Along the Carquinez Strait
Touring Port Costa and Crockett
Neil Wiley

In September, fifty new friends and I took a bus tour sponsored by the Campbell and Los Gatos-Saratoga Recreation departments to explore two towns on the Carquinez Strait. All I knew about the strait was that it was once the home of a mothballed fleet, and that it featured a long bridge on the way to Highway 80 and Sacramento.

As the bus drove down the winding, narrow McEwen Road through rolling hills into a dark canyon, I thought we were lost. (Later, the bus driver said that if he had known how difficult it was, he wouldn’t have attempted the drive.) As the passengers rolled around like peas in a tin can, I agreed with his assessment.

When we got to the bottom, we discovered a tiny town called Port Costa. It houses just 190 people in 99 households (2010 census). It is no longer a port, because the ferry crossing was replaced by a railroad bridge in 1930. Once the busiest wheat-shipping port in the United States, Port Costa is now a tourist destination for hikers, bikers, and tours like ours. Port Costa is not exactly a ghost town. It survives on history, quaintness, and a unique funky quality that is curiously appealing.

The first stop on our walking tour was a large building identified as Port Costa School, but we saw neither a school nor children. Built in 1911, there hasn’t been a class since 1963. It is now a community center that could house the entire population of Port Costa, or be rented for other meetings.
Our friendly and informative town docent led us down the middle of the main street. Occasionally, the group parted to give way to a slow-moving car.

The houses were well maintained, partly due to the town painter who volunteers low-cost but professional painting. Our docent had a story for almost every house. She gave us the history of the building and the people who owned it.

We saw the unassuming home of the co-mayor who shares his job with a child. We passed a house designed by the famous architect Julia Morgan. (She also designed a somewhat larger house, Hearst Castle.)

I noticed a small roadside box that once might have carried a phone, but now carries used books. It was labeled as the “Little Free Library."

Farther down the road was the town’s barbershop, now converted to a hat store. A few more stops took us to the Theatre of Dreams, the home for the shadow boxes and vintage-paper crafts of local artist Wendy Addison.

Then we visited the infamous Burlington Hotel. Once a brothel, a biker crash pad, and the site for all-night rave parties, the Burlington has been gentrified, but only to a degree. The rooms and lobby have been renovated, but the floors are creaky, and the whole place looks a bit funky. You can stay there overnight, but be warned. Your bathroom may be on a different floor. Staying there could be interesting.

If that is too much, you could still have dinner on weekends at the Bull Valley Roadhouse. Our docent said the food and cocktails were good.
(Watch for the golden bull.)

Unfortunately, our tour was on a weekday, so we drove to nearby Crockett for lunch at The Dead Fish. In spite of the name or because of it, I had beef.

While in Crockett, we visited two little museums. One was your traditional local history museum with pictures of every high-school student who ever matriculated in Crockett, old toys, pictures of local sportsmen and dignitaries, and stuff that I might find in my own garage.

Clayton Bailey’s museum was my favorite. The Bailey Art Museum is filled with so-called robots. They are funny, weird, and show lots of misplaced imagination. You’ll also see psychedelic posters, peculiar creatures, and strange machines. All show a warped but wonderful sense of humor.

If your interest is more on the nature side, you’ll find lots of interesting parks and trails in this area. Port Costa is surrounded by rolling hills managed by East Bay Regional Park District. The Carquinez Strait Regional Shoreline has many trails between Crockett and the hillside overlooking Martinez. From atop Franklin Ridge Loop Trail and the California Riding and Hiking Trail, you can see the ridges of nearby Briones and Las Trampas regional parks.

Yes, it’s a long drive to Carquinez Strait, but if you want to see something different and sometimes strange, it’s worth the trip.