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Campground review: Brannan Island, California

February 4, 2022

In his latest campground review, Courthouse News’ western bureau chief visits his favorite campground in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta region.

Chris Marshall

By Chris Marshall

Western Bureau Chief for Courthouse News Service since 2014. San Francisco Federal Reporter and Northern California Bureau Chief from 2006 to 2014. Passionate about photography, camping and history.

(CN) — The late afternoon sun shining through tree branches highlighted parts of the camp host’s scraggly white beard as he chuckled, sighed, and said the campground manager at California’s Brannan Island State Recreation Area had something bad to say about every camper.

This is not a negative review. Quite the opposite, for the most part.

With more than 140 sites in five separate camping areas spread out over 329 acres, a 10-lane boat launch ramp, a three-mile paved walking trail and easy access to historic Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta towns, Brannan Island is a fine campground. With a few changes — some hopefully in the works — it could be a grand one.

Most campers with RVs, travel trailers or fifth wheels opt for a spot with water and electric hookups in the Olympic Loop. The mostly level sites are a short walk to the launch, a fish-cleaning station and a well-appointed bathroom. Maneuvering bigger rigs into the tight spots can be a challenge, and they are clumped together. Think somewhere between a typical RV park and campground.

For those who can get by without hookups — and tent campers who prefer easy access to their cars — the best bet is the Willow or Cottonwood loops. The former is open during the winter and early spring on a first come, first served basis and by reservation the rest of the year while the latter is open only during the summer by reservation.

Most of the sites in the dry campgrounds are bigger than those in the Olympic area. Some rival the size of the entire loop when the grassy areas beyond the firepit are included.

The best spots back up to Three Mile Slough. Narrow beaten paths lead to the water where campers can throw in a lure or enjoy a sunset.

Many of the sites on the opposite side are expansive too. Though they lack water access and lie closer to the camp road and the highway beyond the park, they are a short walk to the bucolic hiking trail.

The afternoon sun paints shadows on the green floor of a campground at California's Brannan Island State Recreation Area in this January 2022 photo. (Chris Marshall/Courthouse News)

Cool and quiet during the winter, the park can be bustling during scorching summer weekends. Mild weather awaits during the shoulder seasons, but dog owners beware, by April weeds sprout with sharp burs that stick to even short fur.

Located on a spit of land between the Sacramento River and Three Mile Slough, Brannan Island is a favorite of anglers. Though some fish from the water’s edge, the real action is on a boat.

But with ever dwindling fish populations in the delta caused by water diversions, encroaching seawater, agricultural runoff and climate change, many visitors can — like us — spend days navigating the rivers, tributaries and sloughs and catch little more than the occasional discarded boot or tree limb.

For those more concerned with exploring the delta than catching fish, the ride remains enjoyable. During one excursion we took advantage of a small dock to pop into a scruffy local watering hole for a beer and a bite.

Like the delta fish, the fortunes of Brannan Island are faded. A long-shuttered, silted up marina is home to the occasional bird and rodent but no boats. The amphitheater area is in a state of decayed disuse, with chipped paint, overgrown weeds and exposed wires. Some of the water spigots in the Willow Campground had been knocked over and left that way. Others were out of service. The thick dark brown liquid that emerged from the supposedly in-service spigot closest to my campsite during a recent trip over the New Year Holiday didn’t pass the sight test.

Then there is the management.

When trying to register, the manager’s wife tried to insist a spot we chose was reserved though it was empty with no tags and the campground is first come, first served this time of year. She relented only when the camp host declared the site abandoned and said he would let us stay.

Mt. Diablo dominates the distant landscape in this January 2022 photo taken from the shore of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in California. (Chris Marshall/Courthouse News)

The host later chided friends who parked their cars in one of the more than 50 empty sites while they unpacked, though they did so to avoid blocking the road. He told another friend he could park at my site, but only if he backed his car in, and that the next day I’d have to park my truck in front of my camper in case we had to evacuate. I’d parked next to the trailer because the truck didn’t fit in front. The next day he told us, no, I had to move my truck to the overflow lot since my friend planned on sleeping in his car. To be fair, only two vehicles are allowed in a spot, and a travel trailer counts as a vehicle. But a lot of campgrounds let it slide if the vehicles fit in the paved area, as ours did. And so much for evacuation preparedness.

After each admonition the host — later accompanied by his wife — stuck around to chat like old friends.

During one of their visits my friend remarked that during our many visits over the years we’d always enjoyed the campground, but we'd never experienced such zealous enforcement of the rules.

The man said they would be less rigid were it up to them, but the manager for American Land & Leisure — which contracts with the state to manage the park — “rode” them if they weren’t.

Thankfully American Land & Leisure’s contract ends in March.

The camp hosts are also leaving, for a campground in the Sierra foothills where they’ll be in charge.

A new company that bid to take over the park plans on fixing the marina, adding a campground store to an underused building and otherwise sprucing up the joint, they said.

Here’s to hoping the new managers do, and to keeping in mind camping is supposed to be fun and relaxing for staff and visitors.

I look forward to returning to my favorite campground in the delta, but probably not until next fall. During the coming hot summer months you’ll find me on the cool coast.

The sun sets over the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in this January 2022 photo. (Chris Marshall/Courthouse News)

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