When you think of California, what comes to mind first: The giant redwood groves of NorCal? Death Valley’s sand dunes? The famed yuccas of Joshua Tree? The mountains of the Sierra Nevada? Or the oceanside cliffs that shoulder the Pacific Coast Highway?
California has more plants, animals and ecosystems than can be found anywhere else, making it the most biodiverse state in America. This diversity also results in some of the country’s best kayaking. From half-day pleasure paddles in ocean bays frequented by humpbacks, to week-long camping adventures on fast-flowing whitewater rivers, California has it all.
Best kayaking in California
With around 1,350 km of coastline, over 300,000 km of rivers and 4,900 lakes and reservoirs, you’re never far from a solid put-in spot in the Golden State.
Here are 11 places where you can find some of the best kayaking in California:
- Sonoma County
- Mendocino County
- San Francisco Bay
- Point Reyes
- The bioluminescent waters of Tomales Bay
- San Diego’s La Jolla neighborhood
- Monterey Bay
- The Central Coast, including Santa Barbara
- Los Angeles River
- The Channel Islands
- California’s interior, including June Lake, Big Bear Lake and along the South Fork of the American River
Read on to learn about our favorite California kayak rentals and tours.
Best kayaking in Northern California
Kayak in Sonoma County
Sonoma’s mild Mediterranean climate makes for some spectacular wines, as well as some incredible kayaking. It’s the jumping-off for adventures on the Russian River (this waterway flows through vineyards and redwood forests), Lake Sonoma (a reservoir nestled in the foothills), Spring Lake (ideal for swimming, fishing and picnicking), and, of course, along the coast.
Sonoma County kayak rentals & tours
Smart Tours offers guided tours of the Sonoma Coast as does Sonomads.
Meanwhile Russian River Adventures and Burke’s Canoe Trips will fully outfit you for an adventure down the Russian River, including coordinating return shuttles.
Kayak at Mendocino County
Although it’s only a three-hour drive north of San Francisco, Mendocino County is part of California’s “Lost Coast.” North of Fort Bragg lies a section of coastline that’s wild, all-natural, undeveloped and inaccessible from major highways, which all adds up to some epic and uncrowded paddling. Thinking about kayak camping in Northern California? This might be the place to do it.
Mendocino is also where you’ll find the Noyo River—a calm stretch of water frequented by sea lions, harbor seals and river otters.
Mendocino kayak rentals & tours
Based in Fort Bragg, Liquid Fusion Kayaking is well-placed to offer rentals and tours of the Noyo River, as well as sea kayaking excursions.
Kayak in San Francisco
San Francisco Bay is probably best known for the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, but it’s also a family-friendly kayaking destination. Highlights include seal and sea lion sightings, as well as opportunities to admire Sausalito’s eclectic houseboat community from the water.
San Francisco kayak rentals & tours
In addition to offering sit-on-top and sea kayak rentals, SeaTrek runs half-day, full-day, full starlight and overnight tours of the Bay Area, including underneath the Golden Gate Bridge.
Sausalito is also home to Environmental Traveling Companions, an organization dedicated to making the outdoors accessible. It offers regular scheduled guided trips for people with disabilities, including a San Francisco Bay tour and bioluminescence paddle on Tomales Bay. Check its website for upcoming trips.
Kayak at Point Reyes & Tomales Bay
Tomales Bay offers one of the most epic kayak trips in Northern California, even though it’s not particularly long or difficult. That’s because it’s one of the most reliable spots in Cali to find bioluminescent waters.
Although phytoplankton—the organisms responsible for turning waves neon blue—have been reported everywhere from Monterey to San Diego, their presence and intensity depends on environmental factors like swell and wind conditions. That means bioluminescence isn’t guaranteed anywhere on any given night.
Tomales Bay is the possible exception to this rule. With its own colony of phytoplankton, the narrow inlet is more sheltered than other spots, making for an ethereal experience nearly any night of the year.
Point Reyes kayak rentals & tours
Tomales Bay Expeditions and Blue Waters Kayaking both offer rentals and guided nighttime bioluminescence tours on Tomales Bay. Blue Waters Kayaking also offers a private overnight camping adventure (for groups of six or more). Visiting on either side of the new moon in summer and fall is recommended.
Kayak at Monterey Bay
A renowned whale-watching destination, the waters of Monterey Bay are frequented by humpbacks (several hundred spend their feeding season here from April until November), orcas, grey whales, blue whales and dolphins.
For this reason, sea kayaking tours in the Marine Sanctuary might get all the glory, but the area is also where you’ll find the kid-friendly Elkhorn Slough Estuary, a tidal estuary with diverse marine life and a chance to see bioluminescence after-dark.
Monterey Bay kayak rentals & tours
The family-owned Monterey Bay Kayaks are Certified Wildlife Stewards who guide trips through Monterey Bay and the Elkhorn Slough Estuary. Bioluminescence tours must be booked 48 hours in advance and are only offered during the new moon. Kayak fishing trips for halibut, lingcod and rockfish in the bay are also on offer.
For rentals, contact Adventures by the Sea, which hires out single and tandem kayaks.
Best kayaking in Southern California
Kayak at La Jolla Beach
La Jolla is only 15 minutes from San Diego’s downtown, but it might as well be a world away. Known for its crystal-clear waters, the area is home to the La Jolla Underwater Park—a 6,000-acre area of protected ocean featuring submarine canyons, kelp beds, sand flats and even artificial reefs designed to attract marine life.
This is your chance to see leopard sharks, shovelnose guitarfish and sea lions, as well as to explore the area’s seven sea caves—including one that you can paddle into. Simply put, La Jolla offers some of the best kayaking in Northern California.
La Jolla kayak rentals & tours
As its name implies, La Jolla Sea Cave Kayaks specializes in tours of the area’s sea caves. In addition to the sea caves, Bike and Kayak Tours and La Jolla Kayak both offer a kayaking and snorkeling combo through the Underwater Park. All three operators offer kayak rentals.
Kayak at Central Coast
Stretching from Monterey Bay in the north to the Ventura region in the south, the Central Coast is home to wine regions, beach and college towns, and miles of stunning coastline.
Its adventure epicenter is arguably Santa Barbara, which is one of the entry points to the Channel Islands. But just north of the city is an untapped treasure; the Gaviota Coast is the largest stretch of undeveloped coastline remaining in Southern California.
Central Coast kayak rentals & tours
Based out of Pismo Beach (halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco), Central Coast Kayaks does it all: rentals, sea cave tours, Morro Bay wildlife tours (perfect for families) and guided kayak fishing.
The Santa Barbara Adventure Company offers guided adventures around the Santa Barbara coastline, as well as to the nearby Channel Islands. For kayak rentals in Santa Barbara, contact Calcoast Adventures. In addition to guided tours of the waterfront, it hires out single and tandem models.
Kayak in Channel Islands
When it comes to kayaking in Southern California, there’s no destination more iconic than the Channel Islands, which are only accessible by plane or boat. The archipelago has eight islands, five of which belong to Channel Islands National Park. Two of the most popular islands for paddling are Anacapa and Santa Cruz, owing to their large sea caves (the latter’s vibrantly colored Painted Cave is the fourth largest sea cave in the world). Meanwhile, Catalina Island, while outside of the national park boundaries, is where you might spot bat rays, leopard sharks, flying fish or garibaldis.
Tour operators depart for the Channel Islands from Santa Barbara and Ventura, but Oxnard (just south of Ventura) is the closest access point.
Channel Islands kayak rentals & tours
Channel Islands Adventure Company has a range of kayaking excursions, including to the perennially popular Painted Cave and a kayak-snorkel combo tour.
Channel Islands Kayak Center leads a tour that explores the unique history of the islands. Kayak rentals are also available from both the center and from Hopper Boat Rentals in Oxnard.
For those with less experience, Wild Blue Adventures takes guests by boat to prime kayaking locations, from which they explore by tandem kayak.
Finally, for Catalina Island rentals and tours, reach out to Catalina Island Expeditions.
Kayak in Los Angeles
Yes, the name “Los Angeles” might conjure up images of a streaming flow of traffic on a freeway, but that’s not the only thing that flows through the city—so does the Los Angeles River. An entirely unexpected take on a familiar destination, it’s where urban life and wildlife meet.
Los Angeles kayak rentals & tours
LA River Kayak Safari’s three-hour tour combines a bike ride with a leisurely downstream paddle that makes for a great afternoon out.
If the LA River isn’t your thing, OEX Sunset Beach specializes in rentals for exploring the canals of Huntington Harbor, and can also fully outfit keen kayakers for the 35-km crossing to Catalina Island.
Best kayaking in California’s interior
While this article has mainly covered sea kayaking, we can’t dismiss the thousands of lakes, rivers and reservoirs that can be found statewide, making the interior one of the best places to kayak in California.
Below we’ve highlighted a few tours and rentals, but whether you’re looking for family-friendly lakes or more challenging whitewater, there’s no shortage of outfitters and tour operators state-wide.
California interior kayak rentals & tours
Known for its whitewater instruction, California Watersport Collective is a community-building organization that runs kayaking classes, custom trips, coaching and regular clinics, including on the American River. Current Adventures Kayak School, based in Lotus, are the experts on the American River; in addition to workshops and organizing multi-day trips, they also offer kayak rentals.
Outside San Bernardino is Big Bear Lake, where Paddles and Pedals rents single, tandem and even triple kayaks.
Nestled in the mountains near Yosemite National Park, the subalpine June Lake might be one of the most pristine places to paddle in Cali. Mammoth Kayaks and Paddleboards (open seasonally) will set you up with a rental.
California kayak laws
According to California State Parks’ Division of Boating at Waterways, the regulations surrounding canoes, kayaks and other manually propelled vessels less than 16 feet are as follows. Vessels must carry one wearable Coast Guard-approved life jacket of a type and size appropriate for the conditions and the boat activity being engaged in for each person on board. Life jackets must be readily accessible and fit the intended wearer properly. Children under 13 must wear a life jacket at all times.
All vessels are required to display navigation lights between sunset and sunrise and during times of restricted visibility. A vessel less than 39 feet, 4 inches is not required to carry a whistle or bell, but must be able to provide some other means of making an efficient sound signal.
If you’re wondering, “Can I get a DUI on a kayak in California since it’s a vessel?” the answer is a resounding yes. You can get a BUI (boating under the influence) for being impaired or having a blood alcohol level of 0.08 percent or more.
Finally, kayaking along the Californian coast means you might encounter otters, sea lions, whales, dolphins and other marine mammals. As you’re in a vessel, you’re required to keep your distance—about 100 meters is recommended.
Do great white sharks attack kayaks in California?
Cases of great white sharks attacking kayakers—particularly those kayak fishing—regularly make headlines. But given the hundreds of thousands of people who kayak off the coast of California every year, these incidents are an exception to the rule; the last fatality of a kayaker by shark was in 1989. Here’s how to avoid shark encounters.
When to kayak in California
California offers excellent year-round kayaking conditions. However, if you want to see a particular type of marine wildlife (such as humpback whales) check with the tour operators to determine when they’ll be in the area.
Similarly, bioluminescence is most visible on the darkest nights, close to the new moon.
Finally, keep in mind that some operators—particularly in California’s interior—may only operate on a seasonal summer basis.
What to wear kayaking in California
Although California’s weather is beautiful—expect slightly rainy winters and dry summers—you’ll still want to follow the best principles for what to wear kayaking. Layer-up, avoid cotton fabrics, wear sun protection (including polarized sunglasses so you can see all the fish, sharks and underwater life) and dress for the temperature of the water, not the air.
Whether you choose to paddle inland or coastal waters in California, you won’t be disappointed. | Feature photo: Courtesy Mono County Tourism