Aquatic Recreation Area.
Many Boaters, Campers
In summer this Kern County park overflows with boaters, swimmers and campers trying to beat the valley's heat. This time of year, however, there is plenty of room to enjoy its two man-made lakes.
In 1973 water was pumped into the dry Buena Vista Lake bed to create Lake Webb, a favorite of boaters, and the smaller Lake Evans, where fishermen try for trout.
Camping is available without reservations; it's $12 to $15 per vehicle per site, $14 to $18 with full hookup. Day-use entry is $3 per vehicle. Trout fishing costs $3.50 extra per person, $1.50 for ages 8 to 15.
Return to Los Angeles by going north on Enos Lane to California 119/Taft Highway and turning right to Interstate 5.
Round trip between Los Angeles and the San Joaquin Valley is 328 miles.