Dusk at the Guy West Bridge,
on the American River Trail by Sac State.
Much better than that other dumb bridge.
This post summarizes what I'll miss about Sacramento, which is another way of saying, what you should appreciate while you're here (or what you should do if you visit.) I did the same thing for SoCal and specifically for San Diego when I left there in 2014. Some of these things are a bit of a drive from Sacramento, but as a neighbor said in welcoming us to Sacramento, "we're a couple hours from a lot of cool stuff" (Sierras and Tahoe, San Francisco, Delta area.) This is very true, although it's a bit of an underhanded insult to a place that its best feature is being near other things. Ironically this was very true of the area I grew up in the far outer Philly suburbs. Like most Bay Areans, I used to think there wasn't anything worthwhile off I-80 past the Carquinez Bridge and before Truckee. Not true. "Even" the Central Valley has plenty to offer! (See photos to convince you of this here and here is a list of interesting stuff from top to bottom.) And I probably wouldn't have completed my quest to run across California if I hadn't lived in Sac.
(For the trails, click on links for photos of the trails under discussion.)
Of course the more remote parts of say, the Western States Trail aren't really toddler-friendly. But, the American River Trail is great and features a river they can throw rocks into, and duckies! Also if you're wiling to carry them down and back up, you can park here for free, hike down and hang out near the North-Middle Fork Confluence. Or for waterfalls in the winter and spring, break down and pay the $10 and park at Quarry Trails Parking Area on 49 and hike up.
Seaquest recently opened in Folsom and is a kid-friendly aquarium that even very young kids (1 yo) seem to really dig.
The Powerhouse Science Center on Auburn near Watt is a small but nifty museum. If you buy an annual pass it's good for all museums in their "system", which actually includes an amazing number of museums across the U.S., including one in my hometown in Pennsylvania! (The Reading Public Museum.)
Splash vernal pools has a great resource center with lots of critters - axolotl, bullfrogs, turtles, a jackrabbit, snakes you can pet, feathers from different birds, and skeletons of a rattlesnake, beaver, etc. They also take you on tours in the spring to the nearby vernal pools, but there are plenty of vernal pools in the areas south of the 50 between about Watt and Sunrise (just go for a drive in late March, it's beautiful in the spring anyway.) There are also some in Phoenix Park, just east of Hazel and north of the American River.
In the fall, Bastiao Farms Goblin Gardens is pretty cool. (I never thought I would be the kind of dad who would pose my kid for pictures with pumpkins and wagons but there I was.) Of course Apple Hill is no secret. Go there during the week if you can because it gets busy.
In the winter, take them up to the snow!
Sac libraries have a lot of cool activities for kids.
Sacramento has a lot of great playgrounds. Use them, and vote for councilmembers who maintain them!
The Bradshaw Sac County Animal Shelter is great for viewing rescue animals up for adoption, as long as you can avoid taking them all home. I adopted the Sweetie (the black cat seen here, aka Nero, The Black One, Dracula, Snaggletooth, and Little Doggie Nose) from there and despite her attempts at a fearsome appearance, she is Daddy's little butterball of love.
Little Whale in Carmichael is a great place to teach kids to swim.
The State Capitol is cool in its own right, but surprisingly entertaining for a one-year-old.
TRAILS - Most Memorable, Roughly from West to East
Oat Hill Trail - goes from above/west of Angwin to Calistoga past some extremely volcanic-looking formations on the south side of Mount Saint Helena. The eastern end in Angwin is extremely remote and public access seemed a bit iffy (keep in mind when planning.)
Stebbins Cold Canyon, specifically the Blue Ridge - great views on the border between Yolo and Napa and a bit of Class 3 scramble. Plus you can see the Glory Hole on the way there.
Fiske Peak at Cache Creek - at the west end of the Capay Valley (where? exactly!)
Gates Canyon and Mix Canyon Roads in Vacaville - more popular with cyclists than runners, but the reason either go up is because, supposedly, it's the steepest road climb in the state of California. (See a cyclist's description here.) It's a bizarre corner of the Bay in that from the top, you can simultaneously look over to Mt. Tam, and then turn around and see the Central Valley starting at your feet and if it's at all clear, the Sierra. The nearby town of Mankas Corner is also an unexpected little gem.
Not a trail, but the drive along Garden Highway is beautiful and unique, and Alamar Marina is out there for a drink and meal.
Sloppy Moose Runs - meet Thursday nights at New Helvetia Brewing on Broadway for a quick 3M and a beer.
The American River Trail, though flat, is actually pretty cool to live near. I generally stayed between William C. Pond and the Guy West Bridge though sometimes went as far as Paradise Beach. Beyond that it can get a bit sketchy (transients.) It's very cool to live near a river that you can, and want to, swim in when it's hot in the summer - haven't gone river-tubing like that since I was a teenager.
Darrington Trail - I finally did this shortly before we left. Can be done as A-to-B from Peninsula Campground to Salmon Falls Bridge, as opposed to the traditional out-and-back from Salmon Falls. Do it in mid to late spring, after the puddles dry up, but while the grass is still green and the wildflowers are out.
East Bay Reservoir Land in Foothills on the Mokelumne - if you're up in Jackson, swing by here.
Confluence Area in Auburn - I'll admit, the Training Hill to Cool and back on Western States loop almost bored me at times since it was the closest real hill to my house, but of course now I miss it. I also developed a bizarre association between this loop and the trail around Lake Taupo in North Island, New Zealand, and can offer no explanation as to why. Anything from Maidu Drive past Black Hole of Calcutta Falls and No Hands Bridge to Cool is great, and the Pioneer Trail back down to Rattlesnake Bar as the North Fork goes into Lake Folsom is also very underrated. Be warned, no good maps of this area! The bridge is the highest bridge in California, and one of the highest in the U.S.
Stevens Trail (Colfax) - don't go when the water is flowing, that waterfall crossing could be quite dangerous! Also don't go in the dead of summer. In this manner we nearly killed many of our friends and visitors (and later they passed it on by almost killing their friends, etc. in Grudge-like fashion.)
Euchre Bar - a not super-popular trail down into the North Fork Canyon - not long but STEEP.
Western States Trail/Cal Street section (Foresthill to River Crossing starting here) - I only did this once, also in the spring. It's long and remote but gorgeous.
Western States Trail/Robinson Flat to Granite Chief - not easy to get to but rewarding. (Honestly, other than Duncan, you can have the canyons.)
Tahoe Rim Trail - the stretch that starts at Echo Lake and goes through Desolation Wilderness by Lake Aloha, to Feather Lake, is incredible.
Feather Falls - little-known for reasons which are unclear to me.
FOOD AND DRINK - all of these are on my Yelp page. The Sacramento subreddit has also been a great resource.
Alcohol - On my returns to San Diego, I noted that the beer scene there was becoming, dare I say it, rigid? Dogmatic? Ossified? Like the Qing Dynasty in its waning days, i.e., able to cling to the ceremonial forms of power but not the function, as it were, after a fashion, QED, mazel tov, koonichiwa? A sure sign of complacency and decay is unawareness of activity outside one's borders; and when I suggest to San Diegans that maybe they should check out the Sacramento scene, the curled lip of contempt still fails to conceal their ignorance! Which is to say you should check out Bike Dog, Heretic, Ruhstaller, Sudwerk (in Davis), Track Seven, Sac City Brews in Tahoe Park, and the Midtown Biergarten.
You're probably not hearing about it from me for the first time, but Drake's Barn in West Sac is really cool. A beer and pizza joint with food trucks on a two acre lot next to the river and the Rivercats stadium where you can set up a tent, spend the day playing beanbags, and hang with the kids and dog. Twenty-four beers on tap my first time there.
For my favorite Central Valley wine, check out McKenzie Vineyards and Winery in Lodi. The tucked-away Capay Valley has a lot of cool little wineries and farms as well, in particular, Taber Ranch.
Faces - I am a grumpy, middle-aged straight white man who is tired of life, but one night I randomly went into Faces with a few random people, then randomly ran into a few friends, and had easily the best time I've ever had going out in Sacramento. Highly recommended.
Sacramento has the most dive bars per capita of anywhere I've lived. It's a shame that during my time here I was well past the peak dive bar period of my life.
Restaurants - again, all of these are on my Yelp, but here are the really good finds.
Alamar Marina, Garden Highway - on a boat in the Sacramento River. Relaxed, unassuming, exactly what it should be.
Sichuan Spicy House, 65th at Stockton - after we came back from China we were addicted to Sichuan food and this is where we get our fix.
Yang's Noodle, Freeport Blvd - they have a Sichuan beef soup that gives Sichuan Spicy House a run for their money, and a lot of other fantastic dishes besides.
Jade Fountain, Freeport Blvd - reliable Cantonese comfort food.
Oz, off the 50 at Bradshaw exit - if Chuck-E-Cheese designed a Korean place for grown-ups. Meant as a compliment, since I went there for more than one birthday.
Pho Bac Hoa Viet, off the 50 at Bradshaw exit - more of a traditional pho place but huge menu.
Abyssinia Ethiopian in Arden at Fulton and Hurley - one of three East African places I know of in Sac and IMHO the most authentic. (The other two are fine too; Queen Sheba approaches fusion and is also good.)
Village Drive-In, Tahoe Park - hands-down the best burger in Sacramento. (Thanks for introducing me Maria!)
Lil Joe's in Del Paso Heights - get your liver and onions!
Roma II Pizzeria on Folsom between Howe and Watt - the best (i.e., most East Coast-like) Italian diner/pizzeria in Sac, hands-down.
La Trattoria Bohemia in East Sac - Czech-Italian. Beers with their own undertow. Go.
El Forastero on Folsom near Watt - Mexican, plus they have carne asada fries ("secret" menu) that I was craving after moving here from San Diego
Chando's Mexican on Arden - duh
Gunther's Ice Cream on Franklin just south of Broadway - also duh
J&J Fish and Chicken on Fruitridge near MLK - Sacramento has an oddly high number of fish and chip shops, most of them wanting; I was addicted after coming back from New Zealand and nowhere really lived up. BUT JJ does have the tastiest richest fattiest batter, so that's something.
Cattleman's - come on, where do you have a better overall experience, INCLUDING the steak? Will miss.
Cafe Marika in Midtown - cozy Hungarian place. Reservations required.
Proximity to the Sierras. For a decade living in the Bay, of course like my fellow ignoramuses I viewed the only Worthwhile Destination in the Sierras as right around Tahoe. Anything more off the beaten path than that, or lower in elevation, especially the foothills, seemed pointless. I got to know those mountains (and for that matter, Tahoe) a lot better since I've lived here.
Mountain light. You know those mornings in the winter or spring, when the sky to the west is clear blue but oddly dark - because the sky to the east over the Sierras is covered by dark clouds, blocking the morning light? This is the contrast you might see when you're camping near a mountain range and first come out of your tent in the morning.
A river just about in my back yard. The American River is a really nice river. Seriously.
WHAT I WON'T MISS - the summers. You kind of feel like a prisoner in your house for 4 months, and yes I could get up and run/hike/etc. at 5am, great, I wonder how many people actually do that. Also having to drive 45 minutes to get to trails on hills. That's an hour and a half just for driving, which for a parent, makes it a no-go during the week. If suddenly plate tectonics makes Sacramento hilly while knocking down all ridges between here and the Pacific so the summers are cooler, I will be moving back!
Above: the first day of summer in Sacramento.