10 Best Places to Kayak in California


California is home to some very challenging and exciting rapids that will surely delight any whitewater kayaker. But aside from raging rivers, there is also a myriad of flatwater paddling routes available for the not-so-adventurous paddler. From lakes and reservoirs to calm coastal waters and more, the Golden State is one place that rightfully belongs on any kayaker’s paddling bucket list. If you are planning to go kayaking in California any time soon, be sure to include any (or all) of the following paddling destinations in your itinerary.

1. Lake Sonoma

Lake-SonomaForty-five minutes north of Santa Rosa lies one of the most scenic kayaking destinations in California: Lake Sonoma. Nestled in the panoramic foothills of Sonoma County, this lake offers kayakers a lovely view of the area’s shorelines and coves enveloped by 8,000-acre oak woodland. The lake’s main arms also provide several scenic inlets for paddlers to explore.

Aside from a relaxing paddle, Lake Sonoma also offers exceptional fishing opportunities for kayak anglers. The lake is populated by crappies, smallmouth bass, and largemouth bass, all of which reside in the submerged trees underneath the lake’s cool waters. So remember to bring your kayak fishing gear along and who knows you may just bag one of those 10-plus-pound largemouth bass living in the lake.

Keep in mind that Lake Sonoma is also a favorite spot for jet skiing, windsurfing, and sailing. On a typically warm day, it is normal to find jet skis and motorized boats whizzing across the lake’s surface. However, there are secluded regions of the lake where paddlers can enjoy the peace while kayaking, fishing, or swimming.

2. Channel Islands

The Channel Islands is composed of a chain of five islands namely Santa Cruz, Anacapa, Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara, and San Miguel. Located on the southern coast of California, this remote national park is simply one of the best places to go kayaking in the Golden State. Kayakers will enjoy paddling and exploring the various sea caves found in the area, including the world-famous Painted Cave, a 100-foot wide sea cave that is considered to be one of the largest in the world.

Aside from being a kayaker’s paradise, the Channel Islands is also considered as one of the best snorkeling spots in California. The Islands of Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Anacapa are laden with rocky reefs and kelp forests which serve as homes to various aquatic creatures.

Besides, the Channel Islands also offer an abundance of fishing opportunities for kayak anglers. A wide array of fish is available in the area including salmon, white rockfish, yellowtail perch, and more. There are also tuna, halibut, and great sea bass thriving in the waters.

Keep in mind that it can get pretty busy and crowded here especially at the weekends. The harbor has nine full-service marinas that provide berths for over 2,000 boats. As such, be careful of large motorized powerboats while paddling to avoid any untoward incidents while in the water.

3. Lake Sabrina

Although Lake Sabrina is more popularly known for outstanding fishing, this enchanting little lake has grown to be a well-loved kayaking spot for many paddlers living near and around California. Located in the southwest of the city of Bishop, Lake Sabrina boasts of clear, mirror-like waters that reflect the mountain range and juniper trees surrounding it, making it one of the most Instagrammable kayaking destinations in California.

As mentioned earlier, this charming lake is a favorite spot for many kayak anglers. There is an abundance of rainbow trout, Alper trout, and brown trout swimming in the lake’s depths. Whether you plan to fish near the intake at the south end, by the dam at the north end, or right in the middle of the lake, you are bound to catch a fish or two.

Aside from kayaking and fishing, there’s also a host of other activities which you and your family or friends will enjoy such as Paddleboarding, for instance, which is slowly becoming more and more popular in the area. Also, there are trailheads available for some excellent day hikes into the John Muir Wilderness and Eastern Sierra Nevada. Picnicking by the lakeside is also a favorite activity here.

4. June Lake

June Lake is smaller than most other lakes in California, but this doesn’t mean that it is any less beautiful. Nestled in an exceptionally scenic surrounding of high alpines and massive mountain peaks, the cold waters of this lake offers excellent kayaking and angling for novice paddlers and anglers.

Aside from paddling and fishing, June Lake offers a myriad of recreational activities fit for the whole family. There are beaches with shallow bottoms perfect for swimming. There are also trails for hiking and horseback riding. And if you’re planning to stay overnight, there are available camping grounds in the northeastern shoreline overlooking the lake.

Kayak anglers will be delighted at the abundance of fishing opportunities in the area. Various species of trout including rainbow trout, Alper trout, cutthroat trout, and many more can be fished out of the lake. Some anglers say that the north end of the lake is the best spot to catch some trophy-size trout, so you may want to check out that section of the lake if you get the chance.

5. Monterey Bay

With its thriving marine wildlife and panoramic coastal scenery, Monterey Bay is considered by many as one of the best places to kayak in California. If you’re ready to take on the open waters with your kayak, then this is one kayaking destination you wouldn’t want to miss.

Two hours away from San Francisco and the Bay Area, Monterey Bay offers paddlers an exciting experience of viewing the various wildlife found in the area. Pelicans and seagulls are usually seen flying above or resting on the shorelines. Some sea lions are also present.

If you’re up for some kayak fishing, Monterey Bay is the perfect spot for you. The open waters present a wide array of fish available for the able sea kayak angler. Depending on the season, anglers have the opportunity to bag salmon, lingcod, white seabass, and other fish species. If you’re lucky, you may even catch a giant squid or two.

If you don’t want to go too far out into the sea, then you can paddle close to the harbor. Certain sections of the bay are closed-off to motorized boats. However, be mindful of sailboats when paddling at the entrance around the jetty. Be sure that you make yourself visible to them to avoid any untoward incidents and collisions.

6. Fallen Leaf Lake

One of the most scenic kayaking destinations in California can be found in El Dorado County. The Fallen Leaf Lake with its clear, dark blue waters is surrounded by towering mountains with tall pines that come right down to the shorelines.

With waters reaching depths of 400 feet, the lake is home to varieties of trout like rainbow, brown, and mackinaw. If you’re planning to fish here, you can bring your rod and reel. You can buy baits, tackles, and other supplies from the store and a marina at the lake.

Other recreational activities can also be enjoyed at the lake and its surrounding areas. You can go swimming, windsurfing, jet-skiing, and water skiing. If you get tired of all the paddling and water activities, you can go hiking or horseback riding in the lovely trails around the lake.

7. Mono Lake

An immense inland sea surrounded by the high desert, Mono Lake is both a spectacular and mystical kayaking destination nestled in Mono County, California. Its hauntingly barren but beautiful landscape and the prevailing stillness in the area make it a perfect spot for kayakers who are looking for a quiet place to paddle.

Whether by kayak or canoe, an excursion in the salty waters of Mono Lake rewards paddlers with breathtaking views all around. There are the majestic Sierra Nevada Mountains with their rapidly descending slopes and alpine peaks. Then you have Legit and Paoha, the cold and desolate islands rising from the clear waters of the lake. Not to be forgotten of course are the famous tufa rock formations, the cement-like calcium-carbonate spires, and towers lining the shores of Mono Lake.

If you’re thinking about kayaking in Mono Lake, it is advised that you do so during the early morning. Because of its proximity to the mountains, wind conditions in the lake can turn harsh during the afternoons and stir up the water’s surface. There are signs posted around the lake to warn paddlers of hazardous wind conditions; be sure to read and follow them.

8. Elkhorn Slough

The Elkhorn Slough is a shallow lake system and is the tidal arm of Monterey Bay. The slough branches out to an assortment of small creeks and side channels that provide opportunities for exploration. The main channel of the slough winds seven miles inland and turns to the north just as it reaches the Elkhorn Slough National Reserve.

Unfortunately, boating with inflatable boats or kayaking in the reserve itself is not allowed, although you can go hiking there. Just note that you cannot bring your dog along as they may disturb the nesting birds and other wildlife in the area. In addition to dogs, bikes are also not allowed. Still, the meandering hiking trails of oak woodlands and mudflats offer an excellent way to stretch your legs after hours of paddling.

Elkhorn Slough is also home to sea otters and harbor seals. It is common for these marine creatures to pop up right next to your boat while paddling. Don’t be surprised if an otter suddenly decides to climb up onto your kayak’s deck since these creatures are naturally inquisitive.

Before you go paddling in Elkhorn Slough, you’ll want to check the wind and tide conditions. During an outgoing tide, you may observe the water level receding in a matter of minutes and you may find yourself and your kayak suddenly stuck in sticky mud.

9. Topaz Lake

Topaz-LakeThe quaint and charming appeal of Topaz Lake in Mono County, California is where you should go if you’re looking for picturesque landscapes and a pleasant paddling experience. Diverting the water from West Walker River turned what was once a small natural lake into a massive reservoir with plenty of turquoise waters bordered by the panoramic sage-covered Sierra Mountains.

Kayak fishing is a popular pastime in this area, with anglers coming from all over to take their share of the large amounts of rainbow, brown, and Lahontan trout present in the lake. The recently introduced largemouth and smallmouth bass, as well as bullhead catfish, are also thriving.

With breathtaking landscapes and clear waters, Topaz Lake has something for everyone. From paddling to fishing or hiking and camping, Topaz Lake is an ultimate getaway destination.

10. Petaluma River

The Petaluma River, a tidal slough that empties into the San Pablo Bay, is arguably one of the best kayaking destinations in the state of California. Paddling the mosaic of waterways and the lower sections of the river will reward you with access to a world filled with scenic landscapes and an abundance of opportunities for wildlife viewing and birdwatching.

Venturing 12 miles down the lower sections of the river will lead you to Petaluma Marsh, a 5,000-acre marshland surrounded by 7,000 acres of reclaimed wetlands. Paddling further to the south of the march connects you to the Napa-Sonoma Marsh Wildlife Area and 50,000 acres of tidal wetlands that serve as home to the various species of birds and wildlife in that area.

Flocks of migratory birds arrive at this area during the months of fall and winter, but many other bird species can be observed here throughout the year. Egrets, herons, and coots are numerous, as well as different species of ducks, ibis, and curlew. It is also pretty common to see red-tailed hawks and prairie falcons soaring above or perched on trees. Wildlife sightings are just as common. Paddlers have reported sightings of deer and foxes in the area, as well as small critters like raccoons and jackrabbits.

So if you’re looking for a quiet and relaxing paddle with lots of wildlife viewing and birdwatching, be sure to include Petaluma River in your kayaking itinerary. Whether you go by kayak or canoe, paddling the Petaluma River is bound to be an unforgettable experience.

Globo Surf Overview

Both whitewater and flatwater kayakers will find plenty of paddling opportunities throughout the state of California. The various bodies of water present in the area offer plenty of recreational activities that solo or group paddlers will certainly remember for a long time. Be sure to practice safety when kayaking in California waters, be that coastal, river, or flatwater reservoirs. Stay abreast of ambient conditions that may affect your paddling excursion, and as always remember to have fun.

More Kayak Reviews:


    1. Monterey Bay, csumb.edu
    2. Lake Sonoma, recreation.gov
Globo Surf
My name is David Hamburg. I am an avid water sports fan who enjoys paddle boarding, surfing, scuba diving, and kite surfing. Anything with a board or chance I can get in the water I love! I am such a big fan I decided to start this website to review all my favorite products and some others. Hope you enjoy!