Sacramento River Trail

Distance:36.6-mile out and back more or less
Elevation gain: 1845 ft

(A Best of the Best ride)

(Warning: the last time I did this ride I parked at the Keswick Dam Trail Head parking lot and my car was broken into. Don’t leave valuables in your car. JR)

Normally I don’t like rec trails, because they’re crowded and fussy. But the occasional rec trail rises above the regrettable norm, and Bestrides discusses six that I really like: the Monterey Bike Trail, the Nimitz Trail, the Willamette River Trail in Eugene, the American River Trail in Sacramento, the Coyote Creek Trail in San Jose (use the search window for the last three), and this one. As with all rec trails, the Sacramento River Trail (also called the Sacramento River Parkway) can get unpleasantly crowded on weekends, but if you can catch it on a quiet day, it’s a wonderful ride, with an immaculate road surface, grand vistas, and (much of the time) an intriguing contour.

Besides crowds, the curses of rec trails are monotony and flatness/straightness (since most are trail-to-trail conversions). The SRT has neither problem. The route is a constant series of entertaining surprises: Turtle Bay Exploration Park with its vast array of educational attractions, McConnell Arboretum and Botanical Gardens next-door, a giant sundial, three river crossings on bridges (one world-famous, one a suspension bridge straight out of Indiana Jones), one spooky tunnel, endless views of the Sacramento River (since you’re riding along its very lip), distant views of Mt. Lassen to the southeast, views of Mt. Shasta at the turn-around, a ride along the top of one of the world’s largest and most scenic dams, interesting historical placards to further your knowledge, cards naming and describing the trees and shrubs along the path, one mighty hydroelectric generating plant, bald eagles in flight, and so on. And the SRT is, about 2/3 of the time, as far from flat/straight as you can get, a delightful roller coaster of up and down and back and forth (it’s more work than the elevation total suggests). When it is flat, it’s still perfectly pleasant.

Avoiding the crowds is key here. Two solutions are obvious: 1) ride on weekdays and 2) ride farther than the walkers can walk. The SRT is one of those trails that begins near the heart of the city and gets more and more isolated the further you go. Most of the walkers are in the first 3 miles of the route, and by Keswick Dam they’re almost entirely gone. The third solution is unusual: ride in the winter. The flora is as pretty in January as it is in June, but the crowds are indoors, so if you can find a clear, dry winter day the trail should pretty much belong to you and the hard-core runners. In addition, in the winter the surrounding summits are crowned with snow and the vistas are vastly improved. And it isn’t 105°, as it often is in August.

The frequent trailheads along the route all have bathrooms. Water resupply is available at Keswick Dam, Shasta Day Use Area, and (I’m told) the Shasta Dam Visitor Center.

Our route crosses the top of Shasta Dam, but RidewithGPS doesn’t recognize that as a “road” or it thinks it’s closed to the public—for whatever reason it wouldn’t let me map it.

Click on any of the photos to see them enlarged.

The SRT changes its personality every few miles, so I’ll describe the route in sections.

Section 1: From the Sundial Bridge to the Diestelhurst Bridge. Park in the Turtle Bay parking lot (it’s free). Make a mental note to come back and explore the riches of Turtle Bay soon. Ride across the famous Sundial Bridge carefully—the road surface of the bridge is mostly glass and is therefore slippery if at all wet or frosty. Check out the giant sundial laid out on the earth at the north end of the bridge. Turn L onto the North Sacramento River Trail. Immediately pass the gates to the Botanical Gardens. Make a mental note to come back and explore the riches of the gardens soon. At the gate to the gardens is a poster with an excellent map of the SRT—take a photo for later reference if you forgot to download your ridewithGPS route map.

Sundial Bridge

This section of the trail is cozy, full of tight little turns, drops, and rises as it works its way through pretty riparian oaks and past playgrounds and other suburban signs of life. It’s likely to be the section of the ride most crowded with walkers, dogs, and children. Note the pretty quarter-mile markers along the route—they are one of at least 5 different sets of distance markers you’ll see on the ride, so you’ll never be in doubt about where you are on the route.

Section 1

Follow the unmistakable trail as it passes under two bridges. At the third bridge, the Diestelhorst, pass under, immediately go R and loop up onto the bridge. From the center of the bridge (which is closed to cars), note Mt. Lassen through the trusses of the two bridges to the east.

Section 2: From Diestelhorst Bridge to Keswick Dam. At the south end of the bridge turn R onto the unmissable South Sacramento River Trail and ride to Keswick Dam. Note the large sign at the trailhead giving you distances to all destinations ahead—it’s the first of many. This is a popular trailhead for runners, because this leg is mostly flat and straight, so you may have company. It’s mostly free of development, traveling through pretty, small woods and later more open country, hugging the riverbank the entire way. Note the prominent mountain dead ahead of you (hopefully snow-crested if you took my advice and are riding in the winter), which I was told by a local is Whiskeytown Mountain. Watch for bald eagles from here to the turn-around.

Section 2

As you approach the impressive pile that is Keswick Dam and Power Station, you pass a lovely little suspension bridge across the river, called either the Sacramento River Trail Bridge or the Ribbon Bridge depending on your map. We’ll cross over on it on our return ride.

The Ribbon Bridge

Section 3: From Keswick Dam to Keswick Boat Launch and Trailhead. Officially the Sacramento River Trail ends here and the continuation is called the Sacramento River Rail Trail, but no name could be more misleading. This leg is by far the most dramatic, difficult, and rewarding on the route, and no rail line could ever consider traversing it. It begins with a challenging 0.5-mile hill, named Heart Rate Hill on the nearby placard, the first of two climbs on the route that you’ll really notice. RWGPS says it maxes out at a bit less than 9%, but I promise it feels like more.

Section 3

From Heart Rate Hill’s summit, the leg meanders dramatically, up and down, back and forth. You’re high above the river, on top of the canyon ridge, and it’s exhilarating. The terrain is sparse and dry, made more barren by the recent fires that pounded Whiskeytown, but it’s a grand barrenness, and the constant views of Mt. Lassen and Brokeoff across the river to the east are splendid. By now you should have out-ridden all but the heartiest of trail users, so you can really attack the course. This is great riding and is the one leg of the SRT you can’t afford to miss.

Section 3

Section 4: From Keswick Boat Launch to the Shasta Day Use Area. This leg fits the rail-to-trail stereotype—basically flat, straight, and homogeneous—as it works its way through riparian shrubs and low trees along the river’s shoreline. Trailside placards naming and describing the local flora pop up. The monotony is broken by a cool little tunnel, long enough to get pleasantly tingly but never pitch-dark. You’re nearing the northern end of the trail, so you may pick up some walkers or casual cyclists coming from the Shasta Use Area campgrounds just ahead of you.

The bike trail debouches onto a major road (Coram Rd., never signed) at the Shasta Dam Trail Head of the SRT. Follow the road to the R, which soon leads to the Shasta Day Use Area, a major complex with campgrounds, bathrooms, and water.

Shasta Dam

Section 4 would be the most skippable on the route except we need it to get to the next leg, which you don’t want to miss.

Section 5: Shasta Day Use Area to Shasta Dam. Ride through the Day Use Area (drinking water available) on Coram Rd. and follow it to the dam, a very sweet, moderate 1.5-mile climb serpentining up beside the dam face to the road across the top of the dam itself. Halfway up the climb the road changes its name to Shasta Dam Access Rd., again unsigned. At the dam, ride across it to the other side, then ride back. The dam road (officially still Shasta Dam Access Rd.) is surrounded by guardhouses, barriers, and guards armed with automatic weapons, so it looks forbidding, but you are in fact welcome to ride there and poke around (a sign says, “No knives, guns, or food”—I didn’t ditch my Clif Bar). Smack on the far side of the lake is Mt. Shasta in regal grandeur, and the views down the face of the dam are unforgettable. It’s an iconic dam, everyone’s image of what a dam should look like. On the far side is a Visitor Center where you can replenish your water, if it’s open—in an act of incredible (and typical) governmental idiocy, its current hours are Mon.-Fri. 8:30-4:00…in other words, exactly when almost no one can visit.

Mt. Shasta from the top of the dam

Turn around and ride back down the hill. It’s a perfect slalom on perfect pavement, over too soon. Return to the SRT and ride it backwards past Keswick Dam to the Ribbon suspension bridge. Cross the river on it and begin the next leg.

Section 6: North Sacramento River Trail to the Diestelhorst Bridge. You are paralleling Section 2, but the terrain couldn’t be more different. Whereas Section 2 is flat and straight, this leg is the most twisty/turny up and down riding you’ll do all day. I loved it. If you love it too, there is an argument to be made for skipping the tamer Section 2 on the ride out and doing Section 6 in both directions. I won’t say no.

Section 6, with Mt. Lassen in background

The NSRT debouches onto a suburban neighborhood street. Continue down the street and keep an eye out for the continuation of the trail, which takes off to the R in 1/4 mile with no signage. Don’t fall for the trail-look-alike driveway just before it.

This leg runs back into our outward path at the base of the Diestelhorst Bridge. Return the way you came to your car.

Shortening the route: Since there are car-accessible trailheads with parking lots scattered along the route, you can start/stop your ride at any of them and tailor the route to suit your aesthetics, conditioning, and tolerance for crowds (see my warning about theft at the beginning of this post). The 6 sections from best to worst are IMO #3, 5, 6, 1, 2, and 4. Which means there is no way to ride just the good stuff. My ideal short route would be #3, 4, 5, and back, putting up with Section 4 for what lies on either side.

Adding miles: You can add on 6-8 unthrilling miles to our route by continuing on past the dam Visitor Center and going R/south on Hwy 151, Shasta Dam Blvd., to Summit City (so called on maps, but signed “Shasta Lake” as you approach town), then either turning around or heading north on Lake Blvd, which will return you to the dam. Shasta Dam Blvd. is a generic moderate climb and descent on a big two-lane road with car-friendly contours (big sweeping turns). If you ride it as an out and back, it adds c. 1100 ft. of elevation. Lake Blvd. is even less exciting. The only real reward in doing the loop, besides getting additional miles in, is the spectacular vista point halfway up the Shasta Dam Blvd. climb looking back on the face of Shasta Dam, the lake behind it, and Mt. Shasta in the distance. I suggest riding to it, taking in the view, and turning around.

View from the Hwy 151 vista point

If you make it to Summit City, take the time to continue east 1/4 mi. on Shasta Dam Blvd. to the town’s Little League baseball field to see if there’s a game going on—if there is, it’s a heart-warming Norman Rockwell scene of small-town Americana. Water available.

If you’re determined to loop the entire ride and don’t mind riding a lot of mediocre stuff, you can ride to the dam and take this return route. It does a good job of avoiding the larger roads. Notice that for the fun of it I’ve included an out-and-back on Walker Mine Rd., which is a good bit better than anything else on this route.

There is some additional bike path to the east of the Sundial Bridge, on both sides of the river, and it’s all fun stuff—consult the map by the Botanical Gardens—but it isn’t a significant number of miles.

3 thoughts on “Sacramento River Trail

  1. Brian M

    I actually continue south on Lake Blvd, making this a loop. Interesting blend of scenery, ramshackle suburbia, etc. Some traffic but wide bike lanes–it feels safe.

    Reply
  2. Kremmit

    If you’re not riding a skinny-tire bike, there’s a fantastic packed-dirt trail for the return from Shasta Dam to Keswick Dam. Take the Upper Sacramento Ditch Trail from the S.E. corner of the Shasta Dam Visitor Center parking lot and link up with the F.B. Trail which will get you back to Keswick Dam.

    Bonus side-trail: go up Chemise Peak for more incredible views, but take it slow on the descent as there’s always substantial foot traffic.

    Reply
    1. Jack Rawlins Post author

      This area has a marvelous developed dirt trail system, of which the Ditch Trail and the F.B. Trail are part. Most maps of the Sac River Trail include the nearby dirt trails.

      Reply

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