Sacramento River Delta: Walnut Grove to Rio Vista traces steamboat history!

The Delta King, built in Stockton in 1926, was the zenith of luxury passenger travel, from San Francisco to Sacramento, until 1941.


The Ryde Hotel, built at the height of the prohibition era in 1927, was a speakeasy and a favorite steamboat stop on the might Sacramento River.

Grand Island Mansion, four floors and 58 rooms of grandeur, was built in 1917 and was a favorite destination of rich San Franciscans via steamboat.
Rio Vista Bridge over the Sacramento River, longer than most Delta bridges, is a “lift-span bridge” and was deemed a Most Beautiful Movable Steel Bridge by the national Steel Institute!
The Real McCoy II is one of two free auto ferries to carry cars and passengers across Delta waterways.

This week’s exploration of the Sacramento Delta takes us to Walnut Grove, Ryde, Grand Island and Rio Vista.  The tour takes in some of California’s most productive farmland, a vast series of channels and sloughs in the Sacramento Delta, several historic towns that were the marine highway of old steamboats, and two free auto ferries that will intrigue the kids or grandkids.  Best of all, the entire tour is about 80 miles, roundtrip, from Stockton!

So, pack some snacks, a few drinks and come explore the Delta with us.  We begin our Delta tour at Walnut Grove, one of the early thriving port cities on the river, home to a large number of historic buildings and homes.  It is also home to Tony’s Place Restaurant in the old downtown and Guisti’s Place restaurant, 14743 Walnut Grove-Thornton Road, Walnut Grove, (arguably the two best known among locals). 

Cross the river on the historic Walnut Grove Bridge and venture three miles downriver on Hwy. 160 to the Ryde Hotel – an old Art Deco hotel, built in 1927 at the heart of the Prohibition era and former speakeasy.  Enjoy their very classy restaurant, open for Saturday dinners or Sunday brunch or spend the night in one of 42 refurbished rooms, 14340 Hwy. 160, Walnut Grove; 888.717.RYDE.  

From the Ryde Hotel, go west on Hwy 220; in a few miles you reach one of two free Delta auto ferries that takes one across Steamboat Slough.  Here, temporarily bypass the ferry and continue north about four miles on Grand Island Road to the historic and enchanting Grand Island Mansion, 13415 Grand Island Rd., Walnut Grove. 

The Grand Island Mansion is N. California’s largest private estate, an Italian Renaissance beauty built in 1917.  A four-story, 58 room manse with stunning grounds, it was built for Louis Myers and his wife Audrey, daughter of the Lubin family of Weinstock Lubin Department Stores.  Myers was an orchardist, who used his home to entertain society guests who arrived by steamboat. It’s open for Sunday brunch (get a reservation for selected Sundays, (916) 775-1705; to tour the old estate you need an appointment).

From the Mansion, backtrack on Grand Island Road to the free ferry (it runs every 20 minutes), and cross over to Ryer Island Road and go south.  A few miles along Steamboat Slough (watch for the ghosts of old river steamers that once carried passengers and freight, long before autos, trucks and railroads) and you will reach the second free auto ferry, which will take you across the Sacramento Deep Water Channel to River Road.  Go south and you arrive in two miles in the old town of Rio Vista.

Rio Vista is a river town built by steamboats, agriculture and its proximity to both water and land transportation.  Hence, it values its history; the city offers a marvelous self-guided walking tour of the waterfront, downtown, historic sites and buildings –  ( or pick up a map at City Hall, right on the waterfront).  Plan a snack or picnic along the Sacramento River waterfront; several public fishing piers and public restrooms are available.  Just west of town is Sandy Beach County Park, which offers camping, as well.

Don’t miss the waterfront monument to Humphrey, the Humpback Whale.  Humphrey first appeared at Rio Vista in 1985.  After rescue by the Marine Mammal Center and return to the ocean, he reappeared in 1990 and became stuck on a mudflat in San Francisco Bay.  Rescued again, Humphrey has since been seen only once, in 1991 near the Farallon Islands in the Pacific.

Rio Vista’s history also shares two of the worst steamboat disasters in California history.  In September, 1864, the steamer Washoe’s boiler exploded just a few miles north of Rio Vista, killing 16 and badly injuring 36.  Just 13 months later, the huge steamboat Yosemite, 283’ in length with a ton of gold and silver from the mines, was departing the Rio Vista landing when her boiler blew, killing 13 Americans whose names were listed in the Alta newspaper.  In keeping with racial prejudice of the day, the paper also added “there were 29 Chinamen killed by the explosion”.

Downtown Rio Vista offers several options for food.  The iconic Foster’s Bighorn Restaurant, 143 Main Street, 707-374-2511, boasts over 250 specimen animal heads from owner Bill Foster’s big game hunts in the 1930s, a 65 foot bar and tasty food like oyster shooters, steaks and the bison burger.  Just up the street is the historic Striper Café in the old Hotel Rio Vista, another good choice. 

The first Rio Vista bridge was not completed until 1919 (ferries and steamboats crossed the wide Sacramento prior).  The current steel truss bridge was completed in 1960; in 1967, the Italian freighter Ilice, navigating in dense tule fog and bound for the port of Sacramento, saw only one of the bridge’s two main towers, missed the open lift span and slammed into the stationary eastern span.  The ship suffered moderate damage – the bridge fared worse.  With east-west auto/truck traffic halted, repairs took just 22 days – demonstrating the importance of Hwy. 12! 

From Rio Vista, return to Stockton by going east on Hwy. 12, then south on I-5; you now have more great Delta memories to savor!

Today’s tour route bypasses Isleton, with a cute though worn historic district, interesting restaurants including Rogelio’s for Mexican/Chinese food, and in the newer part of town, Bernie’s for crawdads.  Events include the huge Crawdad Festival over the Father’s Day weekend each year.

Next week, we explore the eighth of California’s nine national parks in our series, with the “fire and ice” of Lassen Volcanic National Park!

How to get there: From Stockton, it’s 25 minutes to Walnut Grove; take I-5 north, exit on Walnut Grove-Thornton Road, then go west to Walnut Grove.  The entire circuit profiled above is about 80 miles, total, and will take several hours of driving.

When to go: Just about anytime, though some attractions are open only on weekends.  Check; most of the cities profiled stage annual celebrations and other festivities (like Isleton’s Cajun and Blues Fest on Father’s Day weekend). 

What to see while there: The Delta and its many meandering waterways, the bounty of Delta agriculture (some of the most verdant land in America), scores of classic drawbridges, historic old towns and delightful eateries! 

What’s nearby:  To the north, the Locke Historic District and additional old river towns all the way to Old Sacramento (and the Delta King steamboat); to the east, the nifty Delta Loop (just off Hwy. 12) and seemingly endless Delta marinas, campgrounds and quiet back roads.

What to take: Good walking shoes, snacks, drinks, a good map or GPS unit and your camera!

For more info: Ryde Hotel, 14340 Hwy. 160, Walnut Grove; 888.717.RYDE,; Grand Island Mansion, 13415 Grand Island Rd., Walnut Grove, (916) 775-1705,; Foster’s Bighorn Restaurant, 143 Main Street, 707-374-2511, The Discover the Delta Foundation, 2510 Hwy. 12, Isleton, CA 94561, 916.777.4442,

For additional travel destination inspiration, see my blog: travel; to contact me,  Happy travels in the west!

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