Folsom Lake – the reality of our current drought

On Easter we decided to head up to Sacramento to do an old Different Spokes ride that is no longer fashionable, the American River Bike Trail (ARBT). Back in the day this was called the Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail. The club first went up there courtesy of Derek Liecty and Richard Palmer on May 6, 1984. It was usually offered once a year in the spring or sometimes in the fall. No one in their right mind wanted to be on the American River in the summer as it would so hot one would faint from the heat and humidity. It got San Franciscans out of their comfort zone, ie. away from the Gay Ghetto and summer-long City fog and into the heartland of the Traditional Values Coalition and valley heat. It’s a beautiful paved trail that manages to avoid Sacto’s suburban sprawl and render the appearance that you’re out in the country (except when passing under the overpasses).

The ARBT starts in Discovery Park, which is just to the north of old town Sacramento, and continues for over 32 miles to Beals Point at Folsom Dam and then slightly beyond. The trail parallels the American River, wiggling along its banks amidst numerous river parks small and large. Even though you’re passing through several suburbs—Carmichael, Rancho Cordova, Fair Oaks, and Folsom—you rarely espy the urbanity as the planners have done an excellent job of preserving the river as is. The ARBT is technically a multi-use path but it’s unlike the ones we have in the Bay Area. The paved trail is primarily for cyclists and it has a painted divider for each direction, upriver and downriver. Although pedestrians can and do use the path, they are advised to use the dirt shoulder and walk facing cycling traffic. Skateboarding is banned. In comparison MUPs such as the Iron Horse or Contra Costa Canal Trail are free-for-all zones open to any user and there is no attempt to organize traffic nor limit users other than to the 15 MPH speed limit. Thus the ARBT is actually a great place to ride and better than the adjacent city streets since it has almost no stop signs and very few crossings.

Although it’s often described as ‘dead flat’ the ARBT is not exactly flat as a pancake. There are innumerable small ups and downs that are insidiously wearing. The only climb to speak of is the short ascent from the town of Folsom up to dam level. All in all it’s about 1,100 feet of gain over the length of the trail. As the day progresses the wind changes from usually downstream to what can sometimes be a steady upstream headwind as the Valley heats up and sucks air up the Delta. But there are so many places to stop to rest, get water, find a restroom, and relax on benches or lawns in shade or in sun that temporary relief is literally just at your feet. Although there are no food concessions on the trail itself, you can exit it at various points and search for the nearest fast food or other local restaurant in the suburbs themselves. At Beals Point there is a snack concession stand but its hours are mostly limited to summertime when the crowds throng the lakeshore. So for food it’s best to bring your own and you can enjoy a snack anywhere you like along the trail.

Roger and I last rode the ARBT in 2019 during the time when a long section of the trail at Lake Natoma—about 20 miles up the river—was closed due to a landslide and then a breeding pair of bald eagles established a nest there that had to be left undisturbed. We were forced to ride the south side of the river that year. It had been three years since we’ve ridden the trail and even longer for the closed section.

I was eagerly looking forward to revisiting the ARBT. Although I’ve suffered through some pretty hot versions, I’ve always enjoyed the mesmerizing roll along the river. This year it was slightly on the cool side and that made the entire day a comfortable jaunt. The trail is well used by Sacramento denizens as well as visitors from the Bay Area (e.g. I saw a rider with a Dublin Cyclery jersey). But the trail wasn’t crowded at all perhaps because there is plenty of room, 32 miles worth! Picnickers and daytrippers were out enjoying the sunny day and the smell of grilling meat wafted pleasantly along the trail.

The peculiar thing about the ARBT is that I’ve never been able to go very fast on it. Perhaps it’s because I’m just not ‘very fast’ period. Although I can roll on my local roads at over 17 MPH, I have a really hard time keeping that speed on the ARBT. And it wasn’t just this day—I’ve been doing about 15 MPH on it for years. And this time I felt like I was struggling almost the entire day. We were passed by other cyclists with some regularity. The trail is used not just by the hoi polloi but also by the local racers and faux racers. It is somewhat unsettling to see guys roll by at speed on time trial bikes; technically there is a 15 MPH limit but it’s for show only—laughable really—because of the inordinate number of cyclists rolling by at pace. Nonetheless except at a few critical junctures there is rarely a crowd on the trail.

Many of those passing us were on e-bikes and there were more e-bikes in use than I had ever seen before except perhaps at the Stanford E-Bike Expo. The assortment was really quite astounding—e-cargo bikes with kids, e-bikes with trailers, urban bikes, road bikes, mountain bikes—you name it, they all had batteries. At one point we were passed by a couple and I tried to catch them. 17 MPH…18 MPH…20 MPH…22 MPH and I was gasping. This went on for some time when I came to the realization that they probably had Class 3 e-bikes and unless I was willing to risk my heart exploding I wasn’t going to catch them. Off they flew into the distance. This happened several times: we’d get passed, I’d speed up, I couldn’t catch up or I’d just run out of gas/patience. In any case I just wasn’t feeling it that day. I really felt like the caboose!

At about the 20-mile point you pass the Nimbus fish hatchery. This facility is run by California Fish & Game and raises salmon and trout fingerlings to release into the American River due to the natural run being blocked by the Nimbus hydroelectic dam, which creates Lake Natoma just below Folsom. Here you have to cross the river and climb to the north side before dropping precipitously back to lake level to continue upstream. This section of the trail is beautiful as you glide by the lake and beaches, which are often full of users in warm weather.

Where the trail passes through Folsom is the beginning of the climb up to Beals Point. As we started to climb I could see a well-kitted cyclist suddenly appear behind us. Of course I sped up. Then I stood up and climbed for all I was worth (which wasn’t much). In a vain victory we dropped him on the climb, perhaps a mere hundred foot vertical gain. That nearly killed me. So I crawled into Beals Point for a good rest.

Usually we carry a lunch with us to eat at the lake. But this time we were set on going to Julian’s Patisserie, which is a couple of miles back down the trail on the outskirts of Folsom. It meant leaving the trail and getting on Folsom-Auburn Road, a wide four-lane arterial with shoulders. The transition from no cars to mo’ cars was unsettling! Peace and quiet were replaced by anxiety and the loud whine of many automobiles adjacent to a sadly perfunctory “bike lane”.

At Julian’s, which has outdoor seating, all the tables were taken and it was closing soon. So we ended up missing out on his pastries and ended up next door at Coffee Republic, which has lots of outdoor tables and hardly a crowd. The sandwiches were fine but nondescript, nothing to write home about.

Back on the trail we took it easier, or at least we tried to. Unfortunately the afternoon headwind had appeared so it was a bit of a slog anyway and it felt like we were merely crawling along. By now the Sunday crowds were in full force, parking lots were full at most of the parks we passed. And who wouldn’t want to be outside on such a pleasant day? Sunny but not hot, a light breeze, and plenty of foliage to assuage the senses.

As has been becoming typical I developed a hamstring cramp and we had to stop. I downed some pickle juice—Pickle Power!—and rested a bit, then headed back even more slowly. I know that if I take it easy (or down a Coke, which alas I did not have) I can make it calm down. A few miles down the path I felt better and we were shortly back at Discovery Park. I can’t say I was beat but I was close to it—it was after all over 64 miles. And my average speed for the day? 15 MPH. Same as it ever was. At least I’m not getting slower quickly.