Yep, it really is as beautiful as it looks and sounds. For those with access to the towering surf, warm sand and crashing waves of northern California, there’s almost nothing better than kayaking the Bay Area.
Known for its gold coasts, glorious sunsets and dream-inducing beaches, San Francisco and its neighbors are home to some of the best kayaking and paddleboarding in North America. Whether it’s an escape to your own hidden paradise carved out of the rocky ocean cliffs or a venture out to meet a sunning pack of sea lions, both beginners and expert kayakers alike will fall in love what the Left Coast has to offer.
On a recent trip to San Francisco, American Paddler scoped out the best places to dip a paddle in the water along the California coastline.
The Best Places for Kayaking San Francisco and the Bay Area
- Kayaking in Sausalito under the Golden Gate Bridge
- Kayaking in Monterey Bay, Santa Cruz Wharf and Elkhorn Slough
- Kayaking Tomales Bay
- Kayaking the Russian River
- Kayaking in Alameda
- Kayaking at McCovey Cove
Sausalito and the Golden Gate Bridge
Let’s be honest, no kayaking trip to the Bay Area is complete without a sunset paddle beneath the ruby red arches of the Golden Gate Bridge. There are a few places you can launch from if you want to do that, but Sausalito, nestled in the Richardson Bay, offers the best option. This quaint town off the bridge’s northern end has a variety of shops, trails and dining and is a hotspot for tourists biking the bridge’s expanse.
Setting out from Sausalito, you can kayak under the Golden Gate Bridge and paddle out to other Bay Area landmarks, including Alcatraz Island, Angel Island, Fisherman’s Wharf and the stunning cliffs and Sutro Baths of Land’s End. Depending on the day and your experience, you might consider renting a sea kayak, because the ocean and bay waves can become challenging if you’re not prepared.
Best for: The postcard views of San Francisco’s famous landmarks
Tours and rentals: Sea Trek Kayak and SUP offers rentals and guided tours across the bay
Public access: Launch your kayak from the Turney Street Boat Ramp, with metered and city lot parking nearby
Monterey Bay, Santa Cruz Wharf and Elkhorn Slough
The Monterey Bay, approximately 45 miles of shoreline between Santa Cruz and the city of Monterey, offers some of the best ocean views and wildlife watching for kayakers in northern California. While there are many places to put in, the most popular locations include the Santa Cruz Wharf at the northern end, Elkhorn Slough at Moss Landing and Monterey State Beach at the southern end of the bay. The sheltered bay provides for calm surf conditions on most days, but swells can come up unexpectedly.
If you came for wildlife, you won’t be disappointed. At Elkhorn Slough, you’re almost guaranteed to see sea lions, seals, otters and pelicans sunning themselves, while at Santa Cruz, marine mammals are often found hanging out by the pier. In Monterey, you’ll catch glimpses of wildlife (including whales if you’re lucky!), but the real attraction is the ocean cliffs and Californian scenery of the peninsula itself. If you’re a golf fan, paddle to the south side for ocean views of Pebble Beach!
Best for: Marine wildlife viewing and stunning seaside vistas
Public access: In Santa Cruz, find parking anywhere along the shore and launch from the beach. In Elkhorn Slough, park at the Moss Landing North Harbor off the Pacific Coast Highway (Hwy 1) and use the public boat launch (fees apply). In Monterey, launch from the Monterey State Beach.
Amidst the 7 million people in the Bay Area, it can difficult to find space to breathe, let alone kayak through miles of unspoiled beauty. Along the Tomales Bay, however, that’s exactly what the expeditious paddler will find. This 15-mile coastal inlet is protected from the ocean surf by the Point Reyes National Seashore, making it an ideal setting for calm-water paddling and wildlife viewing. While kayakers can venture outside the bay, be advised that ocean surfs can be dangerous, and many popular points of interest are closed at times during the year to protect the sealife.
Kayakers here will find starfish, elk, pelicans and fish unlike anywhere else in the region, all while paddling past gorgeous rolling hills, pristine beaches and stunning white cliffsides. Moonlight paddlers might also be lucky enough to experience the bay’s bioluminescence, a rare natural phenomenon in which microscopic aquatic organisms are visible at night with a stunning blueish glow. A truly majestic experience.
Best for: Moonlight kayakers and those looking for a relaxing calm-water paddle
Public access: If you’re bringing your own kayak, launch from the Miller Boat Launch, which offers parking, boat ramps and a public dock
Even though California is renown for its coastline, the Bay Area does not disappoint those looking for a river kayaking adventure. Among the rivers in northern California, the Russian River provides the best variety of unspoiled beauty, spectacular wildlife and easily navigable waters.
On the upper section of the 110-mile river, paddlers will find forests, sandbars and pastures, carried along by mild class 1 currents. Deer, turtles, otters and blue herons are common sights. As one paddles closer to the Pacific Ocean, where the river widens and flattens out, seals and other ocean-going marine mammals can often be found. Though most of the river is calm, there are sections with class 2 and 3 rapids, so be sure to check reports before you go.
Best for: River paddling trips, family outings and wildlife spotting
Public access: If you’re paddling the river’s upper section, park in Healdsburg and use the Del Rio Woods Beach access (parking is $7). If you’re planning to kayak the lower section, try the Monte Rio Beach.
If you’ve ever wanted to know what small feels like, try kayaking past a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier. If you launch from Alameda, an island community near Oakland, that’s exactly what you’ll do. The USS Hornet, an out-of-commission carrier now designated as a National Historic Landmark and museum, dwarfs the harbor and gives kayakers a fish’s eye view of what pure American muscle looks like.
Alameda also has plenty of other things to see, including other vestiges of Navy culture and plenty of birds and marine wildlife. Paddlers will get a nice view of both the Oakland and San Francisco skylines, depending on where around the island you go. In the protected waters of the bay, waves aren’t as bad as the open ocean, but experience is still necessary for any open-water kayaking in the Bay Area.
Best for: History buffs and those looking for nice skyline views not too far from shore
A sort of “honorable mention” here. For 81 days of the year, McCovey Cove is one of the coolest places to hang out in a kayak — if you’re a baseball fan, that is. This channel just outside the right field fence of the San Francisco Giants’ AT&T Park is a blast during home games, with paddlers hanging out and shooting the breeze while hoping to catch a “splash hit” off the bat of their favorite slugger. It’s one of the more unique traditions in sports, and definitely worth doing at least once.
Best for: Baseball fans — or just party fans
Tours and rentals: CityKayak will hook you up, but be prepared to shell out if the Giants are in a pennant race
Public access: There are four possible put-in locations, but the public boat ramp off Pier 50 probably offers the best parking options. Be sure to check parking limitations before you launch to avoid a ticket.
Of course, this doesn’t cover anywhere near all of the great locations for kayaking the Bay Area, which is rich with sparkling and inviting waters. With so many great spots to choose from, it’s hard to narrow the list down to just five (or six).
As always, if you have other ideas, let us know!