The next time you are in your car and feeling stuck, chugging along in a swarm of traffic on the highway, think about the stretch of nearby wooded parkland that stretches 23 miles from downtown Sacramento to the Nimbus Hatchery.
Right now, on the American River Parkway, there are cyclists with the wind in their faces as they roll along the paved bike trail. There are runners going for miles on end, whether on the levy, the bike trail or along dirt paths that meander through the woods. Or the walkers and hikers and birdwatchers and dog owners, who can enter the parkway at one of several areas and walk as far as they please without ever seeing a car or even a commercial building. There is even a long history of horseback riding in the parkway.
On a stretch of land that is a blend of riparian forest and open park land, these folks are apt to encounter nature’s wonders at any moment – hawks flying over a grassy field scanning for prey; coyotes making the rounds and looking for meals; flocks of wild turkeys pecking at seeds and bugs on the ground; vultures soaring with the wind currents; rabbits, plenty of deer, beavers, all kinds of birds, including egrets and herons, ducks and geese.
At odd times, there is even the occasional sea lion that will find its way to the American River, some 90 miles from the sea, to feed on a smorgasbord of salmon.
Yes, this parkway that cuts through the center of a metropolitan region of a million people may seem like a fantasy to those who never take the time to see it.
For many others – thousands every day – it is just the kind of antidote they need. It soothes. It inspires. It reminds us there is more to life than those congested roads, that the so-called rat race doesn’t happen here.
Little wonder that many consider the American River Parkway one of the great recreational areas in California, and well-traveled cyclists insist it may be the finest bike trail in North America. Beyond the parkway proper, the trail continues through state parks property another 9 miles to Folsom Lake, for a total of 32 miles of trail from Discovery Park to Beals Point.
With a river that’s clean and clear enough for swimming and rafting and fishing, the parkway offers something for everyone.
It’s great for a hike. It’s a destination for countless runners. Cyclists of all kinds enjoy the trail without worrying about automobile traffic. The river is renowned for good fishing and attracts anglers from as fas as the Bay Area during certain times of the year.
The beauty is in its accessibility. It is so close to the hustle and bustle, yet it feels so impossibly far away. There are multiple entry points, ample nearby parking and, once you’re there, it’s entirely up to you how you partake of this natural treasure.
Indeed, there are stretches of shoreline along the American River when you can gaze as far as you can see and not spot another person. It can feel so remote and so wild in certain spots and at certain hours that you’ll think you’re in rural Montana rather than urban California.
The parkway, and especially the bike trail, are the dream of the late William B. Pond, Sacramento County’s first parks director. Pond held the position from 1959 to 1968.
While the parkway was a group effort, Pond spearheaded much of the vision and helped turn a vision into reality. He helped draw up initial plans for a 4,800 acre parkway on mostly untamed land. He then went about the daunting effort to acquire the private land along the river so the parkway could extend, uninterrupted, from end to end.
For many, myself included, the parkway is one of Sacramento’s greatest treasures. It is my favorite place to walk my dogs. It is my favorite place to ride my bike. Through the years, I have seen all kinds of wildlife – all those wild turkeys, plenty of coyotes and rabbits and deer. They’ve been mostly great moments, though I once spotted a skunk crossing the path up ahead and by the time I could brake to avoid hitting it, I was so close that it ever-so-slowly spun around, lifted its fluffy tail and sprayed me on my leg. It was the one and only time I can think of that my dogs were no so happy to see me when I got home.
When I’m up for a seriously long ride, I can go from downtown to Beals Point and back, for a total of 64 miles. Three-quarters of it is very flat; the portion from the hatchery to Folsom Lake has some gentle hills but nothing too arduous. It is a great way to get a workout and take in the greatness of where we live.
On this amazing trail, you will see all levels of cyclists. During some years when Sacramento hosted a stage of the Tour of California, all of the pro cyclists from top European and American teams could be spotted on the bike trail. Yes, Fabian Cancellara, Tom Boonen and Mark Cavendish – who will go down as three of the all-time greats – were out there riding.
The parkway might be even more popular with runners. In fact, when I watch the California International Marathon every December, part of the fun for me is spotting the dozens of runners I see regularly throughout the rest of the year.
In the middle of the parkway, you’ll find the William B. Pond Recreation Area, a grassy, open park that is a great spot for a picnic, a walk or to start a bike ride. It includes one of the more scenic stretches of the American River and is a great place for spotting birds.
And it’s the ideal locale to take stock of what this parkway means to so many.
You might also remind yourself how lucky you are to be out there, and that there are folks in their cars right now, chugging along in a swarm of traffic, wishing they were on the parkway.
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.