I’ve driven over the Yolo Bypass—a stretch of I-80 between Davis and West Sacramento—hundreds of times, but had never visited.
The views have always intrigued me: rice fields, scattered throughout a natural basin in the north part of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, can be seen from the road—flooded after harvest and attracting thousands of waterfowl and shorebirds in the Pacific flyway. At sunset, the views can be painterly. And, if one is lucky, she might see a cloud of bats emerging for their dusk hunt. It’s estimated that 250,000 Mexican long-tailed bats roost under the Yolo causeway.
Despite living so close for so many years, neither Aron nor I had ever visited the wildlife area.
From the Yolo Basin Foundation website, I found maps for a self-guided driving tour of the area and a list of wildlife one might expect to find among the over 16,000 acres of seasonal wetland and riparian woodland: fish, waterfowl, shorebirds and wading birds, neotropical migratory birds, raptors, invertebrates, snakes, turtles, toads, and mammals like raccoons, coyotes, and—yes!—bats. As it turns out, the largest wetlands restoration project in the West is right in our backyard.
I told the kids we were going to be explorers and we packed up the dinnerboxes and milk, the bug spray and binocs.
As soon as you enter the wildlife area, a sign points to two choices: south to the Hunter Creek Station, or straight ahead for the “auto tour.” So even without advance preparation, it would be easy to find one’s way around.
The graveled route winds through some working rice fields and then heads into fallow fields which sometimes fill up as ponds to provide habitat. Parking lots appear every few minutes so that you can get out on foot and have a closer look, and there are walking trails that head off the main roads.
The immense views were stunning, and we found ourselves stopping frequently to take them in—only to often find that the micro-views were even more interesting.
In one dry mud-bed we found the remains of hundreds of crayfish, clearly prized by a deft digger we presume was a raccoon.
Elsewhere we found dozens of fuzzy caterpillars and a sea of blue dragonflies. We watched giant herons and egrets labor to reach the sky, sandpipers strolling on the banks, and white pelicans stretching their beaks. It was incredible how far the I-80 felt. “We’re on a safari!,” Hudson proclaimed.
We began our tour a few hours before sunset, so I wasn’t sure whether we would last long enough to see the bats but the time passed quickly; we were all having fun and I couldn’t believe we’d taken so long to visit.
The wildlife area closes at sunset, so we parked our car just outside the gates and walked back in to see one of the smaller colonies start to appear. You can hear them before you see them—even over the roar of the causeway traffic above.
We left the basin and they took our place; our day was ending just as theirs was beginning. But we’ll be back for another safari soon.
Locals, have you been? And for everyone with kids, what are your favorite resources for finding new and fresh ideas for things to do locally with your family?
P.S. The last time we went traipsing through rice fields was in Bali!