Imagine yourself as a majestic valley oak, more than a century old, growing next to a Central Valley stream and providing shelter and food for all living things.

Egrets and great blue herons nest in your tallest branches and surrounding you on the forest floor, Miwoks gather acorns in the autumn. High above, marsh hawks ride on the thermals, circling and emitting their atavistic screeches while in a shaded wetland, shorebirds walk about in the shallow muck, gleaning a meal.

The forest and associated uplands and wetlands are silent, allowing only the wind and wildlife to do the speaking. You observe the stillness of the marsh and the flawless reflections of sandhill cranes, wood ducks and pond turtles that bask on a log in the sun. As a tree, you are one with nature, your senses are sharp and you listen to the undisturbed solitude.

Now, picture your thoughts if you were to experience first-hand an oak woodland, such as found on 1,500 acres at Cosumnes River Preserve. There, at a visitor center located west of Galt, you will get a glimpse of what our valley originally looked like to the initial European settlers. Once on a trail, nature takes over and becomes your teacher.

Just a few footsteps into the forest, you’ll likely find yourself alone among the stately valley oaks on a path that blends a riparian forest, wetlands, grasslands and marsh into a magnificent mosaic preserved by governmental and non-profit organizations, including Ducks Unlimited and National Audubon Society. Since 1988, these groups forged a vision: To establish a permanent riparian corridor that links the headwaters of the Cosumnes River to the Delta. Today, it is a jewel to be discovered.

Admission to the preserve is free and the 11 miles of trails and boardwalks to be explored are open daily from sunrise to sunset. The paths reveal a rich landscape that is used by 250 species of birds and 400 plants.

The well-appointed visitor center is open from 9 a.m.- 5 p.m., weekends, and docents are on hand to plan your day afield and explain natural and cultural history. From Interstate 5 take Twin Cities Road exit and go east. At Franklin Boulevard, turn south about a mile.

The preserve website, cosumnes.org, offers a schedule of public activities, such as photo walks, guided nature walks, bird surveying, habitat rehabilitation projects and even paddle tours on the river. Information: (916) 684-2816.

In early October, sandhill cranes will return in peak numbers and are easily viewed, close up and personal, at the seasonal wetlands and along Staten Island Road, a large tract that is part of the preserve. Cranes are also seen at Isenberg Preserve on Woodbridge Road, where viewing platforms enable visitors to not only see sandhills, but a variety of geese, ducks, swans and shorebirds that winter in the valley.

But for all the giant trees and flocks of migratory birds, my greatest joy when I visit the preserve is to sit quietly and simply listen. The old growth forest provides both a canopy and a stage with which I become a part.

Just like when I imagine being a valley oak, the more I listen, the more I hear and feel the power of nature. Discover the Cosumnes River Preserve for yourself, a sensational destination less than 30 minutes from Stockton. The experience could be life-changing.

-- Contact outdoors correspondent Peter Ottesen at pottesen@recordnet.com.