When people talk about our great golden state, rarely included in that conversation is the Central Valley’s Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, or, as we call it: California’s Serengeti. It’s home to some of the most spectacular concentrations of waterfowl in the entire continent, and winter is prime time for viewing action.
Here’s the best way to do it: drive the 6–mile auto tour route, and time it for sunset on a clear afternoon. Simply tune your radio to 93.1 FM, roll down the windows, and witness geese and ducks like never before: honking, quacking, splashing, diving, and gliding as the sky burns from bright orange to a soft lilac that reflects across the waters here. There are a few places to pull over and get out for a fresh perspective, but for the most part you stay in your vehicle, which doubles as a duck blind so that you can get close to the scene. (Nearly halfway through the tour there’s a viewing platform for seeing the great expanse.)
A major feather favorite here is the snow geese, hailing all the way from the Canadian arctic to spend winters in the wetlands and seasonal marshes of the Sacramento Valley. Keep an eye out at sundown when birds take flight overhead in thick V-formations, casting a silvery glow across the sky.
OVERNIGHT IT: Chico is the closest big town and a good place to spend the night with plenty of accommodation options; Hotel Diamond is particularly classy and historic. Be sure to grab a beer and a burger at Sierra Nevada Taproom & Restaurant.
Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge is 130 miles north of San Francisco on I-5, just south of Willows. Dog-friendly!