California Marathon Road Trip: Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge


In an attempt to get me to California again after I told Jon that our next trip would not be in Cali, he signed up to run his first ever full marathon on December 8th.  The California International Marathon.  In California.  But with those sweet puppy dog eyes and his desire to do the run where the weather was warmer, and where he lived for a few years, how could I say no?  Yes, I’m a sucker…

So off we went.  As is usual on our road trips, we headed out directly after work the first evening to get a jump on the drive.  The first night’s drive was to Eugene, and there was a risk of snow.  Luckily, it held off, and we spent the night in Eugene under cloudy, 17 degree skies.  We got up early – before 6!, after arriving just before midnight and getting only about 5 hours sleep.  Next up, the drive from Eugene to Sacramento.  We got on the road just after 7 – after scraping all the windows and spending several minutes warming up the car.  The Siskyous awaited.  Of mountain passes, the Siskyous can be treacherous in snow, with the highest elevation at 4610 feet!  Fortunately, we passed through bare and mostly dry roads, with only a light dusting of snow on the ground at the edge of the road.  We heard that Eugene got 7 inches of snow later that day – so we certainly lucked out…

Not much snow on Mount Shasta, December 5, 2013

Not much snow on Mount Shasta, December 5, 2013

The rest of the drive was uneventful, with us enjoying a few of the vantage points along the way, and a quick stop for a lunch at Subway.  Then we made our way to just outside of Willows, California.  Willows is home to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.  I had read about it on the internet, and saw that December and January are the peak season for the refuge, when it has the highest numbers of migrating birds for the winter.  Jon wasn’t as excited about the refuge, mostly because it is about 75 miles north of Sacramento, and he was envisioning driving all the way back to the refuge after we had already arrived in Sacramento.  When I told him we could stop on the way down (assuming the drive didn’t take too long), he checked out their website and got a bit more intrigued.

For a little history, the area where the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge sits was once known as the Colusa Plains, a windswept plain with short grasses and shrubs.  However, much of the area in Sacramento and immediately surrounding it was a wetland delta.  It would flood in the winter, and dry out in the summer.  That makes for extremely fertile soil, with all the nutrients which are deposited there during the seasonal floods.   Before the turn of the last century, settlers began damming the creeks and rivers to prevent the delta from flooding.  By the 1930s, the landscape had been dramatically altered.

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Red Tailed Hawk Checking Us Out

The Emergency Conservation Fund Act of 1933 was tasked with providing habitat and breeding areas for migratory birds, because so much of the original wetland areas had been lost to agriculture.  Bring in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, who set to work creating this area of now federally protected land, using bulldozers and shovels to artificially create a delta.  The flooding is mechanically induced each season, with a series of pipes and valves releasing water from the river into the delta.

Out for an afternoon stroll

Ring Necked Pheasant – Out for an afternoon stroll

The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge is part of a complex of five different refuges, and three Wildlife Management Areas that are administered together by the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife.  Admission is $6 to the refuge for the day, or an annual pass is a steal at $12 – the other refuges in the complex have no admission fees.

Butts Up Everybody!

Butts Up Everybody!

The birds don’t care whether the flooding is natural or man-made.  They have flocked back to the area over the years, with MILLIONS of ducks and geese, songbirds and hawks overwintering here.  There is a 2 mile walking tour, where the birds were not hanging out the day of our visit; but we did see muskrats (or otters, not sure which), some mallards, deer, and Jon saw a jackrabbit.    There is also a 6 mile driving tour, which you can do at your own pace.  The day we were there, there were only three other cars, so we mostly felt that we were entirely alone.  They will even loan you binoculars at the visitor’s center (we brought our own).

Red Winged Blackbird

Red Winged Blackbird

In a word, we were awestruck – the sheer numbers of birds on the marsh, feeding, sleeping, preening and occasionally taking flight, was spectacular.  We saw hawks watching birds, and even saw a hawk with a kill (he was a bit too far away to see what he had though).  We saw great egrets hunting, deer wading in the water for better feeding grounds, and we even saw two ring necked pheasants.  This is easily a few of the best hours I have spent in my life.

Great Egret

Great Egret

Getting in a Scratch While Crossing the Delta

Getting in a Scratch While Crossing the Delta

We watched one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen, and then continued on our way to Sacramento.   And almost a month later, Jon is still saying this is one of the best experiences he has ever had, so if you can, GO.

The Sunset at the Refuge was Fantastic

The Sunset at the Refuge was Fantastic

Farewell from the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

Farewell from the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

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4 thoughts on “California Marathon Road Trip: Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

    • It was amazing! I keep looking at these photos over and over again. The race went well – there will be a post coming soon, but I don’t want to give away all the gory details… 🙂

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