The 16 Best Places to Go Kayaking in California

Sea Caves in the Channel Islands

Courtesy of Santa Barbara Adventure Company

Whether you’re a seasoned pro ready to shoot some rapids or a beginner who wants to get their feet wet in calmer waters, California has prime paddling spots for every skill level of kayaker. Take a guided tour, rent a rig, or B.Y.O.K. on the alpine lakes and brackish lagoons, along coastal cliffs, down raging rivers, or in urban waterways that made our list of the 16 best places in the Golden State to go kayaking.

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La Jolla

La Jolla kayaking with leopard sharks

Courtesy of Everyday California

La Jolla, San Diego, CA, USA

They don’t call it The Jewel of San Diego for nothing. La Jolla is quite possibly the state's best place to paddle out because it offers such a large variety of trip types and things to see. You can float by playful harbor seal and sea lion pods lounging on rocks or hunting in the kelp forest. There are 300-foot towering sea cliffs, dramatic sea caves, rocky reefs, secluded coves, and shallow sandy flats that attract harmless tiny-toothed leopard sharks in massive numbers from March to October. Plus, the weather rarely forces cancellations and the surf is typically gentle enough that young children aren’t barred from participating. Everyday California offers rentals as well as guided tours like a combo snorkel-and-kayak tour and a seasonal whale-watching trip (December to March). 

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Carlsbad Lagoon

Agua Hedionda Lagoon in Carlsbad

Raquel Lonas/Getty Images

Carlsbad, CA, USA

This beach town near San Diego features several lagoons bustling with a wide variety of birds, marine life, and vegetation including curious seals who swim in from the ocean and pop up like ninjas to say hi. The best lagoon to shove off from is the 400-acre Agua Hedionda Lagoon, which is technically three connected lagoons. California Watersports rents out all manners of aquatic recreation including kayaks, SUPs, and Aquacycles from their corner of the innermost section. You can also reserve a picnic spot on their sandy beach to make it an all-day affair. Pro tip: The wind often kicks up in the afternoon so book an a.m. slot unless you’re looking to feel the burn.

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Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands Kayaking

Courtesy of Santa Barbara Adventure Company

California, USA
Phone +1 805-658-5730

Channel Islands National Park encompasses five islands just off the Southern California coast and the crystal-clear waters and kelp forests that surround them, which incidentally are teaming with so many pinnipeds, cetaceans, bright orange Garibaldi (the state fish), giant black seabass, starfish, urchins, and spiny lobsters that the archipelago is sometimes referred to as the “Galapagos of America.” Santa Barbara Adventure Company, the official kayak concessionaire of CINP’s Scorpion Anchorage, offers multiple excursions of varying lengths and skill requirements to explore the rock formations, sea caves, and aqua coves. One is even a combo kayak and snorkel session. All start on Santa Cruz Island so you’ll need to catch an Island Packers ferry out of Ventura or Oxnard first. The company also runs trips in Santa Barbara Harbor and along the coast with beach push-offs.

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Elkhorn Slough & Monterey Bay

Elkhorn Slough

Courtesy of Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau

Elkhorn Slough, California, USA

Given that the world's gold standard aquarium is on the same caliber of bay, you're probably assuming you'll get up close and personal with wildlife while on the water here. You wouldn't be wrong almost 100 percent of the time, especially in Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Reserve, the remains of an ancient river valley in Moss Landing. Despite being well-trafficked by humans seemingly all day, every day, otters roll around in the gentle waters, sharks troll for dinner, and gigantic pelicans dive in unison. The main channel is 7 miles long with lots of smaller tributaries to take you further into the tidal flats and marsh. But be mindful of the time as some of the smaller channels dry up at low tide. Beach and dock launch available near Monterey Bay Kayaks. Kayak Connection has both sunset and starlight bioluminescence tour options. The Bay is also usually calm enough for beginners and thrills paddlers with kelp forests close-ups and a unique angle to view Cannery Row and the city.

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June Lake

June Lake kayaking

Courtesy of Mono County Tourism

June Lake, CA 93529, USA

The Mammoth Mountain communities in the Eastern Sierra Nevada range are known the world over for perfect powder and wintertime sports like skiing and snowboarding. However, there’s still plenty to do in the alpine region off Highway 395 and SR-158 after the snow melts including taking a kayak for a spin around June Lake. A mile long, a half-mile wide, and covering roughly 320 acres, the natural lake is one of the largest in the area and one of the most beautiful as it’s surrounded by jagged white-capped peaks much of the year. Cast a line from your kayak during fishing season and attempt a Sierra Grand Slam, which is landing a rainbow, brown, brook, and cutthroat trout in a single day. Rentals available through June Lake Marina

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Russian River

Jenner on the Russian River

Carrie Bell

Russian River, California, USA

Soak up NorCal nature on the Russian River, which runs through Sonoma County from Cloverdale to where it meets the ocean in Jenner. You can gain access to the water via seven regional parks along the way including Steelhead Beach, Guerneville River Park, and Monte Rio, though we're partial to starting in Jenner in hopes of seeing sea life like seal pups on top of other inland river residents like ospreys, turtles, and bald eagles. Plus, Jenner is a great weekend getaway in general with its laidback vibe, plant-based eateries, and minimally developed coastline. Watertreks EcoTours or Getaway Adventures can meet all your outdoorsy needs. On the other hand, if you stick further inland around Healdsburg, you could end the day with wine tasting. Paddling season is typically May through September.

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Pismo Beach

Kayaking in Pismo Beach

Courtesy of Central Coast Kayaks

Pismo Beach, CA, USA

Shove off from Shell Beach with Central Coast Kayaks to discover a dramatic coastal world only accessible from the water. It is made up of a series of arches, caves, rock gardens, kelp forests, and tide pools and inhabited by all manners of sea birds and marine dwellers like dolphins, seals, anemones, and crabs. The cave excursion can be strenuous and requires taking off through the surf zone. The naturalist option sticks closer to shore and is a little less demanding physically. You can practically set your watch by Pismo's afternoon wind so before-noon outings are recommended.

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Los Angeles River

LA River kayaking

Ted Soqui/Getty Images

Los Angeles River, California, USA

If you've seen "Grease," you've seen the L.A. River. The huge concrete ditch where the final car race goes down? Yep, that's part of it. In the 1930s, much of the waterway was covered in cement to curb flooding but the curvy geography and the high water table of the Elysian Valley required the sandy bottom to be left in place. That was enough for nature to take hold and in recent decades, Angelenos, the Clean Water Act, and conservation groups have further re-wilded, elongated, and cleaned up that stretch. Now L.A. River Kayak Safari offers a combo pedal-paddle tour through Frogtown that even includes shooting a small section of rapids.

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Mendocino's Big River

Seal playing in Big River

Courtesy of Stanford Inn's Catch A Canoe & Bicycles Too

Big River, Mendocino, CA 95460, USA

Just south of the quaint coastal village of Mendocino lies the 8-mile Big River Estuary, the second-longest tidal estuary in the state and part of the state park. Surrounded on both sides by a carpet of big green trees, the meandering waterway looks like something out of a "Twin Peaks" episode, especially when the moody coastal fog rolls in. Its driftwood piles, healthy fish population, and marshy wetlands encourage all types of winged creatures including great blue herons and cormorants and marine animals like river otters and harbor seals (pictured) to swim upstream from the Pacific, make dramatic landings, build nests, and play like nobody's watching. (Even though everyone most definitely is.) The pull of the tide is strong where the mouth meets the ocean and affects how hard of a row you're in for. Grab a kayak or a very stable locally made redwood outrigger from Catch A Canoe & Bicycles Too,

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Venice Canals

Venice Canals

Carrie Bell

Venice Canals, Los Angeles, CA, USA

The Venice Canals top most tourists' L.A. vacation bucket list, and they provide a pleasant stroll, Insta-worthy photos, and usually interesting people-watching. Seeing them, as well as the plethora of street art and architectural home styles they contain, from a kayak is an instant one-up on the average influencer. It doesn't take a lot of skill to navigate the watery aisles and the whole system can be glided around in an hour. The logistics are the hard part here as you must have your own gear. But if that's handled, park in the city lot at Venice Boulevard and Pacific Avenue and carry your gear to the free public loading dock between the residences and the lot on Venice. Be warned: The water can be a little green and janky.

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Salton Sea

Salton Sea

TripSavvy / Chris VR

Salton Sea, California, USA

One of the world’s largest inland seas—35 miles long by 20 miles wide with 130 miles of shoreline—is about 50 miles from Palm Springs and 235 feet below sea level. Created by accident by a tag team of recurrent flooding and damaged canals in the early 1900s, its shores are dotted with unique volcanic and geological features caused by a magma chamber beneath the sea. It’s a very important winter stop on the Pacific Flyway for migrating birds. More than 400 species drop in to the delight of birdwatchers between October and May, which luckily coincides with the best visiting weather. The camp store at the Salton Sea State Recreation Area rents kayaks on the northeastern end. Bonus for beginners: The sea’s salinity is high, so chances of sinking are slim and boats are more buoyant allowing you to go faster with less effort. Unfortunately, what's good for paddlers isn’t great for the environment. It lacks outlets so whatever agricultural runoff gets in doesn’t flow out, and this being a desert, there isn’t a lot of rainfall to add new water. The rising salinity levels threaten fish and birds’ ability to inhabit the sea. 

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Morro Bay

Morro Bay

Mason Trinca/Visit California

Morro Bay, CA, USA

Splash around in the bay at the base of a colossal Central Coast icon, Morro Rock, which was formed 23 million years ago from the plugs of extinct volcanos. If a geological oddity isn't enough to convince you to take a tour with Central Coast Outdoors, consider that a 4-mile-long spit separates Morro Bay from the turbulent Pacific and creates a calm flatwater adventure suitable for small children seven and up and nervous nellies. Naturalist guides will give a lowdown on any animals you encounter in the marina and protected estuary. The wildlife gets far more active at dusk, as the humans go home for the night making the sunset tour a real crowdpleaser. CCO guides can also be hired for private runs, which can be catered with dinner in the dunes or catered to your interests like birdwatching. Dogs can join their owners on those tour types as well.

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Big Bear Lake

Big Bear Lake

Courtesy of Visit Big Bear

Big Bear Lake, CA, USA

Roughly 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles in the middle of the San Bernardino National Forest at an altitude between 6,750 feet above sea level sits another postcard-perfect alpine lake. At 7 miles long, half a mile wide, and 72 feet at its deepest, it's not the Golden State’s biggest or deepest lake by a long shot. But there are 22 miles of gorgeous tree-dotted shoreline and rocky isolated inlets to explore (many of which aren’t accessible by motorized boats) and decent weather about two-thirds of the year. If you bring your own gear, it must be inspected before launch (to avoid introducing non-native flora and fauna). You can also rent kayaks at three marinas—Pleasure Point, Big Bear Marina, and Holloway's at outfitters like Paddles and Pedals

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Kayaking in Trinidad, Calif.

Courtesy of Visit California

Trinidad, CA 95570, USA

This magical seaside hamlet is a great starting point for kayaking adventures in Humboldt County. Things are colder, wetter, moodier, and more bohemian in these parts and that’s just the way we like it. The beaches are impeccably clean, the driftwood game strong, the people overly friendly, and the land lush on the Redwood Coast. Kayak Trinidad organizes a wide range of tours, lessons, and rentals in open ocean water (Trinidad Bay) or in the brackish lagoons (Big Lagoon and Stone Lagoon) routinely visited by Roosevelt elk and herons. Scared of sea swell? Choose to navigate a lagoon as the ecosystems change from beach to wetland to conifer forest instead.

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American River in Sacramento

Kayaking on the American River near Folsom

George Rose/Getty Images

American River, California, USA

California's capital sits at the confluence of two sizable rivers, the American and the Sacramento. While both provide opportunities for recreation, kayaking is more common on the lower stretch of the American near Folsom Dam. You wouldn't know it runs smack through an urban center for 21 miles as it's buffered by a parkway of cottonwoods, oaks, and willows on both sides. Wildflowers pop in spring. Fog eerily rises off the water in chilly morning hours, shrouding the rocky outcroppings. Sacramento gets triple-digit heat in the summer so capsizing is less worrisome. In fact, you might even roll over into the refreshing drink on purpose. Popular sites to launch include Sailor Bar and the beach downstream of the Sunrise Avenue bridge. The River Rat offers a shuttle service to return you to your car upstream for a fee. Lake Natoma is also a fantastic choice as its 500 acres are off-limits water skiers and large sailboats.

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Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe kayaking

Rachid Dahnoun / Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority

About two-thirds of the giant deep blue lake (the largest alpine lake in North America) falls within California's borders, and within those boundaries, there are several awesome spots to kayak including Emerald Bay (where you can row out to Fannette Island and the tea house), Baldwin Beach, Timber Cove Marina, and Pope Beach, many of which are serviced by Kayak Tahoe. All will give you an eyeful of forested shoreline, sculptural boulder piles, sandy beaches, and formidable mountains. And don't worry about falling in or accidentally gulping a few mouthfuls as Tahoe's water is almost as pure as what's bottled and sitting on grocery store shelves.

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The 16 Best Places to Go Kayaking in California