it seems like most head south or north to either the beaches or the wine country. But there’s also a less frequented spot farther east toward the Central Valley: the California Delta, an estuary where the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers meet before heading out through the Carquinez Strait toward the bay.
You can reach the delta by driving over the Bay Bridge, out through the Caldecott Tunnel, and north on 680 with a quick right toward the John Muir Parkway. The parkway passes by the old port towns of Port Costa and Martinez before turning into the slender California Delta Highway, which runs on the south side of Suisun Bay. If you head north over the high arch of the Antioch Bridge, you’ll arrive inland on Highway 160 in the heart of the delta. This is where river byways, white windmills, and roads lead to marshy creeks with names like Prospect Slough, Potato Slough, and Steamboat Slough.
You might look out through your dusty windshield, rub your eyes, and imagine that you’re in another state – maybe even somewhere in the South. You’ll see a vast agricultural area with neat orchards, the occasional silo, farm stands, and decaying farmhouses with ramshackle barns. You’ll travel over the sparse and lonely river levees and take one of the last remaining delta car ferries. You can visit towns in the delta that have taxidermy biker bars, bait shops, rickety houseboats, and docks where trucker hats and NRA signs are heartfelt and sincere.
I’ve roamed this region all my life. As a kid, I grew up blocks away from the Sacramento River, where summer meant inner tubes and rope swings, water skiing through the delta sloughs, and – when I was old enough to drive – playing chicken on the levees and bridges near Freeport and Clarksburg. Although I left the Central Valley for college, telling myself I would never go back, the truth is, it’s engrained in me. I now see the beauty in the boggy river silt and the large barges that creep low through the concrete rivers, and I savor the taste of cheap canned beer sipped on a delta dock.
These little towns blend into each other, and although a few have more to offer than others, almost every delta town has its bait shop, marina, diner, and – the liveliest business in town – bar. Of course, there are some things that can be reached or experienced only by boat, and many businesses have limited hours. But if you’re arriving from San Francisco via a car, bike, or motorcycle, I’d suggest starting with Isleton and ending via a loose loop at Rio Vista. Here are some of my favorite spots.
The delta is known for its river crawdads – mini lobster-like crustaceans also known as crayfish or crawfish in other parts of the country – that are best served close to a body of water with an icy cold beer. The popular Isleton Crawdad Festival once celebrated these little river urchins and provided the unique opportunity to suck their heads all day while listening to live music (and when I say “suck,” I mean pull the heads off, eat the delicious crawdad meat, and then throw the head in your mouth and suck the head’s spicy juices for all you’ve got). In recent years, the Crawdad Festival was replaced by the Cajun Festival – same town and concept, but with a $20 entry fee. It’s somewhat more commercial, but it’s still a great opportunity to get loaded up on crawdads.
At other times of the year, Isleton can feel somewhat desolate. But there’s a great mural of a crawdad on the side of what was once the restaurant Isleton Joe’s, and Isleton is home to my all-time favorite bait shop, Bob’s “Master Baiter.”
If you’re looking for a meal on nonfestival days, Peter’s Steakhouse was recently renovated within an inch of its life and offers traditional steak dinners, and the Main Street Deli is a great stop for sandwiches before heading off for a dip in the river. And although you’ll see plenty of drawbridges during your drive, you might take note of the lovely yellow bridge as you leave Isleton.
After the Gold Rush, Walnut Grove was one of the earliest Sacramento River settlements, and it’s still the largest town in the delta, with a population of approximately 1,500. It sits at the fork of the Georgiana Slough, occupying both the east and west banks of the Sacramento River.
If you walk through the small side streets of town, you’ll see echoes of its past – in particular, its Japanese and Chinese residents, who came to the delta for its agriculture. Although many buildings are now shuttered, there are still signs touting Asian merchants, gambling houses, and old-time bunkhouses.
My favorite spots are spread out along Walnut Grove’s outlying rivers and sloughs. On Sundays, the Grand Island Mansion, a historic landmark best known for weddings, offers fancy brunches. The more egalitarian Wimpy’s Marina on the south fork of the Mokelumne River is great for a diner-style breakfast (note their collection of Popeye’s memorabilia). Wimpy’s also sells crawdads by the pound, and they have a more formal dining room, a dive bar, and a deck with a view overlooking the river and its boat docks.
If you’re in Walnut Grove in the afternoon, you might grab a quick ice cream at the old-timey Mel’s Mocha & Ice Cream. If it’s closer to lunch or dinner, head out toward Giusti’s on Snodgrass Slough. This is a family-style Italian restaurant with checkered tablecloths and a fantastic bar in front displaying a massive collection of baseball hats. Giusti’s feels like a time capsule from another era, providing a taste of the region’s authentic delta charm.
During the early part of the 20th century, the Japanese and Chinese residents of Walnut Grove experienced racism and segregation. After Walnut Grove’s Chinatown, made primarily of wood, burned down twice, many of the town’s Asian residents moved up the road, rebuilt their community and homes, and established the Historic Town of Locke.
If you’re coming to the delta and you visit one place, this is the town where you’ll want to stop. When I was a teenager, the streets were pretty deserted. But over the years, it’s become somewhat of an artist colony, with dusty museums, the odd mystical shop, a few sleepy restaurants, and an infamous bar.
Which means, if you’re in Locke, you’ll definitely want to stop into Al the Wop’s. Al’s is a bar where you’ll find a unique conglomeration of bikers, farmers, and a hefty supply of creamy Skippy peanut butter. The menu itself is pretty minimal and includes pasta with “red or white sauce,” but you’ll soon learn that the peanut butter is actually for your steak sandwich. With the steak, you receive two slices of Italian-style bread and a house salad served with Thousand Island dressing. I suggest you do as the locals do: slather the bread with peanut butter and make yourself a nutty steak sandwich. You might find it surprisingly good. If you aren’t a beef lover, get a beer and toast and make a tasty peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
After Al’s, wander the streets of Locke and check out the whitewashed buildings, narrow alleyways, and the Dai Loy Museum, a quiet little gambling museum housed in a former gambling house; the Locke Garden Restaurant, an old-timey Chinese restaurant; and Strange Art and Collectibles, a thrift store selling area maps where you can get first-rate suggestions for your delta visit.
While heading home, take the leisurely route toward Rio Vista through Ryer Island via the J-Mack Ferry near Ryde. Ferries run 24/7/365, except for 20 minutes for breakfast and dinner breaks, and the ride lasts three to four minutes each way. Once on Ryer Island, you’ll find quiet, desolate roads that are perfect for a bike ride or motorcycle ride. You’ll need to take the Ryer Island Ferry (also called the Real McCoy II Ferry) to get back to Rio Vista.
In Rio Vista, stop in for a beverage or a prime-rib dinner at Foster’s Bighorn, one of the most spectacular taxidermy bars you’ll ever see. If you’re not a big-game lover, grab a catfish sandwich at Chef Edwards up the street, some tasty Mexican food at Tortilla Flats, or spaghetti and meatballs at Lucy’s Cafe.
you might stay at the Art Deco Ryde Hotel in Ryde; eat at La Posada Restaurant, a tasty Mexican spot, in Courtland; or visit the Old Sugar Mill’s collection of wineries in Clarksburg. But wherever you go in the delta, don’t expect to find a pristine wine country with the addition of river bayous – this area is still undeveloped and quirky, and it has struggled economically for years. Delta residents are actually fighting to save their waterways from being shipped to Southern California via pipeline, and on my last visit, I could see evidence of the encroachment of those towering windmills that now cast their shadows on the area’s rivers and sloughs. But there’s still plenty of promise; and if you like oddball, non-touristy surroundings and a beautiful rural drive, you’d probably love the delta. On the other hand, if you’re already a fan of the region, be sure to share your favorite finds in the comments below.