Sacramento is blessed by environmental and geographical characteristics that make it an ideal location for bicycling. The nearly year-round good weather makes for virtually unlimited opportunities to get out on two wheels; and while the relatively flat terrain favors novices, casual riders and families alike there are also more rugged trails and paths to challenge mountain bike enthusiasts as well.
The city’s strong connection with cycling is not just the result of favorable natural circumstances. Sacramento’s city government and Sacramento County have made a conscious and sustained effort to encourage residents to pedal their way not only to recreational activity, but also to think of the bicycle as a realistic alternative to commuting by automobile. What it all comes down to is, when you think about integrating bicycling into your lifestyle here, your main limitation is how far you want to take it.
It all begins with a plan
Making Sacramento and its environs into a bicycle-friendly environment has been an important objective for Sacramento County and the city of Sacramento since at least 1993, when Sacramento County adopted its Bicycle Master Plan, which is itself a product of the county’s effort to comply with California’s Bicycle Transportation Act. From the governmental point of view, encouraging people to use bicycles has multiple social benefits: cleaner air, better public health, reduced traffic, and reduced fuel consumption. But encouraging local residents to actually grab the handlebars and start pedaling takes more than just policies: those policies have to manifest themselves into appealing ways to go places and do things by bicycle.
Choose your path
Have a destination in mind? Through its combination of off-street paths, bike routes and bike lanes, Sacramento lets you get there. For trips within the city limits you can start with the Bikeway User Map to plan your route (the map also contains useful information on legal requirements, traffic signals, right-of-way considerations and even how to park). Sacramento County offers additional maps for the Arden Arcade and Carmichael neighborhoods, and for the whole of Sacramento County.
“But I can’t decide!”
If your motive is to go somewhere fun, choosing a destination from all the available bicycle maps can be a bit daunting. Contemplating all the color-coded possibilities can feel like trying to decide on one particular strand from a plate of multi-colored spaghetti. But depending on what you want to do, some bikeways stand out above the rest. Here are some suggestions based on our research into the most popular paths and trails:
Scenery, casual cycling, family cycling, activities
The clear favorite in this category is the Jedediah Smith Memorial Bicycle Trail, also known as the American River Bike Trail. With its mostly flat terrain, paved surface, multiple access points and myriad places to stop for activities like swimming, picnicking, park visits, viewing both scenery and wildlife or just to stop and shop or get a bite to eat, this 32-mile route has something for everyone whether you’re spending an hour or the whole day. Sunset Magazine includes this nationally-recognized trail in its list of the 20 best bike paths in the Western United States.
This trail is open all year, from sunrise to sunset. If you plan getting there with your bicycle mounted on another vehicle, there is a variable fee to park at the access points depending on what you are driving or riding in. Be advised, though, the popularity of this trail does not confine itself to bicyclists: you can (figuratively speaking, of course) run into pedestrians, inline skaters, and even horseback riders along the way (it’s also wheelchair accessible). If you are looking for quiet solitude or a physically challenging adventure, though, this might not be your first choice.
Looking for something more demanding? Try the Granite Bay Trail adjacent to Folsom Lake for a beginner-to-intermediate dirt trail course, or if you seek more of a challenge consider the Foresthill Divide Loop with its 2,000-foot elevation gain (recommended for intermediate-to-advanced riders). Another route is the Fleming Meadow Trail System in the Eldorado National Forest, which offers routes from easy to advanced. Note, however, that none of these trails are exclusively for mountain biking: you’ll need to be on the lookout for hikers and equestrians as well as other cyclists, but these more remote locations should make for a less crowded experience than you would experience closer to Sacramento proper.
The path less traveled
If you are looking for a place to take in more out-of-the-beaten-path scenery but aren’t so much into mountain biking, a good candidate is the Sacramento Northern Bike Trail. Named for the defunct Sacramento Northern Interurban Railway, the route of which it follows, this 10-mile paved route will take you past a variety of old neighborhoods, forests, agricultural fields, pastures, rivers and ponds. It also intersects with other trails, including the Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail at Discovery Park. While you will still encounter other people, including hikers and dog walkers, it is not as well-trodden and offers more chances for quiet and solitude.
There’s always more
Given the emphasis that Sacramento and Sacramento County place on encouraging people to pedal instead of drive, the options available to you as a cyclist are the same as a king’s smorgasboard to a hungry person. We cannot possibly cover them all here; our purpose is rather to offer some ideas for you to begin your own journey of exploration that can reveal to you a lifetime’s worth of places to see and things to do cannot be experienced behind the wheel of a car. Your most rewarding and memorable experiences may not include any of the trails we have mentioned, but the only way to know for sure is to get on that bicycle, find a starting point, and see where it leads.