Pulling in to Old Sacramento, I feel like I've just stepped out of a time machine. The Old West really comes alive in this bustling neighborhood, paved in cobblestone and adorned with vintage-esque signs and window fronts. I can almost hear the "clack" of horseshoes and the "swish" of hoopskirts.
But today, Old Sacramento offers some modern attractions in addition to old-time whimsy. Practical Cycle, located right in the heart of Old Sac on J Street, rents single and multi-speed bikes perfect for pedaling your way through the capital. An extremely bike-friendly town, Sacramento has wide bike lanes, flat terrain (a very welcome break if you're accustomed to the steep hills of San Francisco), and plenty of signage to help you spot interesting historical attractions along the way.
For my cycling adventure, I rented a sleek city hybrid from the kind folks at Practical Cycle (they give a 10% discount to Sacramento Hostel guests), and mapped out my journey with the help of the Sacramento Bike Trip Planner. While there are many great bike paths to explore in Sacramento, I chose the popular American River Parkway for its scenic trails and picnic areas.
I discovered that the Parkway is a sensory journey -- sunlight that peeks it's way through dense forests, long and expansive stretches of grassland, the rippling of river water, the flapping of bird wings, and in the fall, the sweet, smoky smell of damp bark and fallen leaves.
I decided not to venture off the bike path in search of lunch, and instead packed my own picnic. There are many great places in Old Sac to grab picnic fare but I recommend Old Sacramento Sandwich -- it's a cute little place with a simple sandwich menu but they carry Gunther's ice cream! Gunther's has been a Sacramento tradition since the 1940s and their award-winning artisan ice cream is really special; the seasonal pumpkin flavor is always a treat. Also, be sure to fill up your water bottle as there are not many water fountains along the bike path.
Leaving Old Sacramento, swing a right at the train tracks and the bike path begins immediately. Follow the path to a big green bridge (about a mile from Practical Cycle) and look for the signs that designate the American River Parkway. Some of the Parkway actually hugs the riverfront, while other sections weave in and out of parks, but the whole stretch is beautiful. Autumn is a particularly good time of year to trek through this part of California; coastal climates are fairly constant year-round but further inland there are more signs of fall.
After about six miles, the trail finds the water and there is a nice long stretch of riverside cycling. There are designated picnic tables along the way, but I recommend finding a beach and having a true al fresco experience. Sit under a tree, nibble on a light lunch, and dip your toes in the cool water. When the weather is really warm, there are some great swimming holes to splash in -- not a bad way to break from a sweaty bike ride!
Follow the signs along the Parkway or consult a map to orient yourself throughout the journey. The Sacramento Bee has an interactive guide to the Parkway, or you can download a map (PDF) by the American River Parkway Foundation. Even if you're a novice biker or someone (like myself) who's a little "directionally challenged," it's a very easy and pleasurable cruise for any duration. If you do make it all 23 miles to the historic town of Folsom, you can take the light rail back to downtown Sacramento; the stop at 8th and K is just 5 blocks from the hostel.
Perhaps the best, and most unexpected feature of the American River Parkway is the extensive wildlife that inhabits the surrounding areas. As someone who stays pretty plugged in all the time (I practically sleep with headphones on), it was amazing to put my iPhone away and discover the soundtrack that nature provides.
The American River is a large riverine systems that connects water from the Sierra Nevada mountains to the Sacramento River, and eventually to San Francisco Bay. As such, it serves as a diverse habitat for wildlife and vegetation. If you're lucky, and have an idea of what to look for, the trail can become a birdwatchers paradise. Riding around, I saw a rainbow fleet of mallards, geese, owls, bluebirds, and quail, as well as many birds I couldn't identify. Delicate feathers hid underneath the blanket of crunchy leaves along the path and little chirping notes reverberated throughout the oak woodlands. In addition to birds, I also crossed paths with deer, squirrels, frogs, and skunks.
The vegetation along the trail is a mixture of native and non-native; I spotted a few California poppies, the most famous of the Golden State's native plants, and a wide variety of non-native grasses and wild oats. The trail also cuts through a variety of terrains -- oak woodlands, marshes, open river, grassland, and riparian forests.
After a long day of biking, I was really craving a nice, cold brew! Located near the hostel, on K Street in midtown Sacramento, you'll find Pyramid Brewing Company. A West Coast institution based out of Portland, Pyramid is known for their light and fruity Bavarian-style Hefeweizen and their simple and delicious pub food. They also have brewing facilities on site at their Sacramento location (so their beer is always fresh) and a great food-beer pairing menu for those interested in a more gastro-pub experience. I recommend the bistro burger and the dark, and surprisingly hoppy, seasonal amber ale.
This story was written by Allison Doyle, the marketing and communications coordinator for Hostelling International’s eight Northern California hostels. Allison is proud to be a Bay Area native and when not at work, she can be found doing yoga, trying new restaurants, or writing one of her many blogs.
To learn more about the Parkway, check out the Sacramento Bee's interactive guide.
To rent a bike for your own tour de Sacramento, visit Practical Cycle.
See photos of Allison's cycling adventure here.
If You Go
Stay at the historic and bike-friendly Sacramento Hostel, 10 blocks from Practical Cycle.