Destination: The Sacramento Delta

Paintersville Bridge

Late afternoon, winter, Paintersville Bridge (photo: Hamish Reid).

Why The Sacramento Delta?

Why visit California’s Sacramento River Delta? Because it’s an unusual landscape of broad rivers, levees, sloughs, wetlands, ship channels, and below-water-level settlements and islands that few tourists ever see up close. Because of the weird ugly-cute bridges (many of them working drawbridges — see the Paintersville Bridge, above, for a typical example) and car ferries. Because you can go boating, or fishing, or walking, or eat, or just drive and look at the strange world around you. Because of all the winding levee roads and roads that traverse sunken islands. Because it’s an easy day drive from San Francisco, Oakland, and Sacramento.

Note: it gets hot in the Delta in summer. Be prepared….

Where Is It?

The Google map below should give you some idea of where the Delta is, but since it’s a fairly extensive region, the map is really only a start…

Getting There

There’s no one way to get there from anywhere else, but if you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, probably the most straightforward way to get to a suitable starting point for exploring the Delta is to take Interstate 80 East (i.e. north…) to Highway 4, then take Highway (State Route) 4 east towards Stockton, then take State Route 160 north from where it meets SR 4 in Antioch. Once you’re on SR 160,  you’re basically in the Delta….

If you’re in Sacramento, get onto State Route 160 and follow it south. Somewhere around Freeport, you’ll find yourself deep in the Delta.

Things To Do

I won’t do my usual thing here of giving specific detailed recommendations for drives to take, or places to visit; instead, I’ll just say that I think the best strategy for exploring the Delta is to just drive. Anywhere (although I have some broad recommendations in the next few paragraphs). Take a look at the gallery below and pick what you want to see, and find it on a map :-). You really can’t go too far wrong, especially if you’re OK with having to double back up the winding levee road you just came down, or you’re fine with waiting fifteen minutes for the car ferry to arrive to get you to the other side of the river, or you can cope with waiting for one of the drawbridges on the highway to let you through.

One of my favourite drives is up that same Highway 160 from Antioch to the outskirts of Sacramento and back again (I usually turn around at Freeport, but your mileage will vary). It basically follows the Sacramento River through the Delta, with side tracks you can take along various sloughs here and there. Much of the drive is on top of riverside levees, or on cross-island stretches at or below water level; the surrounding Delta is essentially dead flat except for the low-slung Montezuma Hills near Rio Vista.

You shouldn’t strictly follow 160 — there are a bunch of side roads (take Poverty Road westward then take a left turn where it hits Walker Landing Road and just drive on along Grand Island Road in either direction and just see what happens…), or slowly loiter your way around Sherman Island on the various roads and tracks), ferries (“The Real McCoy II” comes to mind, especially, if — like me — you enjoy the wait), and weirdo places to stop and eat (check out Foster’s Bighorn in Rio Vista if you’re not put off by the sight of walls full of stuffed big game from the early twentieth century) or to fish or kayak or take photos or whatever. There’s even an authentic old rural Chinatown at Locke that attracts tourists and locals alike.

On a clear day there are two landmarks you can see from most of the Delta, to help orient you: Mt Diablo, a dark solid brooding mass in the distance to the south, and the tall radio / TV transmitter towers near Walnut Grove that pop up in surprising places (like right in front of you) just when you think you’ve left them miles behind (the meandering levee roads tend to play tricks like that on your sense of direction in such a flat landscape). But even with those two landmarks telling you were you are, it’s easy to end up on the wrong side of the river or miss a turn and just drive on into the landscape. Not that it really matters, of course — getting lost in the Delta is one of those rites of passage, and, in my experience, the people there are friendly, funny, and helpful.

A note on Delta driving: a lot of the roads are on top of levees, and have no guard rails to stop your car from slipping off into the river, slough, or farmland immediately below the levee. Be careful! It’s way too easy to get distracted and end up off the levee (a decade or two ago I stumbled upon the immediate aftermath of a van going into the river off a levee somewhere on 160; it wasn’t pretty, and I think at least two people drowned).



Some photos from around the Delta to give you some ideas… (all images © Hamish Reid).