By Nora Heston Tarte
The sun is shining, the water level is rising and you’re itching to get outdoors. Spring is finally upon us and as the rain gives way to clear skies, the nearby Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta offers the perfect escape on home turf. There’s no need to leave the comforts of our happy valley to feel like you’re “getting away.” Instead, grab a jet ski, book a hotel, sleep on a house boat, or just take in the wildlife before heading to shore for fruit picking and historic exploration on the Delta river banks. There’s no shortage of ways to stay and play on the Delta this summer.
Just about every water sport has a place on the Delta, where beginners and professionals gather to hone their skills in areas like jet skiing, wakeboarding, windsurfing, and more.
If you try any water sport this season, make it windsurfing—a sailing/surfing hybrid that has been regaining popularity after a steep fall in the mid-90s. Whether you’re already an enthusiast, or are modestly contemplating giving windsurfing a go, the Delta is the place to do it. Hailed as one of the best windsurfing destinations in California, the thermal breezes create ideal swell and chop for the sport. Sherman Island, located in the Delta, offers several launches for windsurfing and plenty of room for tricks and jumps just 200-feet offshore. Windsurfing’s younger brother kiteboarding also fairs well here, and both garner riders the sought-after thrill of turned-up water sports mixed with the laid-back air of getting out on the water.
You can get the same rush from waterskiing, especially where tricks are encouraged. The Berkeley Water Ski Club in Stockton (bwsc.webflow.io), a club that dates back to 1958, encourages trick skiing with a slalom course right on the Delta. Whether you want to get in on the action and compete in the club’s upcoming tournaments that pit water skiers against each other in a friendly albeit competitive environment, or you prefer to stay landside to glimpse the cool turns and high jumps the water sport promoters stage, the BWSC is rich with social opportunities as well as community driven efforts (like the Learn to Ski week for disadvantaged youth).
Looking for something a little more recreational? Rent a boat—really any kind of boat—and head out yourself. Adrenaline seekers can pick up a ride at H2o Craft in Tracy. Choose between a high-speed, responsive jet ski, a powerful ski boat primed for tubing, wakeboarding and waterskiing, or a more relaxing pontoon boat with ample seating for socializing and even a gas grill. Perhaps you want to take your vacation to the next level. Why not stay on the Delta?—and no, not in a hotel. True Delta lovers become one with the water with extended stays on houseboats. There’s nothing like taking a dive off your two-story vessel first thing in the morning, and floating down river with an iced-cold drink in your hand all afternoon. So, enjoy quiet coves with generous camping space on one of California’s best-kept secrets and use your houseboat (Invert Sports on Bethel Island and Paradise Point Marina in Stockton have rentals) as a home base for all of your water activities. Don’t forget to explore the small towns that sprinkle the integrated waterways. Float from one locale to the next and take breaks to shake off those sea legs and explore the rich history of the area that surrounds.
Even if water sports aren’t your activity of choice, a lazy Sunday cruising the Delta, or tied up in port, is still a good way to waste away. The Stockton Port is alive with festivals throughout the year, and as boats travel through carrying goods, ship gazing is a worthwhile activity. Throughout summer, festivals and fireworks light up the port, while seaside restaurants and accommodations rival a chance to sleep on the water. Watch a Stockton Port’s baseball game, or simply use the port as a pushing off point for your water adventures. But don’t forget to come back for dinner and dancing at the Stockton Downtown Marina.
Starting April 1, cities host opening day boat parades to mark the beginning of peak Delta season. Try to catch them all: Stockton Yacht Club Opening Day Parade (April 1), Bethel Island Opening Day Parade (April 8), Antioch Opening Day Parade (April 15), and City of Petaluma Opening Day Parade (April 22).
History abounds on the Delta, and surrounding towns offer rich lessons and luxury accommodations.
The Ryde Hotel (RydeHotel.com), just five minutes from Walnut Grove, dates back to 1927, with a storied past that began during the prohibition era. Nearly 100 years ago, the Ryde Hotel was revered as the place to have a good time, with a lively speakeasy downstairs that served bootleg whiskey to all-star clientele, including influential politicians, mobsters, and movie stars. Not to mention, rumors of a secret passageway that led to the river’s edge screams mystery. Today, staff at the Ryde Hotel still knows how to throw a party. Beautifully renovated to maintain the hotel’s old-school charm while also offering modern amenities including a Jacuzzi tub, the historic Sacramento River hotel hosts lavish weddings year round as well as a sumptuous champagne brunch on Sundays, boasting bottomless champagne and gourmet cuisine to satisfy even the heartiest of appetites.
Nearby, the town of Locke, founded in 1915, offers a glimpse into California’s Chinese history. As the Chinese section of Walnut Grove blossomed, a team of Chinese merchants decided it was time to establish a place all their own. After reaching an agreement with landowner George Locke, the town was laid out by Chinese architects. Industrious building ensued. Once dubbed Lockeport, Locke still looks today as it did in 1920, giving visitors a unique view of California Delta history.
Museums and monuments are a particular point of interest in Locke. From the Dai Loy Museum, an exhibit of Chinese gambling paraphernalia, to the Locke Memorial Park and Monument, dedicated to the Chinese who built the railroad, levees, and agriculture of California and the town of Locke, there’s too much history to pass up. Stroll through art galleries and one-of-a-kind shops before grabbing a bite at Al’s Place Restaurant. Don’t forget to make time for Connie’s Toilet Garden, a unique stop filled with a collection of planters made from discarded toilets of past Chinese residents (no joke!).
For those who like to wine and dine on vacation, have no fear. The Delta isn’t all adrenaline junkies in bathing suits. To continue your expedition by land, stop off at Clarksburg Wine Country, a rustic oasis with 12 tasting rooms. Along the country roads, quaint, unspoiled wineries dot the path and the little-known Clarksburg AVA produces more than 35 varietals. Bet you didn’t know the outdoor adventure park we call the Delta is also one of the best places to sip local vinos while you indulge in snacks and small plates.
Among 7,000 acres of wine grapes sits Bogle Vineyards, a family-owned winery that serves full meals in addition to their award-winning wines. Try a fennel-crusted rack of lamb or a stuffed veal chop before moving on to one of the appellation’s other wino havens.
Once you’ve enjoyed some luxury on the Delta, return to the fresh air that brought you there. While the high-end establishments speckling the waterways are a good place to regroup and recharge, the great outdoors are the real draw of this unique ecosystem.
Just as the waterways are connected throughout the Delta, the trails offer the same convenience by land. Perhaps the most alluring hike is along Big Break where bicycles and equestrians are both welcome, in addition to those traveling by foot. Here, the former-farm called Big Break Regional Shoreline is a hotspot for other activities like fishing, swimming, and boating, and many species call the submerged upland home.
The unique climate of the Delta also makes it a good location for growing fruit. Local farms give families the opportunity to pick their own crops from the rows of offerings. Walnut Grove is home to two of these u-pick farms. The first, Delta Islands Organic (Deltaislandsorganic.com) is known for its 30+ varieties of heirloom tomatoes as well as other fruits, vegetables, and herbs, while Double M Farms is stocked with peaches, plums, apricots, apples, and nectarines throughout the seasons. In April, eggs, alfalfa hay, and pear BBQ wood are available for pick-up at the latter, but most of the fruit picking starts in June.
The Delta is home to more than 750 wildlife and plant species, plus an additional 55 fish species. Many of them are special status, meaning they have a form of legal or regulatory protection to ensure they will be there for years to come.
Perhaps the most popular Delta activity is fishing. Anglers love to cast their poles in the river channels where fishing holes are home to sturgeon, bass, salmon, catfish, crawdads, and more. Locals have cleverly named approximately 30 fishing hotspots, many of which aren’t marked on your average Delta map. “The Dump Gate,” an Isleton spot near the city landfill, was given its name because of its surroundings while “The Sounding Board” is a historic nod to the area that paddle wheeler captains used to use as a way of determining their location in the waterways. A complete list is available at Californiadelta.org, but be sure you don’t get caught breaking the law. Check in with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (wildlife.ca.gov) to get properly licensed.
This time of year, grand derbies are a coveted event, and anglers can dive in to the local competition. In May the catfish are calling and on May 15, enthusiasts can partake in a derby and deep fry at Mossdale Marina in Lathrop.
Are you a novice? Get some pointers from local experts. Fly-fishing is a good place to start, especially as the water warms in spring. Striped bass and largemouth bass are both aplenty, and fly fishers can count on the aggressive stripers to chase their baitfish when conditions are ideal. If you have a boat that can weather the waves, fly-fishing can be an all-day activity, but if you’re working against high winds, opt for a morning excursion. Sloughs and coves offer solace from wind and waves that may deter fish. Fly Fishing Specialties in Citrus Heights (Flyfishingspecialties.com) gives introductory classes for beginners, as well as on-stream clinics for those looking to take their hobby to the next level.
Bird watchers also flock to the Delta where Swainson’s hawks, wood ducks, great blue herons, least bell’s vireo, red-shouldered hawks, golden eagles, and bald eagles reside. Threatened species like the brown pelican have made permanent homes in the Delta with the help of nature conservationists and restored habitats. And don’t forget the Delta’s cuddlier creatures including brush bunnies and mule deer. River otters are a particularly exciting citing for many Delta visitors, and beavers and muskrats also inhabit the area. Reptiles are abundant, too. Turtles, salamanders, snakes, toads, and frogs make their homes in the 1,000 miles of triangular-shaped waterways that connect San Joaquin, Sacramento, and Pittsburg.
There’s all this and more on the Delta, and you’ll surely need more than a day to explore the intricate waterways. So whether you’re looking for luxury on the water, lively city life in a downtown port, or an escape from it all filled with outdoorsy adventures, the Delta is the best way to escape without really leaving at all.