Our Favorite Places to Kayak in California

kayaking june lake loop california

Kayaking in June Lake Loop, California, during Autumn.

California is a large and very populous state on the west coast of the United States. It is the most populous state in the country, and is home to roughly 1/8th of America’s population. Despite its population and urban reputation, California is a very diverse and beautiful place.

It’s also consistently warm and sunny, even in the middle of winter. The weather in CA has given it the nickname “The Golden State”.

If you are flying down to CA from another state, I suggest getting a trip protection plan.

There are a tremendous amount of opportunities for outdoor activities in California. Fans of water sports will love the rushing rivers and beautiful coastline, while skiers and snowboarders will love the selection of world-class ski resorts.

But you’re here to learn about kayaking, aren’t you? Well, suffice it to say that there is no shortage of great places to kayak in this state.

Below you will find a list of what we consider to be some of the best places to kayak in California – but keep in mind that this list is far from complete!

Whitewater Kayaking in California

If you’re after white-knuckle thrills more than serene cruises, don’t fret! California has some of the best whitewater rafting in the country. With a huge variety of rivers, you can find pretty much anything you’re looking for, from enjoyable class III runs for the kids, to some of the most intense and challenging class V runs in the country.

A word of warning, though – California is very prone to drought. In a drought year, class V rapids will be more like class III, or maybe class IV if you’re lucky. For instance, in 2014 California is experiencing the worst drought in 80 years, and the whitewater industry is suffering. If you’re planning a trip based on whitewater activities, be sure to do some research before committing to anything. Here’s a good place to start if you want to learn about the current drought conditions in California.

Yuba River North Fork

The Yuba River North Fork, located in Central California near the town of Downieville, offers some of the most advanced rapids in the state. The river runs through the Tahoe National Forest, and most of it is rated at class IV+, so experience is definitely recommended. This is NOT the river to mess around on – if you are not fully confident in your abilities, go with a guide. Also, note that the Yuba has a pretty limited season, generally running from April to June. Later in the season the water slows significantly.

Kings River

The Kings River, located in Southern California near the town of Centerville, is another challenging river rated at class IV+. It offers a slightly longer season, generally running from April to July. It is also surrounded by some beautiful scenery, as it runs through Kings Canyon. This is another river to take seriously – don’t hesitate to hire a guide if you are not 100% confident in your abilities.

American River

The American River is a great choice for river kayaking in California because it offers a very diverse selection runs for different difficulty levels. The Lower American, near the town of Sacramento, with a season running from April to September, offers mostly class II rapids and is perfect for family trips and beginner kayaking, just make sure you have a decent beginner yak. The Middle Fork, closer to Auburn and with a peak season of May to September, offers class III and IV rapids, and is perfect for intermediate river kayakers and rafters. For pro’s, the North Fork of the American River, located near Colfax, offers class IV+ rapids during its peak season of April to June. Again – because of the varied nature of this river, it is recommended that you go with a guide.

Kayaking California Lakes

California is home to countless lakes of all shapes and sizes. They are as beautiful as they are diverse. Below you will find a few of our favorites!

The June Lake Loop

June Lake, located in central California in the Eastern Sierra Region, is a beautiful and pristine place to kayak, fish, and camp. Each year the lake is stocked with Rainbow Trout by the Department of Fish and Game, so there is no shortage of kayak fishing opportunities here! The lake itself is beautiful, offering fantastic views of the surrounding Sierra Mountain Range. But what makes this area special is that there are 4 incredibly beautiful lakes within a 16-mile stretch of road, making a perfect loop for a kayak-centered road trip.

The four lakes include June Lake, Gull Lake, Silver Lake, and Grant Lake. They all lie alongside Highway 158, so it’s easy to visit them all in one swoop. June Lake is a popular family destination and has a large campground with great facilities. Gull Lake is frequented mostly by fishermen, but is still a great place to kayak, and often less crowded than June Lake.

Further along the loop you will find Silver Lake, a small but beautiful Alpine lake with amazing mountain views. Of the four lake on the June Lake Loop, this one is the busiest – so plan ahead, especially if you plan to come during the summer. Silver Lake is a fairly popular destination, but due to its relatively small size and 10-mph speed limit, you won’t find many boats on this lake. In my opinion, this lake is ideal for novice paddlers, or anyone who enjoys a leisurely cruise through pristine mountain waters. There is a fairly large campground nearby, complete with a general store and other facilities.

The last lake on this stunning loop is Grant Lake. The largest of the 4, Grant Lake offers a surprisingly different topography and environment than the others. Even within the lake itself the surrounding environment varies quite a bit, which makes it a very fun lake to explore. Surprisingly, Grant Lake is often deserted, unless there is a fishing contest going on. Boating and jet skiing ARE permitted here, unlike the other 3 lakes on the loop, so it could get noisy. But like I said, it’s often deserted, and can be a great place for kayak fishing as well as sightseeing, camping, and more!

Loon Lake

Loon Lake, located in El Dorado National Forest, is a large and beautiful lake offering a huge array of outdoor activities. With more than 10 miles of coastline and an abundance of coves, there is plenty to explore on this massive lake.

Loon Lake is also famous for its first-class fishing, so for you fans of kayak fishing – don’t forget your poles! (and make sure your kayaks are well equipped for angling) In fact, Loon Lake is widely considered to be one of the best lakes to fish in California. Each year, the state plants 20,000 rainbow trout, and you will also find native brown trout along the shoreline. Kayak fishing enthusiasts will find no shortage of great opportunities here, but be sure to get up early and/or fish in the evening – because of the lake’s popularity, daytime fishing can often be disappointing.

Loon Lake is also home to a number of species of beautiful birds, including bald eagles. Unfortunately, it’s also home to a huge number of ATV trails, so it can get noisy in the summer. In fact, if you plan on visiting this area in the summer, plan on getting up REALLY EARLY. Loon Lake is a very popular destination – for good reason – but that means if you want to beat the crowds you either need to go in the off-season, or get up before dawn.

Tenaya Lake

If a beautiful, serene, and natural experience is what you look for in a kayak outing, I couldn’t think of a better place for you than Tenaya Lake. Located in the legendary Yosemite National Park, this lake is surrounded by some of the most breathtakingly beautiful scenery California has to offer. Surrounded on granite peaks on 3 sides, the lake is often so still it seems unreal.

If you’re planning a trip to Tenaya Lake, keep in mind that its elevation is roughly 8,150’ – which means it’s all but inaccessible during the winter months, when snow and ice blocks the path. The typical kayaking and water sports season at Tenaya is roughly June through October, although it depends on the snowpack and weather for that year. Also, remember to pack some warm clothes, even in the summer – morning and evening temperatures can get quite chilly.

Tenaya is a relatively small lake, but there is still 2.5 miles of shoreline to explore. It’s tranquil, peaceful, and stunningly gorgeous. Tenaya Lake does offer pretty good fishing, but there are better lakes in the area for kayak fishing. To me, Tenaya is perfect for a relaxing, romantic, and serene nature experience you expect from recreational kayaking, which is why I always like to take my Sea Eagle 330, one of my top favorite inflatable kayaks to take with me on my trips.

There you have it! Keep in mind that California offers so many amazing places to kayak that we couldn’t possibly list them all here. There are simply too many options! Because of seasonal weather patterns and a drought-prone ecosystem, it’s important to do research before embarking on a trip in California, especially if your trip revolves around whitewater activities. Certain areas of California will provide better rapids at different times of the year, and due to varied rainfall, some seasons might just not be good at all. So again, do your research or you might be disappointed!