Where to Go Kayaking in Southern California

By Andrew Iida  I Head Writer and caffeine enthusiast

California is one of the most diverse places you’ll ever see. We have sandy beaches, snowy mountains, vast deserts, and thick forests. If you’re looking for a kayaking adventure, you have a lot of fantastic options.

When it's time to start planning your next trip, you won’t be disappointed with these spots!

La Jolla - Overall best kayaking in California

Two kayaks going through the sea cave in La Jolla

You’ll see La Jolla on pretty much any list of the best kayaking spots in California. There are a lot of reasons we chose to set up our shop and host our tours here, in the “Jewel of San Diego”.

This is one of the few areas in the world where the ocean is protected in an ecological reserve, which results in a huge concentration of marine life. Tons of species of birds, fish, sharks (harmless ones), dolphins, seals, and sea lions are common sightings here, and there’s also the chance to see sea turtles, whales, octopuses, lobster, and even seahorses if you’re really lucky.


In the winter,gray whales migrate from Alaska to Mexico and back to mate and birth their young. Because they use the coast to navigate and La Jolla sticks out into the ocean, it’s the perfect place to see whales on a kayak without having to go too far into the open ocean—sometimes they even come close enough to surf in the waves!

La Jolla is also the location of the world-famous seven sea caves, in the limestone cliffs at the southern part of the underwater park. On ourSea Cave Kayak Tour, we take guests through the ecological reserve and as long as the conditions are safe, we kayak through the big sea cave that goes into the Emerald Cove.

La Jolla is perfect for kayakers of all skill and experience levels, and we offertours and rentals every month of the year. The next time you’re free in San Diego, stop by our shop and we will be happy to show you why La Jolla is one of the world’s best spots for kayaking!

San Diego Bay - Best for chilling on a kayak

Kayakers watching a concert in San Diego Bay

This is one of our favorite spots to take a kayak when we don't really want to “go kayaking”. The water is usually flat and easy for beginner kayaking, the fishing is great, and you can kayak to the open ocean around Point Loma if you choose to. But one of the best ways to use a kayak here is to catch a free concert.

Every summer for nearly 40 years, starting in 1982, Humphreys Half Moon Inn has been hosting concerts next to the San Diego Bay. High-profile artists including Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and Ringo Starr have performed at these concerts, which draw thousands of spectators.

If you have a kayak, paddle board, or raft, you can paddle next to the stage and view the concert for free. Since you’re going to be sitting in one place on flat water, this is the perfect place to use an inflatable kayak. You don’t need anything fancy—you can get a cheap inflatable kayak for the cost of patio seating at the venue.

Humphreys events were cancelled last year due to the COVID pandemic, but they are once again scheduling concerts!

Catalina island - Best full day or overnight kayak trip

Overhead shot of the bay at Catalina Island

The Channel Islands are a great place for kayaking if you’re up for a commute. The islands are accessible by plane or helicopter if you have the money to charter a private flight, but most of us will be arriving by the ferries that depart daily.


Because it’s so far out of the way, Catalina never gets too crowded, and there is plenty of empty space. You can kayak over to an empty spot and have your own private beach for a day of swimming, snorkeling, and paddling.

Catalina is not part of the Channel Islands National Park, so fishing is allowed here. You can rent a fishing kayak and a rod and spend the day catching bass, amberjack, tuna, sharks, and even marlin if you’re up for a major workout (andpossibly getting dragged 15 miles out to sea).

 

In addition to water activities, Catalina has great restaurants, hiking trails, and bike paths, as well as a golf course, zip line tours, and a spa. If you have a love for the great outdoors, Catalina is the perfect place for camping. With hardly any light pollution, you’ll see more stars than almost anywhere else in Southern California. There are five campgrounds that you can hike to, or you can reserve a boat-in campsite that you’ll need a vessel to reach. If you’re looking to spend your time in comfort and style, there are also plenty of great hotels.

Santa Cruz Island - Best national park for kayaking

View of a bay at Santa Cruz Island

This island is just to the northwest of Catalina, and is part of the Channel Islands National Park, which means there is no fishing and there are no hotels or restaurants. Here, the natural beauty of the land is preserved as much as possible.

Like La Jolla, the waters are strictly protected, so it’s a great place for marine wildlife sighting. It’s one of the only places in southern California where you can see sea otters, which once had a habitat that extended all the way down to Mexico, but are now mostly seen farther north, near Monterey. They also have their own sea caves to explore.

There are some companies that offer kayak tours of the area, but there are no rental shops on Santa Cruz Island. If you want to kayak on your own, there are companies on the mainland that will transport a kayak (either yours or a rental) to the island. If you’re planning on going in the summer or fall, plan ahead as far as possible because kayak transports fill up quickly in the busy season.

Huntington Harbor - Best flat water ocean kayaking

Kayakers in Huntington Harbor

If you want to kayak in the ocean, but don’t want to have to deal with waves and strong currents, you want to go to Huntington Harbor. The harbor has plenty of boats, but they’re all limited to 5 mph, so wake is not an issue at all, and the water is almost always calm and flat. It’s the perfect place for relaxing, easygoing kayaking and paddleboarding.


There are lots of places to launch your own kayak, and no shortage of options for rentals in the area. You can spend the day exploring the many canals of the harbor, and if you want some fresh seafood, it’s a good spot for kayak fishing for bass and halibut.

 

The harbor is next to the world-famous Huntington Beach, which has miles of pristine, sandy beaches and some of the best surfing around Los Angeles.

Salton Sea - Best place to kayak for bird sightings

A flock of birds over the water in the Salton Sea

The Salton Sea is in rough shape, and it’s getting worse each year. This body of water, created by accident when the Colorado River overflowed, was a premier tourist destination in the 1950’s for fishing, boating, swimming, and every other beach activity. But within a few decades, everything changed.

 

The lack of outflow, agricultural runoff, and the salt deposits below the sea bed have been increasing the salinity of the lake. The water is now so salty that almost all of the fish have died, and the receding waters of the shrinking lake are revealing lake beds full of toxic dusts. Unless California takes drastic measures to revitalize the lake, the Salton Sea might be a dry, barren wasteland in a few decades.


For now, it still has a spot on our list because it’s still hands-down one of the best spots for bird watching—not just in Southern California, but in the entire continental United States. It’s historically been an important nesting and wintering site for migratory birds. Although some species are hardly seen anymore, particularly the ones that used to eat the lake’s fish, you can still see literally thousands of birds of hundreds of different species every day. Since the birds all stay close to the shore, kayaking is the perfect way to see them.

Despite the poor water quality, the Salton Sea has great kayaking conditions. The lake has little wind, no currents, and hardly ever any significant wake from boats, so your kayak will cut through the flat water with ease. This would be a great place to take a sit-in kayak with a skirt to keep you dry (you really want to avoid touching the water as much as possible).

Bonus location!
Kern River - Best whitewater kayaking in California

A kayaker going down a small waterfall in the kern river

This one is really in central California, a few hours north of Los Angeles. But it earns a spot on the list because it’s the absolute best whitewater kayaking location in the entire state, and one of the best in the country. If you live in Southern California and you’re dying to try some powerful rapids, it’s worth the trip.

If you’ve never been whitewater kayaking, there are mellow stretches of the river and plenty of companies that offer lessons to introduce you to the sport. If you’re an expert whitewater kayaker already, the Forks of the Kern has awesome class V rapids. Either way, this is definitely a place where you want to kayak with an experienced guide.

California is one of the most diverse places you’ll ever see. We have sandy beaches, snowy mountains, vast deserts, and thick forests. If you’re looking for a kayaking adventure, you have a lot of fantastic options.

When it's time to start planning your next trip, you won’t be disappointed with these spots!

La Jolla - Overall best kayaking in California

Two kayaks going through the sea cave in La Jolla

You’ll see La Jolla on pretty much any list of the best kayaking spots in California. There are a lot of reasons we chose to set up our shop and host our tours here, in the “Jewel of San Diego”.

This is one of the few areas in the world where the ocean is protected in an ecological reserve, which results in a huge concentration of marine life. Tons of species of birds, fish, sharks (harmless ones), dolphins, seals, and sea lions are common sightings here, and there’s also the chance to see sea turtles, whales, octopuses, lobster, and even seahorses if you’re really lucky.


In the winter,gray whales migrate from Alaska to Mexico and back to mate and birth their young. Because they use the coast to navigate and La Jolla sticks out into the ocean, it’s the perfect place to see whales on a kayak without having to go too far into the open ocean—sometimes they even come close enough to surf in the waves!

La Jolla is also the location of the world-famous seven sea caves, in the limestone cliffs at the southern part of the underwater park. On ourSea Cave Kayak Tour, we take guests through the ecological reserve and as long as the conditions are safe, we kayak through the big sea cave that goes into the Emerald Cove.

La Jolla is perfect for kayakers of all skill and experience levels, and we offertours and rentals every month of the year. The next time you’re free in San Diego, stop by our shop and we will be happy to show you why La Jolla is one of the world’s best spots for kayaking!

San Diego Bay - Best for chilling on a kayak

Kayakers watching a concert in San Diego Bay

This is one of our favorite spots to take a kayak when we don't really want to “go kayaking”. The water is usually flat and easy for beginner kayaking, the fishing is great, and you can kayak to the open ocean around Point Loma if you choose to. But one of the best ways to use a kayak here is to catch a free concert.

Every summer for nearly 40 years, starting in 1982, Humphreys Half Moon Inn has been hosting concerts next to the San Diego Bay. High-profile artists including Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and Ringo Starr have performed at these concerts, which draw thousands of spectators.

If you have a kayak, paddle board, or raft, you can paddle next to the stage and view the concert for free. Since you’re going to be sitting in one place on flat water, this is the perfect place to use an inflatable kayak. You don’t need anything fancy—you can get a cheap inflatable kayak for the cost of patio seating at the venue.

Humphreys events were cancelled last year due to the COVID pandemic, but they are once again scheduling concerts!

Catalina island - Best full day or overnight kayak trip

Overhead shot of the bay at Catalina Island

The Channel Islands are a great place for kayaking if you’re up for a commute. The islands are accessible by plane or helicopter if you have the money to charter a private flight, but most of us will be arriving by the ferries that depart daily.


Because it’s so far out of the way, Catalina never gets too crowded, and there is plenty of empty space. You can kayak over to an empty spot and have your own private beach for a day of swimming, snorkeling, and paddling.

Catalina is not part of the Channel Islands National Park, so fishing is allowed here. You can rent a fishing kayak and a rod and spend the day catching bass, amberjack, tuna, sharks, and even marlin if you’re up for a major workout (andpossibly getting dragged 15 miles out to sea).

 

In addition to water activities, Catalina has great restaurants, hiking trails, and bike paths, as well as a golf course, zip line tours, and a spa. If you have a love for the great outdoors, Catalina is the perfect place for camping. With hardly any light pollution, you’ll see more stars than almost anywhere else in Southern California. There are five campgrounds that you can hike to, or you can reserve a boat-in campsite that you’ll need a vessel to reach. If you’re looking to spend your time in comfort and style, there are also plenty of great hotels.

Santa Cruz Island - Best national park for kayaking

View of a bay at Santa Cruz Island

This island is just to the northwest of Catalina, and is part of the Channel Islands National Park, which means there is no fishing and there are no hotels or restaurants. Here, the natural beauty of the land is preserved as much as possible.

Like La Jolla, the waters are strictly protected, so it’s a great place for marine wildlife sighting. It’s one of the only places in southern California where you can see sea otters, which once had a habitat that extended all the way down to Mexico, but are now mostly seen farther north, near Monterey. They also have their own sea caves to explore.

There are some companies that offer kayak tours of the area, but there are no rental shops on Santa Cruz Island. If you want to kayak on your own, there are companies on the mainland that will transport a kayak (either yours or a rental) to the island. If you’re planning on going in the summer or fall, plan ahead as far as possible because kayak transports fill up quickly in the busy season.

Huntington Harbor - Best flat water ocean kayaking

Kayakers in Huntington Harbor

If you want to kayak in the ocean, but don’t want to have to deal with waves and strong currents, you want to go to Huntington Harbor. The harbor has plenty of boats, but they’re all limited to 5 mph, so wake is not an issue at all, and the water is almost always calm and flat. It’s the perfect place for relaxing, easygoing kayaking and paddleboarding.


There are lots of places to launch your own kayak, and no shortage of options for rentals in the area. You can spend the day exploring the many canals of the harbor, and if you want some fresh seafood, it’s a good spot for kayak fishing for bass and halibut.

 

The harbor is next to the world-famous Huntington Beach, which has miles of pristine, sandy beaches and some of the best surfing around Los Angeles.

Salton Sea - Best place to kayak for bird sightings

A flock of birds over the water in the Salton Sea

The Salton Sea is in rough shape, and it’s getting worse each year. This body of water, created by accident when the Colorado River overflowed, was a premier tourist destination in the 1950’s for fishing, boating, swimming, and every other beach activity. But within a few decades, everything changed.

 

The lack of outflow, agricultural runoff, and the salt deposits below the sea bed have been increasing the salinity of the lake. The water is now so salty that almost all of the fish have died, and the receding waters of the shrinking lake are revealing lake beds full of toxic dusts. Unless California takes drastic measures to revitalize the lake, the Salton Sea might be a dry, barren wasteland in a few decades.


For now, it still has a spot on our list because it’s still hands-down one of the best spots for bird watching—not just in Southern California, but in the entire continental United States. It’s historically been an important nesting and wintering site for migratory birds. Although some species are hardly seen anymore, particularly the ones that used to eat the lake’s fish, you can still see literally thousands of birds of hundreds of different species every day. Since the birds all stay close to the shore, kayaking is the perfect way to see them.

Despite the poor water quality, the Salton Sea has great kayaking conditions. The lake has little wind, no currents, and hardly ever any significant wake from boats, so your kayak will cut through the flat water with ease. This would be a great place to take a sit-in kayak with a skirt to keep you dry (you really want to avoid touching the water as much as possible).

Bonus location!
Kern River - Best whitewater kayaking in California

A kayaker going down a small waterfall in the kern river

This one is really in central California, a few hours north of Los Angeles. But it earns a spot on the list because it’s the absolute best whitewater kayaking location in the entire state, and one of the best in the country. If you live in Southern California and you’re dying to try some powerful rapids, it’s worth the trip.

If you’ve never been whitewater kayaking, there are mellow stretches of the river and plenty of companies that offer lessons to introduce you to the sport. If you’re an expert whitewater kayaker already, the Forks of the Kern has awesome class V rapids. Either way, this is definitely a place where you want to kayak with an experienced guide.

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