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The Historic Sacramento River Delta

Springtime is primetime in the Sacramento River Delta. Winter rains have left the tree-lined sloughs a verdant green, the surrounding farmlands and pastures well nourished. High water has scoured the banks clean. Famous Delta Queen asparagus is already in the markets, and pears are beginning to ripen. The family who owns the strawberry farm by the Rio Vista Bridge is picking, their plywood roadside stand, open, and selling fresh, warm berries for two bucks a basket.

The California Delta essentially begins at Pittsburg, approximately 40nm northeast of San Francisco, at the east end of Suisun Bay. This is the terminal confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers (the San Joaquin reached by a short jaunt through New York Slough). The split is a Y, with the Sacramento heading north to Sacramento, and the San Joaquin meandering east to Stockton. Both routes have marked deep-water lanes for shipping traffic. Besides this junction, there are also interconnecting waterways between the rivers further down the line.
The Sacramento River is the spine of California history. Steamboats, scows, and barges began plying the waters from San Francisco to Sacramento in the mid-1800s. They carried gold miners, then construction supplies for the transcontinental railroad, then locomotives to run on it. Farms along the route now had easy transportation for their products, so agriculture became a bonanza.
After completion of the railroad, the Chinese laborers turned to building (mostly by hand) the extensive levee system that re-claimed millions of acres and created the massive agricultural industry of the region. Today, there are a thousand miles of delta waterways and hundreds of islands. With countless lazy anchorages, and many historic towns to visit, there is too much to see in just one trip. But the Sacramento River is the place to start.
Last April, I ran my Nordic 32, Norma Jean, up the coast from Marina del Rey to San Francisco. After spending a couple of weeks in the city, I headed for the Delta. Two notes before starting out: First, be ever aware of your depth and position on the chart. Both in the delta and on the sides of the bays, you will encounter shallow water, and in the sloughs, there are also uncharted sandbars. Inattention leads to joining the “If you haven’t been aground, you haven’t been around” club, of which I am a past member. Second, know your air draft with the antennas down (if they are collapsible). There are several bridges to transit under, and while bridge tenders (on Channel 9), are usually very cooperative, they will rightly resist stopping vehicle traffic to open just for an upright antenna. Most bridges will have a signboard (albeit faded) indicating the present clearance, and a sign with operating hours.
I timed my departure from San Francisco to ride the tidal push, hitting Carquinez Strait (the narrow chokepoint) at max flood. The bays can be windy with chop, so plan accordingly. Along the way, both Martinez and Benicia are enjoyable towns to visit with good guest docking in their harbors. After reaching Pittsburg (also a good visiting spot), I entered the Sacramento River and headed another 11nm north to my first stop, Delta Marina at Rio Vista.
Rio Vista is a charming little town, the kind of place that holds a soapbox derby down Main Street on Memorial Day. Founded in 1857, it was a regular steamboat stop (which unfortunately included the side-wheeler Yosemite boiler explosion while docked in 1865, killing 55). From the marina to downtown is a nice walk, past historic homes on tree-lined streets. All services are available in Rio making it an excellent supply stop, along with several restaurants. Try to visit Foster’s Big Horn to see the huge display of 1940s hunting trophies and photographs.
Delta Marina is a nicely landscaped spot, with friendly staff, good docks, a mechanic, small marine store and boatyard, good fuel prices, and an adjacent restaurant. I spent several days here just hanging out, and enjoyed their annual marina spaghetti feed for all the boaters.
I left Rio Vista on a Saturday to head further up the Sacramento to the Ryde Hotel, in the tiny town of Ryde. Just north of Rio Vista, the river takes a sharp starboard turn and becomes a narrower meandering waterway. The shipping lane continues straight ahead into a canal leading to the loading docks in Sacramento (don’t take it, it’s a dead end). Along the way I passed the bridge and town of Isleton, home of the Annual Crawdad Festival in June (renamed the Cajun Festival).
The Ryde Hotel, built in 1928, is a beautifully restored Deco hotel with 28 rooms. Now primarily a wedding and private party site, the bar and restaurant are open to the public on weekends, inviting an overnight visit. The grounds, especially the backyard and gazebo, are a perfect fit. The docks are fine and include power. Be cautious docking, as the current can be running up to 5 knots in spring. The water eddies at the riverbanks and wants to push you off the dock.
The next stop is my favorite of the trip: Walnut Grove and nearby Locke. I like the guest dock at Boon Dox (a liquor store) just south of the bridge, nestled in the trees—a great spot for fishing crawdads. North of the bridge are the city docks; both are fine, but there is no power on either.
Walnut Grove, first settled in 1850, straddles the river, with much of the east side on the Historic Register, and beautifully restored waterfront estates on the west. Stop in the Big Store for some groceries or meat, and visualize the building’s history from the worn wooden floor. This is the only place I know of that still uses 50-cent pieces when making change. I asked why years ago and it’s “because they take half the time to count.” I loved it!
About 1 mile north is historic Locke. Established in 1915, it was built and inhabited almost exclusively by Chinese until recent years. It is a well-worn one-block town, with a few small shops and galleries. Visit the Locke Chinese School, and the Dai Loy Museum, a reconstructed Chinese gambling den with fascinating original artifacts. Stop in at Al the Wop’s for a steak or burger and beer. If you are so inclined, the bartender will toss and stick one of your dollar bills on the ceiling to join the hundreds of others. And where does the money go? Once a year, most of it is harvested (leaving some behind as temptation), and on the first Wednesday of every February, the bar cooks liver and onions for anyone who wants a free serving.
One sunny morning, it was time to head to Sacramento, the top of the trip. Although this leg is slow due to current and no wake-zones, you will enjoy passing the towns of Courtland, Hood, Clarksburg, and Freeport, along with many historic homes. The guest docks start at the Tower Bridge, and are part of Old Sacramento, several blocks of the original city that have been restored. Unfortunately, they are also a public walkway—noisy, expensive, and lacking any security. There are marinas north and south of here, but they are isolated from Old Sac.
While touristy, it’s still a fun area of shops, attractions, and restaurants. Old Sac was the terminus of the transcontinental railroad, and the State maintains a must-see Railway Museum, with dioramas of the original construction and displays of beautifully restored rolling stock. The State Capitol, Mall, and Sutter’s Fort are a short walk. I always grab a burger and beer at Fanny Ann’s Saloon, and had terrific meals at both Rio City Café on the riverfront, and Fat City on Front Street. If you feel elegant, the beautifully restored Firehouse tops the list.
Heading back downriver will be with a nice push from the current. If you are planning a return to San Francisco, then opt for Steamboat Slough cutoff, north of Walnut Grove. It’s a pretty ride and will shave several miles off the trip back to The City. If you have the time for anchoring, my favorite spots are Horseshoe Bend behind Decker Island, and Prospect and Miner Sloughs. The road alongside the river also makes auto or bike side trips easy.
I returned to Walnut Grove for a few more days before heading to the San Joaquin River via Georgiana Slough. Georgiana in the spring is one of the prettiest rides in the delta—narrow, meandering, and tree-lined. Right at the edge of the river is Korth’s Pirates Lair Marina.
Beautifully landscaped, Korth’s has a tropical look, with a café and short walk to Moore’s Riverboat restaurant. The best part is the guest dock, tucked in a narrow cut between the marina and a land spit of tall trees. In the spring, it is the nesting site of hundreds of big white egrets and blue herons. Their nests, as big as eagles, are filled with bulging chicks, and it’s an all day parade of parents flying back and forth fishing and feeding their young. I spent hours watching them with the binoculars.
So ends the Sacramento River section of the Delta. The San Joaquin will take you west back to Pittsburg, or east to a whole new delta. I plan to stay up here, on delta time, for another month or two. Progress and generational change is taking its toll on the fabric of the entire delta, especially the Sacramento River, so sooner rather than later is the time to visit this piece of California’s history.