We all know happy cows come from California, but did you know they also moo over mountain bike paths?
As they graze during parts of the year, about 500 cow-calf pairs blaze thin trails that snake around the blue oak trees and over the grasslands of Deer Creek Hills Preserve, a working ranch near Rancho Murieta.
This time of year, though, the cows that make and navigate those trails are on sabbatical away from the 4,000-acre parcel.
In the bovines' absence, the tamped-down paths are on loan to the avid mountain bikers of the Sacramento Valley Conservancy.
"This is a new trail experience," says conservancy stewardship director Tammy Mebane. On Saturday, the conservancy will host a docent-led free morning of mountain biking on the land, a first for the public.
At extensive workshops and forums about how to best use Deer Creek Hills, stakeholders and the public pushed for bike trails, says Mebane. Last month, a small group of cyclists tested the virgin paths. They liked what they rode.
But before that test, Mebane monitored and combed through the area – and found the best way was on a bike.
"I noticed that cattle paths that were out there made really good trails for riding," she says. "We had some interested bike groups that wanted to get on the property to ride."
Finding open space is rare for mountain bikers, says Mebane. And the Deer Creek Hills event, which could last up to three hours, covers paths that are razor-thin single track – about the width of a small cow. But it's quite a view out there.
"These are rolling hills and they're beautiful," Mebane says. "There is no real steep grade or technical rocky downhill riding."
The open landscape is also an attraction because the land is transitional habitat – a sort of midpoint between the Valley and mountains, where the critters must roam.
"It's a really important area for a lot of species," says the conservancy Executive Director Aimee Rutledge. Riders can expect to see woodpeckers, hawks, eagles, blackbirds, northwestern pond turtles, coyotes and maybe even bobcats.
Deer Creek Hills' proximity to the Sacramento area is another perk, she says.
In other words: The tour is perfect for a beginner ride or a much-needed family outing. (Strollers are not recommended.)
Rutledge says the Sacramento Valley Conservancy purchased Deer Creek Hills in 2003. In addition to protecting the land, the conservancy aims to bring outdoor lovers to these sights, on foot or horse or bike.
On Saturday, mountain bikers will test cattle-made paths and other ranch roads. The tour guides are careful during these trips, Rutledge says: "We make sure that we do not disturb any undisturbed areas."
The cattle will return when the dry grasses come back to life later in the fall, at which time the bicyclists will have to use other areas.
But talks on year-round riding are on the horizon.
IF YOU GO
What: Free docent-led mountain biking at Deer Creek Hills. Be sure to bring your helmet, sunscreen, water and, of course, your bike.
Where: North of Rancho Murieta off Highway 16, Deer Creeks Hills is about a half-hour from downtown Sacramento. For specific directions, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
When: 7:30 to 10 a.m. Saturday
DOWN THE ROAD
What: "Treasure of the Valley" fundraiser. Local artists, food, wine and music, including a silent auction, to celebrate and support the Sacramento Valley Conservancy.
Where: California State University, Sacramento, Alumni Center, 6000 J St.
When: 5:30 to 8 p.m. Oct. 1
Cost: Tickets are $50; other sponsorship opportunities available.