Cruise the Sacramento River Delta now and be rewarded with fall color and a step back in time.
The Golden Gate Bridge to Sacramento’s historic waterfront? That’s an easy 80- to 100-mile cruise, even for oceangoing yachts that draw 10 feet. Recreational boaters have free access to the California Delta’s vast system of navigable waterways that allows them to voyage far inland — deep into California’s wet and wild heart.
The Delta’s broad-leaved trees start turning their fall colors in late September — glowing yellow aspens, dark orange gums and blood red maples — and they’re a stunning sight mixed in with the many dark green pines. Most years, the spectacle doesn’t fade until late October. Yearning for fall color? Come here.
The Sacramento, San Joaquin and American rivers all cascade out of the snowcapped Sierras, merging in the central lowlands with the Calaveras, Cosumnes and Mokelumne rivers. They meander gently through a 1,300-square-mile valley that’s vaguely triangular; hence, it’s called the Delta. The Sonoma Coastal Range to the northwest shields the inland valley from the worst of the Pacific winter weather.
Unlike the big cities on its perimeter — San Francisco, Sacramento and Stockton — the Delta is surprisingly rural, like stepping back into the 1950s. Thanks to an 1,100-mile labyrinth of tranquil recreational waterways, it’s a boating paradise. Of the half million adults who live in the Delta, more than 170,000 are registered boat owners. More than 40 marinas, yacht clubs and boat clubs are active, and more than 100 ramps and trailer parking lots are available.
An Abundance of Everything
The rivers wander slowly through the Delta, forming lazy bends and marshy sloughs and defining more than 50 significant islands. Highway 15 is the only major road to cut across the Delta, so some of the islands are only reachable via one of the tiny four-car ferries — or a boat. Fortunately, several islands in the Delta are preserved by California State Parks for public boating, fishing and camping.
Vineyards, vegetable farms and orchards (fruit, nuts) fill most of the private islands; agriculture is the primary occupation, with recreational tourism a close second. In the fall, pumpkins and cornstalks decorate the farmer’s market stands that sell organic garden produce and local berry jams in Courtland, Walnut Grove and across from Rio Vista — fun for impromptu provisioning.
Eventually the rivers all flow downstream toward the ocean. Expect a 1- or 2-knot current, depending on rainfall and snowmelt. But some of the lower routes on the San Joaquin River and almost all of the Sacramento River are affected by the rise and fall of ocean tides. The variation between high and low tide can be as much as eight feet, but four to six feet is more common. Get the latest tide book or consult online data.
Locks and dams control seasonal flooding and conserve Delta water for local agriculture and recreation. Manmade levees five to 15 feet tall reinforce many shorelines, and are usually topped by wild flowers and trees. From a boat, you can’t always see over the top of the levees, so it feels like you’re cruising through a forest.
Nothing could be finer than to anchor in the shade of a spreading tree and take a little siesta. If you plan to anchor out overnight in the Delta, consider that in late fall and early winter, the “tule” fogs can sometimes develop at sunset and not burn off until after sunrise.
Bridges cross many of the waterways, so plan your route using one of the excellent charts and guidebooks, to see which bridges are fixed, their height at high and low tide, and which are swing or bascule bridges. Between the Golden Gate and the Rio Vista Bridge, the bridges are plenty tall, to allow ships to pass freely, so yachts are fine. But after Rio Vista, if you need a bridge to open, the local signal is one long and one short blast, or call the bridge tender on VHF Channel 9. (See sidebar for Charts and Guides.)
Sacramento with 10 Feet
Let’s look briefly at the barebones 100-mile route that bigger yachts (draft to 10 feet) can use to reach Sacramento’s historic waterfront. It’s the most basic route, so for a fun cruise you’ll want to make lots of pleasant stops and add a few side loops.
From the Golden Gate Bridge, it’s about 40 miles through San Francisco, San Pablo and the south side of Suisun bays to find the confluence of the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers near Pittsburg. Here, angle northeast into the broad Sacramento River. It’s 13 miles to the town of Rio Vista and the landmark Rio Vista Bridge. But one and a half miles farther upstream is Cliffhouse Shoals to starboard, where a hard right turn takes you into the Sacramento River’s much narrower natural bed. (Don’t use the commercial ship channel.)
From here to the Sacramento waterfront, the Sacramento River is only 400 to 600 feet wide between levees and natural shorelines. But even with the marked shoals, that’s reassuringly wide enough for recreational boat traffic. Lining the shore and tucked into side bays are more than a dozen marinas and yacht clubs with guest docks, public landings with dinghy docks, and quiet little corners to anchor overnight, as long as you don’t swing out into the middle. Ashore are many pleasant little villages that cling to their 1880’s Gold Rush history. You’ll find casual restaurants, small grocery stores, antiques shops and wineries with tasting rooms.
Mileage from here on is cumulative, so every few miles you can plan an array of interesting sights to see and overnight stops. From Cliffhouse Shoals, you can make it to Isleton public docks (2.75 n.m.), the Isleton Bridge (3.65), Ryde and the Ryde Hotel docks (8.34), and the junction with Georgianna Slough (10). (As a picturesque side loop, traverse narrow Georgianna Slough and go five miles south to Oxbow Marina and a little farther where it joins the Mokelumne River at Vorman’s Landing.)
Back on the Sacramento, the Walnut Grove Bridge (10.5), the Walnut Grove docks (11), the Delta Cross Channel Flood Gates (11.5) and the docks at historic Locke (12) are close together and interesting enough for a few days of exploration.
Back underway, you’ll find the junction with Steamboat Slough (16.2), the Paintersville Bridge (17), the junction with Sutter Creek Slough (17.5), the Courtland winery docks (18), Hood (21.5), the junction with Elk Slough (24), and the Clarksburg winery tour docks (24.3). Ten good wineries thrive in the Delta, and they’re mostly right here.
Continuing on the Sacramento, the trip can include Silver Bend (25.5), the Freeport Bridge (27.7), the Freeport docks (28), the Sacramento city limits (29), Yolo Marina (31.4), the Davis Pumpkin Patch at Riverview (35), Sherwood Harbor (37.5), Sacramento Yacht Club (37.5), Sacramento Marina Harbor (39.6), the Interstate 805 Bridge (41), the Sacramento Tower Bridge docks (42), and the Historic Sacramento Waterfront Pier and guest docks (43).
Old Sacramento’s State Historic Park is a terrific destination. Easily explored on foot or by pedicab, the 10-block park has a riverfront promenade with benches and bike paths, fountains and restaurants. The Old Sacramento School House Museum at the park’s south end is a hit with teachers and astounds young students. At the north end, the huge California-Pacific Railroad Museum has interactive features for kids of all ages. Climb through antique engines and sleeper cars, inspect the dining cars’ china and silver, or pull the levers and blow the steam horns.
San Joaquin to Stockton
On the more circuitous San Joaquin River, deep-draft yachts (10 feet or less) could cruise all the way to the marina district in Stockton’s western suburbs, mostly following the well-marked 20-foot-deep ship channel. But this 35-mile direct route still has many opportunities to peel off to explore side channels, to fish and to watch wildlife in the massive tule sloughs. The San Joaquin is especially popular for trailerboats and shallower draft yachts.
Starting at the Pittsburg confluence, bear southeast to enter New York Slough, which runs along the south side of Browns and Winter islands. Go under the I-160 bridge and aim northeast along the shores of Jersey and Bradford islands. At buoy #28, bear right — continuing straight leads to Three Mile Slough, which is a connecter to the Sacramento, but it has a couple of shallow spots.
Continue around the north shore of Bradford Island and Web Tract to port. To starboard is the Delta Loop, which includes 10 marinas and is one of the most popular areas because it is accessible from Highway 15 and has many spots to pull in and have lunch.
With the Delta Loop in your wake, curve south along the west shore of Venice Island to arrive at the crossroads: Mandeville Cut and Venice Cut. Fourth of July fireworks are set off here, and it’s a popular rendezvous spot throughout the year.
Continue southeast from this crossroads and look for a series of range markers, which guide recreational boats (and a few small ships) for the next 10 miles through the Stockton Deep Water Channel, which has 30 feet of water in the center. This channel moves southeast upstream and delivers boaters to Stockton’s marina district.
Meanwhile, along this 10-mile channel are many small islands, including San Francisco Yacht Club’s annex at Tinsley Island. Any island with a sandy beach is ideal for a family picnic and swimming. (Boats with a shallower draft can navigate Disappointment Slough and all around Empire, King and Rindge islands, accessing dozens of tiny islands with raft-up anchorages, swimming holes and picnic beaches.)
A dozen side channels meander off to the north and south of the Stockton Channel, as they’re forming oxbow loops. These side loops are great places for daytime watersports or peaceful overnight anchoring. If you see the Delta’s ubiquitous tule rushes, expect to catch largemouth bass and find excellent bird watching. However, the tules are not so wonderful for overnight anchoring, due to mosquitoes.
What to Do?
The Delta’s tranquil waterways are perfect for year-round fishing, waterskiing, kayaking or paddleboarding and, of course, slow cruising, anchoring, or stepping ashore to see the sights. You can anchor just about anywhere, as long as you don’t block the waterway. Exploring by car or bike can be rewarding, because asphalt roads run atop many of the levees that frame the islands.
Two tiny but historic car ferries are still in operation here. CalTrans operates the J Mack ferry across Steamboat Slough at Howard’s Landing, which has room for about four cars at a time. The Real McCoy ferry across the Sacramento River just north of Rio Vista carries a few trucks as well. The tiny ferries run 24/7 and are free.
Take a hike atop the levees with watercolor artist Martha Esch, who owns the Lockeport Grille and Fountain on Main Street in the historic town of Locke. Esch teaches watercolor painting on easy hikes, and she also paints boat names on transoms.
Get your fortune told to you by a Chinese ghost at the Locke Chinese Herbal Shop.
If you’re into such things, visit the Dredge Museum in Rio Vista, the town where the clam-shell dredge was invented and employed since 1880 to dredge these waterways and construct the levee system.
The West Coast’s oldest annual bass derby is held at Rio Vista in early October. Fish for either striped bass or sturgeon, and enjoy live music, arts and crafts, a food court, a car show and fireworks. Many boaters first experience the California Delta through this bass derby.
Birdwatchers flock here in the fall to see 10,000 Sand Hill cranes and Canada geese. Their Pacific flyway traverses the Delta, so the birds always stop here. During wet years, farmers may flood their fields to welcome the giant honkers, helping to ensure their critical habitat. Sand Hill cranes mix right in with the Canada geese, so look for the red necks on the Sand Hills. Starkly white egrets or garzas hang out with the migratory birds, too.
Fall is for colorful trees, and the balmiest weather arrives in early September and lasts through mid-October. A unique local form of fog, called tule fog, can develop overnight in late October through December, but it usually burns off with the sun. Sacramento is usually a couple of degrees warmer than Stockton, where the daytime highs in October average 73 degrees Fahrenheit and overnight lows are 49 degrees.
Larger yacht clubs in the Delta stay open year round and put on Christmas and New Year’s events, including dinners and lighted boat parades. However, some of the smaller boat clubs close down from October through March.