From LA to San Diego: Discover the Best Kayaking in SoCal

By Nancy Raven Kirk on June 19, 2023

It should come as no surprise that there are truly breathtaking opportunities to paddle out in Southern California. Along the expansive shoreline, you’ll encounter ideal temperatures, intriguing wildlife, and the unique chance to float through the concrete jungle of Los Angeles. Grab your life jacket and sunscreen, and check out some of the best locations to experience Southern California via kayak.

1. Channel Islands National Park

Best for: Biodiversity and nature

This National Park is a kayaking haven. Surrounded by crystal clear waters and home to sea lions, birds, dolphins and whales, Channel Islands National Park includes five protected islands. Most visitors take a one-to-three-hour boat ride to their chosen island. With less than 500,000 visitors per year, you'll feel like you’ve got your own seashore. Camping is allowed on some beaches, so more adventurous visitors can sleep under the stars by the sea.

brown rock formation over body of water
Kayaking through the arch on Channel Islands. Photo by Jeremy Bishop.

There are endless sea caves to explore, including gorgeous grottos and coastal blowholes, where you can watch seaspray erupt through fissures in the coastal rock. If you opt for a self-guided tour through the park, always check conditions, as the water is known to suddenly change from calm to turbulent. 

Cnannel Islands National Park is made up of five islands: 

  • Santa Cruz Island is the largest island with many activity options.
  • Anacapa is known for its immense population of seabirds.
  • Santa Rosa Island is the second-largest island, known for its windy, pristine shores.
  • Santa Barbara Island is the smallest island.
  • Point Bennett on San Miguel Island has the one of the largest congregation of seals and sea lions in the country.

2. La Jolla Cove, San Diego  

Best for: Spotting coves full of sea lions 

Protected as an Underwater Park and Ecological Reserve, La Jolla is the go-to beach for kayaking in San Diego. You’ll get more than a glimpse of sea lions as you paddle past the seven caves in the area, which are only accessible to view via kayak. 

brown seal on gray rock
Thanks to amazing sea lions and seven impressive caves, La Jolla is a favorite destination for kayakers. Photo by Karen Goodfellow.

The seven caves include: 

  • Arch Cave 
  • Clam’s Cave 
  • Little Sister 
  • Sea Surprize 
  • Shopping Cart 
  • Sunny Jim Cave 
  • White Lady 

Clam’s Cave is the only cave you can enter, but you can get close enough to the others to admire their beauty. There’s a variety of guided tours, or you can rent a kayak at one of the many shops in town to discover this kayaking gem in SoCal on your own time.

The cove provides a fantastic view of the Torrey Pines State Reserve Beach Trail. If you have the time, we recommend visiting one of the Torrey Pines hiking trails.

3. Alamitos Bay, Long Beach

Best for: Navigating through high-end neighborhood canals 

Alamitos Bay is a tiny island located off the coast of Long Beach, California, home to the second-busiest container port in the country. While you may not be surrounded by majestic sea life or captivating rock formations, Long Beach is a great opportunity to see this laidback port city from a different perspective. 

houses palms and boats around blue water canal
Don't miss kayaking around Naples, a luxury coastal neighborhood. Photo by Sergei Gussev.

Wander through the Naples Canals, which loop along luxurious home fronts, and afterward, dock your kayak at Spinnaker Bay to grab a snack or beverage from the outdoor shopping center. There are also a few bay shores where you can pull up your kayak, go for a swim, and sunbathe. There are no guided tours offered in the area, but plenty of rental shops if you don’t have your own kayak. The area is relatively easy to navigate, so grab a map and enjoy the weather. After your trip, stop in Belmont Shores to shop around and grab dinner at one of the many storefronts on Second Street. 

4. The L.A. River 

Best for: Unique urban kayaking 

When most people think of the L.A. River, they envision a concrete water path next to a freeway. It’s true, the majority of this 51-mile river is lined with concrete, a tactic the city utilized to control flooding. But the river does have some scenic areas with some lush landscapes, which are open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Unfortunately, you're likely to see a few pieces of garbage along the way, but this is a truly unique experience for those looking to see a less visited part of this bustling city. There are two zones of L.A. River open to kayakers: the Elysian Valley Zone and the Sepulveda Basin Zone. 

From LA to San Diego Discover the Best Kayaking in SoCal 4
The L.A. River offers two zones for river recreation - Elysian Valley and Sepulveda Basin. Photo by Will Langenberg.

Elysian Valley Zone lies between Fletcher Ave. and the 5 freeway and has calm currents. It's the only channelized section of the river with no concrete bottom, meaning you'll find trees and small grassy islands growing in the middle of the river, not just alongside it.

Sepulveda Basin zone is 1.5 miles long between Balboa and Burbank Blvd. It also features lush landscapes with decent currents that classify as Class I and Class II rapids. This tree-lined river is home to over 200 species of birds.

5. Catalina Island 

Best for: Island life, Garibaldi sightings

From LA to San Diego Discover the Best Kayaking in SoCal 5
Breathtaking view of Catalina Bay from Avalon. Photo by Blake Carroll.

Stay active on this leisurely island by kayaking along its historic shores. Avalon is the most popular destination, with an old school, one-square-mile town. Here, you can camp or rent a hotel for the night. To get to Catalina Island, take a ferry from Long Beach, Newport Beach, or Dana Point. Rent a kayak and a snorkel set to peek into the marine life below. This is the best one of the best kayaking areas to see the state’s saltwater fish, the Garibaldi, a bright orange fish that’s easy to spot amidst the green sea kelp. 

Plan Your Trip with KÜHL

Home to the most national parks of any state, California offers endless outdoor adventures. Check out Five Bucket List Spots to Backpack in California to transform your beach trip into a quest through the Golden State. Add a few KÜHL essentials to your wardrobe, perfect for the transition from hiking to hitting the town. Shop below. 

Featured Image - Inspiration point at Anacapa Island by Priya Karkare.

Nancy Raven Kirk
Nancy Raven Kirk

Nancy is a writer, traveler, and outdoor enthusiast originally from Los Angeles. She's had work published in the L.A. Times, OC Weekly, and various other publications. Check out her website at


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