Located northeast of the San Francisco Bay, this 1,000-mile network of inland waterways—the major drainage from the snow-capped Sierra Nevada to the east to San Francisco Bay along the coast—is a dreamland for boaters, birders, and outdoor enthusiasts. Levees protect tiny towns like Locke, a once thriving Chinese settlement and now a fascinating glimpse at a bygone era.
Rent a powerboat at Paradise Point Marina for a close-up view of the vibrant network of channels. To extend your stay, and take back a signature memory of the region, consider renting a deluxe houseboat to anchor overnight—or longer. Quiet mornings and evenings can be particularly magical in the Delta.
In fall, keep the binoculars handy: the Delta’s quiet waters provide major habitat for migratory birds, with some 200 species, including swans and sandhill cranes, sited at places like Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, near Elk Grove. Fisherman also flock to the Delta to try their luck at snagging impressive fish in these brackish waters; a big prize is the California a green sturgeon—a creature that looks like an ancient river monster, living a century and reaching up to 7 feet long. The Delta’s winding waterways also make for outstanding water-skiing and house boating in summer, with popular marinas in Stockton, Lodi, and Isleton.
Next, it’s a 2½-hour drive southeast through farmland and vineyards on Highway 99 to Fresno, the Central Valley's largest city. (For a worthwhile detour, exit at Madera to visit low-key wineries along the Madera Wine Trail.)