Calif. Citrus State Historic Park is an overlooked roadside attraction

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One of California’s most important historic landmarks is stuck on the corner of a busy intersection, hidden beneath a large mesh screen with iron gates surrounding all sides.

Two of the first navel orange trees in the United States were planted in Riverside in 1873, setting off what is sometimes called the “second California Gold Rush,” but only this one lonely streetside tree remains at this place hardly worth visiting. Every single navel orange tree in the country is a descendant of one of these two trees, which would help permanently establish the West as an important economic force.

But just over 5 miles away at the southern end of the city is California Citrus State Historic Park, an overlooked, sprawling oasis lined with palm trees and picturesque views of surrounding mountain ranges that pays homage to that fundamental history. Plus, it’s a place you can try citrus you won’t find anywhere else. 

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Citrus groves at California Citrus State Historic Park, including fingered citron, or Buddha’s hand, in Riverside, Calif.Images via Getty and Ashley Hayes-Stone/SFGATE
Citrus groves at California Citrus State Historic Park, including fingered citron, or Buddha’s hand, in Riverside, Calif.Images via Getty and Ashley Hayes-Stone/SFGATE

On a recent visit, I joined in on one of the approximately 45-minute ranger-led tours where you can feast on some of this little-known citrus straight from the grove. Among lines of trees with the scent of orange blossoms in the air, signs sit below leafy branches weighed down with fruit and indicate names you’ll recognize, as well as different hybrids cultivated by the nearby UC Riverside Citrus Variety Collection. There are more than 100 varieties on the grounds, including oranges, lemons, grapefruits, limes, tangerines, kumquats, Buddha’s hands and more. 

The 248 acres are considered an open-air museum, telling the stories of the citrus trade’s rise in agricultural history while acknowledging the struggles and lasting impacts along the way. It’s also still a working citrus grove and includes more types of the fruit than anywhere else in the country aside from UC Riverside’s collection.

All the citrus isn’t for visitors’ tasting, though. Most of the fruit throughout the park will be picked and sold by park partner Gless Ranch, which also maintains an orange-shaped stand at the entrance where visitors can purchase citrus. The family-owned business helped design and plant the park when it opened.

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Park ranger Jose Cabello poses with chandler pummelo at the California Citrus State Historic Park in Riverside, Calif., on Oct. 13, 2023.

Park ranger Jose Cabello poses with chandler pummelo at the California Citrus State Historic Park in Riverside, Calif., on Oct. 13, 2023.

Ashley Hayes-Stone/SFGATE

The tour starts and ends at the park’s visitor center, which includes a museum that takes day-trippers on a journey through the fruit’s history in California with exhibits and historic artifacts. The history traces the land from the Indigenous Cahuilla tribes to when Riverside resident Eliza Tibbets planted the first navel orange trees gifted to her by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to now.

On a Friday afternoon, myself and a photographer were the only ones on the tour, and a few others milled about the museum. It’s one of the state’s newer parks, established in 1993, and annual park attendance hovers at about 60,000 to 70,000 visitors a year. Since it’s only 30 years old, it’s a best-kept secret of nearby residents who use its hiking and walking trails daily, said Susan von Zabern, executive director of the Friends of California Citrus Park organization, a nonprofit that helps support the park.

There’s also an activity center, an amphitheater and picnic area, and the grounds host weddings and other special events throughout the year, with proceeds that go back to the park. There’s a $5 parking fee and tours are only available on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, so be sure to check the website before going. There’s also a small gift shop in the visitor center. 

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An archway stands at the California Citrus State Historic Park in Riverside, Calif., on Oct. 13, 2023.

An archway stands at the California Citrus State Historic Park in Riverside, Calif., on Oct. 13, 2023.

Ashley Hayes-Stone/SFGATE

Plans are in the works to make the park even better. In 2022, the state allocated $30 million for park improvement to help tell even more of California citrus history, with a new grove house, a packing house and a “workers bunk house” to display what it was like to work and live among the fields. 

The new additions are currently in the design phase, but von Zabern is optimistic they could be built and opened within the next few years. Then, one of Riverside’s best-kept secrets can be shared with more of the state. 

Visitors stand in the lobby of the visitor center at the California Citrus State Historic Park in Riverside, Calif., on Oct. 13, 2023.

Visitors stand in the lobby of the visitor center at the California Citrus State Historic Park in Riverside, Calif., on Oct. 13, 2023.

Ashley Hayes-Stone/SFGATE

“It’s a hidden gem,” von Zabern said. “This is how California overall became a cultural melting pot. It’s a big part of our history.” 

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