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Directions: From I-5 south, exit at Twin Cities Rd. and go east for one mile. Turn right at Franklin Blvd. and continue 1.7 miles to a left turn into the visitor center lot.
The Cosumnes River Preserve is part heartland, part Heart of Darkness. A National Natural Landmark, the preserve protects an untamed jungle of tangled vines and valley oak woodlands set along sloughs and swamps where Huck Finn might feel at home. The Cosumnes is the last unregulated river flowing from the Sierra Nevada into the Central Valley, and the River Trail, which begins near the visitor center, leads you into this boggy vestige of the way things used to be. The route crosses an iron footbridge, where plaques depict creatures from fairy shrimp to great blue herons. Turn right and the trail edges along a marsh before reaching a view of Middle Slough. Near the water, look for river otters, beavers and migratory waterfowl. Thanks to its location along the Pacific Flyway, this is also a birders’ haven. More than 250 species have been spotted here and you’re constantly serenaded by a steady patter of pips and peeps, and even the brash trills of sandhill cranes. Take a break on benches beneath a valley oak canopy before continuing on for views of the Cosumnes. Near a placard about invasive plants, there’s a gorgeous bit of Americana where the river perfectly reflects an old truss bridge. With I-5 within earshot, the preserve may not be pristine. But for otters and hikers alike, it’s still a living remnant of a bygone Central Valley. cosumnes.org —M.J.