Lodi, California, 36 miles south of Sacramento, sits astride a major freeway. But every autumn thousands of its visitors arrive by air. They wing in at sunset, their masses dark smudges in the distance that swell in size, like storm clouds gathered in an orange sky. As they swoop into Lodi, their forms take shape: stretch-necked birds with ash gray bodies and bright red crowns.
An estimated 7,000 sandhill cranes make their seasonal home in the area, gliding down a migratory path known as the great Pacific Flyway from Alaska to the alfalfa fields of the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve, a 15-minute drive out of town. Cranes are both dramatic and prehistoric-looking. Their light-footed mating dance, with wings spread wide, is ancient avian ballet, and their calls are like the trill of a distant French horn.
The first weekend of each November, Lodi heralds the birds' arrival with the Sandhill Crane Festival, featuring a wildlife show with raptors and bobcats, scientific lectures, and crane-centric poetry and dance. Visitors can take a guided bus tour with local birders to avian points of interest throughout the day. After the festival, guided tours continue through late February, operated by the California Department of Fish and Game. And both novice and expert birders can appreciate the cranes on their own from lookout points along Woodbridge Road.
Insider's Tip: The Lodi Wine & Visitor Center, open weekdays 10 a.m.–6 p.m. and weekends 10 a.m.–5 p.m., offers tastings and carries 200 vintages from over 80 different wineries.
Long ruled by agriculture, Lodi also attracts wine aficionados and has emerged in recent years as a respected viticultural region best known for zinfandel and chardonnay. You can taste at a number of wineries, including Woodbridge, an estate owned by eminent vintner Robert Mondavi, and Jessie's Grove Winery, a bucolic place ringed by vineyards where live, open-air concerts are held in spring and summer.
Elsewhere in the town, you have even more recreational choices. Micke Grove Regional Park's 132 acres hold diverse attractions: a golf course, Japanese garden, local history museum, and a small but captivating zoo with such endangered animals as a California golden eagle and a cotton-top tamarin. It takes some exotic creatures to compete with Lodi's glorious visiting cranes.