Located some 50 feet below sea level, midway across California at the heart of the agricultural Coachella Valley, El Centro (pop. 44,201) was founded in 1906 and has since bloomed into a bustling small city, thanks to irrigation water diverted from the Colorado River. Melons, grapefruit, and dates are the region’s prime agricultural products, along with alfalfa grown to feed the many dairy cows. There’s not a lot here that doesn’t depend on farming.
Though not much of a destination, El Centro is still the best place to break a journey between San Diego and the Arizona border, so fill your gas tank, if nothing else. All the national food and lodging chains are here, along with neon-signed local ones along the I-8 Business Loop. Local character and tasty Mexican food abound at the good Sobe’s (1151 S. 4th St., 760/352-6838), three blocks north of I-8.