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What goes on Under the Oaks in beautiful Paso Robles, California?

At the Northern head of the upper Salinas River valley, which makes up Northern San Luis Obispo county, the city that leads the way for the region economically, culturally and in terms of sheer energy, is Paso Robles, also known as El Paso de Robles. Referred to as the ‘jewel of the North County’, this city of 26,000 people and about 18 square miles, is big on charm, community spirit and great attractions for family fun. The city straddles the Salinas River, which is dry in the summer but runs freely in the winter, and where opportunities for hiking, horseback riding, or recreational vehicles, make for a fun time.

Three men---James and Daniel Blackburn, and Lazarus Godchaux----purchased a 25,000 acre rancho along the Salinas River in 1857 that would be the beginning of Paso Robles. Native American inhabitants had long known that the ‘Pass of the Oaks’, as the area was called, featured naturally occurring hot-springs, and by the early 1860’s, a resort and health center was built and the town was called simply ‘Hot Springs’. The town had a post office as early as 1867, about the same time the Southern Pacific railroad came through, bringing visitors to this bustling community with 100 homes and more than 500 residents. The town was incorporated in 1889.

In the center of town, a two-story wooden structure known as the El Paso de Robles Hotel and Hot Springs was built, surrounded by cottages, around 1860. This early hotel featured the hot springs and mud baths, as well as two dining rooms, a store, billiard room, telegraph office and post office. But it was replaced in 1891 with a much grander building designed by Stanford White. Made of red brick with sandstone arches, the new hotel was three stories high and had circular towers, a solarium and a large central tower, as well as a 16-foot veranda. There was also an elegant main entrance and lobby, with parlors, a billiard room, reading rooms, a saloon and a ballroom. For decades this incredible hotel was one of the finest such establishments on the entire West Coast, but it burned down in 1940, and was replaced by today’s Paso Robles Inn. The modern inn has a restaurant, bar, coffee shop, and in-room hot tubs. Only the original ballroom structure was saved from the fire, and it has been completely restored to serve as a conference center and meeting hall.

You can reach Paso Robles from four directions by car, on Highway 101 from the South or the North, from the East on Highway 46 East, and from the Coast on Highway 46 West. Visitors also arrive by bus, or on the Amtrak train that arrives in the downtown area, or by private aircraft at the airport. Highway 46 East leaves town from 24th Street and heads towards the Valley and Bakersfield about an hour away. Traveling West on Highway 46 West takes you to the beach towns of Cambria and San Simeon, where you can visit Hearst Castle. To the North, Highway 101 leads to King City in about two hour’s drive; and South on Highway 101 a short distance are Templeton and Atascadero. Paso Robles is seen to be located almost exactly halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and it’s central location makes it the perfect place to stay while enjoying all the Central Coast has to offer.

Downtown Paso Robles, and its award-winning Main Street program, is the bustling hub of a community in love with life. A new state-of-the art police station, and the city hall/library complex, are near the Downtown City Park, which was donated to the city by James Blackburn and Drury James in 1897, and today is the scene of frequent festivals and gatherings. Some of the historic buildings you can see in this area include the Blackburn Building at the corner of 12th and Park streets, with the ornate clock tower that has become a symbol of the town; and the Carnegie Library in the center of the park, built around 1907 with a $10,000 donation from Andrew Carnegie. The Municipal Bathhouse on 11th street was once the location of public swimming from 1905; and you can also visit the remains of the Southern Pacific Railroad depot at 8th and Pine Streets, which was a passenger and freight station built around 1887 (this area features a new transportation center for arrivals by train or bus, and is within walking distance of the downtown area).

There are also numerous elegant Victorian homes built in the 1890’s on Vine Street, which are still occupied. Shopping or dining in the downtown area is a mosaic of quaint shops, gourmet bistros, and fun diversions. Here you will find everything from appliances to artwork, ice cream, beauty shops, books, flowers, jewelry, office supplies, photography, garments, real estate and more than 200 antique dealers with 55,000 square feet of retail space devoted only to antiques. You may also want to take a step back in time with a visit to the Pioneer Museum on Riverside Avenue, where local historians have preserved bits and pieces of Paso Robles’ past, such as an 1873 jail door, a bank vault door, buggies, tractors and farm equipment, historic souvenirs, and one of only two huge Jeansville oil pumps in the world.

Paso Robles’ downtown also features fine dining un-matched anywhere on the Central Coast, with gourmet meals prepared by celebrity chefs. Great food is complimented by great local wines, and Paso Robles is proud to be one of the fastest-growing premium wine regions in the state. The number of wineries and wine grape acres in the Paso Robles area more than doubled between 1993 and 2002. There are now more than 60 wineries in the area and 20,000 acres of vineyards. By 1983 Paso Robles had its own viticultural appellation, which today is the fourth largest such region in the state, contributing to the county’s top agricultural product of $58 million in annual wine and wine grape sales. Although famous for the Zinfandel variety, 45 other types of wine grapes are grown here, with optimal growing conditions and diverse soils attracting new growers every year. The first wine grapes were planted here as early as 1797 by Missionaries at the San Miguel mission, and then later by people like Andrew York, who established the area’s oldest winery at York Mountain around 1882, which today has its own appellation.

In 1914, Polish premier and concert pianist Ignace J. Paderewski took a room at the grand hotel, seeking a cure in the hot springs for the neuritis that was crippling his hands. He stayed for eight years, during which time he established a 2,000-acre vineyard of his own in the 1920’s. Paderewski’s influence is remembered today in Paso Robles with a festival, one of several throughout the year.

The biggest of these is the Paso Robles Wine Festival, held in the middle of May in the Downtown Park, which is one of the largest outdoor wine events in California and attracts 15,000 visitors annually. This event features a golf tournament, numerous winemaker dinners and special events, entertainment, barrel sampling and tours at the wineries, and 300 wines you can sample in the park with food and music.

Other festivals to celebrate Paso’s wines are the Zinfandel Festival in March, with an auction in the ballroom at the Paso Robles Inn and a special collaborative wine blend prepared by local wine-makers; and the Harvest Wine Tour in October when grapes are being harvested, featuring events, barbecues, tours, seminars and celebrity chefs.

Wine is also frequently the theme of activities at the Mid-State Fair, located in a large park-like setting with arenas, stages, show buildings and livestock areas on Riverside Avenue. Known as ‘the biggest little fair anywhere’, the Mid-State Fair usually focuses on livestock, agriculture and domestic arts, and during the year is the scene of flea markets, antique and auto shows, equestrian events and wine happenings. During the Fair itself in late July, you can also see well-known music acts like Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder, or comedians like Bill Cosby and Carrot Top. Each year there is a professional rodeo as well as a beauty pageant, equestrian events, livestock markets, industrial arts exhibits, 4-H and FFA shows and special days for seniors, kids and the community.

To open the Fair there is a cattle drive down city streets every year, and 1,500 ranchers and farmers come out for Cattleman’s Day for cow dog trials, ranch horse classes, 40 pens to show cattle and the naming of the Cattleman of the Year. The Fair also has a carnival, and dances, zoo animals, free stage shows, a Monster Truck show and of course all the great Fair Food you can eat.

Paso Robles has many fine hotels where you can stay during your visit, and you can also take a round of golf at several local golf courses.

For outdoor recreation, you can’t beat the boating, fishing, camping and swimming at either of two local lakes, including Nacimiento Lake and Lake San Antonio. Nacimiento Lake is 18 miles from town on Highway G-14, and is known as ‘the Dragon’ because of its unusual shape. It was created in 1959 with a dam on the Nacimiento River. The river was named by Spanish explorers such as Portola and De Anza who camped there from 1769 on. Nacimiento Lake is a major recreation area, with a large resort and miles of open space for summer get-aways.

Just up the road on G-14 is Lake San Antonio, with camping, fishing, hiking, picnic areas, and boating. And for a special treat early in the year, Lake San Antonio hosts Eagle-Watch tours to see the many magnificent bald eagles who roost here for part of the year.

Paso Robles’ public schools consistently score above the state average, with 75 percent of our high school graduates going on to college. The district features one high school, two middle schools and six elementary school sites. District planners emphasize reduced class sizes, with one computer for every 18 students. The school district is the largest employer in Paso Robles, and is proud of the Culinary Arts Academy, which provides hands-on instruction for students who wish to pursue a career in food services, or as chefs. The academy features an instructional kitchen and a full production kitchen, and supplies food for 16 school sites, as well as instruction in sanitation, livestock preparation, nutrition, banquets, and basic and advanced cooking.

Paso Robles is also home to the Northern Cuesta College campus, which is an extension of the main Cuesta College campus in San Luis Obispo, and provides courses in numerous disciplines. The campus is located on Highway 46 East, and is near the Paso Robles airport, which is 1,225 acres in size and is considered one of the most accessible airports in the region with good flying weather year-round.

The airport was constructed when the U.S. military abandoned a World War 2 bomber base at the site, and was operated by the county from 1952. It was then taken over by the city in 1973 as growth in the area increased. The airport is home to numerous businesses, and a fleet of Lear jets, as well as the California Department of Forestry Air Attack Base, from which tanker planes are dispatched to fight fires all over the West. There is also a recently completed terminal, although commuter flights are not available. Big events you won’t want to miss in Paso Robles each year include two great car shows, featuring custom and vintage hot-rods from all over the state in May and again in September. Both of these shows are great opportunities to see some truly classic automobiles, and there is a cruise night, dance and concert as well.

And just before Christmas, the Victorian homes on Vine Street are all dressed up for the season for the Vine Street Victorian Showcase. This is a great evening of fun for the family that attracts thousands of visitors each year to see the wonderful Christmas decorations, enjoy hot coco and hot apple cider, hear story-tellers, listen to live bands and choral groups, see stage shows and meet Santa Claus and Ebenezer Scrooge. Many of the local residents on Vine Street dress in period costumes and put on a show, and the kids love the excitement of the season.

Pioneer Day in October is Paso Robles’ salute to the past, and the men and women who settled the region hundreds of years before. The fun starts with the selection of a Parade Queen and Marshal, usually from families that have lived in the area for generations, as well as a group of Pioneer Day Belles, the young ladies who will represent their historic families in the parade. Then on Pioneer Day, the whole town turns out for festivities that include a free bean feed in the park, contests, music, a dance, equestrian events, and of course the big parade down Spring Street.

The parade has grown to include hundreds of entries by community groups showing their stuff with floats and humorous displays, and every year a team of old-timers crank up dozens of antique tractors, some of them steam-driven, which rattle through town in a furious display of mechanized mayhem. Merchants in the downtown area display old photos and memorabilia from the town’s past, and a great time is had by all. Paso Robles has much to offer visitors from around the state of California and around the world.

There seems to be no end to the fun, and all of this is located in a picturesque small-town setting within a short distance of rural and wilderness areas. Experience California as it once was, and the best of modern times, in the town known for its friendly people, fun times and fantastic attractions.