Mention the word California and the first thing that comes to mind for most people might be a sunny beach on the Pacific, a snowy peak in the Sierras, a Hollywood movie star or an iconic landmark like the Golden Gate Bridge. Chances are, it wouldn’t be the 1,000-mile-long waterway that in many ways links them all.
The California Delta—an intricate network of rivers, canals and sloughs that connects the Sierra Nevada watershed with the San Francisco Bay—tends to fly under the radar even with the state’s residents. But this expansive waterway, which is located roughly between Sacramento in the north and Stockton in the south, is essential to the daily lives of people across California, and even around the world. It’s also a critical habitat for a range of wildlife and a hotbed for watersports from fishing to wakeboarding.
Of the many reasons to fall in love with the Delta, following are a few of our favorites. From outdoor activities to fun facts, they all add up to a classic California destination that’s waiting to be discovered.
The Delta’s rivers transport more than 30 million acre-feet of water per year from the high mountain peaks to the Pacific Ocean. This massive network provides water to more than 25 million residents, from the Bay Area to Southern California. The Delta is also lined with more than 500,000 acres of agricultural land that provides food for worldwide distribution.
With 1,000 miles of waterways that include channels going in each direction, the Delta rivals just about any place on Earth for waterski and wake-sports conditions. It’s no wonder that several top waterskiers—including world-record-holder Michael Temby and hall-of-famer Mike Avila—hail from the Delta region. Kiteboarders and windsurfers also flock to the great California waterway to take on some of its windier, wide-open channels. More leisurely outdoor enthusiasts can explore the region’s thousands of beaches and coves by kayak or stand-up paddleboard.
Striped bass are the most sought-after fish in the area, and they’re often the stars of the oldest bass derby on the West Coast—the Rio Vista Bass Derby—which has been going strong since 1933. You can also find black bass, sturgeon, catfish, salmon, American shad and several other species. The Delta has a growing reputation as a fly-fishing destination as well, and the region’s crawfish have a huge following from mid-May to December.
Several films—including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Cool Hand Luke, All the King’s Men and Blood Alley—have been shot in the region. But you’d never know it. The Delta rarely gets to play itself in movies, doubling instead as the Mississippi, Amazon, Irrawaddy and Congo rivers, and for landscapes in locations ranging from Vietnam to the Yukon.
The region itself was once a great tidal freshwater marsh blanketed by peat and peaty alluvium. For thousands of years, the Miwok and Yokut peoples lived along the converging rivers, and other tribes came and went with the seasons to trade and travel through the area. Beginning in the late 1800s, levees were built along the stream channels and the land that was protected from flooding was drained and cleared for farming.
The Delta’s quiet waters provide critical habitat for migratory birds, and more than 200 species—ranging from tundra swans to sandhill cranes—have been sighted in the region. Top spots for birders include Brannan Island State Recreation Area, Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and Cosumnes River Preserve. The Lodi Sandhill Crane Festival celebrates the return of the cranes each November, and the Cosumnes River Preserve and the city of Galt host the Galt Winter Bird Festival every January.
The region is also home to mammals including fox, beaver, river otter, sea lion, muskrat and shrew. There have even been rare occurrences of humpback whales making their way up from the Pacific Coast to swim in the Delta’s channels.
With its close-knit communities, seasonal festivals and farmers’ markets, and waterfront restaurants and bars, the Delta embodies the true laid-back spirit of California. Stop by a farmer’s stand to buy some grapes, and you might come away with a new best friend. Pull up to your neighbor’s dock, and you could end up at an impromptu barbecue. It’s a place where strangers aren’t so for long, neighbors help each other out and life goes with the flow of the mighty Delta.