American River Parkway Introduction

american river parkway map

Parkway on-site map

The American River is the waterway that flows down from California gold country and joins the Sacramento River at Sacramento.

Due to the fact that flood protection is necessary in these areas, levees have been erected on both sides of the American River. I would guess they are maybe 25 feet high. Anyway, on the river side of the levees you just can’t have houses (not normal ones, anyway) so it is all parkland. There are paved bike trails that extend from the Sacramento River up to Folsom.

I have been spending a lot of time on a particular section of this bike way, as it is on the way to downtown, which I visit often. I get on at Watt Ave, and exit to the north and east at Fair Oaks Blvd. Between Watt and Howe – the next big street before Fair Oaks – is an old oak grove that the trail goes through.

parkway grove evening

Oak grove illuminated by the evening sun.

At first for me this was just a picturesque spot. Then one morning at about 11AM, two deer (bucks with three-point antlers) showed up along the trail, nibbling on underbrush. Later that day I saw them again. The next day I saw a doe with one of them, as well as three turkey hens at another spot. This got me more interested.

These were very tame “wild” animals. Humans don’t bother them that much. A lot of squirrels are the same way. The turkey may even be escapees from a domestic flock. But the point was that these animals were showing up in what otherwise is considered a very urban area.

deer buck

Buck wanders through his temporary home.

I can only guess that the hot weather extending out for many weeks has been pushing some animals towards waterways, and a few ended up in the parkway. So I started looking at this section of the park more closely, as it seemed to be providing adequate shelter for these larger animals as well as countless other smaller ones. I spent most of my time on the north side of the river, where I spotted the deer.

elderberries

Elderberries are seen everywhere along this trail.

The land itself in this area is of some interest. On the north side of the bike trail, undergrowth consists mostly of dry grasses, not counting small trees like elderberry. Something on that side is preventing other plants from taking over there. On the levee itself the grass is being mowed, but not down here. Maybe the soil is just very poor.

forest understory

River-side forest and understory.

On the other side of the trail, the land is “foresting out” as I call it. The grasses that dry as the summer progresses are being replaced by plants that are staying green. It is more or less obvious that the soil is more moist there. Tree cover, presence of mulch and its thickness, understory plants, as well as the structure of the soil layers themselves all contribute to soil water content.

forest floor mulch

Forest floor mulch; this found right by the trail.

In any case, plant diversity and greenness increase as one gets closer to the water, but seeing it so starkly just across the width of a bike trail was a bit unusual for me. Seeing rushes growing is evidence of much wetter soil. I noticed these in only a few places.

parway rushes by trail

Rushes indicate a spot with wetter soil.

The area is also undergoing a “second flowering” at this time (early September) which sometimes happens when the weather has been a bit unusual, and seems to be up to individual plants or even individual buds. I saw a huge lily plant reflowering, plus some of the elderberries – which I know of as spring-only bloomers – and possibly some of the asters, which are known as late summer bloomers (think sunflowers), but I was seeing evidence on some of them for one bloom cycle already done this year.

asters in a field

Aster family plants grow tall in this field; very sun-tolerant.

There are a few other plants in this area that are persistent bloomers, such as the Jimsonweed (Datura stramonium) and a few others with very good heat tolerance. Jimsonweed is native to Mexico and is dangerously toxic, though has been used for a long time for medicinal purposes. It is related to tobacco, nightshade, tomatoes and potatoes.

jimsonweed flower

A jimsonweed flower beginning to wilt.

Sharing the canopy with the oaks in this region are the walnuts. California black walnuts are native in this area, but do not produce nuts as edible as the cultivated English walnut. I have also seen some cottonwoods, but not many sycamores, which are widely planted along the streets and in parks.

walnuts fruit and nut

Walnuts look like fruit; the nut is inside the husk.

There are also areas of the park “infested” by grape vines. The grapes seem to the casual observer to be a problem, as they grow over and seem to smother other plants and trees. But ecologists are hesitant to control them as a weed, because they do produce food for the animals. Humans could eat these grapes, too (I tried one), but I don’t think many do.

grapes

Grapes hide under the shade of their leaves.

blackberries

Blackberries dry out quickly in the summer heat.

peas drying in the sun

The weather is too hot and dry for these peas; they bloomed in the spring.

Blackberries are also widely seen in open areas and in the understory, and I even saw some pea vines which came from goodness knows where. So animals that venture here can be quite well fed. I have managed to photograph some of them.

turkey hens

These turkeys seem happy here.

rabbit

I found this rabbit further up the trail.

quail

Quail are more skittish than some of the other animals, so a bit harder to photograph.

rose hips

We know rose hips as a source of vitamin C. I have not seen them eaten much by animals, though.

Though this section of the parkway is an important commute route for me (and for many others), it has also developed into quite a rich habitat that supports a lot of different life forms.

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