Kayaking in California is one of the most exciting ways to admire the scenic waters of the Golden State, absorbing the landscape and wildlife.
Whether you’re a novice kayaker or a seasoned pro, California’s waterways offer a wide array of kayaking opportunities that appeal to every interest and skill level. From the rugged coastline to calm rivers and lakes, there’s no shortage of places to launch your kayak and soak up the state’s treasures in nature.
Embark on a guided tour or self-led adventure to discover the natural riches of the state by kayak and make memories along the way. From sunny San Diego to northern California’s city of San Francisco, each region offers a unique set of experiences on the water.
Enjoy the Golden State from the water with the 10 best places to go kayaking in California.
Sausalito, near San Francisco
Discover some of San Francisco’s most famous landmarks from the water with a paddle around various locations in Sausalito, a city known for its arts scene, its views dominated by the vermillion sweep of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Rentals and guided trips are available, making this an easy place to go kayaking, with several spots from which to launch your boat. Drop your kayak in at Turney Street boat ramp, Dunphy Park, or Schoonmaker Beach, to name a few.
Once you’re on your way, marvel at the Golden Gate Bridge as you kayak through the channel, suited for all skill levels. Float underneath the famous bridge and admire the landmark that California is famous for.
Or attempt something more advanced around the nearby Angel Island or the Richardson Bay houseboat area where the water isn’t as calm as in the protected bay.
Adventurous types can paddle the open water out to Angel Island State Park, a popular spot for picnicking, hiking, beach lounging, and absorbing the sprawling views.
Due to the extra challenge this presents, it’s advised to do this thrilling paddle with a guide to lead the way. The seven-mile round trip paired with island exploration makes for a solid workout and day well spent in the outdoors.
La Jolla Cove, San Diego
La Jolla’s ruggedly beautiful coastline and ample wildlife make it a top destination for kayaking in California. The ocean waters around the cove are an ecological reserve and part of the 6,000-acre Underwater Park.
This makes it a prime spot for viewing marine life such as sea lions, leopard sharks, dolphins, and fish including the state’s famous Garibaldi, all within one protected region. It’s a unique destination where you can experience four different marine environments in one place; open ocean, rocky coast, kelp forest, and sandy beach.
Although you can go out on your own with a kayak to explore the cove, a guided tour will offer the added benefit of historical and environmental insights about the waters of La Jolla, as well as the rich ecosystem and kelp forests swaying in the current below the surface.
Adventurers will enjoy kayaking around the sea caves of La Jolla as well, which, depending on the tides and conditions, can be ventured into, carefully.
On a tour, you can learn how the ancient caves were carved through the years by the powerful ocean. Kayaking in La Jolla Cove is one of the must-do things when visiting San Diego.
Home to a national marine sanctuary, Monterey Bay is a popular destination for aquatic activities. Known as the “Serengeti of the Sea”, Monterey Bay is host to kelp forests and canyons along the coast where marine life thrives.
Kayakers will have the chance to spot sea lions, otters, leopard sharks, loons, shorebirds, and much more as they paddle through the scenic bay.
The bay’s sheltered waters make kayaking a breeze for anyone, from beginner to advanced, with usually calm conditions catering to every skill level. It’s an ideal spot to enjoy a peaceful paddling trip while keeping an eye out for the rich and diverse wildlife; you may even view curious dolphins coming to check out your kayak and swimming alongside you.
Kayak rentals and guided tours or lessons are available in Monterey Bay, in addition to a wide array of water-based activities. Sailing, surfing, and stand-up paddleboarding are just some of the options in case you’re interested in doing a combination of activities.
Venture through the picturesque harbor, viewing the famous Cannery Row section of Monterey; this is a great spot to take photos. Whether you’re interested in a quick paddle to see the sights, or a longer venture that will test your endurance and stretches towards Lover’s Point, while giving you the opportunity to view more wildlife, Monterey Bay has you covered.
Lover’s Cove Marine Preserve, Catalina Island
Known for its rich, well-preserved and protected marine region, the Channel Islands archipelago is a fantastic choice for kayakers. Located on the southeastern coast of Catalina Island, Lover’s Cove is ideal for paddling in the pristine waters, along the rugged shoreline.
View abundant marine life as you glide through the clear, calm waters. Keep an eye out for California’s state fish, the vibrant orange Garibaldi, as well as starfish, seabass, sea urchins, spiny lobsters, and more; there are dozens of species that like to hide in the lush kelp forest and undersea gardens.
Admire the rocky coves, cliffs, and sea birds soaring above. The western gull, eagles, and snowy plovers are known to frequent the area. For a longer venture during your day in Catalina Island, take the two-hour round trip paddle out to Frog Rock, where you can jump out and enjoy a swim before paddling back under the California sunshine.
Half Moon Bay, San Francisco
Take a sea kayaking trip along the lengthy shoreline of Half Moon Bay in San Francisco. Rentals are readily available for this popular paddling spot.
Choose your own speed from a leisurely glide around Pillar Point Harbor or amp it up a little with a more challenging paddle past the breakwater jetty, and into the open waters of the Pacific Ocean.
While exploring the bay, you might get to see harbor seals sunning themselves and hear seabirds above, adding to the ambiance. The calm water inside the bay is the perfect place for beginners to learn kayaking, or just for relishing in a peaceful paddle.
It takes approximately an hour to kayak around Half Moon Bay, and afterward, a picnic lunch at the adjacent Maverick’s Beach is a fantastic way to round out the day.
Santa Barbara Harbor
Hop in a kayak and explore Santa Barbara’s scenic harbor, dubbed the “American Riviera”. Paddle under Stearns Wharf, an icon of the waterfront district and out to the one-mile buoy, all the while enjoying the sights and sounds of the harbor.
Keep an eye out for sea lions, harbor seals, and dolphins, as they often frequent these waters. Admire the giant yachts that bob in the harbor and take pictures of the historic pier, which dates back to 1872.
With a backdrop of the rocky shoreline and Santa Ynez Mountains in the distance, kayaking in Santa Barbara is nothing short of breathtaking. This unique way of seeing the city is sure to be a memorable day on your California vacation.
Read: One Day in Santa Barbara
Elkhorn Slough Estuarine Reserve, Monterey
Wildlife enthusiasts will enjoy kayaking at the Elkhorn Slough Estuarine Reserve in Monterey, a seven-mile-long main channel with numerous tributaries. California’s second-largest estuary, the reserve is host to a rich variety of wildlife.
Kayak rentals are available nearby for an easy launch into the Elkhorn Reserve. Starting at Moss Landing, the easy paddling will bring you through the calm waters of the ancient river valley.
You’ll have the chance to spot over 125 species of wildlife including sea otters, pelicans, sharks, and harbor seals.
More than 100 types of birds such as herons, sandpipers, egrets, and cormorants also inhabit this area as it’s a big stopover point during fall migration. Venturing down one of the offshoot tributaries will have you near tidal flats with even more aquatic life to discover such as anemones and crustaceans.
Make sure to check the tide charts before your kayaking adventure though, as going against the tide requires a lot more effort, and the water levels in the marshy areas will be very low.
Los Angeles River
For a unique Los Angeles experience, consider kayaking the Los Angeles River. There’s an ongoing rehabilitation effort for this waterway which is now protected under the Clean Water Act, after being covered in cement during the 1930s to stop flooding.
The area has been re-wilded in the last 10 to 20 years and the sandy bottom is now host to fish and aquatic plants.
During good weather, kayaking is a safe and enjoyable activity along a designated stretch of the Los Angeles River. A guided paddle on a Kayak Safari meanders down the river, through the Elysian Valley, and even includes a section of small rapids.
This is an interesting way to mix nature with an urban setting, and is undoubtedly one of the most unique places to go kayaking in California.
The Russian River, near San Francisco
Less than two hours from San Francisco will land you in Sonoma County’s lengthy Russian River, a favorite spot for kayaking in northern California. Various parks that fringe the river offer river access for launching a kayak, with the main points being between the seaside town of Jenner and the country town of Cloverdale.
Starting in Jenner will present the opportunity to view wildlife such as sea lions, otters, ospreys, cormorants, turtles, and possibly even spot majestic bald eagles soaring above, right at the mouth of the river. Since this kayaking route is out-and-back, you can tailor the distance to your liking and ability.
Stop at the secluded Goat Rock Beach for a rest and soak up the sun with a lunch picnic in its tranquil setting. Kayaking the Russian River is a relaxing way to explore northern California’s nature and shouldn’t be missed.
Lake Hodges Reservoir, near San Diego
Just 40 minutes north of San Diego, Lake Hodges Reservoir provides a gorgeous backdrop for kayaking in the freshwater of southern California. With kayak rentals available and several boat launches around the lake, it’s also very accessible for boaters and kayakers.
The lake itself was created in the early 1900s when a dam was built on San Dieguito Creek. Tucked in the mountains, this lake has it all—tiny islands, rocky cliffs, calm waters, trees, and mangroves along its almost 27 miles of shoreline.
With three forks in the lake, there’s plenty to explore to fill up an entire afternoon, too. Meander through the lush mangrove forest on the east fork, taking your time to absorb the scenery.
Enjoy this amazing, off-the-beaten-path kayaking experience in southern California, the perfect way to spend the day outdoors near San Diego.
Explore the Golden State from the water with a paddle in some of the region’s most scenic spots, filled with diverse wildlife. A luxury cruise is a fantastic way to experience some of the best places to go kayaking in California.
From calm rivers to more advanced coastal caves, one thing is for sure—kayaking in California is a truly unique experience. Browse our luxury California cruises and book your next adventure today.