Living in San Diego and want to try kayaking? Why not, kayaking is a sport, it can be relaxing and you are exploring San Diego at the same time.
So, where are the best places to kayak in San Diego I hear you ask…
Well, San Diego has about 70 miles of coasts so the place is the kayakers’ nirvana.
Where to start?
If you have some experience in kayaking, you can have an adrenaline-pumping kayaking experience on the rough ocean waters or explore mysterious caves.
It is also fun to enjoy relaxed paddling in one of several large, protected bays. You can take kids on their first kayaking adventure on the tranquil lakes, or explore lush, shady mangrove forests where local wildlife thrives.
Wonderful climate promises the perfect weather any time of the year you want to put your boat on the water and paddle between the blue sky and crystal clear waters.
To help you discover your own best place to kayak in San Diego, here are the features of the city’s most popular kayaking destinations.
Kayaking Mission Bay
Mission Bay is part of Mission Bay Park, the biggest aquatic park in the country. This vast man-made bay has 19 miles of sandy beaches. It offers endless fun for those who want a relaxed kayaking trip in calm, protected waters.
This bay is a great place to bring the kids to learn to paddle. When they get tired, you can deposit them on one of the spectacular beaches. They all have lifeguards, bathrooms and other important facilities such as ice cream vendors.
The west part of Mission Bay Park is incredibly scenic. You can explore a chain of tiny islands and channels from your kayak. If you are lucky, you might spot the Least Turn and Great Blue Heron. These lovely birds live in this area and you might be able to spot their nests from the water.
If you haven’t tried night kayaking yet, you sure should! Just picture calm waters, the sky full of stars, it’s definitely worth it! See Bottom Kayaking offers nighttime kayaking. This is a fun adventure you should not attempt without an experienced guide who knows these waters and the busy shipping lanes that should be avoided.
Access: To get to Mission Bay, take I-5 N in the direction of Los Angeles and Fiesta Island Rd. to the park.
San Elijo Lagoon Kayaking
Update March 30, 2022: We’ve recently become aware that San Elijo lagoon may now be prohibiting kayaking, please make your own inquiries if you’re planning to kayak here. Please check the up-to-date park brochure on this page
Located in Cardiff, about 25 miles from the San Diego center, San Elijo Lagoon is a part of the San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve and Nature Center. It is a popular kayaking destination for its interesting saltwater tides and diverse ecosystems.
San Elijo Lagoon is one of San Diego’s biggest wetlands, created where the Escondido and La Orilla Creeks meet the Pacific Ocean. Kayaking in San Elijo Lagoon is an opportunity to learn more about California’s diverse ecosystems and fascinating wildlife.
This fascinating spot is also great if you are looking for some solitude and want to spend a few hours peacefully paddling crystal clear waters. Many kayakers enjoy fishing from their boats – you even might catch your dinner there.
You can rent kayaks from San Diego Surf Rental.
Access: To get to San Elijo Lagoon, take I-5 N toward Los Angeles, take exit 39 toward Manchester Avenue all the way to the park.
Kayaking La Jolla
If you are interested in kayaking in the San Diego Caves, you have to go to La Jolla.
La Jolla, about 25-minute drive from San Diego downtown, is called ‘San Diego jewel.” It is by far the most popular kayaking destination in the area for a good reason.
Surrounded by massive sea cliffs, La Jolla has sea caves, dolphins, sea lion colonies, fishing, kelp beds and wonderful sandy beaches. Kayaking through the protected waters, you can explore the famous Seven Caves and La Jolla’s Underwater Park with leopard sharks, sea lions and seals.
Paddling through the caves can be challenging, so book a guided tour or hire an experienced guide.
Access: To get to La Jolla Cove, take I-5 N toward Los Angeles and take exit 26A for W La Jolla Pkwy.
Lower Otay Lake
Located in Chula Vista, less than a ten-mile drive from the San Diego downtown, Lower Otay Lake is surrounded by Otay County Open Space Preserve. It offers 25 miles of shoreline with numerous fine sandy beaches.
Lower Otay Lake is a favorite with the beginner kayakers and the families introducing their kids to paddling. Its calm waters, rolling hills and the imposing mountains in the background create a wonderful environment for a day on the water. You can have a family picnic combined with some relaxed paddling, or just about any other type of outdoor activity.
To take a break from paddling, leave your kayak on the beach and explore the park. You can go hiking, biking, and horseback riding. There are many well-maintained trails and plenty of birds for the birdwatchers.
Several campsites are available around the lake if you decide that you are just not done having fun in this serene spot.
You can rent a kayak, rowboat, or motorboat from Rocky Mountain Recreation Company.
The vehicle access to the park and the use of the park’s facilities such as toilets are allowed from 8 am to 5 pm
Access: To get to Lower Otay Lake, take CA-94 E in the direction of Chula Vista, and take exit 7 for Otay Lakes Rd. all the way to the lake.
Torrey Pines State Reserve
Torrey Pines State Reserve is one of the most beautiful and most diverse parks in California. Kayakers love it for the opportunity to explore large stretches of untouched nature.
Located within the city limits, the park is left untouched, showing how the whole area must have looked before it was settled. You can see the rare Torrey pine, the maritime chaparral, miles of unspoiled beaches, and a lagoon crucial to migrating seabirds.
Kayaking is fairly easy and relaxed near the shoreline where you can enjoy its unique wildlife and plants.
If you want to explore inland, leave your kayak on the beach and hike one of many trails through the park through dense forests, rugged cliffs and secluded beaches. The best-known trail is Guy Flemming, Razor Point and Beach Trail.
You can rent a kayak and book a tour through Everyday California.
Access: To get to Torrey Pines State Reserve, take I-5 N in the direction of Los Angeles. Take exit 29 for Genesee Ave. and N Torrey Pines Rd. to the park.
Lake Hodges Reservoir
Located in Escondido, only about 30 miles from San Diego downtown, Hodges Reservoir is a result of building the Hodges Dam on San Dieguito Creek in 1918.
The reservoir supplies water to San Diego. No swimming and no motorized boats are allowed. It makes the tranquil lake perfect for kayaking and exploring the small islands that are poking through the surface of the lake. Fishing is very popular and the reservoir is full of all kinds of fish.
Little islands are all covered in trees and greenery and the cliffs that surround the reservoir are very picturesque, providing a spectacular view from the water.
Lake Hodges forms three distinct forks, with different scenery. Most paddlers prefer the east fork where they can kayak through dense mangrove forests and shallow marshes. Kids particularly like this lake and its fascinating nature.
The northern shoreline of the lake offers kayakers smooth paddling with clear waters and mountains in the background.
No camping is permitted.
You can rent kayaks from Rocky Mountain Recreation Area.
Access: To get to Lake Hodges Reservoir, take I-15 N and take exit 27 for Via Rancho Pkwy. It will take you to Lake Rd.
Located in Scripps Ranch, about 18 miles from the center of San Diego, Lake Miramar is an artificial lake created to provide water to San Diego. Its quality of water is monitored, so no swimming and no motorized boats are allowed. Kayakers especially enjoy its tranquil water, no crowds and spectacularly beautiful scenery.
The lake is surrounded by grassy meadows and ravines, which provide a lovely view from the water and are very pleasant picnic sites. You can even see the city skyline from some parts of the lake.
If you want to take a break from paddling, leave the kayak on the beach and take a stroll around the lake on the charming paved hiking trail. No camping is allowed.
Access: To get to Lake Miramar, take I-15 N until exit 15 for Carroll Canyon Rd. Scripps Ranch Rd. will take you to the lake.
Point Loma is a peninsula between the Pacific Ocean, the San Diego Bay and San Diego Old Town. Start your adventure by putting your boat in the water at Sun Harbor Marina. The best part of kayaking at Point Loma is the view: you can enjoy the spectacular vista of the city skyline.
From the marina, paddle to America’s Cup Cove and the San Diego Bay. Enjoy the waterside view of the beautiful old Old Point Loma lighthouse. Pay attention to the birds – over 300 species of birds have been spotted in Point Loma – it lies on the annual Pacific Flyway migration route.
Sunset Cliffs Natural Park that stretches along the Pacific Ocean on the western end of Point Loma is a famous spot for watching sunsets.
You can rent kayaks and/or book a tour through OEX Point Loma.
Access: To get to Point Loma, take I-5 N toward L.A. Take Cabrillo Memorial Dr. all the way to the water.
For the passionate kayakers, a visit to the Channel Islands while visiting San Diego is an absolute must. The closest city on the mainland is Ventura, about three hours or 191.2 miles from San Diego via I-5 N, I-405 N and US-101 N. From Ventura, you have to take one of the park boats to go to the islands.
The Channel Islands National Park is called “the Galapagos of North America”, and is one of the best kayaking destinations in the world. The four wild islands have it all: rugged coastline, remote beaches, towering cliffs, and large caves. They are totally untouched and preserved in their natural state.
Each island is different and unique and it is up to you to decide where to go and what to see.
There are no services on the islands – no food stores and no lodging. There are primitive campgrounds on all islands but basically, you have to bring everything you need with you.
In spite of all the difficulties you will have to get to the islands and stay there for a while, the reward of paddling there greatly outweighs all the hardships.
You can hire a guide or rent a kayak at the Channel Islands Adventure Company, kayak Guide, outfitting, and snorkeling rental services at Scorpion Area, Eastern Santa Cruz Island.
Best Time To Kayak In San Diego
The best time to kayak San Diego is fall and summer, however it does not mean you cannot come any time of the year. You will need a wet suit in winter when the water gets too cold for just a bathing suit.
If you are paddling on your own and launching your boat from the beach, talk to the lifeguard about the weather and local currents for safety. If you are not experienced, go in a group with a guide who knows the area.
When kayaking always wear a life vest. Normally, kayak rental companies will include them in ther packages.
If you are going offshore, especially if you are kayaking alone, carry a beacon or any other signaling device. Make sure you have enough drinking water and basic emergency gear.
Here is a great article on basic safety tips for kayaking.
The best places to kayak in San Diego will vary depending on your level of experience and the type of adventure you are after. Some places we have listed offer tranquil paddling in calm waters. Others offer lush unspoiled nature you can enjoy from your boat.
However, whatever you like and whatever you are looking for when kayaking in San Diego, this vibrant California city has in spades.
Hopefully, our selection will give you some ideas. Keep exploring, San Diego offers much more! Let your friends know where you’re going to kayak and when you are planning to return. But more than anything, have fun!