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11 Best Kayaking In California Locations – Sun, Sea and Kayaks

Mark Armstrong
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The Golden State has an impressive 840 miles of coastline that’s rich in diversity. But there are also many inland lakes and rivers to explore, with mountains and forests and backdrops.

To give you some inspiration, we’ve put together this guide to some of the best places to go kayaking in California.

Two female kayakers at Lake Tahoe California on a sunny dayPin

11 of the Best Places To Kayak In California

1: Channel Islands

Kayakers at Channel Islands sea cavePin
Courtesy: David Wilson on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Located a few miles off the coast of Ventura and Santa Barbara, the California Channel Islands can be one of the most scenic and peaceful places to paddle in California. The Channel Islands National Park is made up of five islands: Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, Anacapa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara.

One of the highlights is the Painted Cave which is a huge sea cave around 100-feet wide at the entrance and stretches about a quarter of a mile into Santa Cruz Island.

The Channel Islands offers remote locations and unique habitats, home to lots of wildlife. Some of the plants and animal species in the Channel Islands are found nowhere else. It can also be a great area to spot whales, with 27 species to be found, including the largest mammal on Earth – the blue whale.

You can rent kayaks at Channel Islands Harbor on the mainland or take a guided tour. You can also arrange kayak transportation through charter boats.

More on kayaking the Channel Islands

How to get there:

Chartered boats run from Ventura Harbor on the mainland. There’s also the option of taking a small plane from Camarillo Airport to get to Santa Rosa Island or San Miguel Island – these are the only islands accessible by authorized plane.

2: Petaluma River

The Petaluma River is a tidal slough that flows into San Pablo Bay, north of San Francisco. It can be a peaceful paddle on flatwater through wetland marshes. The marsh areas are home to a variety of wildlife species, particularly birds. So it can be a good place to view birds of prey, herons, egrets, and other species.

The river is part of the San Francisco Bay Area Water Trail, which offers paddling access to various rivers and islands with a mixture of urban and wild scenery.

A good spot to launch your kayak is at the Turning Basin in downtown Petaluma. There is a large floating dock called Cavanagh Landing that’s available for public use, with parking nearby at the River Plaza Shopping Center. You can take-out at the Black Point Boat Launch near where the river meets San Pablo Bay.

You can rent a kayak a few blocks away from the Turning Basin launch, at Clavey Paddlesports. Car-topping accessories are included with the rental.

How to get there:

To reach Petaluma, head north on the US-101 out of San Francisco and exit at Washington Street, Petaluma. From Sacramento, take the I-80 West to the US-37 before following the US-101 North to Petaluma.

3: Monterey Bay

Two kayakers at Monterey Bay on a clear sunny dayPin
Courtesy: Presidio of Monterey on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Monterey Bay is known for its beautiful scenery, rugged coastline, and more importantly its abundance of marine life. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary protects the waters off the coast of Northern California from Marin to Cambia, including 276 miles of shoreline.

Kayaking can be one of the best ways to experience the marine life of Monterey Bay. You can paddle through kelp forests and view sea otters, sea lions, and seals.

There are several places where you can launch your kayak to explore the bay, including at Lovers Point Park in Pacific Grove, where you can also rent kayaks or take a guided tour.

Another good spot to launch is at Moss Landing Harbor, which can be convenient if you want to paddle into Elkhorn Slough for even more wildlife viewing opportunities.

How to get there:

Monterey and Santa Cruz sit at opposite ends of Monterey Bay and can both be accessed from the Pacific Coast Highway (SR-1). There are kayak rentals and launch sites in both areas and in between.

4: Lake Sonoma

Lake Sonoma is located around an hour and a half north of San Francisco, in the heart of California’s world-renowned wine country. This 2,700-acre lake is surrounded by beautiful rolling hills and vineyards.

Another great feature of this lake is that there are over 100 boat-in camping sites, making it an ideal place for a weekend or multi-day kayaking trip.

There are three boat launches on the lake. One is at Yorty Creek, which is a car-top launch only. Another is the marina, where you can also rent kayaks. And the third is the Public Boat Launch near the Rockpile Road bridge.

The lake can also be an ideal spot for kayak fishing and is considered to be one of California’s top largemouth bass fishing lakes.

How to get there:

From San Francisco and the south, take the US-101 north to Healdsburg and then follow Dry Creek Road to Lake Sonoma Recreation Area. From Sacramento, take the I-80 west to CA-37 West before joining with the US-101 north to Healdsburg.

5: Lake Almanor

Kayaking at Lake Almanor with seagullsPin
Courtesy: NAParish on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Lake Almanor is located within the scenic Lassen National Forest and is one of California’s largest man-made lakes. The lake is around a three-hour drive north of Sacramento and is surrounded by mountains and forests.

This can be a peaceful place to paddle with flatwater that can be ideal for all skills levels. It can also be a good place to spot wildlife, including bald eagles and ospreys.

There are several places where you can launch your kayak, including at Canyon Dam Boat Launch and Lake Almanor Boat Launch.

If you’re looking to rent a kayak, there are a few places to choose from, including at North Shore Campground, where you can also launch your own kayak.

How to get there:

From Sacramento, head north on the CA-99 and CA-70 until you reach the CA-32 East at Chico. The CA-32 eventually joins the CA-36 which will take you to Lake Almanor.

6: Lake Tahoe

Two female kayakers at Lake Tahoe on a sunny dayPin
Courtesy: m01229 on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Lake Tahoe is North America’s largest alpine lake and is around a two-hour drive east of Sacramento. This beautiful clear water lake sits on the California/Nevada border and features stunning mountain and forest backdrops in every direction.

There is a water trail that stretches the 72 miles around the lake if you’re looking to spend a few days paddling. You can also paddle sections of the trail, which can be more manageable for beginners.

Lake Tahoe gets pretty busy in the summer months, so you’ll often find you’re sharing the water with commercial tour boats and recreational yaks.

One good spot to launch is Camp Richardson, on the southern shores of the lake. You can launch from the marina or the beach and you can rent kayaks from the marina. This can be a great launching spot to explore Emerald Bay, one of Lake Tahoe’s most photographed locations.

How to get there:

From Sacramento, take the US-50 East to Tahoe Valley where you can continue to South Lake Tahoe or follow Emerald Bay Road toward Camp Richardson and Emerald Bay.

7: Marina Del Rey

Marina Del Rey can be a great place to kayak in the Los Angeles area, especially if you’re looking for flatwater and coastal breezes. With the sheltered waters of the harbor, this can be an ideal place for beginners. These calm waters are also a draw for paddle boarders.

You can launch your kayak for free at Marina Beach (Mother’s Beach), at the northwestern end of the harbor. The beach also has kayak rentals, located next to the Jamaica Bay Inn.

Paddling around the marina will generally take about two hours. Remember, this is North America’s largest man-made small-craft harbor and there are lots of basins to check out. The harbor is home to thousands of boats and a lot of sea lions.

How to get there:

Marina Del Rey can be reached via SR-1 from both north and south. From San Diego in the south and Bakersfield in the north, Marina Del Rey can be reached via the I-5 and the I-405.

8: La Jolla

Female kayaker on a green kayak at La Jolla Underwater ParkPin
Courtesy: Wendy Owens on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

La Jolla can be one of San Diego’s best places to kayak. The waters and sea bed off this coast form the La Jolla Underwater Park, which is a protected area of ocean and an ecological reserve that covers around 6,000 acres.

The water is often clear, which can give you a unique view of this underwater world from your kayak. This also means it can be a great place for snorkeling. And you might even spot a leopard shark.

It’s not just marine animals that you can see in La Jolla. There are seven sea caves, of which six are only accessible by kayak. You can even paddle into one of them.

There are several places to rent a kayak in La Jolla or take a guided tour at Bike and Kayak Tours of La Jolla, on Avenida De La Playa, just up from La Jolla Shores Beach.

How to get there:

La Jolla can be reached via the I-5 from north or south, with La Jolla Parkway taking you into La Jolla. There’s parking at La Jolla Shores.

9: Klamath River

Kayakers paddling at Klamath River Pin
Courtesy: Leslie Veen on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

If paddling through the wilderness on mild rapids is your thing, the Klamath River can be the ideal trip. This is a National Wild and Scenic River that flows through the remote Klamath National Forest near the Oregon border.

There are 27 river access points along the 85-mile stretch through the forest, making it ideal for short or long trips. If you have your own vessel you can launch at Sarah Totten Campground. Several authorized outfitters offer rafting trips and inflatable kayak tours, with some starting near Happy Camp.

Our guide to inflatable kayaks

The Klamath River features Class II and III whitewater, but several tours are suitable for families and beginners.

How to get there:

Take the I-5 north to Yreka. Follow the SR-96 west to Happy Camp and other locations alongside the river.

10: Newport Beach

Newport Beach can be easily reached from the Los Angeles area and is roughly 90 miles north of San Diego. This can be a great spot to paddle if you want views of luxury yachts, million-dollar homes, and man-made islands. You’ll also find many places to launch.

There’s a kayak trail that loops around Newport Harbor. This flatwater trail is just under seven miles long and can be great for new paddlers.

Newport Back Bay can offer a more relaxed paddling experience, with lots of opportunities for wildlife viewing. The upper estuary has no motorized boats, so it can be more peaceful.

There are several places to rent kayaks, including at Newport Aquatic Center, which also offers guided tours of the Back Bay.

How to get there:

The Pacific Coast Highway runs through Newport Beach, making it easy to reach from north or south.

11: Catalina Island

Kayakers paddling at Catalina Island beachPin
Courtesy: Eric Chan on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Catalina Island is located just over 20 miles off the California coast and can be easily reached by a fast ferry from Long Beach and Newport Beach. With a laid-back way of life, the island can be a great place to slow down your pace and explore the beauty of the many quiet coves and wild landscapes.

There are two towns on the island, Avalon and Two Harbors, with kayak rentals available in both. One place to rent kayaks in Avalon is Descanso Beach Ocean Sports.

Kayak camping can be a great way to explore the island, with several boat-in campsites as well as less primitive campgrounds.

How to get there:

Ferries generally depart daily from Newport Beach, San Pedro, Long Beach, and Dana Point on the mainland. Kayaks are not permitted on the ferries but you can choose to ship them by freight barge (Avalon Freight Services).

Kayak Laws To Consider

US Coast GuardPin

There are a few kayak laws and regulations you should adhere to when paddling in California.

  • A PFD is required for each person on a kayak. It should be in good condition, a suitable size for the wearer, and Coast Guard-approved.
  • Children under 13 must wear a Coast Guard-approved PFD at all times while underway.
  • Registration is not required for kayaks or canoes unless you have a motor attached.
  • Boating Under the Influence (BUI) is illegal and applies if your blood alcohol level is 0.08% or higher.

Read our full guide on California kayak and boating laws

Kayak Rentals And Tours Around California

Final Words

California can be a fantastic place for year-round kayaking. With such diverse landscapes, there is something to suit just about everyone, from mountains and forests to beaches and wild rivers.

Remember to grab your PFD before you jump in your kayak and carry plenty of water to stay hydrated, particularly in Southern California and remote wilderness areas.

Tell us about your favorite Cali kayaking spot and share this guide to help out your buddies.

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