California's Best Sea Kayaking

Paddle out to our favorite spots on the Golden State’s Pacific coast.
Text by Eleanor W. Hand

With hundreds of miles of coastline, the Golden State earns kudos for having some of the best sea kayaking spots in the country. Whether you take to the water in your own boat or need a rental and a guided tour, put these destinations at the top of your list.

Catalina Island, off the coast of Newport Beach
Take a ferry from the mainland to Catalina Island for a scenic tour of the leeward shore. The water is so clear you can see kelp forests and the state’s official marine fish, the golden orange garibaldi. If you’re lucky, you may spot a bat ray or leopard shark―or if you’re really lucky, the resident bald eagle. After paddling to Indian Head Rock from Little Harbor, the only protected cove on the island’s west side, hike the steep bluff. Wet Spot Kayak Rentals & Tours; 310/510-2229 or catalinakayaks.com.

La Jolla Sea Caves, north of San Diego
Launch from La Jolla Shores for the 20-minute paddle to the seven sea caves nestled in sandstone cliffs. As you pass through the La Jolla Underwater Park, the gently sloping ocean floor and reef system keep the waves minimal for a relatively easy trip. One cave, Sunny Jim’s, can be reached via a staircase from land, but all others must be visited by water. Arch Cave and Clam’s Cave provide a chance to paddle beneath sandstone. Enjoy exploring, but be prepared to get wet on the journey back, as you’ll be boating through rolling waves. Hike Bike Kayak San Diego; 858/551-9510 or hikebikekayak.com. San Diego Bike and Kayak Tours; 858/454-1010 or sandiegobikeandkayaktours.com.

Tomales Bay, near Inverness
About 40 miles northwest of San Francisco, this waterway provides beginner and experienced paddlers with access to the expansive sand beaches and open grasslands of Point Reyes National Seashore. While cruising the calm coastline, you may see whales, sea lions, and northern elephant seals. Look near the tideline to spot some of the nearly 500 bird species that pass through this Pacific Flyway zone. Stretch your legs with a hike and views of the area’s diverse geological history, and try to spot a glimpse of the once-endangered tule elk. Blue Waters Kayaking; 415/669-2600 or bwkayak.com.

Morro Bay, north of San Luis Obispo
Protected from the ocean by a 3-mile sandspit, the bay’s a good choice for first-time paddlers. Some dunes reach 85 feet, but Morro Rock, a volcanic peak jutting out of the water, dwarfs them at 578 feet. More than 100 species of birds flock to Morro Bay for the winter, so look for nesting peregrine falcons, or spot a brown pelican flying overhead. Central Coast Outdoors; 888/873-5610 or centralcoastoutdoors.com. Rock Kayak Co.; 805/772-2906 or rockkayak.com.

Palos Verdes Peninsula, near Redondo Beach
Once one of the Channel Islands, the peninsula’s now home to ritzy neighborhoods and dramatic ocean views. For a rare view of the estates, take to the water. A trip from Malaga Cove to Abalone Cove shows the craggy outcroppings that plunge into giant kelp forests. The mixture of quiet waters and rideable waves will keep kayakers entertained. Rocky Point; 800/642-0785 or rockypointfun.com.