With the mountains and ocean just an hour and change away and all manner of forests, rivers and trails within easy reach, the Sacramento region without a doubt offers a bounty of outdoor recreation riches. Bee reporters helped guide readers to some of the best excursions this past year, such as beach camping by Bodega Bay and hiking up to Cool along the American Canyon Trail.
These natural spots will likely be around in the new year too. So here are some favorites.
Camping at Doran Beach Regional Park
Driving the two hours to Doran Beach Regional Park is very doable on a Friday evening, and worth it if you want to make the most of your weekend at this beachside haven.
The park, on the southeast side of scenic Bodega Bay, contains a string of tent and RV sites close enough to the bay to smell the salt but remain sheltered from the wind. A symphony of seals and sea lions makes a fantastic sonic backdrop for nights around the campfire.
Caves in a cliff side at Kehoe Beach, Point Reyes National Seashore. The Kehoe Trail in Point Reyes, south of Bodega Bay. Sea life at Kehoe Beach in Point Reyes National Seashore Caves in a cliff side at Kehoe Beach, Point Reyes National Seashore. The Kehoe Trail in Point Reyes, south of Bodega Bay.
Doran Beach and its neighboring regional parks contain a network of easy-to-moderate trails offering beautiful views of the coast. There’s also a busy crabbing scene on the camp beach each morning.
For more adventurous types, travel one hour south to Point Reyes National Seashore, an expansive park featuring Northern California’s best beachside hiking. Coming with a canine companion limits your options, but the 2-mile Kehoe Beach trail at the north of the park trail is fair game.
The flat trail winds through a sweeping meadow of lupines and sunflowers before dipping down to Kehoe Beach. The sandy stretch is peppered with crags, cliff caves and washed-up sea life just asking to be photographed.
If you’ve got a second day to spare, head north to Goat Rock Beach via Highway 1, which zigzags through the breathtaking Sonoma Coast State Park. Goat Rock is a popular spot for surfing, sunbathing and spectating – there’s a permanent colony of harbor seals at the north end.
If campfire food isn’t cutting it, take a jut across the bay to Spud Point Marina for some clam chowder from Spud Point Crab Company, longtime winner of the Bodega Bay Chowder Day competition.
Where: 210 Doran Beach Road, Bodega Bay
Directions (110 miles from Sacramento): Take Interstate 80 west to Highway 37 west. Go right on Highway 116 (Lakeville Road) to Highway 101 north. Exit Railroad Avenue, then right on Stony Point Road, left on Roblar Road and right on Valley Ford Road, which merges with Highway 1 north. Turn left onto Doran Beach Road.
Cost: $35 per night for an eight-person site, $7 for additional vehicles, $2 per night per dog (permitted on 6-foot leash)
Information: To reserve, call Sonoma County Regional Parks at (707) 875-3540
Switchback up Sugar Pine Mountain Trail
I love switchbacks. I hate switchbacks.
Love them because (a) they are a good way to get in shape, sort of nature’s Stairmaster; (b) they usually lead to gorgeous, hilltop views; (c) they always feature some blessed downhill after they top off.
Hate them because (a) they can be painful and enervating, even if you’re smart and walk them; (b) it’s hard to appreciate the views when your chest is heaving and you’re bent over with hands on knees; (c) running downhill with sharp turns, you’re just one stray rock away from tumbling down like Jack and Jill.
So let me temper my remarks by saying that the 24 switchbacks up Sugar Pine Mountain in Meadow Vista, at about the halfway mark of a lovely 6.6-mile loop, are absolutely, positively the toughest I’ve encountered. That’s because, I now realize, the toughest switchbacks are always the ones you’ve just completed. As with childbirth (I’m told), eventually you forget about the pain and just remember the pleasant afterglow.
Where: Sugar Pine Mountain Trail loop, Meadow Vista
Distance: 6.6 miles
Directions to trailhead: From Sacramento, take Interstate 80 east beyond Auburn to the Clipper Gap exit. Turn left at the offramp and go north on Placer Hills Road, over the freeway and 1 mile to Sugar Pine Road. Turn left. Park in a dirt turnout on the left about 200 yards before the gate to the Winchester Country Club community.
Route: Start on a rise just east (left) before reaching the Winchester gate. A 1-mile post marks the start and posts continue throughout the trail. The first quarter-mile is slightly downhill on a well-groomed trail, with the country club off in the distance to the right. A sign points to a sharp right turn, as the single track turns to double track.
At a half-mile you cross a paved road – watch for cars – and continue to a canal crossing, where you veer right (look to the left for the rushing water below you). For the next mile, you traverse rolling hills, studded with pine, that bottom out in swampy wetlands, even in the summer. Wooden bridges help keep you dry.
Just past the 2-mile mark, approaching a paved road and the housing development, make a sharp left at a sign with an arrow saying “trail.” You go uphill steeply over a few big boulders, then downhill for a half mile. Make a right at a long footbridge, which leads to a 100-foot uphill stretch toward the switchbacks. After winding through the 24 switchbacks, cross a fire road and descend 21 switchbacks.
Emerging in a meadow (with the golf course on your right), follow the trail past a paved road, which winds to the right. The trail runs parallel with houses for a few hundred feet before you begin another set of rolling hills. The trail then temporarily ends. Follow Meadow Vista Road for maybe 100 feet and you can see the trail pick up again on your right. It makes a sharp right turn uphill.
After making a left, the final 1.5-mile stretch is on smooth, flat single-track parallel to Sugar Pine Road. It leads back to the Winchester gate and the trailhead.
Cool via the American Canyon Trail
So numerous are the Auburn State Recreation Trails that many, sadly, never step foot on the lovely American Canyon Trail in Cool, a path that parallels a creek with – gasp! – actual water flowing in this most parched of summers.
Need another reason to make the long drive to park just outside the gates of the private Auburn Lakes Estates? You also get to trod upon the colorfully named Dead Truck Trail, and, if you look hard, you can even see said rusting truck. And you get to complete a loop that has some climbing but is only about 5 miles, a nice change from the long, ultra-runner death marches on other Auburn recreation area trails.
Oh, did I mention there are a couple of stream crossings? Yeah, so, there’s that, too. But don’t be a doofus like your correspondent and slip on the jutting rocks in Hoboken Creek and wind up in the emergency room with six stitches on your typing fingers.
Where: American Canyon Trail to Dead Truck Trail Loop, Cool
Length: 5.3 miles
Directions to trailhead: From Sacramento, take Interstate 80 to the Elm Avenue exit in Auburn. Make two lefts onto Highway 49. Drive 2.5 miles down to the American River confluence. Turn right at the confluence to stay on Highway 49. After reaching the town of Cool, turn left on Highway 193. Go about 5 miles and turn left at Pilgrim Court. (The street sign is only on the right-hand side.) The trailhead, marked “American Canyon Third Gate,” is located before the entrance to the Auburn Lakes Estates. Park on the side of the road.
Route: From the trailhead, go 0.8 miles downhill on American Canyon Trail. Make a sharp right-hand turn, heading very briefly toward Sliger Mine Road. At the next intersection with the Robie/Western States Trail, heading both left and right, go straight to stay on the American Canyon Trail. Cross two creeks and continue on a ridge to the Dead Truck Trail junction. Turn right uphill until the Dead Truck Trail intersects with the Robie Trail. Turn right and head back to the junction with the American Canyon Trail. Retrace your steps, this time going uphill, back to the trailhead.
Point Reyes National Seashore after the Arch Rock cliff collapse
When a section of Arch Rock cliff crumbled into the ocean at Point Reyes National Seashore last March, killing a hiker, it marked the closure of one of the park’s most popular vistas. That tragedy has permanently closed the tiny 0.2-mile spur that took hikers out to a superb spot for ocean views.
While Arch Rock’s collapse is a reminder of nature’s unpredictability, it hasn’t blocked the seemingly unlimited number of hiking options at Point Reyes, which encompasses 150 miles of trails that afford soul-satisfying vistas of blue ocean, foresty glades, meadows and sandy shores. Everyone has their favorites, many of which criss-cross each other.
The steepest trail is up to Mount Wittenberg, the highest point in the park at 1,400 feet. Although that moniker – highest point – is somewhat misleading. When you reach the summit, marked by a U.S. Geological Survey marker in the ground, you’re pretty well surrounded by a screen of trees that obscure the expected Pacific Ocean views. Twenty years ago, there was plenty of visible ocean from the top and an overlook of the Olema Valley, but the devastating 1995 Vision Fire cleared the way for the growth of scraggly looking bishop pines there.
The Mount Wittenberg trail is about a 5-mile loop, starting from the Bear Valley Trail, with several options for the return. You can turn north along the Z Ranch Trail and follow the Horse Trail back to the trailhead. Or continue back along Mount Wittenberg Trail to the junction with the Meadow Trail and return to Bear Valley and the visitors center. You can easily extend your hike by continuing down Sky Trail or Woodward Valley trails toward the ocean.
To plot your options, trail maps are available at the visitors center.
In summer, when the Sacramento Valley is heating up, Point Reyes is a refreshing refuge from 100-degree scorchers. This time of year, the summer wildflowers are mostly gone. But from late summer through October, it’s elk mating season, which park rangers say affords up-close visibility of the park’s antlered residents. From the Bear Valley visitors center, park rangers advise heading 30 minutes down the road to hike the Tomales Point Trail where you can see herds of elk gathering in the coastal scrub and grasslands.
Overnight: There’s the charming Point Reyes hostel (reservations recommended) as well as several campsites within the park. There’s also family-owned Olema Campground, just a few yards down the road from the turnoff to the visitors center on Highway 1.
Driving: It’s about a two-hour drive from Sacramento, via Interstate 80 west and the cutoff to Highway 37 (San Rafael/Novato). From Highway 37, the park website has directions to the Point Reyes main entrance, which is on Bear Valley Road, just off Highway 1 (roughly 30 miles north of San Francisco).
Water holes and hiking in Bidwell Park
Chicoans are proud, justifiably so, of Bidwell Park, which – at 3,670 acres – is more than three times the size of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
Bidwell is divided into lower and upper sections, as geographically different as they are beautiful. The lower trail, featuring playgrounds, bandstands, picnic areas and both paved and dirt trails, is more accessible to the community at large. But it’s the larger and wilder upper trail where hardy Chico residents (and their many dogs) come to escape suburbia, lose themselves in nature and – so we’re told – occasionally go au naturel in watery spots such as Bear Hole (or Bare Hole, as some call it).
Here is a 9.5-mile trek – with shorter options – that takes you through lava mud flows and riparian woods, affords postcard views of Big Chico Creek’s coulee and offers side trips to swimming holes and a host of recreational splendors.
Where: Upper Bidwell Park Loop
Distance: 9.5 miles (with shorter options)
Directions to trailhead: Take Highway 99 to the East Avenue exit. Go 3 miles east on East Avenue. Just after the road changes to Manzanita Avenue, look for the sign saying “Upper Bidwell Park.” Go straight at the sign for less than a mile. Turn left at the North Rim Trail (Parking Area B) sign. Drive 100 yards and park.
Route (9.5 miles): From the trailhead, go uphill on the North Rim Trail, past the junction with the Middle Trail and beyond a landmark, the Easter Cross. Continue on the North Rim Trail until the next junction at 3.6 miles.
Turn right on the B Trail and plunge down on switchbacks to the canyon floor. Take the B Trail 1.5 miles to the Upper Park Road (a dirt fire road), and turn right.
Stay on the fire trail until you pass Parking Area L and a metal gate. Go around the gate to Bear Hole and veer left past Parking Area K. Pick up the Yahi Trail, turning right. Follow it about 1.5 miles until it ends at the Upper Park Road. At Horseshoe Lake, follow the Middle Trail back to Parking Area B.
Easier route (7 miles): Take North Rim to the B Trail. When you reach the junction with the Middle Trail, turn right and follow the Middle Trail back to Parking Area B.
Easiest route (5 miles): From Parking Area B, go a few hundred yards on the North Rim Trail and turn right on the Middle Trail. Go 2.2 miles to Parking Area N. Turn right and take Upper Park Road for .5 miles to the Lower Trail, where you’ll go 1.5 miles to the Middle Trail. Return to Parking Area B.
Toilets: Yes, at Bear Hole