Take to the water in your own kayak, rent one or go on a guided tour, with the option of day tripping, weekend jaunts and multi-day expeditions.
1. Tomales Bay
2. Catalina Island (near Newport Beach)
To get here, take a ferry from the mainland, then paddle from Little Harbor to Indian Head Rock, where you might spot a golden orange garibaldi, bay ray or leopard shark among kelp forests in the crystal-clear waters. If you’re lucky, you might even see a bald eagle. At Two Harbours, explore hidden coves and caves teeming with marine life, as you paddle past pelicans and seals. The best part? Many of these areas are only reachable by boat, so you can explore without the crowds and even find a stretch of deserted beach for a picnic. It’s also a good spot for kayak fishing.
3. Mendocino Coast
For more advanced kayakers – and those craving a bit of whitewater action – head to the remote Mendocino Coast. The shoreline is rocky and the waters choppy – making it a whitewater thrill ride for those with paddling experience (get ready to surf a wave and practice your combat roll). It’s also a great place to explore sea caves, sea stacks and secluded coves along the rugged coastline. Many of the beaches here are only accessible by kayak.
4. Mono Lake
With volcanic islands surrounded by high desert and the peaks of the Sierra Nevadas, Mono Lake is a kayaking destination unlike any other. It’s considered one of the oldest living lakes in North America (from one to three million years old), and you’ll find yourself paddling past tufa formations along a moon-like shoreline. The lake, covering 65 square miles, takes about four hours to circumnavigate. But don’t let the placid waters fool you – winds can whip up to hurricane force in the afternoon and many a kayaker has had to be rescued. Also keep in mind the islands are closed from April 1 to Aug. 1 to protect nesting birds.
5. La Jolla Sea Caves
Paddle 20 minutes from La Jolla and you’ll discover seven sea caves in the sandstone cliffs (the reef system makes it a relatively easy paddle). Only one of these caves, Sunny Jim’s, can be reached by land (which means more visitors). The others are only accessible by water. As you glide through the gentle surf of the La Jolla Ecological Reserve, past the cliffs of Torrey Pines State Park, you’ll get a chance to spot sea lions, leopard sharks, shovelnose guitarfish and even dolphins.
6. Morro Bay
This National Estuary, located on the coast between Monterey and Santa Barbara is an ideal place for beginners, families and nature lovers. The waters of Morro Bay are protected from the open ocean by a scenic six-kilometre-long sandspit so no matter what the open Pacific swells are doing, you’re assured a smooth ride. Harbor seals, sea lions and sea otters all make their home here, as well as literally hundreds of species of birds, including several rare and endangered species.