By David Watts Barton, Horizon Airlines Magazine, February 2008
As our four-seat seaplane lifts off the glassy surface of the Sacramento River, giving our tour group a bird’s-eye view of the winding levees and tracts of farmland stretching east to the Sierra Nevada and west to the Coast Range, I get a sense of Sacramento that’s hard to get on the ground.
California’s capital city lies at the confluence of two great rivers, the Sacramento and the American. Built on earth washed down those rivers from the Sierras, Sacramento is tortilla- at and only 25 feet above sea level. So getting some perspective takes a bit of elevation. On our Delta Seaplane tour, pilot Jenni Martin takes us up over a landscape that is the heart of one of the most extensive levee systems this side of the Netherlands. The levees were built more than a century ago and were responsible for some of the distinctive “high-water bungalows” in the city’s more than 150-year-old downtown core.
“I love this area,” says Martin, who knows numerous details about the Sacramento and American rivers, and the delta—one of the world’s biggest at approximately 700,000 acres—that they form southwest of Sacramento. Her narrative encompasses items ranging from the secret nearby get- away of a prominent duck-hunting hotelier to the deep-water Port of Sacramento, which ships visit from all over the world. She’s also knowledgeable about the area’s wetlands, which host millions of waterfowl, both migratory and long-term residents. The birds aren’t shy about exploring the greater Sacramento area. For much of the year, you’ll likely see snow-white egrets standing calmly on grassy freeway medians. Flocks of American pelicans and solitary great blue herons also are common sights. And on quiet winter and early-spring nights, you can hear the gentle honks of migrating geese and ducks over downtown.
Bird-watching and scenic seaplane tours are just two of the many excellent recreational activities in the capital city. You’ll also find excellent fishing just minutes from town; great art museums and restaurants in the downtown core; architectural attractions such as the state Capitol, whose beautiful plantings have given Sacramento the nickname “the Camellia City”; and historical sites such as Old Sacramento, which celebrates the Gold Rush era. Sacra- mento is also just a one- to two-hour drive from San Francisco, Lake Tahoe and the Napa/Sonoma valleys, making it a great base from which to explore other California attractions.
Fishing of all kinds is popular throughout the Sacramento Valley. Anglers have even been seen casting contentedly in the 3-acre pond at Southside Park in the downtown/ midtown Grid, as locals call the core city. You can also sh right off the shore near Old Sacramento, just west of downtown, or go 10 minutes out of east downtown to suburban Paradise Beach, where many kinds of fish bite, notably striped bass. “That’s good fishing, not a consolation spot,” says local fly-fishing guide Bill Lowe.
The fishing is especially good around Sacramento’s two rivers, which play host to five major species through the year, Lowe says. “It’s a very underutilized fishery, for its accessibility. People can’t imagine the fishing would be so good in a major urban area.”
During most months, there are at least two species to catch in the rivers, he says. “January to March is the best for a mix of wild and hatchery steelhead trout, and between April and October there’s striped bass, with shad for about six weeks around June. Then in the fall, there’s wild and hatchery chinook [king] salmon and half- pound steelhead. And there are rainbow trout year-round.”
My river of choice quickly becomes the scenic American, which is accessible all along its length, from the parks that line it to the Sierra. Lowe charges $425 a day for one or two guests, but for that he’ll pick you up at your hotel if need be, and provide everything a visiting Sherman Island would need: a drift boat, high-end gear and the knowledge he has gleaned in a lifetime of fishing the rivers around Sacramento. He also boasts a lunch he calls “a top-notch organic spread,” with whole-grain turkey- and-avocado sandwiches and fresh fruit. He’ll even make you an espresso on the boat.
Although I grew up only a few miles from the American River Parkway—an approximately 30-mile swath of native ora and fauna that runs east from down- town Sacramento out to Folsom—I thought the river was for floating down, on a raft or inner tube. Fishing? Not so much. But a couple of hours with Lowe and I am, well, hooked.
Watching the y whip out over the river, feeling the relentless ow of the water coursing down from the high Sierra, and watching seabirds such as seagulls, cormorants and American pelicans following the fall salmon run from San Francisco Bay, I get a sense of what I’ve been miss- ing. Alas, no trout seem to be attracted by my technique during my two-hour lesson, but I still enjoy the scenery.
As we cast, Lowe points out spots where the sh rest behind rocks, the better to preserve their energy. He also notes that, although he loves to sh, and loves eating sh, when he himself fishes here, it’s strictly catch-and-release. “I haven’t taken a single sh out of this river,” he says. “They’re my business partners.”
Exploring the Grid
In downtown Sacramento, the focus is on the architectural and cultural attractions of the Grid—roughly 800 square blocks, or 2 miles by 2 miles, of lettered and numbered streets, which make the city easy to navigate. Numbered streets run roughly west to east, while lettered streets run roughly north to south. For instance, the Capitol is at 10th and L. The Crocker Art Museum is at Third and O.
The Grid is undergoing a building boom, echoing Sacramento’s first building boom, which occurred in the wake of the 1848 discovery of gold about 50 miles northeast at Coloma, where today you can pan for gold at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, site of that first discovery. At the first boom’s peak in the 1850s, the city had 10 times the population of San Francisco. The riches that were being excavated helped Sacramento’s new citizens build a number of gorgeous, often colorful Victorian-era homes—many of which sit on streets that were raised 10 feet to minimize the impact of the 19th century’s frequent floods. The Victorians include what is now the Sacramento Youth Hostel, constructed in 1885 by businessman Llewellyn Williams as a residence for his family, and the Leland Stanford Mansion, begun in 1856 by Gold Rush merchant Sheldon Fogus and completed in 1872 by Stanford, one of California’s early governors and the founder of Palo Alto’s Stanford University.
Plentiful water has also grown the downtown’s extensive green canopy, one of the densest urban forests in the West, cooling the city during the area’s hot sum- mer days. And the city’s summer evenings, after the delta breezes have arrived around 6 pm, are the envy of visitors from all over the world.
One of the choicest green spots in the Grid is the 40-acre Capitol Park that beauties the area around the state Capitol. The park has memorials to Vietnam veterans and fire fighters, and also has plant species gathered from around the world, including close to 100 varieties of camellias imported from Southeast Asia during the Gold Rush.
The capitol building itself—begun in 1860 and completed in 1874—is a soaring, white granite building with a rotunda that rises to a dome 236 1/2 feet high. Renaissance Revival frescoes of griffins decorate the first floor of the rotunda, while the inside of the dome features plaster depictions of California grizzly bears, the state seal, and fruit, grains and other symbols of the state’s bounty. The building can be toured daily on the hour between 9 A.m. and 4 p.m.
Another of the Grid’s star attractions is the Crocker Art Museum, housed in a gorgeous Victorian near the Sacramento
River. The museum takes its name from Edwin B. Crocker, a former state Supreme Court judge who completed the building in 1872 as a private family gallery to house his art collection, which was given to the city along with the gallery in 1885. The Crocker’s permanent collection of more than 14,000 works features one of the world’s best collections of early California art, including paintings by Thomas Hill, Elizabeth Strong and Charles Christian Nahl; a growing Asian art collection; and an international ceramics collection containing such works as 18th century German porcelain and terra-cotta pieces by Pierre Auguste Renoir.
The Crocker remains open while under- going a 125,000-square-foot expansion that will triple its size, scheduled to be completed in 2010. The museum hosts such diverse exhibits as the current one devoted to the paintings of Edwin Deakin, through April 20, and “The Language of the Nude: Four Centuries of Drawing the Human Body,” from May 10 to July 27. An exhibit of pop art by Andy Warhol and other artists this fall will be followed by “The Art of Warner Bros. Cartoons” start- ing in November. Planned 2009 exhibits will feature Buddha images and the prints of Max eld Parrish.
Other worthwhile Sacramento museums include the Railroad Museum, the California State Indian Museum, and the California Museum for History, Women and the Arts, home of First Lady Maria Shriver’s new California Hall of Fame— featuring inductees such as golfer Tiger Woods, actor Milton Berle, author John Steinbeck and Apple computer company CEO Steve Jobs.
While you can walk the Grid, or even take a pedicab (50 cents a block) in certain areas, I think one of the best ways to explore the Grid is by bike, as the locals do. City Bicycle Works, at 2419 K St., which is near the corner of 24th and K (see how those numbers/letters work?), rents mountain bikes and hybrid bikes— like road bikes but with at handlebars— and is open seven days a week. For $20, you get to keep the bike for 24 hours, and the rental includes a helmet and a lock.
Once you’re on your bike, the Grid is your oyster—and sushi, and burrito, and spring roll. Sacramento has drawn immi- grants from around the world, and diners can enjoy a variety of ethnic cuisines. New restaurants—which take advantage of the town’s location amid one of the planet’s most productive agricultural areas—seem to pop up weekly. For instance, the sleek
Ella Dining Room & Bar opened in September 2007 at a cost of $4.5 million, with wooden chairs—from a series featured at New York’s Museum of Modern Art—by Dutch furniture maker Piet Hein Eek. The funkier Old Soul baking company., opened in August 2006, is in a former warehouse building tucked away on the alley between L Street and Capitol Avenue and between 17th and 18th streets.
Old Soul Co. offers lattes and mochas made from beans roasted on the premises, and there is no cash register. Just put your two bucks—yes, $2—in the old spittoon on the counter, and enjoy your latte while you watch pastries being rolled out right in front of you.
Some restaurants, bars and other retail establishments have enthusiastically embraced one of Sacramento’s most popu- lar activities, the Second Saturday Art Walk, by setting up impromptu galleries in the most unlikely of places. Butch-N- Nellie’s Coffee Co. on I Street displays artworks prominently; the Body Tribe gym, at 21st and J streets, features live bands as well as art; and street corners might feature the gyrations of the local Unmata Belly Dancing Troupe.
Of course, dozens of art galleries also open their doors the second Saturday evening of each month. They often serve wine and cheese, and frequently host featured artists who are hoping to follow in the foot- steps of famous Sacramento artists such as Wayne Thiebaud, Gregory Kondos, Joan Moment, Jian Wang and Gary Pruner.
Visiting Old Sacramento
Another top attraction is 28-acre Old Sacramento, which features 53 Gold Rush–era buildings—many of which have been preserved— and museums such as the California State Railroad Museum, which celebrates and explains the city’s role in construction of the Transcontinental railroad. There are a number of tourist shops, but enough remains of the 19th century town to give a good idea of what it must have been like 150 years ago.
The Eagle Theatre is a replica of what is believed to be the first building
west of the Mississippi specifically built for entertainment, also called the Eagle Theatre; the 1970s reproduction hosts plays occasionally. Outdoors, horse-drawn- carriage rides, riverboat cruises and steam-locomotive rides along the Sacra- mento River draw people from around the world.
Walking tours of Old Sacramento are available from Hysterical Walks & Rides. Although these Old Sacramento tours are walking only, the company also offers Segway tours of the downtown area.
Whether you’re touring Old Sacramento or modern Sacramento, you’ll find a city that impresses its inhabitants and visitors with its rich diversity, glorious climate and stunning architecture.
David Watts Barton is a Sacramento native and freelance writer who has covered the city’s cultural life for 25 years, and currently publishes www.bloggingthegrid.blogspot. com, a guide to life in Sacramento.