It's 8 a.m. on a June Saturday, and the American River Parkway is already getting crowded.
Runners Katie Tibbetts and Heather Kobza head onto the asphalt trail at Hazel Avenue, heads swiveling to watch for cyclists. Nearby, sweat-drenched Katri Kehraevuo of Citrus Heights steers her bike into the fish hatchery lot following an early-morning ride timed to beat the crowds. Farther down the trail, Heather Raitt of Carmichael sticks carefully to the shoulder as she pushes a stroller carrying her daughter Chloe, 3, on a duck-viewing expedition.
Life on the parkway has hit peak season. Sacramento County park rangers call it the "hot zone," when portions of the region's flowing 32-mile recreation artery can clog.
There are no solid data on how many people are flocking to Sacramento's most popular recreation area. but many users say the numbers have risen noticeably in the past few years, prompting complaints that the parkway's narrow trail – a 12-foot ribbon of pavement with a shoulder that varies – has become overcrowded to the point of being dangerous.
New leaders in the Sacramento County parks department agree, and have launched a series of crackdowns on some of the parkway's most problematic activities.
This month, county rangers announced that they will, for the first time, cite some cyclists for going faster than the posted 15 mile-per-hour limit. Their focus will be on groups of riders that speed through certain crowded areas.
Officials also recently launched daily raids on homeless camps. They have begun issuing citations for off-leash dog walkers, and plan a series of restrictions on the large commercial running groups that have showed up on the trail in recent years.
"We're talking about physics here, really," said Chief Ranger Stan Lumsden. "The more people using the trail, the more conflict."
Sacramento County handles the section of the parkway from Discovery Park to Hazel Avenue. The portion past Lake Natoma and Folsom Lake is managed by the state.
For the most part, parkway users follow a simple code of conduct that keeps the trail safe. Runners, walkers and stroller pushers have the right to use the paved path, but etiquette calls for them to stick to the left side and not run two abreast on the pavement. Runners in groups are encouraged to shout "bike up" as a warning when cyclists approach.
Cyclists are asked to switch to single file when other users are around, and county signs posted along the trail instruct them to call out, "On your left," when passing other riders.
Yet on summer weekends, with families, dog walkers, rafters and others crossing the trail, the friendly shouts of hello can give way to angry cries of "watch out!"
"It's a nightmare out there," said cyclist Gail Hart.
Hart, who got knocked out in a high-speed bike crash involving another cyclist a few years ago, says she stops and tells others what they are doing wrong. It's led to shouting matches.
Other users say they find the trail pleasurable and relaxing, even on summer weekends. They just have to be on good behavior and general alert.
Tibbetts says she follows etiquette by running on the left side of the trail so she can see cyclists coming toward her. She slides onto the crushed granite shoulder to give riders more room whenever possible.
"But it's been scary when they don't follow in single file," she said.
Campers and coyotes
Some cyclists say they don't ride on the trail on Saturday mornings because of the congestion. Others, like Kehraevuo of Citrus Heights, adjust their rides to avoid peak hours.
"I started at 6:15 (a.m.) to beat the crowds, absolutely," she said. "I don't want an accident."
There is even a disagreement among some users over what to call the trail. For the record, it's the Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail. Cyclists typically call it the "bike trail." Some runners bristle at that, insisting the trail instead be called the multi-use or recreation trail.
Parkway disputes are not confined to the paved trail, rangers say. People illegally let their dogs roam off-leash, which can lead to, among other things, the occasional canine vs. coyote scrap. Rafters get in fights. Scores of homeless people camp illegally in the parkway forests near downtown Sacramento, upsetting other users. The Save the American River Association is suing the county for allowing the Gold Rush 100K running race in May to use the horse trails.
Now, a fight may be brewing on the river itself. State officials recently OK'd spear fishing, but the county bars spear guns on parkway land. Spear fishermen can circumvent county code by entering the parkway on a boat from the Sacramento River. Lumsden said other types of fishermen are upset by the practice. "My fear is there is going to be some sort of confrontation."
Lumsden and his boss, county parks chief Jeff Leatherman, have launched a series of initiatives to tamp down the worst behaviors.
The county increased efforts last year to evict illegal campers and clean up homeless camps on a daily basis. That effort is ongoing.
This spring, Lumsden's rangers began cracking down on people who let their dogs run free. They've issued 42 citations and 76 warnings in the last two months. They are informing dog owners that leashes in the parkway must be no more than 6 feet long, to avoid becoming a trip hazard for cyclists, runners and others.
'Radar, radar, radar!'
Leatherman also is drawing up restrictions on one of the fastest growing parkway user groups: commercial running clubs. In addition to permit fees, these could include rules that allow commercial groups to send no more than 12 runners at a time onto the trail, and to send those groups out at five-minute intervals. The matter is expected to be voted on by the county Board of Supervisors next month.
Ken Press, who runs the SacFit training company, said he does not believe the trail is too crowded, and warns the county against overreacting. His running groups are instructed on trail etiquette before they head out, he said, and he uses trail chaperones to keep runners in line. His group also raises funds for the parkway, he said.
"In general, the fraternity (of runners and cyclists) is nice. We get along," Press said. "But there are a few people out there who complain, even make up stories to get someone in trouble."
The biggest parkway controversy this month involves Lumsden's decision to begin citing some speeding cyclists. The county will employ a LiDAR device, similar to what California Highway Patrol officers use on highways to measure car speeds – and will issue warnings first.
Some cyclists have applauded the decision. Others are outraged, saying the 15 mph speed limit is too slow for many fit riders.
Last Saturday, as Ranger Bill Wetzel practiced using the LiDAR device, one angry cyclist shadowed him, riding up and down the trail shouting to other cyclists, "Radar! Radar! Radar!"
Lumsden has declined to say whom his rangers will ticket, but has indicated they likely will focus on groups of riders, or pacelines, that speed through crowded areas.
"If someone is doing 20 mph and there is no one around, it's no big deal," Lumsden said. "But when you are doing pacelines, and there are women with strollers, runners, kids, people walking dogs, that's an issue."
County officials say there were 13 serious bike crashes reported between January 2012 and March 2013.
In April of last year, a 54-year-old cyclist was knocked unconscious when he tried to pass another cyclist and hit a pedestrian. The report does not note any injury to the pedestrian.
In March of this year, a 70-year-old cyclist hit a 50-year-old woman who was walking her dog on a curve. The report does not list injuries or who was at fault.
Also in March, two cyclists collided, causing a 49-year-old woman to break her elbow.
While those 13 crashes amount to less than one a month, Lumsden said he believes there are injury crashes that do not get reported. He said the variety of crashes, and the fact they involve runners and dog-walkers, as well as solo cyclists, are indicative of a problem.
"It reinforces the idea that anything can happen out there at any time," he said.
Call The Bee's Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059. Follow him on Twitter @tonybizjak.