When you think of California waters you’ll probably picture images of clear skies over sandy beaches and surfers tackling a big wave. But kayakers know that California boasts some of the most magnificent places in the world to paddle away stress and take in nature’s sights and smells. In fact, California is a kayaker’s haven, offering beginner and advanced kayakers multiple locations to build and test their skills while inspiring them with waters unrivaled anywhere else.
In this post, we’ve put together a list of locations that we think are some of the best places to kayak in California to help give you some ideas for your next kayaking trip.
1. Mokelumne River, CA
With its heavy saturation of tannins from nearby trees, the water at Lodi Lake on the Mokelumne River has a brownish tinge, but the water, itself, is crystal clear in the shallows and clean and rippling even in the deeper parts. The ripples stem from a variety of dips in the riverbed and many larger boulders deposited around the banks, and the result is one of remote beauty any beginning or advanced kayaker will love.
The best part for kayakers is that both Lodi Lake and Mokelumne River are situated in the city limits, giving everyone easy access to a fun time on the water for a weekend day trip or a longer multi-day excursion.
2. La Jolla, CA
For those paddlers that like the challenge of kayaking at sea, La Jolla offers pristine waters that mirror the sky and amazing ocean-carved caves that provide a kayaking experience like few others. Along the shore, the rough terrain and sandstone canyons can be breathtaking sights that require you to stop paddling for a second and just stare. Additionally, sunset tours are available if you want to get a front-row seat for a nightly celestial show just north of San Diego.
Kayaking at sea however, is not for beginners as the waves and current can be difficult to deal with if you don’t have the necessary skills and experience. Make sure you go with someone who knows what they’re doing and also have all the safety equipment you’ll need should you get into trouble.
3. Los Angeles River, CA
Whether you bring your own kayak or rent one on a guided tour, the Los Angeles River offers an urban kayaking experience that varies from a remote feel to a feeling you are kayaking through the city’s back roads.
In the remote areas, you enjoy trees and the occasional rapid. In the urban areas, you navigate underpasses and remote bridges. This is one of the best experiences for beginners and families as the river is busy, making it a safe place to take a spill and get an immediate helping hand.
4. Scott River, CA
If you are looking for an adrenaline rush, this river delivers all of the twists, spins, and complex rapids you could hope for. An exciting 13.8-mile run, Scott River is as thrilling as any whitewater experience for anyone up to the challenge.
One particularly popular route is from Indian Scotty Campground. Launching from here will mean you’ll embark on several miles of class-IV – V rapids that will test even the most seasoned kayakers. If you decide to put your kayaking skills to the test, you should be sure to visit Scott River during its season, which spans the spring and early summer.
5. Channel Islands, CA
The Channel Islands in California represent something of a challenge as you need to reach them by boat. They line the ocean just west of Oxnard, but once you are there, you just might be in kayaking heaven. The waters roll in and out of Channel Islands National Park amid rugged stone outcroppings that can reach heights of 200 to 300 feet. Natural stone arches are numerous as are a variety of scenic landmarks, such as lighthouses, beaches, and ancient buildings.
The islands extend 160 miles along the Pacific Ocean, so although there are many calm inlets for beginners, it is a place that is best enjoyed by experienced kayakers due to the dangers of kayaking at sea.
6. June Lake, CA
The beautiful June Lake is nestled among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which offer a post-card ready kayaking experience for beginners, families, or anyone who loves being out on the water.
The water is calm, and one of the lake’s bucket lists, so to speak, involves paddling out into the middle of the lake for the best view of the surrounding mountains. Of course, paddling along the shores and exploring the inlets and coves will result in you getting up close to local birds, such as mallards and the Aleutian Cackling Goose.
Although most kayaking experiences are best enjoyed during the summer months, winter kayaking on June Lake offers a view of the snow-capped mountains that make you hope you brought your cellphone because this is the absolute best backdrop for a selfie.
7. North Fork of the Smith River, CA
Best experienced in February or March, the North Fork of the Smith River delivers a whitewater experience that you will not soon forget. You can start your day just south of the Oregon border, in northern California, and experience the remote and beautiful surroundings coupled with the crisp, emerald waters. Once you reach Redwall Gorge, approximately four miles down the river, you will hit several class-three and class-four rapids. Often referred to as the Avenue of the Waterfalls, you will undoubtedly enjoy the dozens of waterfalls as you paddle down river, including one that you can actually paddle under.
Additionally, the many side creeks hold hidden natural wonders ripe for exploring, such as the rare carnivorous plant, the Darlington California, that feast on insects and spiders.
8. Topaz Lake, CA
On a windless day, kayaking on Topaz Lake is like skimming softly across liquid glass. It is a reservoir lake situated on the border of California and Nevada, which means if you paddle northward, you can lunch in Nevada. After a day exploring, you can paddle southward and enjoy a picnic dinner in California.
The desert hills line its shores, and although it is a remote lake, it is popular among boaters and anglers. If you do kayak into the Nevada side, you are required to purchase a Nevada AIS decal, which indicates the boat might harbor aquatic invasive species.
9. Lake Tahoe, CA
If you’ve not been to Lake Tahoe then you’re really missing out. It’s one of the most popular lakes in all of the USA. But one particular spot that we’d recommend is Emerald Bay, a spacious nook along Lake Tahoe, and it is one of the most pristine, unspoiled places to kayak in the entire United States.
Instead of blue waters, Emerald Bay lives up to its name by providing kayakers clear views through waters that shimmer between being emerald in color to aquamarine. The water is clear enough that you can see 10 to 20 feet straight down in places and the banks are steep, rocky, and lined with evergreens. Within the water near the shore, boulders protrude upward, giving beginning or experienced kayakers a place to stop, relax, and take more than a few photos.
10. The North Fork American River, CA
The North Fork American River is an 88 mile long river that is the longest branch of the American River. It flows down from the Sierra Nevada mountains until it joins the Folsom Lake near Sacramento.
One particularly beautiful spot for kayaking however is Clementine Lake, just above the Clementine Dam. This lake offers sandy shores reminiscent of the ocean. Its smooth waters make for soothing kayaking, and if you have mastered the art of getting in and out of your kayak while on the water, you can enjoy a swim.
The scenery offers forests of fir trees, and there are a variety of piers extending out into the water that allow kayakers an easy way to dock and disembark. That said, many banks are gradual and shallow, allowing you to simply glide up to the bank and step out of your kayak. Whether you enjoy gliding out over open water or paddling under the overhanging underbrush and root systems that line a good portion of the vertical banks, you will enjoy a safe, fun excursion even if you are new to kayaking.
Summing Up Kayaking In California
The great thing about kayaking in California is that it offers top-tier sights for beginners on lakes and lots for more experienced kayakers who prefer the ocean or thrills of whitewater. Around some of the more popular locations, you can go it alone, or you can sign up for a guided tour if a group experience is something you or your family might enjoy. We hope our quick list of places to go kayaking in California serves as inspiration for your next trip!