It may not have the cachet of some other Northern California hot spots, but a day trip to Watsonville brings you closer to nature and to Steinbeck country.
When you live in the suburbs, it’s easy to take California’s bountiful agricultural regions and rural communities for granted. It’s only when traveling to, say, Michigan in December that you’ll miss a good head of lettuce like the kind we get year round.
Taking the winding Hecker Pass Road/State Route 152 through the redwoods, we witnessed dramatic views of the fields below. Sugar beets and grains used to be the major regional crops, but by the 1920s, strawberries and lettuce took over.
In the 1930s, field workers arrived from Oklahoma, and John Steinbeck chronicled their mistreatment in his books, including “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Cannery Row” and the lesser-known “In Dubious Battle,” set in his native Salinas and on the Monterey Peninsula.
Despite sunny skies, the weather was brisk when we arrived at our first stop in Watsonville, the Codiga Center and Museum at 2601 E. Lake Ave. (aghistoryproject.org), run by the Agricultural History Project.
Set in a quaint two-story barn, volunteers staff the museum from noon to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. Exhibits document the history of the region, including the once-flourishing apple industry and the legacy of the vaqueros.
“Most members of the Agricultural History Project come from farming families,” said volunteer Gloria Van Dierendonck.
In addition to running the museum, the Agricultural History Project collects and restores tools and equipment.
The museum’s Porter Implement Shed includes hand tools like a wood rasp and Cooper’s axe, augers and something called a “fro.” Rickety plows and a one-row potato planter round out the display.
An outdoor garage for restored tractors would probably interest young and old. A model 1937 John Deere tractor and a 1933 Ford truck give an idea of how far machines have evolved.
As part of its educational mission, the group sponsors events the second Saturday of each month. In honor of Valentine’s Day, the Feb. 8 event will combine chocolate and roses. Member John Borena will offer pruning tips, and a local chocolatier promises to hand out delicious morsels.
Immediately adjacent to the museum sits the Rodgers House (santacruzeventcenter.org), once owned by Steinbeck’s sister, Esther Rodgers. She donated it to Santa Cruz County, and it’s been restored to its original 1870s Victorian state. Historical archives include stories of the Pajaro Valley.
El Mercado Popular (elmercadopopular.com), the local farmers’ market, is scheduled year round 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays at Pajaro Valley High School, 500 Harkins Slough Road, and Sundays at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, 2601 E. Lake Ave.
Birding on the sloughs
Hidden from the road, the Watsonville Wetlands (watsonvillewetlandswatch.org) remain one of the last freshwater marshlands in the state. The sloughs make an ideal spot for birdwatching.
Following directions on the Wetlands Watch website, we found Ramsey Park, 30 Harkins Slough Road, and the Nature Center, which serves as a jumping-off point for several trails. Free guided nature walks are offered on Sundays.
According to city officials, the marshlands provide crucial downtime for birds migrating on the “globally important Pacific Flyway.” More than 200 species of shorebirds, raptors and songbirds gravitate to the wetlands.
Children might enjoy looking at the Nature Center’s interactive exhibits, which explain the importance of the wetlands. An estimated 26 endangered species make their home in the wetlands, currently undergoing restoration.
We had no trouble spotting egrets, mallards and swallows as soon as we started our walk. The trails meander through private and public lands on 800 acres, so it’s easy to get lost. Download the trail map at cityofwatsonville.org.
The city boasts 6 miles of paved walking and cycling trails, with 29 accessible trail entrances. Another trailhead, for the Watsonville Slough Trail, sits hidden behind the Body Zone fitness center, 1810 Main St., in a strip mall. Check the map.
Crystal Bay Farm at 40 Zils Road (crystalbayfarm.com) sponsors an unmanned, roadside farm stand operated via the honor system.
The farm grows organically certified berries, pumpkins, herbs and other crops. Crystal Bay offers customers the chance to pick their own strawberries ($3 a pound) and raspberries ($8 a pound) from mid-April through October.
Gizdich Ranch at 55 Peckham Road (gizdich-ranch.com) invites visitors to pick all the pay-by-the-pound strawberries they can eat.
Once you work up an appetite, head downtown. Visitors will notice the historical apple-crate murals on the sides of buildings. Exact copies of crate labels from the 1900s, they are exclusive to Watsonville and the Pajaro Valley. Download a walking tour brochure from the city’s website.
Watsonville houses plenty of historical homes with interesting architecture built circa the late 1800s and early 1900s. William Weeks, a celebrated architect of the Victorian era, designed most. He also produced the plans for the Gothic Revival-style St. Patrick’s Church at 721 Main St., with an ornate slate-roof steeple that dramatically enhances the building.
Other must-sees include the Resetar Residential Hotel at 15 W. Lake Ave., which Weeks designed in 1927 in the Spanish Colonial Revival style.
The Pajaro Valley Historical Association, headquartered in the Bockius-Orr house at 332 E. Beach St. (pajarovalleyhistory.org), is quite active in town. Godfrey M. Bockius, a Pennsylvania merchant, settled here and commissioned Alex Chalmers to design a Victorian addition in 1870. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
End of the day
Jalisco Restaurant at 618 Main St. (jaliscorestaurant.com), in an enormous space with full bar, serves great steak and chicken fajitas with rice and beans for $14.95. A full Mariachi band plays on Friday nights.
For dessert, try the Tamale Factory at 611 Main St. for sweet tamales.
Surrounded by strawberry fields, sand dunes and pine trees, Sunset State Beach at 201 Sunset Beach Road may be hard to spot, but it’s worth finding for its dramatic coastal views. Watching a spectacular sunset on the Pacific Ocean is a great way to end the day.
For more information, visit cityofwatsonville.org.