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California's casual capitalCalifornia's casual capital

Sacramento, CaliforniaSacramento, California

Sacramento is the capital of California, the world’s sixth largest economy. Despite its importance, the city reflects the casualness of the Golden State. People are open, not too dressed up, and the city simply delivers fine food, recreation, and accommodations without bragging about it. When you visit, make time to see the giant oak trees and abundant bird life in the peaceful Cosumnes River Preserve.

  • Downtown Sacramento is bordered on the north by the American River, and on the west by the Sacramento River. Downtown Sacramento’s layout makes street navigation easy. Front Street, shown here, runs north/south along the Sacramento River, and street numbers increase as you move each block east. “Old Sacramento” occupies the first few blocks off the river. Lettered streets run east/west, moving from A to Z, north to south. Spring begins early here, pushing highs in into the 70s by March and April—the perfect time to visit. Roses explode into fragrant bloom in Capitol Park. Bird migration is at its height, and hot summer temperatures have yet to kick in. Photo courtesy Sacramento CVB.
  • Dedicated in 1935, Tower Bridge is a vertical lift bridge built in Streamline Moderne Art-Deco style. It is interesting to compare this bridge to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge because both bridges have towers with their bracing covered up and/or carefully designed to maintain the Art Deco appearance. The bridge carries a road that dramatically leads right to the State Capitol building, which likely accounts for why a great deal of effort was put toward building an aesthetically pleasing bridge. Originally painted silver, it was painted ochre in 1976 to match the gold-leafed cupola on the Capitol building. It was repainted a more gold color in 2002. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
  • You can ride or jog the long trails on either side of the American River, which forms the northern border of downtown. Photo courtesy Practical Cycle.
  • California’s State Legislature moved to Sacramento in 1854 and soon began construction of a capitol building modeled after the U.S. Capitol. The building is surrounded by Capitol Park, a 40-acre garden with over 1,100 trees, 150 memorials, and 650 fragrant roses. Photo by Kelly Kell.
  • Step inside the neoclassical California State Capitol Building and marvel at the intricate wood moldings, granite archways, gilded Corinthian columns, California golden poppy mosaic floor, and 210-foot-high dome, all of which underwent extensive renovations completed in 1982. A massive Carrara marble statue, “Columbus’ Last Appeal to Queen Isabella,” has graced the Rotunda since 1883. The California Senate chamber is decorated in red, a reference to the British House of Lords. The Assembly’s green tones are based on the British House of Commons. Free tours are available hourly. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park is where you can tour the restored original adobe fort and get a peek at life in the 1840s. I was most struck by the gruesome instruments and leeches jar in the doctor’s office. Sutter was critical to the rescue of the Donner party and built a successful agricultural empire only to have it brought down by gold in 1848. Photo by Ray Bouknight.
  • My dad loved the rare locomotives at the California State Railroad Museum, particularly the gorgeous Virginia & Truckee Railroad No. 13 Empire. It’s displayed with mirrors all around, so you can see above and underneath it. If you like, take a 45-minute, six-mile train ride down the river with the Sacramento Southern Railroad. Rides include closed coach cars, open-air gondolas, and a first-class observation car pulled by a steam or vintage diesel locomotive from the museum’s collection. Operates Saturday and Sunday on the hour (April to September) plus some Tuesdays, from the Central Pacific Railroad Freight Depot in Old Sacramento. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • The Citizen Hotel is a luxury boutique property in the heart of downtown that combines the feel and formality of Sacramento’s history with modern expectations. Dark woods, red furniture, and an open indoor balcony greet you in the lobby. Rooms come with downtown views, Wi-Fi, luxury linens, duvets, and bath amenities. Photo courtesy Citizen Hotel.
  • The Delta King Hotel is aboard the historic Delta King stern wheel paddle boat, moored on the Sacramento River. After restoration, 88 original staterooms became 44 larger rooms with modern amenities and a free breakfast. The Pilothouse Restaurant is called a “must-dine destination” by the Sacramento Bee, while the Delta Bar & Grill offers a relaxed atmosphere overlooking the river. The Saturday night Suspects Murder Mystery Dinner Theater adds to the unique experience. Photo courtesy Sacramento CVB.
  • The Grange Restaurant & Bar, inside the Citizen Hotel, makes ample use of the Central Valley’s bounty in their seasonal menus. Elegantly presented dinner items might include house-made gnocchi with charred broccoli rabe, mushrooms, cauliflower, and brown butter. Local farms are identified on the menu in entrées like Passmore Ranch Trout, or Storm Hill New York Steak. Photo courtesy The Grange Restaurant & Bar.
  • What is the quintessential landscape of California? A California native, I had the good fortune to also be born of Danish immigrant parents, eager to explore their adopted state. From the peaks of the Sierra Nevada to the troughs of Death Valley; the sunny beaches to the inland San Joaquin Valley, wine country to Yosemite—each a highlight of the Golden State’s diversity, and we visited them all. Yet when I think of California as a whole, it always comes back to gentle hills of golden grass studded with oak trees. From the air, the oaks resemble green broccoli heads. One of the best places to see these gnarly giants is the Cosumnes River Preserve, south of Sacramento. Photo by GariRae Gray.
  • For a big dose of nature, head south from the airport about 20 miles and take the Twin Cities Road exit off I-5 to the Cosumnes River Preserve. Water birds of all types flock to its marshes in fall, winter, and spring. Here, a pair of sandhill cranes jump, dance, and display, all part of cementing their pair bond. Photo by Bruce Miller.
  • Pintail ducks in the Cosumnes River Preserve. The Cosumnes River is the last unregulated river to flow freely from the Sierra Nevada to the Central Valley. Its riparian habitat supports a rich ecosystem of butterflies, beavers, and birds, including rare white-tailed kites. That’s because the preserve also contains one of California’s most important—and rare—natural ecosystems: a huge marsh. Photo by Bob Wick, courtesy BLM.
  • Fall through spring, ducks like this cinnamon teal, sandhill cranes, and other water birds patrol the marshes by the thousands, making the Cosumnes River Preserve a favorite of birdwatchers. Photo by Bruce Miller.
  • You’ll find plenty of comfy spots to watch the birds in the Cosumnes River Preserve. But the stars are the huge oak trees. California’s oak landscapes once covered a third of the state. But when farmers and ranchers settled the state in the 19th century, they chopped them down by the millions, destroying about 90 percent of the oaks that lined central California rivers. This preserve contains some 1,500 acres of valley oak groves. Near the end of the 4.5-mile loop trail you’ll emerge into open grassland presided over by enormous, twisting, mature oaks. Free, trails open sunrise to sunset, visitors center open weekends. Photo by GariRae Gray.

Sacramento lies in the northern San Joaquin Valley, about halfway between San Francisco and Lake Tahoe. Numerous airports surround the city, but Sacramento Executive Airport provides perhaps the best combination of services and convenience for the general aviation pilot. Two major rivers border downtown Sacramento. The American River flows in from the east, joining the Sacramento River at downtown’s northwest corner, where the Sacramento River flows south.

Orient yourself with a stroll on the Riverfront Promenade, which begins on the east side of Tower Bridge at the foot of Capitol Mall and is studded with shopping opportunities and eateries (see photos for details on activities and more). You can hike, jog, or bike along the green, tree-shaded one-mile trail that connects Old Sacramento to Discovery County Park, on the north bank of the American River. Look for herons fishing in the shallows. The wide, level trail continues past Discovery Park and beyond. Rent regular or electric bikes at Practical Cycle.

When flying to Sacramento, arrivals from the northeast can weave through numerous large MOAs and avoid the highest portions of the imposing Sierra Nevada range by overflying Pyramid Lake, north of Reno, and then flying a heading of approximately 230 degrees until west of the mountains. It is not advisable to cross the Sierra Nevada if winds at 12,000 feet exceed 20 to 25 knots, because they can generate severe mountain wave action, downdrafts, and rotors on the lee side. At least that’s my rule, after surviving all the above plus extreme turbulence once, near Mount Whitney. Photo by Day Williams.

You can also walk or ride the Capitol Mall east from Tower Bridge to the Capitol. The 40-acre Capitol Park boasts over 1,100 trees and more than 150 memorials to significant California people or events. In April, giant orange trees blossom and their fragrance permeates the air. The Victorian-designed World Peace Rose Garden features about 650 roses with walkways, numerous benches, and 44 youth-written Inspirational Messages of Peace inscribed on plaques throughout the garden. Step inside the neoclassical California State Capitol Building and marvel at the intricate wood moldings, granite archways, gilded Corinthian columns, California golden poppy mosaic floor, and 210-foot-high dome.

Continue down L Street to Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park. On K Street, the State Indian Museum displays what must be the world’s tiniest basket. J Street has several interesting stores that appealed to my 29-year-old son, including Big Brother Comics, which he calls “a classic comic store, the kind you don’t see many of anymore.”

Kids, and the young at heart, love the California State Railroad Museum, including my 91-year-old dad! The railroad museum sits along the Sacramento River at the north end of the Old Sacramento Historic District, which harkens back to the city’s Gold Rush era, with its wooden sidewalks and restored 19th-century buildings. We booked an Underground Tour, given by a docent in period costume, to see the underground spaces.

One of Sacramento’s oldest and best museums is the Italianate Victorian Crocker Art Museum, across the street from Crocker Park. Early California works, including Thomas Hill's gigantic “Yosemite” form the heart of the impressive collection. Catch a Triple-A Sacramento River Cats home game at Raley Field, with fireworks on Saturday nights. Sunday afternoon games are great for kids, who also enjoy a play structure, bounce houses, and a giant slide above right field.

Go back in time 150 years as you stroll through the 50,000-acre Cosumnes River Preserve, where farmland was restored to its former natural landscape state with help from the Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, and state and federal agencies. Here, a black-necked stilt searches for prey. Photo by Bob Wick, courtesy BLM.

Three Sacramento hotels stand out among the crowd: The Citizen Hotel is a luxury boutique property in the heart of downtown that combines the feel and formality of Sacramento’s history with modern expectations. The Inn Off Capitol Park is indeed just a block away from the Capitol, and breakfast is included in the room rate. For a truly waterfront experience, stay at the Delta King Hotel, aboard the historic Delta King stern wheel paddle boat, moored on the Sacramento River.

Sacramento bills itself as “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital,” certainly doable with the country’s most productive farmlands so close. The Grange Restaurant and Bar, fine dining inside the Citizen Hotel, makes ample use of the Central Valley’s bounty in its seasonal menus. You’ll find lots of eateries near the river, including Spud Shack, with over a dozen kinds of fries (funnel cakes too). Soothe your caffeine cravings at Steamers Coffee and Tea Exchange, serving breakfast and lunch as well as fine espresso. Just west of the comics store on J Street, Lucca Restaurant offers a Mediterranean-influenced menu accompanied by friendly service and a lively atmosphere. A few more blocks down J Street, Tapa the World will spice up your day with Spanish-style tapas, open till midnight and offering live Spanish guitar music Wednesday through Sunday.

So, check out California’s capital, but don't miss the birds and the groves of mighty oak trees in the Cosumnes River Preserve (see photos for details). Along with your memories of Old Sacramento, you’ll depart with an appreciation for an important part of California’s natural history.

Living history docents from the Sacramento History Museum. Sacramento’s February 27, 1850, date of incorporation makes it California’s oldest incorporated city. But Sacramento was plagued by periodic severe flooding when the rivers overflowed their banks. In 1861, governor-elect Leland Stanford had to row a boat to his own inauguration. Eventually the streets were raised a full story so buildings in Old Sacramento are entered through what were once balcony doors. Take an Underground Tour with a docent to see how they did it. Photo courtesy Sacramento History Museum.

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Crista Worthy

Crista V. Worthy

Crista V. Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association.
Topics: US Travel

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