Ride Highway 160 Sacramento River Delta
Sacramento, San Joaquin- COUNTY
51 Miles - LENGTH
Some new pavement, fair - PAVEMENT
Long, Smooth, Endless - CURVES
West Sacramento to Rio Vista - CONNECTS
West Sac, Walnut Grove, Rio Vista - GAS
California Central Valley
Sacramento River Delta
Quick Ride: Relaxed ride atop levee roads along the Sacramento River
Ride the River Delta
When I finally moved into my own place in my newly minted home of California after finishing college courses and the military, I struck out on my own and moved to Midtown Sacramento renting a room in a large Victorian built in 1901 with several other mid-twenty somethings. Living in Midtown was exciting and new, allegedly the center of Sacramento’s art, music, and cultural scene, it was the polar opposite of my rural agrarian upbringing.
There were massive 100-year-old English elm trees, magnolias, and sycamores lining the streets, providing shade for entire city blocks. Historic Victorian homes in every direction intersperse with large palm trees like the ones right out front of our 1901 Victorian we all lived in. The house was so big, nobody wanted to turn the heat on in winter and pay that bill, as a result, the kitchen was so cold, you could see your breath. I paid extra on the electric bill each month to heat my room with a small portable heater. My roommate was in med school, she simply put on another sweater.
My first real job was within walking distance a mere six blocks away, the state capital building seven blocks, and Sutters Fort was three blocks. It was The Nexus. I had my Yamaha FJ1200 parked out front, no car, and life was good.
My Yamaha FJ1200 parked outside 2230 Capital Ave
However, living at the center of a major metropolitan city created a greater distance to the closest curvy roads. The solution for a quick ride was the Sacramento River Delta which was 4 miles away. As a result, I spent many days during that time exploring, getting lost, and wandering around the Sacramento River Delta on the FJ1200. What you can’t see from ground level in downtown Sacramento is at certain times of the year, the city is surrounded by water. If you fly into Sacramento during spring and look down, you’ll often see water everywhere along the western border of the city, mostly in the rice fields and sinewy rivers that converge at downtown. The state capital was established at the confluence of the Sacramento River and the American River. When early explorers Padre Juan Crespi' and Pedro Fages arrived in the area in 1772 and first viewed the Central Valley from Mount Diablo, there was so much water, they thought the Central Valley was actually the Sea of California.
The river delta at dawn
When the Gold Rush exploded in 1849, Sacramento became the destination for a flood of Argonauts headed into the nearby Sierra Nevada Foothills. There were no modern-day roads, no interstates, no highways, rather the method of transportation around the state facilitating this mass migration was via its rivers. By 1857, over 1,000 riverboat passengers were arriving in Sacramento every day. Numerous steamships operated daily on the Sacramento River, along with hundreds of sailing vessels.
The vast majority of these settlers influxing into the rapidly growing state lived along rivers because the water was necessary for agriculture, transportation, and mining. By the mid-1850s, farmers settling the Central Valley discovered the silt deposited by the seasonal flooding provided extremely fertile land perfect for agriculture.
Within a decade, the population of California was about 500,000 people, with 100,000 of those in San Francisco. Like most cities established in the mid-1800s in the western United States, city centers sprang up at the junctions of major rivers, facilitating movement, trade, and commerce. What city planners didn’t see coming were the side effects of building a major city atop a seasonal flood plain, and the resultant floods that would plague the early years of the city. Within mere months, in 1850, the new city experienced its first devastating flood.
Levees were hastily constructed along river banks, but at a mere three feet high. In 1852 the meager levee system was again overwhelmed by high water once more and the new city sought to bolster the levees along the American and Sacramento Rivers. From the 1850s to 1861, more than $30 million in today’s dollars was spent on building levees. At the same time, hydraulic mining in the foothills contributed heavily to make these seasonal floods even worse as discussed on the Malakoff Diggins article. Many rivers to the north of Sacramento were being filled in with fine silt that raised natural river beds as much as 7 feet.
The Great Flood of 1862
City planners proposed a radical idea for the time of raising the ground level of the city above the flood level, but had difficulties convincing anyone to act. The idea was rejected as too costly until the Great Flood of 1862 when the equivalent of 10 feet of rain fell in 43 days in the nearby Sierra Nevada foothills, then another 10-15 feet of snow fell at higher elevations followed by warm temperatures that melted the snow and sent it rushing down mountain rivers wiping towns and mining settlements off the face of the earth. At the same time, Sacramento recorded 37 inches of rain in two months. One particular day recording 4 inches of rain, while six inches of snow fell in Napa. Nearby San Francisco also recorded nearly 40 inches of rain between December to January 1862. The mining town of Sonora in the Sierra Nevada foothills was deluged by nearly 103 inches of rain in 43 days over December and January 1862.
Old Sacramento at 4th & K Street
The summation of the 1862 weather event was a massive flood of biblical proportions swamping the Central Valley in a layer of water. Not limited to the central portions of California, the 1862 storm season affected the entire West Coast of the United States. In Los Angeles, 66-inches of rain fell, four times the normal amount while the present-day city of Anaheim (think Disneyland) was under 4-feet of water for a month along the Santa Ana River.
The new eighth governor, Leland Stanford, had to take a rowboat to the state capital building to be inaugurated in January 1862. After the inauguration, he returned to his mansion a few blocks from the capitol building, parked his boat at a second-story window, and reportedly climbed in through a window. He later filled in the first floor with dirt and added a third story to his home. The city was unable to function, and the state government was temporarily transferred to San Francisco. Three months later, Sacramento was still submerged underwater. Some homes in downtown Sacramento were lifted off their wooden frames and floated out into the streets, others simply collapsed.
The Great Flood of 1862 created a vast inland sea covering as much as 6,000 square miles of formerly dry land underwater. River levels climbed as much as 10 feet in 24 hours. Vast regions of California’s Central Valley, a flat valley 450 miles long and 60 miles wide, were underwater as much as 30 feet deep for several months. Incidentally, the regions the water once covered in 1862 are now home to California’s fastest-growing cities.
Steamers were able to travel as far as 14 miles away from the Sacramento River over the tops of farms, ranches, and towns. An estimated 250,000 cattle perished. So many animals were swept away in the flood, it caused the entire economy of California to shift from cattle-based ranchero society to farming after 1862. Lost cattle that survived only found their way back to rightful owners when newspapers eventually published the brands of local ranches to aid in their return.
While 1 in 8 homes was destroyed, the state’s tax base was also affected as one-third of taxable land was destroyed. The costs were devastating: one-quarter of California’s economy was destroyed, almost forcing the state into bankruptcy. Without a tax base, the Legislature wasn’t paid for 18 months. Officials in Sacramento made no effort to document the number of people who died during the Flood of 1862 because they didn't want to discourage anyone from moving to Sacramento.
Levees had been built around the new city of Sacramento before 1862, however, when the Great Flood came, the levees had the opposite effect acting as a dam creating a bowl of water that filled up and held in the water even when river levels began to fall. River levels eventually dropped, but water in downtown Sacramento remained 10 feet higher than the river level. Chain gangs of laborers were brought in to purposely breach the levees to allow the water to drain from downtown Sacramento. This allowed the water level in the city to drop six feet, but still didn’t solve the problem of a city built on a flood plain.
Seasonal flooding in Old Sacramento
City planners convinced at last starting after the Great Flood of 1862, embarked on a massive engineering project spanning 20 years bringing in thousands of cubic yards of earth one wagon load at a time and dumping it along the banks of the Sacramento River. City dwellers in Sacramento moved into the 2nd floor of their homes and filled in the first floor with dirt. If you visit present-day Old Sacramento, you can take a tour of the tunnels through the basements, which were the original first floor.
These efforts were meant to raise the streets 15 feet rather than relocate the entire city as was done in other cities after natural disasters during that time. Flood plain architecture found its way into the construction of the Victorian homes built in Midtown, which were built with a raised stance, often with long staircases to reach the first floor bordered by large open veranda porches. Basements, which are not common in California, were created under the houses but only set a few feet into the ground, which allowed for basement flooding and aeration.
Present day Old Sacramento looks much the same today as it did in the 1860s
A Chinese workforce of over 14,000 reconstructed levees along the Sacramento and American Rivers that merged at downtown Sacramento in addition to their tributaries under the guidance of Charles Crocker, a railroad executive and the head contractor for Central Pacific Railroad. When Chinese immigrants built the transcontinental railroad and finished up the job in 1869, they transitioned to building the levees to hold the Sacramento, American and San Joaquin Rivers in check. All by hand with wheelbarrows and shovels, later to be replaced with the clamshell dredge. The project, like the railroads, was massive.
Over several decades, thousands of Chinese laborers constructed hundreds of miles of levees, including a massive flood wall known as a Weir due west of the city center, completed in 1917. Weirs are lowered sections of levees that allow flood flows in excess of the downstream channel capacity to escape into the Yolo Bypass, which is a large, flat basin that’s unpopulated.
Six weirs were constructed into the levee system as a backup to release water across a broad flat plain where water could be released into farm fields in the advent of massive amounts of water overwhelming the levee system. Despite its centennial age, the Sacramento Weir still gets used generally once every 10 years and was last opened in 2017. The flood wall is 1950 feet long and contains 48 gates, each 40 feet wide capable of releasing 1500 cubic feet of water per second. Presently, the Sacramento Weir is being lengthened by another 1500 feet to make it nearly 1 mile long.
Weirs along the levee system continued to be constructed in the 1930s into the 1960s. Levee improvements continue to this day and it’s not uncommon to ride the levee road and roll past a barge dropping rock along the levee road. After flooding over the 2005-6 winter, then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger asked Congress for over $1 Billion in aid to reinforce levees across the state.
Understanding the Sacramento River Flood Control System
Sacramento Weir on March 11, 1995 releasing water from the American River at 30,000 cfs into the Yolo Bypass, a flat plain beside the city center
State and local agencies currently budget $30 million each year to maintain 1,600 miles of levees in the Central Valley, although pundits argue we should be spending upwards of $130 million annually to meet current federal standards.
Atop these 1600 miles of levees, roads were built following the winding path of the rivers. Our grandparents like to tell the story of having to commute atop the levees before freeways were built into the city center, which likely dates that story to the 1950s. While the new freeways routed our grandparents quickly into the city center, the levee roads they once commuted on daily remain. As the city expanded southward in the 1960s and 1970s, residential neighborhoods were built that back right up to the levees and the water levels in spring are often clearly higher than the ground the homes were built on mere feet from the river.
The Great Flood of 1862 wouldn’t be the last time the city of Sacramento was inundated with water, notable recent flooding occurred in 1986, 1995, 1997, 2006, and 2017. However, the 1862 storm was so severe, it’s now regarded as occurring once every 500 to 1000 years and has become known as an ARkStorm which stands for atmospheric river 1,000 storm or MegaStorm.
Scientists that have studied ARkStorm events have concluded similar mega-floods have occurred in California in the years 440, 1418, 1605, and 1750 by studying silt layers and measuring the amount left behind by seasonal flooding.
Hypothetical flooding around Sacramento in future ARkStorm event according to USGS predictions
Scientists further concluded the 1605 event was at least 50% more powerful than any of the other flood events in recorded history, including the Great Flood of 1862 and thereby reduced their predicted interval of these mega-storms in California to every 200 years. The city of Sacramento is known as having the greatest flood risk of any major city in the entire United States.
The levee building project continued for over 60 years but in turn, 700,000 acres of tillable land resulted, much of it was previously swampland and this reclaimed land proved to be very fertile soil. This system of levees also created islands, known as tracts, where agriculture land is completely surrounded by levees. However, these islands of dry land are lower than the level of the river & sloughs, which allows for a form of reverse irrigation since the land is lower than the water that surrounds it. Water is released into the fields until the ground is adequately saturated and the process is repeated when irrigation for crops, vineyards, or orchards are needed again.
The closest curvy road to my rented room at 23rd and Capital was Highway 160 atop the levees. At four miles away from my house, I spent many days exploring the levee roads both north and south of downtown Sacramento. Both sides of the river are a pleasant afternoon ride, and you will be accompanied by many other motorcyclists and bicyclists almost any day of the year. The best time to ride the levee roads will be early spring.
There are several options to reach the levee road south of downtown Sacramento. The first is from West Sacramento via South River Rd near the Port of Sacramento however, this requires you to ride through the city streets. This provides the longest ride on the levee if that’s desired. The second option is to skip south along Interstate 5 and exit at the south edge of the city at Consumes River Blvd or Pocket / Meadowview Road exit heading west.
The levee road is on both sides of the river, but follow the signs for Highway 160 if you want to stay on the best pavement as Highway 160 is maintained better than its opposite counterpart on the opposite side of the river. Freeport is at the very southern edge of the Elk Grove and the beginning of the levee road if you approach from the eastern side of the river.
At Freeport is the first of several draw bridges across the river, this one opened in 1930. These drawbridges have metal decking that allows you to look straight down at the river below as you’re riding over the bridge. Also at Freeport is the Freeport Marina offering a large wharf along the eastern side of the river. Riverboats often dock here to have lunch at the Freeport Bar & Grill across the street. The Bartley Cavanaugh Golf Course in Freeport means you can hop in your boat, dock at the Freeport Marina, have lunch, and play a few holes on the golf course.
The Sacramento River Delta has 1600 miles of levees built by 14,000 Chinese laborers
Riding atop levee roads along swollen rivers from spring runoff
Northbound riders can also reach the levee roads from the Pittsburgh - Antioch area on Highway 4 via the Antioch Bridge. Central Valley riders can ride in on Highway 12 or Highway 4. Follow the signs for Highway 160 if you want the best pavement, as the road will change sides several times across draw bridges designed to open and close to allow boat traffic to traverse under the bridges.
Across the river from Freeport is Clarksburg on South River Rd. Ride across the Freeport drawbridge to reach the Old Sugar Mill. Originally built in 1934 as an operating beet sugar refinery, the Old Sugar Mill now hosts fourteen unique wineries offering varietals from all over Northern California. Often on weekends, there are food trucks positioned here if you’re looking for quick eats. The Old Sugar Mill is located on Willow Street one block from the river and not immediately obvious if one is simply wandering along the western side of the river on the levee road.
Drawbridges along Highway 160 provide passage for river traffic like this barge
Old Sugar Mill in Clarksburg
Abandoned courthouse at Courtland built on an elevated foundation to allow for flooding
London native James V. Sims is credited with the founding of Courtland in 1870. Courtland was named for his son, Courtland Sims. James Sims owned the land and built a steamboat landing along the river in the 1860s to transport fruit shipments from surrounding orchards.
The courthouse in the center of this tiny town is currently abandoned and no longer in use, but remains today as an excellent example of Greco-Roman architecture of the time. Notable is the raised stance the building is built on to allow for flooding. Courtland also served a large Chinese population and benefited from increased demand for asparagus in the early 1900s.
In present day, Courtland plays hosts to its annual Pear Fair, celebrating the delta's Bartlett pear harvest, a tradition since 1972 usually taking place in July with live music, a parade, car show, and pear pie eating contests.
Highway 160 swaps sides across the river on cantilevered counterweight bascule-style drawbridges several times
In 1970, Locke was added to the registry of national historical places, by the Sacramento County Historical Society, because of its unique status as the only town in the United States built exclusively by the Chinese for the Chinese.
The influence of the Chinese is still evident today and the original buildings are still standing, although the one in the center of town appears to be falling over into the street and has been this way for many years.
Tin Sin Chan founded Locke, 23 miles south of Sacramento, when he erected the first building, a saloon, in 1912. The historical marker in Locke reads: Founded in 1912, by Tin Sin Chan, on this site. This unique Chinese community grew rapidly after a fire destroyed the Chinese section of Walnut Grove in 1915.
Looking like a movie set, the narrow streets of Locke. Note the building precariously leaning
Most of the small levee town appears abandoned, but the Dai Loy Museum is worth a visit
At one time, Locke had a population of 1,500, with a theater, hotel, school, church, nine grocery stores, six restaurants, a bakery, lodge, and post office.
The entire town is Chinese architecture and the original buildings are still standing. Locke's residents contributed greatly to the development of levees in the Sacramento Delta.
Despite their contributions, much animosity faced the Chinese, and they were forbidden to own land. The Chinese could not vote or gain citizenship until 1943, ironically, while their neighbors the Japanese were rounded up and sent to war internment camps across the western United States like Manzanar War Internment Camp starting in 1942.
In 1915, when parts of nearby Walnut Grove burned down rendering the Chinese homeless, rancher George Locke leased parts of his ranch to the Chinese and the town of Locke took hold of permanence along the levee. The Chinese that migrated the short distance to Locke wanted to create a riverboat and train destination. But tourists in 1915 avoided Chinese communities then. Locke would instead become "California's Monte Carlo" with 5 gambling halls, five brothels, speakeasies, and opium dens.
In the present day, Locke is a rundown ramshackle wonderment. The narrow streets are barely wide enough for two vehicles, and second story open balconies line the narrow streets. One of the buildings on Main Street is leaning so far over, it looks in danger of collapsing on itself. At its peak, 1500 people lived in Locke, today an estimated 75 permanent residents live there.
The Dai Loy Museum at 13952 Main Street in the center of town was a gambling hall until the 1950s, when officials closed its doors. Prior to the 1950s, Pai Ngow, Fan Tan gamblers and the Chinese lottery using 80 Chinese characters were the games of chance that were popular among Chinese. Check the hours before you head this way to make sure the museum is open, typically active during afternoons on Friday through Sunday. The riverside of the levee is the Boathouse Marina, which allows boats to dock and then explore the small town.
Plan a visit to the Dai Loy Museum in Locke
Steel grate surface across cantilevered counterweight bascule-style drawbridge
Originally surrounded by walnut and oak trees, the town site was established in 1850 by Ohioan John Sharp. Walnut Grove was settled by “woodchoppers” as early as 1850, but the present name was not applied until the early 1860s, when the post office was established. The surrounded trees in the area were harvested and used as firewood to fuel steamboats. By 1865, Walnut Grove became a busy agricultural port to on load agriculture produce and fish. Bartlett Pears became one the most common exports from Walnut Grove. Ferry service ran back and forth across the river daily at the turn of the century, as Walnut Grove was the only river town that was on both sides of the river. Finally, in 1916, a bridge was built across the river connecting the town, which was replaced by the present-day cantilevered counterweight bascule drawbridge, the first of its kind west of the Mississippi.
A sizeable population of Japanese and Chinese began to coalesce in Walnut Grove, and 67 Japanese businesses were listed in the 1914 business directory. The town was segregated during that time by ethnicity. Whites were the only ones allowed to own property on the west side of the river, those of Asian descent were further segregated on the east side into Japanese and Chinese sections. There were two elementary schools, one for whites, and the other for Japanese and Chinese children. The two schools were combined for high school.
Prior to WWII, Japanese and Chinese ran illegal gambling houses and Chinese restaurants, although whites were not allowed to enter the gambling dens for fear they might be undercover police.
Walnut Grove Radio Towers
The location of Walnut Grove at the center of the Central Valley also made it attractive for radio and television signal transmission, The first tower was built in 1962 at 1582 feet. Even taller radio towers were built to the height of 2048 ft which has remained one of the tallest structures in the world. More towers were built on the same site at 2000 ft and 1996 ft. The towers have equal sight lines in excess of 60 miles to the north and 60 miles to the south across the flat Central Valley. The height and remoteness also make the towers a preferred target for illegal base jumping. Base Jumpers climb the towers and can experience up to a 12 second free-fall. The towers can be seen from a long way off as one travels through the Central Valley or along Interstate 5.
Grand Island Mansion
Nearby along Steamboat Slough on Grand Island Rd is the Grand Island Mansion. The Mansion is currently the largest private estate in Northern California and is a uniquely spectacular Italian Renaissance styled villa.
Built by Mr. Lewis W. Meyers, this impressive estate sits on the outskirts of the town of Walnut Grove. Mr. Meyers was an accomplished and influential Californian and was the owner of 865 acres on Grand Island, where he built a highly successful fruit farm, growing pears, peaches, plums, cherries, and asparagus, and which was, at the time, one of the show-places of the county. Planned by Mr. Meyers’ wife Henrietta and designed by renowned San Francisco architect J. W. Dolliver in 1917, this four-story, 24,000 square foot, 58 room villa was the centerpiece of Louis W. Meyers’ personal empire. Construction of the Mansion was completed in 1920. The Mansion served originally not only as the Meyers’ family home, but as a favorite haunt for many a celebrity of the 1920s and 30s.
Grand Island Mansion was built at the height of 1920s opulence and is actively restored for events plus offers nightly stays as a hotel.
The Meyers, who loved to entertain, played host to such luminaries as President Franklin D. Roosevelt, actress Greta Garbo and mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner. This unique landmark has been featured in such publications as National Geographic, Architectural Digest, and many others, highlighting the historical significance and classical beauty that help make the Grand Island Mansion a destination of unrivaled desirability for weddings and events.
It has also provided the setting for films and music videos, and hosted events attended by such prominent guests as President Ronald Reagan, who, upon seeing the Mansion, quipped that “This must be the Western White House.”
In the present day, the mansion hosts many special events such as weddings, but also has 11 opulent rooms that allow a unique chance to experience an overnight stay in a 1920s mansion. Surprise your significant other and book a room here.
Levee road along Steamboat Slough near the Grand Island Mansion
Isleton, or 'island town', was the name given by Josiah Poole and John Brocas to the town that they built on Andrus Island in 1874. The historic plaque in Isleton reads: During the gold rush period of 1849 Isleton was a sea of swaying tules and peat bogs. Chinese immigrants lured to California for gold stayed on to begin a hand labor task of dredging and constructing levees. When the water was pumped out, these islands were formed, creating what Isleton residents now call home. In 1874 Dr. Josiah Poole founded the town and built a wharf the following year, giving Isleton access to the outside world and farming began.
The Chinese settled in the town and were joined by Japanese immigrants. Their original home sites were on Jackson Slough Road, south of the present historical district, but were destroyed by fire in 1915. The town was rebuilt at the present location, only to burn again in 1926. It was rebuilt once again, however, this time the buildings were constructed with metal exterior siding as a fire precaution. This unique community continues on today with the restoration of these old buildings, reflecting their original heritage.
Each February, Isleton celebrates Chinese New Year with the Great March of China, Invitational Rickshaw Races, ancient cultural rites, the usual bazaar, and plenty of great Chinese food. Look up this event prior to a visit here to get the latest updates.
Towns like nearby Isleton once bustled with 2000 residents as a busy port city, now it has a population of 800 people with a relaxed laid back atmosphere. There is also fuel in Isleton and in nearby Rio Vista. The Riverside Mill at Isleton was built atop the levee and once was an active center from transitioning agricultural goods to river barges for transport to cities for consumption. Tiny Isleton is punctuated by the large drawbridge across the river. The steel deck of the bridge allows you to look down through the bridge at the water below.
KO-Ket Resort south of Isleton has been in continuous operation since 1948 and is surprisingly located on the riverside of the levee. Boaters can pull right up to its dock and sit down for lunch overlooking the river.
Riverside Mill at Isleton & The Buelll
Ryde is tiny, dates back to 1892 and was named after the second most populous island in England, Ryde, Isle of Wright.
Ryde does have a small hotel. The Ryde Hotel built in 1927 functioned as a speakeasy for bootleg whiskey during Prohibition in the 1930s. A tunnel is reputed to exist under the road emerging along the waterfront, leading to a trapdoor in the hotel.
Ryde also has a water tower. First put into common use during the late 1890s, water towers are not common in California like they are in the Midwest, where every small town has one. California’s hilly terrains lends itself to water storage being in reservoirs, while towns built in flat areas don’t have that option. Ryde farmers are said to have emigrated from the Azores, and Portuguese surnames are still common to the area.
KO-Ket Resort is on the river side of the levee and has been in operation since 1948.
A few miles later, Highway 160 runs headlong into Highway 12. Across the Sacramento River on the west side is the small town of Rio Vista established in 1858 at the mouth of the river where it met Suisun Bay. The city's name combines the Spanish words for "river" and "view" claiming to have about 7000 residents, many live in the large 3000-home Trilogy retirement community alongside the small Rio Vista Airport. The town prides itself on the small town feel and has a single stoplight along Highway 12 in town.
Rio Vista punctuates the southern end of riding Highway 160 atop the levees and unless you plan to continue riding south towards Mount Diablo and Suisun Bay, this is the turn-around point at Rio Vista if headed back north towards Sacramento. Highway 160 reaches Highway 12, the main east-west thoroughfare connecting Lodi in the Central Valley with Fairfield at the very edge of the greater Bay Area. At Highway 12, one must ride across the Rio Vista Lift Bridge to reach the west side of the river.
If continuing due south on Highway 160, the ride pulls away from being a lazy levee road within a few miles and accelerates towards the Antioch Bridge as traffic increases in this section. On a clear day with minimal haze, Mount Diablo begins to dominate the horizon to the south.
Rio Vista Bridge allows ocean-going vessels to enter the Sacramento Deep Water Shipping Channel
Rio Vista’s downtown area of Rio Vista has a Mayberry feel at a mere 5 blocks long, but it’s struggling to survive with many boarded-up unoccupied storefronts. Highway 12 cuts the city in half and the downtown area is near the Rio Vista Bridge.
The city was founded in 1857 by Col. N.H. Davis and was called Brazos Del Rio because it was near three arms of the Sacramento River. In 1860 the name was changed to Rio Vista. Two years later, the town was wiped out by the Great Flood of 1862. It was then rebuilt a short distance to the south at the present site, at first called New Rio Vista.
The small city is built along the edges of Suisun Bay. The bay was explored by Canizares in Aug 1775 and is labeled Junta de los quatro Evangelestas on Ayala’s map. Since Canizares reported that it contained freshwater, it became known as Puerto Dulce and is mentioned as Freshwater Bay as late as 1842.
Waiting to cross the Rio Vista Bridge. The draw-bridge may be raised up to 15 times per day.
Abella’s diary mentions Estero de los Suisunes, named after the Patwin band or village on the north shore whose name appears in river navigation charts as early as 1807, with a great variety of spellings.
If you take an interest in museums during your travels, check out the Dutra Museum of Dredging at 345 St Gertrudes Ave in Rio Vista.
The Dutra Museum of Dredging is a private collection of materials representing the history of sidedraft clamshell dredging in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the role of the Dutra family and Dutra companies have played in building the Delta infrastructure.
The town's history is also encapsulated at the Rio Vista Museum on Front Street along the riverfront and makes another good destination for a day ride to Rio Vista.
Rio Vista Gas Field
A massive natural gas field was discovered under the town of Rio Vista in 1936 that spans three counties. By 1944, there were 136 active wells. Underneath the hills outside Rio Vista is the largest natural gas field in California, and the fifteen largest in the United States.
These hills around Rio Vista have produced over 3.6 trillion cubic feet of gas in their lifetime and are said to contain an estimated reserve of another 330 billion cubic feet of natural gas.
The Rio Vista Gas Field is also a major employer for the small community of 7000. While demand for natural gas is decreasing in residential, commercial, and industrial users, demand for natural gas in electric power generation has increased.
Montezuma Hills Rd is a ride no one has ever heard of & worth exploring from Rio Vista
Ever heard of the Montezuma Hills? No one has. There’s a series of low rolling hills that border the southern edge of the Sacramento River Delta west of Rio Vista. The term Montezuma dates to the name of the Aztec ruler at the time that Cortez invaded Mexico. The name Montezuma was a common US place name during that time. Plans for a city were laid out in the Montezuma Hills as early as the 1850s, but the grand plans for a city never grew past the original cabin.
Atop the Montezuma Hills in present-day are numerous windmills that tower 260 feet high, taking advantage of the Delta Breeze. The Delta Breeze is a natural phenomenon where cool ocean air inflows from the Pacific up a natural corridor along the surface of the low-lying delta towards the Sierra Nevada. The city of Sacramento is in the direct path of these inflows, and the Delta Breeze can cool the air significantly in the heat of summer.
Looking west, Shiloh Wind Power Plant atop the Montezuma Hills.
Rio Vista is at top center. Collinsville at bottom right. Western Railroad Museum at bottom left.
A single paved road leads through the Montezuma Hills, with numerous gravel access roads to the wind turbines interspersed through the rolling, hilly terrain. Access the Montezuma Hills from downtown Rio Vista via 2nd Street, which turns into Montezuma Hills Rd at the Delta Marina Yacht Harbor. Best ridden in early spring when these hills are covered in rolling green grass, much of this region is grazing land for cattle ranches and hay fields.
Montezuma Hills Rd is the perfect addition to your River Delta ride day, it throws out some twists and lazy turns and meanders over the hills in the shadow of hundreds of windmills. Best ridden in early spring when the hills are glowing green, if you have never this far into the Delta, you would have no idea this place even existed. Highway 12 borders the northern edges of the Montezuma Hills and can provide the return trip back to Rio Vista for a relaxed loop with zero other traffic.
Mount Diablo in the background, Exploring dead end roads at Collinsville
If you have a penchant for wondering what’s at the end of dead-end roads, head south for Collinsville on Collinsville Rd. The answer is nothing, but that still may not deter you. C. J. Collins settled here in 1859 and named it after himself. At one point, passenger rail traffic passed near Collinsville before bridges were built across the Sacramento River.
The steam engine would unbuckle from the passenger cars at present-day Mallard Island west of Pittsburg and then loaded onto barges and floated across the Sacramento River to Chipps Island. The process was time-consuming and could require several trips across the river to manually transfer all the railcars cars from land to barge to land. The rail line then headed northeast towards Sacramento. Most of these tracks have long-since been pulled up, except original tracks that are south of the current Western Railroad Museum.
Along Collinsville Rd is a t-intersection for Fire Truck Rd, this is a dead-end road to Montezuma Park at the end of (what else) Montezuma Slough and a Department of Water Resources Salinity Control Structure. Not sure why you’d want to head down here, but since you were exploring dead end roads in the middle of nowhere, add this feather to your cap. Salinity in the Sacramento River Delta is carefully measured throughout the year. During years were snow melt and water is scarce, channels may even be closed off by dropping a rock barrier across the river to prevent salt water from entering the river.
This occurred in the summer of 2020 when an 800-foot-long, 30-foot-deep, barrier was created from 112,000 tons of riprap rock ferried by a fleet of barges from DWR’s emergency stockpile in Stockton to block the mouth of the False River a few miles east of the Antioch Bridge and north of Bethel Island. The rock barriers are then removed in late fall when winter rains begin and the flow of fresh water equalizes the tidal push of saltwater from San Francisco Bay.
Western Railroad Museum
The Western Railroad Museum is located 11 miles west of Rio Vista and easily missed along this busy section of Highway 12. Like other railroad museums in Old Sacramento, Jamestown, Portola, and even Nevada City, these collections will delight any train buff.
The WRM site has 50 historic railcars on site, spans 22 acres and has 22 miles of track. In addition, volunteers operate authentic, restored trains every day the museum is open. The Interurban recreates the experience of riding a historic electric railcar as if it were the year 1920. The Streetcar recreates the experience of riding a historic streetcar through a small community. The WRM is located at 5848 Highway 12, Suisun City, open on weekends and makes a fun destination for an out-and-back excursion riding the levee roads.
Note, this track is electrified with overhead wires.
Excursion trains operate on these tracks from the nearby Western Railroad Museum.
Montezuma Hills Rd
Brannan Island State Recreation Area
Two miles south of the Highway 12 junction with Highway 160 is the Brannan Island State Recreation Area, named after Sam Brannan, California’s first millionaire who made his fortune not in the gold fields, but by selling supplies to gold seekers. There’s a small campground here for over-nighters on Brannan Island.
South of Brannan Island is the Antioch Bridge over the San Joaquin River-Stockton Deepwater Shipping Channel, which climbs 135 feet over the river. A toll is collected for northbound traffic only, southbound is free and the bridge, completed in 1978, is only two lanes wide.
In 1849, Antioch was known as Smiths Landing for the first settlers, the twin brothers J.H. and W.W. Smith. In the following year, the latter, a minister of the gospel, invited a group of New Englanders to settle on his property. At a picnic on July 4th, 1851, the citizens chose the new name, Antioch- the name of a Biblical city in Syria- in preference to other suggested names of Minton and Paradise.
The Antioch Bridge is the gateway into the East Bay roads and Mount Diablo. The next great road headed south is Morgan Territory Road (if you like single-lane backroads) or head over to Mount Diablo- the one peak in all of California that claims to allow you to see the most land at once. The ride up to the top of Mount Diablo is super-fun, super-twisty and has a superb view at the top.
Shiloh Wind Power Plant atop the Montezuma Hills
Strange but True
In the strange, but true category, three circus lions escaped from a truck in 1965 while passing over the Antioch Bridge. Two were quickly recaptured, but the third drowned after falling into the river. More famous was Humphrey the Whale in 1985. A 40-foot humpback whale entered San Francisco Bay and was quickly made famous on evening television.
Humpback whales can reach 52 feet and weigh 36 tons. While most whales make an annual migration along the California coastline, Humphrey continued into San Francisco Bay and swam up the Carquinez Straight, all the way to the Rio Vista Bridge.
Upon reaching Rio Vista and entering the Sacramento River, the 40-foot whale then entered a dead-end slough now 69 miles from the ocean while marine biologists scrambled to figure out a solution to the local whale problem.
After spending nearly a month in fresh water, Humphrey the Whale appeared listless, changed color, and appeared to be dying.The whale was finally lured from the slough back into the open ocean with help from the locals aboard private boats, the Army's 481st Transportation Company (Heavy Boat) and powerful underwater speakers supplied by the US Navy playing humpback whale feeding sounds. Large numbers of spectators lined the banks of the river as the whale was enticed back into San Francisco Bay and then under the Golden Gate Bridge.
Much to the surprise of marine biologists, Humphrey the Whale again entered San Francisco Bay in 1990 and became beached on a mudflat to the north of Sierra Point south of Candlestick Park, originally home to Major League Baseball's San Francisco Giants. Humphrey was pulled from the mudflat by a large cargo net from the Marine Mammal Center and a U.S. Coast Guard boat and again coaxed back to the open ocean by underwater acoustic speakers playing whale feeding sounds. Large numbers of spectators lined the banks of the river as the whale was enticed back into San Francisco Bay and then under the Golden Gate Bridge.
Much to the surprise of marine biologists, Humphrey the Whale again entered San Francisco Bay in 1990 and became beached on a mudflat to the north of Sierra Point south of Candlestick Park, originally home to Major League Baseball's San Francisco Giants. Humphrey was pulled from the mudflat by a large cargo net from the Marine Mammal Center and a U.S. Coast Guard boat and again coaxed back to the open ocean by underwater acoustic speakers playing whale feeding sounds.
J-Mac Ferry provides free passage across Steamboat Slough
Return trip north through the River Delta
If you rode down Highway 160 south like I did and don’t want to take the same road home, switch to the other side of the river. You can also ride Highway 84 back to Sacramento, but portions of it are dead straight through farmland and don’t have the same scenic allure as Highway 160 along the river. The opposite side of the river from Highway 160 is also not as well-maintained of a road surface as the county highway, which is better maintained.
This alternate parallel route to Highway 160 is worth mentioning for the return north if your route is an out and back like mine was while I lived in Midtown. Highway 84 is found on the west side of the Rio Vista Bridge and requires a short wait for a free ferry crossing across the deep water shipping channel. Caltrans operates two ferries in the Sacramento Delta Region, The Real McCoy II, and the J-Mack. Both ferries operate 24/7 and are free of charge. The ferry can carry 8 vehicles and runs every 20 minutes. Highway 84 then runs north parallel to the channel atop the levee for 3.5 miles, then follows the meandering contours of Miner Slough for another 6 miles to Miner Slough Bridge. Highway 84 then continues due north to West Sacramento becoming Jefferson Blvd as it enters the edge of the city.
North of Rio Vista, Highway 84 runs along the Deepwater Shipping Channel for 3.5 miles
Sacramento Deep Water Shipping Channel
The shipping channel was conceived in 1911 and studies were enacted in 1916 to come up with the feasibility of a deep-water channel to Sacramento from Suisun Bay. However, it wasn’t until 1922, the study was finally completed having been delayed by WWI. In 1924, the city of Houston, Texas was studied as an example of a deep water ocean port.
In 1946, the present-day Port of Sacramento was an alfalfa field. By 1949, work began despite delays, political fights with the city of Stockton which opposed the channel, and even the Korean War which halted construction. The channel was finally dredged through flat farmland by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from 1949 through 1960, providing access to the newly built Port of Sacramento in West Sacramento. After 52 years of study and debate, the first ocean-going ship arrived at the Port of Sacramento in 1963 after the dock facilities were completed. Ocean-going ships travel 79 nautical miles inland from the Pacific Ocean to reach the Port of Sacramento.
The Sacramento Deep Water Shipping Channel was built between 1949 to 1963 and provides a deep water port to Sacramento for ocean going vessels.
Today, The Port of Sacramento's cargo is mainly of the agricultural, industrial, and heavy equipment type, and the port specializes in bulk cargo. You'll also see smaller ships hauling rice, barley, wheat, almonds, and corn along with other local products such as lumber, cement, clay, and metals compared to the massive container ships in San Francisco that handle bulk consumer goods. Today, the port’s primary cargos are rice (exports) and cement (imports). The latest commercial tonnage of goods shipped through the harbor is 260,000 tons.
The channel was excavated to 30 feet deep and 200 feet wide, however, lack of foresight resulted in a channel much too small to allow the largest of modern ocean-going vessels to navigate the channel which requires a deeper channel of 35 feet. Lack of money, environmental arguments, and a rapidly growing city of West Sacramento around the port ensure it'll never be widened or deepened.
In 2010, the Port of Sacramento received a $30 million grant from the United States Department of Transportation to expand its facilities which currently spans 1100 acres. That same year, the Port of Sacramento also partnered with ports in Oakland and Stockton to begin handling containers. The large grant honed in on the idea that ships are a cheaper way to transport goods than via rail or trucking. The port used its grant money to expand the port’s ability to handle containers. The idea to dredge the canal 5-foot deeper won’t die anytime soon, it’s well known allowing larger ships by dredging would eliminate 24,585 trips by semi-truck along the Interstate 80 corridor, thereby having a significant long-term net-green saving on the transportation of goods.
On rare occasions that an ocean-going vessel is transiting to the Port of Sacramento at the same time as your ride, the ship appears out of place floating through the pool table flat farmland the channel was cut through. You can truly get the closest to the ocean-going ships headed through the deep water channel at the southern edge of the delta on Highway 84 where a 3.5-mile stretch of Highway 84 sits atop the levee along the deep water shipping channel. A similar deep water shipping channel was dredged in 1928 to Stockton and cut deep enough to handle large present-day ocean-going vessels.
Ocean-going vessel transiting the Sacramento Deep Water Shipping Channel to the Port of Sacramento, 79-miles inland from the Pacific Ocean
Ferries and Islands
On your return ride, riders likely prefer to stay along the levee roads. If so, turn off Highway 84 onto Highway 220 and continue due east across Ryer Island.
Ryer Island commemorates the former owner of the island, Dr. W.M. Ryer, a pioneer physician of Stockton who vaccinated some two thousand Indians in the San Joaquin Valley in the summer of 1852. The name dates as far back as navigational charts from the 1850s. Upon reaching the opposite side of Ryer Island at Steamboat Slough, there’s another free river crossing the river aboard the J-Mac Ferry onto Grand Island to then reach Ryde to rejoin Highway 160 along the levee.
These ‘islands’ are reclaimed agricultural land created when the levees were built along all the rivers and sloughs.
Basketball courts become water polo courts during spring runoff. Just kidding, I made that up.
By now, after spending a day on the river delta, you should have reversed your concept of what an island is. In the river delta, the islands are regions that are lower than the surface of the river. To reclaim peat bogs, swamps and land for agricultural use, farmers began to create levees along every small river and slough. It’s also worth noting that if you’re not paying attention to road names and lose your sense of direction, it’s possible to ride around the island on the levee roads in a complete circle and pop out right where you started. I have done this admittedly while wandering, and was surprised to realize I had ridden in a complete circle around the island. When you’ve no place to be and your goal is to get lost on the bike, the many islands of the Sacramento River Delta are a great place to do just that.
The Sacramento River Delta North of Sacramento
To ride on the levee along the Sacramento River north of Sacramento, exit on Garden Highway from Interstate 5 north of downtown Sacramento and head west. Road conditions vary from okay to atrocious. I suppose it's not too bad in a car, but I have rattled a few teeth loose in several of the older sections of the road along the river. Note that what was formerly a farmer's field, are now tract homes as far as the eye can see and the regions immediately north of downtown Sacramento all the way to Woodland are gradually being reclaimed into subdivisions. Garden Highway will loop north and then back to Interstate 5 continuing to Nicholas (at Highway 99)- south of Marysville. You'll be able to see the Arena and the Sacramento International Airport off to the east along the way. Garden Highway continues past Vernon to Nicholas. Road 117 & Road 22 run along the west side of the river. At Knights Landing, Cranmore Road rides up to Kirkville atop the levee.
If you don't like mega bumpy- stick to the southern stretch Sacramento to Antioch section of Highway 160.
Islands of the River Delta
Highway 160 - River Delta Photo Gallery
MORE INFO: Sacramento River Delta
RIDE IT on a PASHNIT TOUR
52 Miles - LENGTH
Maintained county highway - PAVEMENT
Lazy meandering along river levee - CURVES
Sacramento to Rio Vista to Antioch - CONNECTS
West Sacramento, Walnut Grove, Rio Vista- GAS
Numerous - LODGING
38°19′52″N 121°34′07″W - Courtland
38°14′37″N 121°30′44″W - Walnut Grove
38°9′50″N 121°41′45″W - Rio Vista
LISTED CONNECTING SIDEROADS: