Sacramento Delta - Houseboat vacation to remember
With a thousand miles of inland waterways, the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta is a boater’s paradise. But whether you’re an avid boater or not, the Delta offers a unique getaway experience for anyone looking for an adventurous way to enjoy all that California has to offer.
There are many ways to explore the Delta, including a scenic drive through this recovered marshland that is now a fertile farm belt between Sacramento and Stockton. But one of the most rewarding is to get out on the water – to explore these waterways at the helm of your own boat.
When you take up houseboating, you'll find that -- depending on the location -- several types of boats are available for rent, some as long as 65 feet. For our visit, we chose to rent a relatively small 35-foot houseboat. This boat was somewhat spartan compared to the larger luxurious houseboats that include such things as hot tubs, fireplaces and complete home entertainment systems. Our boat was more like a medium-size RV on water – big enough to sleep six with all the basic amenities such as propane stove and refrigerator, toilet and water system, and a power system that could be run off shore power or a generator.
We’d been houseboating before, but generally had always brought along another couple or family. In almost all of our previous experience we had stayed on the water for a week at a time. So, in this case, we approached our weekend on the water as something of a challenge: was it possible for just the two of us (and a five-year-old) to handle the houseboat on our own and also get on and off the boat – with all the packing, unpacking and check-outs that this entails – and still come away feeling like this was a relaxing, rewarding getaway?
For those a little leery about trying a houseboat without any experience, we can tell you that these boats, while large, are relatively quick and easy to learn how to handle. You can get as complicated as you want, or keep it simple if you’re a first-timer. The marina where you rent your boat will take time to go through all of the boat’s systems with you and essentially give you a short course in handling the boat.
We picked up our boat at a marina just west of Stockton. After a day-long drive from San Diego, we stayed overnight at the dock the first night, meeting with the marina check-out people first thing the next morning. By 11 a.m., we were on our way, but only after a thorough check-out procedure that gave us all the information we needed for a safe and enjoyable weekend out on the Delta.
The waterways of the Delta seem to be endless and offer a combination of rivers, sloughs, canals and other tributaries to take you around a series of islands. Again, this was different from our past experience of houseboating on the lakes of British Columbia and Washington. Most of the water we accessed in the Delta was relatively narrow, although there were a few wide expanses where we hugged the shoreline to avoid any potential rough water. After casting off, we were immediately navigating canals through rich farmland that were reminiscent of some canals we’ve seen in Europe. While the terrain’s not as picturesque or hilly as Britain, the lazy cruise up these canals was just as green and almost as enchanting.
The weather on our October trip was sunny and warm – upwards of 80 degrees -- cooling down significantly at night. We’re told this is one of the best times of year to experience the Delta. In fact, we’re guessing that the peak of summer just might be too hot, although that’s when visitors spend a lot more time in the water rather than just on top of it.
Along the way, we would occasionally drop anchor and just relax and enjoy the solitude. There were boats coming and going here and there, but the overwhelming sense is that you’ve escaped the crowds. We would fire up the grill for hamburgers or sit and read, or listen to some music. There was plenty of room on our boat to stretch out or sit outside on one of the deck chairs.
Whenever we felt like it, we’d pull up anchor and head a bit farther up the slough, cross over a river, go up another canal – the possibilities were endless. Along the way we encountered boats of all sizes and shapes, some fast, some as slow as we were, put-putting along at five miles an hour. There were anglers and their dogs, water skiers, party boats full of merrymakers – even a group of 20 or so "cigar" boats that were doing a "poker run" through the Delta stopping at various waterfront restaurants.
A "first" for us was navigating under the draw bridges through out the Delta. There’s a certain sense of power that comes with calling the bridge operator and having them stop traffic along a busy highway just so you and your houseboat can cross under the raised bridge.
For experienced boaters, the tides and currents of the Delta are little bother. But even for those with little or no experience, it’s easy to learn how to read a tide chart and anchor your boat accordingly. We experimented with anchoring using both bow and stern lines to keep us secure – a procedure that’s a little harder when you just have two people -- but ultimately found that a single bow anchor was enough for our day-time stops, using the current to hold us away from the shore.
The weather forecast for our first night out on the water called for winds between 20 and 30 mph so we opted that night to tie up at a marina instead of anchoring out for the night. This also allowed us to have power without firing up the generator and also to sample the Sunset Grill at the Tower Park Resort where we tied up. The guest docks were easy to get in and out of at Tower Park and the resort offers a complete store with any last-minute items you may have forgotten to pack.
Our next day it was time for the meandering cruise back to our marina where we spent the final night before hitting the road. Our short weekend on the Delta had proven to be easy and relaxing. We think the smaller boat turned out to be a plus given the short time frame and our inexperience with the Delta – it was easy to maneuver, less expensive to operate and still gave us everything we needed out on the water for a short getaway.
Our only regret is that we didn’t have time to experience the northern reaches of the Delta – we’re told that some of the most scenic areas are farther to the north, and that there are several towns that are fascinating stops for Delta visitors. But with a slow-moving houseboat, you’re either going to need several days to reach all of these points of interest, or be satisfied that a weekend houseboat experience is more about cruising, relaxation and solitude than it is about sightseeing.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: The San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta is located in the area west of Stockton on north to Sacramento. There are several access points to the Delta where you can rent watercraft or launch your own.
WHAT: The Delta is a unique set of interconnected waterways that run through an area that was once marshland and that was drained and then converted to fertile farmland. Terrain varies throughout the Delta, but the portion near Stockton is generally flat, open farmland.
WHEN: The Delta is good for boating year-round, although many say the spring and fall seasons are the best.
WHY: Scenery and solitude. There are many towns to visit along the shores of the Delta including Rio Vista, Locke, Isleton and Ryde. Whether you prefer to anchor out or hop from marina to marina, the Delta offers something for everyone.
HOW: Houseboat rentals are on a weekend or per-week basis. Since our
article was written, H & H Marina -- where we rented our boat -- has
discontinued houseboat rentals and the 35-foot boat is no longer available;
however, a 43-foot boat is available at Paradise Point Marina, 1-800-752-9669. A
wide variety of boats and options are available by going to www.houseboats.com,
which has fleets of houseboats in several California locations including New
Melones Lake, Lake McClure and, the most popular houseboating lake in
California, Shasta Lake. Phone 1-877-468-7326.
OTHER DESTINATIONS: If a houseboat is your idea of a great California vacation, be sure and check out other California Weekend articles on river rafting,
and Twain's California.
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