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Replete with sea caves, sea lions, and kelp forests, the waters off the coast of Southern California have no shortage of wildlife to explore.
Admiring the waves from the comfort of a towel on the sand may be the most relaxing way to appreciate the beach, but kayaking offers the opportunity to experience the ocean from a different perspective. These four ocean spots (plus one urban river) are some of the most unique places to paddle in SoCal, from San Diego to Ventura.
Best for: exploring sea caves
Five islands make up the Channel Islands National Park, which is accessible only by boat or plane. The visitor centers on the mainland are located in Ventura and Santa Barbara, but once on the islands, there is no transportation and everything must be accessed by foot—or kayak. Anacapa and Santa Cruz are the two most popular islands for kayaking, as they have hundreds of large sea caves. The Painted Cave near Santa Cruz is one of the largest sea caves in the world, measuring close to 100 feet wide. Inside the dark cave, paddlers are greeted by barking sea lions.
Best for: urban kayaking
An image of an idyllic river probably isn’t what pops into most people’s minds when they think of Los Angeles. But L.A. really does have a river, and during the Summer months (from about Memorial Day to Labor Day), it’s open for recreational activities, like kayaking and fishing. Floating down the river is much better than sitting in traffic on Interstate 5, and it gives kayakers the unique opportunity to be in nature, while also seeing the city from a different perspective.
Best for: lounging with sea lions
Kayakers in La Jolla can enter ancient sea caves, paddle by sea lions, and kayak through a kelp forest—all just 20 minutes out from La Jolla Shores beach in San Diego. The area is an ecological reserve abound with sea life during some parts of the year, such as leopard sharks, garibaldi, seals, sea lions, and dolphins. According to local guides, it’s not uncommon for seals to plop into a kayak for a rest. Though it may seem cute, they’re quite smelly. Of the seven nearby sea caves, kayakers can enter all but Sunny Jim’s, which is the only cave accessible by foot.
Best for: seeing a flying fish (yes, really!)
Located just 22 miles off the coast of Southern California, Catalina Island boasts secluded coves and clear waters that make it ideal for spotting wildlife while kayaking. Golden orange garibaldis—California’s official state marine fish—can be easy to catch a glimpse of due to their bright orange color. With a bit of luck, kayakers might also be able to spot bat rays, leopard sharks, dolphins, and flying fish. Ferries leave regularly for Catalina from four mainland ports: Long Beach, San Pedro, Dana Point, and Newport Beach.
Best for: catching a concert
Point Loma doesn’t have as much to see as La Jolla, but catching a concert via kayak is a long-standing San Diego tradition. Every summer, Humphrey’s Concerts By the Bay offers a series of concerts at their outdoor venue. Tickets can be pricey and the shows often sell out, but those who paddle out in the water can listen to the concert for free.