California's Best Places to Paddle - The Bucket List of Top Paddles


Best places to paddle in CaliforniaThe 7 Wonders of the (Cali Paddler) World! We are big fans of paddling in our amazing state. And over time, we have found there to be certain paddles that are so amazing, that everyone should have them on their bucket list. So, with New Year's resolutions and inspiration always being shared, we decided to come up with this list.

The places below are amazing, and something only paddlers can experience. For each one we reached out to a local expert in the region to get tips and insight so that when you launch to check it off your list, you have a positive experience. Enjoy, and be sure to thank each person below and visit their websites. Did we miss something? Chances are we did, so feel free to let us know in the comments and share with everyone your favorite place!

Important note: Always be respectful of the local waters, rules and etiquette. You are visiting someone else's home waters here (and they are not always a person). So make minimal wake, all trash you take, and keep your noise respectful for goodness sake. :)

7. USS Midway

Best places to paddle in California

San Diego Bay (Map) - Have you ever wondered "how big ARE those aircraft carriers?" Well recently the US Navy retired one of its carriers, the USS Midway, and made it into a floating museum on San Diego Bay. This is a unique chance paddle near one of these majestic floating fortresses, with the beautiful downtown San Diego skyline and huge Coronado bridge  as added bonuses. To learn more about this paddle, we turn to local waterman Manny Vargas to share some tips about enjoying it from the water.

To get the most out of paddling up to the stationary USS Midway aircraft carrier, only do this 3 mile roundtrip paddle in the morning. Start your paddle after 9am and you'll be battling the boat wakes the entire way. Not fun. You have three docks across the street from the Solar Turbines facilities on Harbor drive to choose from to start your paddle. People live on the boats here so please be respectful with your talking volume. Bring your GoPro and get ready to be awed. One last thing, keep a good distance from piers and the Midway itself.

BTW, for any of our paddle surfers our there, Manny has been running surf and SUP tours to Northern Baja California for the past two and a half years. You want empty line-ups and an awesome time in Baja without worries... hit up

6. Balboa Island During the Holidays

Best places to paddle in California

Newport Harbor (Map) - There is nothing more spectacular than millions of holiday lights...except perhaps seeing them from the water! Established in 1907, the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade and Ring of Lights the takes place in December each year and is one of California's oldest holiday festival of lights. Decorated yachts, boats, kayaks and canoes cruise along Newport Harbor, and illuminate their reflections. In addition to the parade (5 nights each year), the yacht clubs, boathouses and waterfront mansions on Balboa Island go all out with decorations and lights. In fact the island decor has led to it being coined the "Ring of Light" and worthy of paddling its perimeter which is roughly 2.75 miles but factor in all the zig-zagging you will do to see every little light and attention to detail. We reached out to Kel Thompson of the Newport Aquatic Center (NAC) for some tips on this area and she shared the following:

Be sure to know the official event route ahead of time if you intend to watch the parade, so you do not interfere with the course. Also, since it is a night paddle, be sure to wear bright colors and have lights so you are visible. Reflective stickers on your paddle or craft is also a great trick. Also you should stay out of the main channel while paddling! It's very dangerous out there with over 100 boats in the harbor moving around at night.
There are many beaches, docks and public spots in Newport Harbor, as well as Newport Dunes to launch, but many are paid parking so prepare for that.

We are really stoked on the folks at NAC ( They have SUP and kayak rentals and are regularly taking out various crafts and paddlers to share their stoke of paddling. Check their website to see if there is an organized race or paddle event during the holidays to help you check this paddle off your bucket list!

Community. Conservation. Connection. Cali Paddler!

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5. Catalina Island

Best places to paddle in California

Catalina Island (Map) - This paddle has many levels of awesome depending on how hardcore you are. For the casual paddler, gliding across the waters of Avalon Harbor is as special as any place we can think of. With the historic Casino which opened in 1929 on one end, and the Lover's Cove Marine Preserve on the other, the scenery in this area is majestic. See fish life, stunning backdrops of the town and cliffs and enjoy the fact that you are 20+ nautical miles away from the closest California traffic jam. This is the ultimate escape paddle.

However, to limit your paddling to just Avalon would be a disservice to the beauty of the island. We reached out to Aimee Spector from Ocean of Hope who has experienced first-hand how special the island can be, and even more so, the crossing races that take place each year.

Every part of that island and its waters is special. I will be coming up on my 21st year of paddling the Catalina Crossing Outrigger race ( It is the original outrigger canoe race brought here from Hawai'i, and I can honestly say that each time it has been special and unique. Whether we have a new crew paddling together, unique and changing conditions to challenge us, or even now, with the faster boat designs that let us push the envelope of fast times and ability to surf the conditions, it is always amazing!

My favorite experiences with Catalina however, most certainly include my prone paddleboard crossings, and the time spent in the north-west part of the island by Two Harbors. The small community embraces the paddlers each year in such a special way. Perhaps most special is The Catalina Classic Paddleboard Race. Held since 1955, it is 32 miles and has as much history, emotion and challenge as any race I do. Early in the morning, before the race, all the paddlers are standing in the dark around a bonfire, with the light dancing on everyone, about to embark on their upcoming endeavor. Very special. The Classic always levels the playing field- whether it's the ocean conditions, the athletes doing it, or the weather- it's never the same race twice. And that's what makes it so exciting!

A few tips, for anyone who wishes to undertake one of the crossings:

    • have your nutrition set
    • get a good mindset
    • get in your practice miles
    • expect the unexpected
    • respect the locals on the island and they will take care of you year after year

What you see and experience is nothing short of memorable and amazing- sea life, sunrises, all of the beauty that mother nature offers. I feel truly lucky to have been able to be in the Catalina channel so many times over the years.

If you haven't paddled at, around to or from, Catalina should!

The Ocean of Hope (O2H) group started as a single event, intertwined with the historic Catalina Classic race. Made up of dedicated athletes who commit themselves to support the Sarcoma Alliance and the thousands of sarcoma patients and their families that rely on it. The goal is to raise awareness and funds for the Sarcoma Alliance so that it can continue provide guidance, education, and support to the sarcoma cancer community. Cali Paddler encourages you to learn more about their efforts and upcoming movie screenings and events.

4. Cabrillo Run

Best places to paddle in California

Long Beach (Map) - Every so often, those onshore winds howl, and we look to our coastline for a place that lines up just right. Like a perfect ski run gifted from the paddle gods. Where you surf and catch so many bumps that you forget what it's like to have to paddle. Well, for those of you who are advanced, and have heard the lore of such a paddle, with safe access at both ends, we bring to you the Cabrillo Run. An epic point-to-point paddle off Long Beach Harbor Breakwall. But rather than promote it, and then just have a bunch of 1st timers get hurt, lose their canoes, or worse, we reached out to the locals at Kahakai Outrigger Canoe Club who graciously share valuable guidance, insight, and this comprehensive write-up for us here.

Cabrillo to Long Beach Surf Run - View Map Graphic & Legend Cabrillo Run Paddle Map

Optimal Conditions:  Westerly winds, 15+ and NW wind swell;  these are normal afternoon conditions in the late Winter and Spring.  Avoid Santa Ana conditions, or Southerly winds, we monitor to plan ahead.

Attire and Equipment:  Dress for warmth- you can always remove layers. I wear two layers on top, and usually long leggings, also,  neoprene booties are recommended as winter water temps are cold.  I keep a change of clothes at the finish that includes jacket, beanie cap, and warm shoes.  Your canoe should be set up for surf, a big rudder and leash are essential.  All canoe models work fine, but since the wind swell periods are close together, maneuverable canoes with good rocker work best.  

Safety:  In doing this run for nearly 10 years, I have been involved in nearly every conceivable mishap; heed the following advice.  Check your cables and rudder set up, this run puts a lot of stress on your rudder-system, make sure it is on point to keep you on point. Leashes are necessary, bring it and use it!  Bring 1 extra paddle for every 3 paddlers, not only is it possible to break a paddle, but in these conditions it is possible to lose a paddle on a change or on a rest break.  Bring a phone, put it in a case with you, in a pack, or pocket.  Marine radios are also recommended; we bring at least 1 radio and have the strongest paddler carry it with them.   Lastly, PDF’s are needed, rubber one to your back iako.  Other safety equipment may include zip-ties, small tools, and extra line or rubber.  These items will become useful upon major equipment failures.  Better to have them than to be left wishing you brought them.  It is best to do the run in pieces, we stop at every opening in the breakwater, Angel’s gate is first, Queen’s gate is next, and the east end of the breakwater is last.  We stop to gather all paddlers, and make a head count to make sure no-one is left behind.  Try to stay on similar lines, this make’s it easy to keep track of all paddlers.  

The Run:  Now, with the scary stuff out of the way, lets talk about the run: one of the best and most consistent surf runs in Southern California.  After setting up boats on the grass roundabout, the beach launch (100 yards) is the primary start (1).   Paddle straight out almost ½ mile avoiding the kelp patches, this will set you up for a good angle with the wind and swell.  If there is too much shorebreak at Cabrillo beach, you can launch from inside the harbor (2).  The optimal line uses the Oil Rig off the Seal Beach pier for a landmark.  This will keep you from getting too close to the breakwater where backwash can slow you down.  First time paddlers or beginners may want to go inside the breakwater at Queen’s gate (4), keep safety in mind and take partners with you on any of the alternate routes. Advanced paddlers have the ability drop in and connect waves on their right side during optimal conditions.  Keep an outside line all the way to the end of the breakwater, you will pick up better waves outside and pass your friends who got pushed down closer to the rocks.

Finishing and Logistics:  We load boats and organize rides from our canoe club Kahakai, located at Mother’s Beach  in Long Beach.   We have a small grass area for rinsing boats, lockers for your warm clothes, and usually have a cooler with cold adult beverages at the end of our runs.  It is best if you can get someone to drive, but If you can’t, many of us at Kahakai will help you get back to your car after.  Plan for 3 hours+ with travel time and breaks on the water.  The run is about 12 miles, 9 of which are connecting wave after wave on bombing days.  Email me if you need help organizing, we are always up for a surf run!
John (aka Huli), Kahakai OCC Long Beach

Kahakai Outrigger is one of Southern California's awesome outrigger canoe teams. They are full of great people that we at Cali Paddler would paddle with in a heart-beat. If you are you looking to learn to paddle outrigger, succeed and grow your love for this fantastic sport in the Los Angeles area, check em out!

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3. Monterey Bay Peninsula Marine Preserve

Best places to paddle in California

Monterey/Carmel (Map) - If you have ever wanted to immerse yourself in rugged, lush, full-of-life coastline, you need not look any farther than the Monterey Bay Peninsula. Sea otters, whales, fish and gorgeous coastline await. We reached out to local waterman and tour-giver Brent Allen for the scoop on his favorite place in this water wonderland, and his tips.

"Point Lobos State Park, just south of Carmel, CA on PCH1 - One of the most scenic accessible locations on the central coast for Stand Up Paddle. The best time of year to paddle is August/September when the ocean flattens out. Point Lobos has one launch location ( Whalers Cove). Morning is usually the best time to hit the water.
The scenery is amazing looking back at the cliffs and trees of Point Lobos from the water. Heading west you come into Blue Fish cove and if you are an experienced water person, paddle west around Point Lobos then south to China Cove.
Marine life includes harbor seals, sea otters, humpback and grey whales etc.. Week days are best during the summer months. Water clarity can be amazing in this section of the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary."

As you can tell by the name, it is a 'sanctuary' and that is for good reason. So minimize any impact your paddles might have with wildlife.

For more information about this region, or to look into joining Brent on one of his amazing guided tours, please visit To see some video footage of his paddles, click here to his Cali Paddler video page.

2. Lake Tahoe/Emerald Bay

Best places to paddle in California

South Shore Lake Tahoe (Map) -There is a place up in the sierras that chances are you have seen at one point in your life or another. But have you really seen it....from the water? Have you paddled it? Lake Tahoe is amazing. And it is huge. Even though we share part of it with Nevada, we still consider it one of California's jewels. There are a few places in its 70+ miles of shoreline that really stand out however, so we reached out to our friend "Tahoe Tom" Ghandt for a few tips on Emerald Bay and the surrounding area.

Lake Tahoe epic paddles? So glad you asked! Let's get right to it. Park and launch at tourist friendly Timber cove pier, to the majestic destination of Emerald bay. Navigate around Fannet island, then back along pristine tree lined sandy beaches and old Tahoe charm. Along the route, the paddle-wheel boat "Tahoe Queen " gives tours to emerald bay daily . The "Queen" in local speak, creates what may be arguably the longest ride-able wave this side of the Mississippi, behind it's massive propulsive wheel. You literally could fly an ama the whole 14 nautical miles. A close trough, pure stoke, standing wave ranging from 3 to 4 ft., diminishing 12 waves behind. Who said there's no surf in Tahoe.Oh, and did I say views? Catch vistas out to Destination wilderness, the "Cross" of Tallack, and the more-than-occasional eagle or osprey.

A few tips to make it a good experience? Beware the bears in your trash and coyote's after small pets. All kidding aside, what you do need need to prepare for, chilly early season water and boat traffic in peek summer. Dress appropriately and always be aware of your abilities and know your limits.  As with surfing the Queen, there are rules of the road, and commercial navigation laws that apply. The best times are the early morning runs before the wind comes up. Remember-be a good guest and you will have a good time!

If you find yourself in the Tahoe area and are looking for a place to rent paddleboards and other watercraft, or perhaps get the 'local scoop' on places and safety tips, be sure to check out these shops. And if you are looking to paddle some outrigger canoe, Tahoe has got you covered there too!

  • Watermans Landing - If in the North Shore area, this is worth a visit. A local, family-owned business that was established in 2010 and works in conjunction with the California Tahoe Conservancy.
  • South Tahoe Standup Paddle - Whether you are starting out paddling, or competing at their Race the Lake of the Sky event each summer, the Brackett family-owned store is a wonderful ambassador of paddling in the South Lake Tahoe Area.
  • Kawai'ulu'o Tahoe Outrigger - Meaning "Spirited Water" - a place where outrigger paddlers may commune with mountains, sun and alpine lakes, where good fellowship and aloha prevail and where traditions of old Polynesia shall always have a home

Team Writers Wanted - Share your paddle adventure 

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1. The Golden Gate Bridge

Best places to paddle in California

San Francisco Bay (Map) - If you ask anyone the most iconic backdrop in our beautiful sate, they will probably say the Golden Gate Bridge. So to see it from the water, its size and splendor is that much more amazing. And so that is why it tops our list. That said, looks can be deceiving, and hidden below the amazing arches that connect San Francisco to the Marin Headlands are some of the most challenging and dangerous waters in our state. So much so that paddling out to the bridge on most days is not advisable due to currents, wind, tides and boat traffic. We reached out to Tamalpais Outrigger Canoe Club which paddles out of Fort Baker just to the north for tips, tricks and any safety help they could provide.

San Francisco Bay offers a diverse water environment for all paddlers.  The iconic Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and Angel Islands are spectacular spots to paddle around.  OC1, OC2, OC6, SUP & Kayakers all get a challenge when they paddle on the Bay.  There are many put in spots, but we'll start with Horseshoe Cove, located right near the North Tower of the Golden Gate Bridge.  While the views are breathtaking, safety is always #1 in ensuring a fun time on the water.  Here's some tidbits to consider before venturing out.  As always, like many water sports, having a buddy or two or three makes the experience all the more fun.  Horseshoe Cove is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) National Park.  Parking is free.  Though there are no showers, most locals bring jugs of water to rinse off.  There's a ramp to launch off from.  No public restrooms, but there are port-a-potties.  If you are unsure of what the waters will be like while you're about to paddle, you can inquire with the US Coast Guard Station located right on the shoreline of Horseshoe Cove.  Small craft advisory in effect?  Best to stay dry and save your paddling for another day. *wink*  If you want to continue absorbing the iconic views, you can grab a drink and some snacks at the Travis Marina Bar at Presidio Yacht Club.  Or go to Farley's Bar at Cavallo Point Lodge and enjoy a nice glass of wine and gourmet burger on the patio.

Let's get specific about paddling the San Francisco Bay.  There are two main areas of consideration when paddling the Bay.  First off is what Mother Nature provides:  currents, tides, winds, ebbs & floods.  Always check forecasts, charts before going out.  Plan for the unexpected so you can enjoy the moment.  During floods and ebbs, San Francisco Bay waters can move with great force.  If you plan it well, you can paddle on the flood, slack and ebb all in one session.  A special note about ebbs, be mindful of rounding turns on jetties and cliffs.  There's been instances of chipping paddles, scrapping canoe hull bottoms and rudders if you're not familiar with the rocks.  If you see a local, say "hi" and see if you can join them or get some advice.  In addition to Mother Nature, man-made obstacles keep things interesting on the water!  Ferries, freight containers, cruise liners, sail boats, fishing boats, wind & kite surfers add to the diversity and agility challenge of paddling on the Bay.  Always be respectful.  Remember the "right-of-way" water etiquette with ships and sail boats.  Oh and fishing lines...many people fish off cliffs and piers, keep a look out for those so you don't get tangled up in all of that.  We all love a good "wake ride", who doesn't??  When ferries, freight container ships and cruise liners go by, please please please be careful.  There have been instances where canoes swamped or hulied or got stuck and the US Coast Guard responded and assisted.  Basically, although the temptation is there, err on the side of caution.  Since those bigger ships can't always see a canoe, the risk is not really worth it.  Get a beer & burger instead!

Looking for other rest stop or put in options?  Chrissy Field, Aquatic Park near Fisherman's Warf, Ayala Cove at Angel Island, Schoonmaker Beach in Sausalito, or Sausalito ramp near Bar Bocce.  Venturing outside of the Golden Gate Bridge?  Take extra precautions and plan your paddle session with the tides and marine weather forecasts.  Hugging the coast line along the North Tower to Point Bonita lighthouse is a blessing. Always, always, paddle with a buddy, or two, or three!  Open water paddling is fantastic, but it's magical when you share that experience with friends!

Want to paddle San Francisco Bay with locals? Come check out Tamalpais Outrigger Canoe Club ( or contact any club with the NCOCA (!  Keep the paddle vibe strong & full of aloha...Cali-style! Whether you are a new paddler, or experienced, they will share the tradition and excitement that outrigger paddling offers.

Honorable Mentions

The following are each amazing and should be on your list as well. Including them is a must for any paddler looking to really explore the highlights of our amazing state.

Best places to paddle in California

Sacramento River

Redding/Red Bluff/Chico/Sacramento (Map) - Looking to see some amazing water, wildlife, and get some help from a current? Consider paddling the Sacramento River. Some areas are more remote and unique than others, but basically from Redding to Chico you have a remarkable chance to enjoy nature on the water and 'go with the flow'. Be sure to paddle under Sundial Bridge in Redding. If you are truly looking to be epic, consider the California 100 ( It is a one-day 100-mile paddling race on the Sacramento River produced by Rivers for Change.  Beginning under the Sundial Bridge in Redding and finishing near Chico, this moving-water round-the-clock event is open to all paddle sport enthusiasts in kayaks, open canoes, surfskis, standup paddleboards, outrigger canoes & prone paddleboards.

For a wonderful recap of paddling this beautiful river, with focus on the Sacramento River Delta area please be sure to read this amazing paddle journey recap by Cali Paddler Adam R-T of Vallejo.

Salton Sea

Imperial County (Map) - Have you heard about the Salton Sea but never been there. It is one of those places everyone should see and experience. It is 227 feet below sea level, 33 miles long, 11 miles wide, and the largest body of water in the state. It was also a huge draw for water recreation back in the 60's and is home to the largest migratory bird population in the state with gorgeous desert mountain backdrops. Some of the water areas are much more appealing (awesome facilities at Salton Sea SRA) than others due to local agriculture runoff, but we have paddled there and would recommend others enjoy it as well.

If you are interested in racing or paddling there, we recommend the North Shore Extreme. This is an awesome paddling race/event in February to encourage folks to learn more about the Salton Sea, and spread the word that it is safe to paddle on. And also worthy of our efforts to save, as the Sea is shrinking at a dangerous rate as its natural water inflows are being routed away for agriculture and development. This reduction of water is increasing its salinity and lack of oxygen, causing the fish who used to thrive there to not be able to survive. Learn more about the Salton Sea and the paddlers committed to saving it at

North Shore Extreme Paddle Race

McCovey Cove/AT&T Park

San Francisco Bay, China Basin (Map) - Outside AT&T Park during Giants Game is a paddle experience like no other. Imagine hanging out with other kayakers and SUPers, listening to the National League Giants play their home games on portable radios, eating a picnic, when all of the sudden you hear the crack of the back, the roar of the crowd, and everyone on the water turns to the sky to see a home run ball hit out of the stadium into the bay. Everyone scrambles to where it lands, called a "Splash Hit" if hit by the Giants and tries to get perhaps the ultimate in paddling trophies!  National Past-time. Paddling. The Chase. Yah, it's kind of like that. Over a hundred times a ball has landed out there (and counting).

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  • Adam Redmayne-Titley - November 21, 2016

    Do not forget paddling the Big River in Mendocino County. Also launching at Van Damme State Park and going rock gardening and sea caving. Down-winding on the Carquinez Straits in summer? Man!!! We got some places to paddle in this great state.

  • cheance - November 18, 2016

    cool list! I’ve checked off 7, 5, 2 and 1

  • Visit Redding - March 29, 2016

    Thanks for including the Lower Sacramento River! We love our waters. TIME called Redding the ‘unofficial capital of paddling’ for a reason! The wet winter should make for a fun summer on the river, too.

  • Alyson Jackson - January 10, 2016

    Great read, great info! I’ve only done two of these, USS Midway/Coronado Bridge (all the way from De Anza Cove, Mission Bay), and the Catalina Crossing! Both beautiful and awesome! Looking forward to the Salton Sea North Shore Extreme in Feb and with any decent luck, some of the others one day soon. Thanks for the great info!! By the way, the ho’okele in that Catalina pic looks familiar, as does the crew. :) Mahalo nui ‘ohana ka wa’a!

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