The American River Parkway’s Jedediah Smith Trail offers alluring options

Take a cycling journey on the American River Parkway’s Jedediah Smith Trail…

The American River Parkway begins where the American River flows into the Sacramento River and follows the American River east to Folsom State Recreation Area, just beyond Folsom Dam.

The Parkway and its Jedediah Smith Trail offer a network of well over 40 miles of paved trail, and an almost endless array of side trails into riparian forests, making one forget it courses through one of the larger metropolitan areas on the West Coast. It’s home to a variety of historical sites and recreational opportunities, as well as stop-you-in-your-tracks scenery.

The Fair Oaks Bridge, over 110 years old, takes cyclists off the Smith Trail and up into historic Fair Oaks and its quaint downtown.

The American flows through a landscape that was occupied for more than 10,000 years by the Valley Nisenen (translation, “on our side of the river”), the southernmost of the three groups of Maidu indigenous peoples who lived near the Yuba and American Rivers. The natives prospered for centuries, but a sea-change was coming with pioneers like John Sutter.

John Sutter, a German-born Swiss immigrant, received a Mexican land grant in 1839 giving him rights to develop a good portion of the Sacramento and American River Valleys. As his empire expanded from Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento, he needed lumber to fuel his construction projects. He partnered with James Marshall to find and build a nearby lumber mill in the Sierra foothills, finding in the Cul-Luh-Mah Valley (now Coloma) plenty of pine trees and a river (the South Fork of the American) flowing strong to power a sawmill.

California poppies near mile 20 of the bike trail.

Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento (it’s worth a future travel exploration) received the first boards milled in March, 1848; Marshall found gold in the tailrace of the mill on January 24, 1848. With the discovery, the Gold Rush was soon on and the land became too valuable for lumbering; gold claims multiplied. California’s population would quadruple in the next ten years and dramatically alter US history.

As California’s wealth and population swelled, change came with lightning-speed. In the 1860s, in rapid succession, came the Pony Express, whose riders thundered along the American to the Pony Express’s terminus in Old Sacramento. Soon, the Transcontinental Telegraph followed, putting the Pony Express out of business; then came the Transcontinental Railroad – all ended in Sacramento and added to population growth, but decimated the indigenous peoples.

Cyclists head up Old Sacramento’s Front Street, to connect with bike trail extension to take them to Discovery Park and Mile One of the Jedidiah Smit Bike Trail.

With this storied history, the City and County of Sacramento acted to preserve the pristine river access and the American River Parkway was the fortuitous result. It is a Mecca for hikers and cyclists; walkers can chose from scores of miles of scenic trails, and cyclists can ride a few miles, or tackle all 32 miles in a single day (or even do an out-and-back totaling 64 miles). The route is laced with parks and picnic areas, providing prime fishing and rafting options.

Here are suggestions of where to start and what to see.

One place to begin is in Old Sacramento, home to seven museums including Sacramento History Museum and the California Railroad Museum. Mile One of the bike trail starts right outside their doors, just north in Discovery Park, and heads east up the river. Of many other mid-trail starting points, the Cal State Sacramento campus is a lovely option, and the Guy West Bridge (a replica of the Golden Gate Bridge) takes you across to the American where you can ride either east or west on the scenic trail.

My favorite stretch of the Parkway runs from Sunrise Boulevard, east to Nimbus Dam, then into Folsom, offering a selection of unique recreational prospects. On the bike trail, it’s mile marker 19 just west of Sunrise, up to mile 23 at Nimbus Dam and mile 28 near Folsom. This stretch, heading east from Sunrise area, includes the historic Fair Oaks Bridge, circa 1909, providing a detour north on a side trail to old Fair Oaks, featuring a downtown preserving its quaint and historic character, where free-range chickens abound around every corner. Don’t miss the short hike east into parkland at the northern end of the old bridge, yielding breath-taking views of the river off the tall bluff.

Boats at the Cal State Aquatic Center on Lake Natoma, just off the bike trail.

 A few miles up the river trail, reach the Nimbus Fish Hatchery, open for tours on selected days; and the lovely Sacramento State University Aquatic Center, which rents kayaks, SUPs, sail and pedal boats for tours on Lake Natoma.

Once you reach mile 28 near Folsom, you have the option to continue riding to trail end at Folsom State Recreation Area, detour along the relatively new Johnny Cash Trail or take a break in Folsom’s historic district. From the trail’s eastern reaches, it’s mostly downhill, heading west.

How to get to the American River Parkway: From San Joaquin County, take I-5 or Hwy. 99 north to Sacramento to CA Hwy. 50; access to the parkway is just off Hwy. 50 from a variety of starting points.

For more information: American River Parkway,; California Railroad Museum,; Sacramento History Museum,

Contact Tim,; find his archive, travels in the west!

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