Central California is a paddler’s dream. Just think of the sort of paddling you’d like to do, and chances are you can find it within a short drive of the state’s capital. Sacramento is blessed with plentiful kayaking opportunities and plenty of outfitters if you’re looking to rent a boat for the day.
For other kayaking destinations nearby check out our post on kayaking in California here.
1. Lake Natoma, CA
Lake Natoma is the premier flatwater kayaking destination for the Sacramento area. Why? There are other lakes and places to go, but Natoma has quite a few things going for it. This five-mile-long lake straddles the shores of the City of Folsom. It’s easy to get to and quiet–you won’t find motorboats or jet skis buzzing around. As a matter of fact, there is a five mph speed limit on the entire lake. This contrast to Folsom makes Natoma the go-to for paddlesports or small-boat sailors.
There are four areas where you can launch at Lake Natoma. All of them have a $10 entrance fee, and three are state parks. Negro Bar, Willow Creek, and Nimbus Dam are managed by the state, while the Sacramento State Aquatic Center is an enormous rental outfitter. If you’re heading there, you want to check their calendar to make sure no major rowing events are occurring. You can also rent boats from California Canoe and Kayak.
Lake Natoma is a beautiful place for wildlife viewing. You’re likely to see all sorts of birdlife, from herons and egrets to merganser ducks, kingfishers, and eagles. Everywhere you look on the lake, you’ll find little islands and coves where you can pause and relax. Many areas are bordered by bluffs, which keep the waters calm even on windy days.
2. The South Fork of the American River, CA
The American River flows through the heart of Sacramento, and everywhere it flows, kayakers are lured in. At various points, the river features rapids ranging from blood-pumping Class IIIs to death-defying Class Vs.
Each fork of the river – the North, Middle, and South – offers something different. If you’re a beginner looking for a taste of whitewater excitement, the South Fork is the place to go. For beginners, start at the three-mile stretch from Coloma to Lotus, which is all Class II.
On the South Fork, you’ll find a wide variety of conditions. The Chili Bar Rapids, in particular, draw expert whitewater paddlers from the world over. Here you’ll find sets of Class IIIs with great names like Meatgrinder and Troublemaker.
Below Chili Bar Rapids is the area known as the Gorge Run. This area features Class II and III rapids with more great names like Satan’s Cesspool and Deadman’s Drop.
The South Fork can get busy, especially on nice weekends. There are fees for parking at the put-in, and you’ll see busloads of rafters everywhere. For rentals check out The River Store here.
3. Jenkinson Lake, CA
With its gin-clear water and sandy beaches, Jenkinson Lake is well known in the Sacramento area. Swimming, fishing, hiking, biking, and, of course, paddling are popular here. The site is also known as Sly Park Lake.
Jenkinson is located in the El Dorado National Forest, near Placerville. In addition to gorgeous views and lovely kayaking, the lake features over nine miles of scenic trails to stretch your legs after your paddle.
If you don’t have your own kayak pay a visit to Current Adventures Kayak Trips who do rentals.
4. Slab Creek Reservoir, CA
If you want to get away from it all, head out to the Slab Creek Reservoir. No motorized vessels are allowed, making it the perfect spot for quiet and scenic flatwater kayaking in the Sacramento area.
The reservoir is located on the South Fork of the American River. A large dam blocks off the reservoir, making it a quiet and peaceful place to visit in an area otherwise known for roiling whitewater.
The reservoir is quiet and remote. Plus, it’s not as popular as many other sites in the area, which means you have a high likelihood of having the place to yourself. It’s also gorgeous, with tall canyon walls, old-growth pine forests, and wonderfully clear water. Lots of picturesque waterfalls add to the appeal.
There are no rental outfitters that serve the reservoir, which is a little less than an hour from downtown and in the Sierra mountains.
5. Lower American River, CA
Below the dams at Nimbus and Folsom, the American River is mellower than up in the mountains. Here, the river flows towards the Pacific and is famous for flatwater kayaking. You’ll see gorgeous wetlands, wildlife, and Sacramento from its prettiest angle.
You might want to check out a few places: Paradise Beach, River Bend Park, or the many other access points located along the river. All through town, the river is bordered by parks like these and access points. Even though the town was built on the shores of the river, the town has given the river space and room to be wild and scenic.
All portions of the American River below the Nimbus Dam are protected. The American River Parkway provides access points to the river for rafting or kayaking. And the best part? It’s right in town so there’s no travel required. For rentals give Mr. Kayak Adventures a call.
6. Folsom Lake, CA
With 75 miles of shoreline, Folsom Lake is a well-known destination in the area. Fed by the American River at the foothills of the Sierra mountains, Folsom is surrounded by beautiful scenery. In addition to fantastic paddling, Folsom Lake boasts 10 miles of paved bike trails and more than 60 miles of mixed-use trails for hiking or horseback riding.
Folsom is an extremely popular destination for many locals. But it’s also large enough that everyone can be spread out. Expect to see powerboaters and jetskis, especially on busy weekends. The shores can be lined with picnickers. The largest crowds come from April through September. The lake and surrounding area make up the Folsom Lake State Recreation Area. If you’re able to visit during a quiet time, Folsom is a lovely retreat. If the crowds and powerboaters are off-putting, consider Lake Natoma as an alternative.
The area has three popular campgrounds should you want to stay awhile. The campgrounds and swim areas make great put-ins. However, if you’re looking for rentals, you’ll want to head to Lake Natoma instead.
7. The North Fork of the American River, CA
If you’re a serious whitewater enthusiast, you probably already know about the legendary thrills of the North Fork. Here you’ll find some of the best Class IV and V rapids in the country. Prime season runs in April and May when flows reach 1,000 to 1,400 cubic feet per second, as released by the Oxbow Dam.
The area to put-in for this serious stretch is at the Iowa Hill Bridge, with the take-out at Ponderosa Bridge. The average drop for the area is 36 feet per mile.
The North Fork is no joke and is only for expert paddlers. Be sure to scout the rapids and in advance and get advice from the local outfitters. This is a professional area, so you aren’t likely to find rental gear up here.
8. Sacramento River, CA
The Sacramento is California’s largest river, and it flows an impressive 375 miles from Mount Shasta in the north. It winds its way through the Central Valley and empties into San Francisco Bay.
This river is everything that the American River is not. Where the American is for adrenaline junkies, the Sacramento is slower and leisurely, with nothing more than an occasional quick-moving riffle. The most “whitewater” you’ll find on the Sacramento is a mellow Class II.
The shores are lined with wildlife, and you’re likely to spot deer, beavers, otters, and maybe even foxes, bobcats, or coyotes. The river also features spectacular fishing, especially if you’re after trout. Additionally, Sacramento’s salmon fishery is a $100 million industry for the area. It’s estimated that more than 70 percent of the salmon caught off of the California coast every year spawned in the Sacramento River. And, of course, there are birds of every description.
One of the best sections of the long river is located from Redding to Balls Ferry. This 33-mile stretch has the best wildlife sighting opportunities and fishing. Again, check out Mr. Kayak Adventures to rent a kayak for here.
9. Grizzly Waters, CA
If you want to start heading out to sea, the best place to start is at Grizzly Waters. Located in the Suisun City waterfront district, the area is conveniently located about halfway between the Bay and Sacramento, right along Interstate 80. It’s part of the Bay Area Water Trail.
The wildlife area borders Grizzly Bay and Suisun Bay, both of which are big, open stretches of water. You can stick near shore, or you can set off on a more extended adventure. Separating the two bays is Ryer Island.
Fishing and wildlife sighting opportunities abound in this beautiful area. There are several boat ramps where you can launch your vessels to explore the area and Grizzly Waters Kayaking offer rentals.
10. Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, CA
Stone Lakes is an urban refuge for birds and wildlife traveling through the Central Valley. It’s only 10 miles from downtown Sacramento.
The refuge offers a three-hour guided tour for wildlife viewing. The tour is free, and no reservations are necessary. You have to bring your own vessel and join the group to participate. The purpose is for wildlife viewing, so you cannot bring pets or fishing gear.
Summing Up Kayaking Near Sacramento
Sacramento has a little secret – it’s a paddler’s paradise. There’s literally something for everyone, from flat water scenic touring to the wickedest Class V rapids in the country.
So what are you waiting for? Grab your paddle and go!