This large area is located just west of Sacramento, and has a single entry point. From I-80, take the exit for Chiles Road. If you are arriving from the east (from Sacramento), turn right as you exit, pass under the freeway, and take the dirt road on the left up the levee. From the west, turn left at the stop sign and then take the dirt road on the right just before you would pass under the freeway. From there, angle left and pass through the gate into the wildlife reserve. The gate is locked from sunset to sunrise so be careful--you very well could get locked in! Entrance is free, and there are generally no services inside the reserve, aside from a few port-a-potties.
Photo Spot Details
Yolo Bypass is a fabulous area for bird photography, although there’s also some opportunities for other wildlife photography including bugs and mammals. It is a key migration site on the Pacific Flyway, and the wintering site for literally thousands of waterfowl. The majority of the area is seasonal, manmade wetlands, primarily flooded rice fields with some interspersed rushes. There is also some varied grassland and forest habitat scattered throughout.
Most of the reserve is viewable on the auto tour route which circles the center of the area and also meanders out to the periphery in a few areas. You are free to park along the side of the road and get out of your vehicle, and there are several miles of flat hiking trails available. Many of the best photo opportunities occur from inside your vehicle though, and you will usually see other photographers using their cars as “mobile blinds.” There are no permanent photo blinds set up. If you are moving quickly, you can see the majority of the reserve in an hour or two, but you can easily slow down and spend an entire day there.
In the fall/winter/spring much of the reserve is opened to hunting, and you will see a check-in station at the entrance to these sections. If you aren’t a hunter, you will be barred from entry, but the majority of the wildlife seems to stay away from the hunting areas anyway.
Each season has its own group of species available to photograph. Early summer is usually the slowest time, but even as early as July the shorebird migration begins, and then every few weeks afterwards new fall migrants will pass through. By mid fall the waterfowl have arrived, and will stay through the winter. As they depart in the spring, the shorebirds pass back through. Songbirds will also pass through is some abundance, but I’ve had more luck finding them in other sites such as the UC Davis Putah Creek Reserve. There are raptors year-round, but more are present in the winter, and there is more variety of species seen. Herons and Egrets are present year round in good abundance.
As for gear, bring your longest lens–anything else will leave you wanting. Many people use spotting scopes as well, especially for distant shorebirds. Tripod use is totally fine, but I usually work hand-held either from the car or on foot. As with any wildlife photography, the best time of day is usually early morning, and evening is pretty good too. Midday tends to be pretty disappointing. There’s a lot of day-to-day variability too, so if you have a chance to visit for several days in a row you will probably see different things each day.
When you get done, there’s plenty of other things to see and do in neighboring Sacramento or Davis. Many of the surrounding country roads are great places to look for raptors too–often better than in the reserve. Enjoy!