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10 Best Places to Go Kayaking in the SF Bay Area

woman on a kayak in the SF Bay Area

Kayaking might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the San Francisco Bay Area. But hilly streets, big tech, a famous bridge, and world-class wines are far from the only attractions in this bustling urban environment. 

Despite being home to three major metropolises and 101 total municipalities, the Bay Area boasts some incredible options for paddlers of all ages and experience levels. From riding king tides on the Petaluma River to experiencing bioluminescence on Tomales Bay, we’ll introduce you to the 10 best places to go kayaking in the SF Bay Area. These beautiful and unique destinations will inspire you to get out on the water, discover new areas, and experience the Bay Area like never before. 

The Ultimate Guide to Bay Area Kayaking

If you are new to the SF Bay Area or just new to kayaking, there are several important things to know about paddling in this region. Although geographically not huge, the SF Bay Area contains several microclimates that impact water temperatures, wind, and air temperatures that you’ll want to be aware of. In short, the weather and the water differ dramatically from place to place. For example, the Pacific Ocean is notoriously chilly – even in the summer – while the northern reach of San Pablo Bay (including the Napa and Petaluma rivers and marshes) offers water as warm as 70 degrees in the summer months. 

The swells, tides, and wildlife are also important factors to consider and will vary at each location. Finally, congestion and boat traffic are other variables to consider. Paddling in areas with motorized boats means more wake and additional hazards to contend with. Your confidence and experience level with kayaking will help you determine the best place for you to kayak in the SF Bay Area, with anything closer to the ocean being the most challenging and extreme, to the areas further inland which are better suited for beginners, due to their relatively calm waters.

The good news is, thanks to this incredible diversity, kayaking in the SF Bay Area offers something for everyone. Below we’ll walk you through the best places to paddle in the region, from beginner-friendly routes on warm river waters to more challenging adventures in Tomales Bay.  

Where to Go Kayaking in the SF Bay Area


Photo credit: Point Reyes Nature

Drakes Estero

About: Drakes Estero is a pristine estuary flanked by steep bluffs and sandstone cliffs in Point Reyes National Seashore. It offers several paddle routes with abundant wildlife both above and below the surface and opens up to the Pacific Ocean at the secluded, southeastern tip of Drake’s Beach.  

Distance from San Francisco: 58 miles

Best for: Guided tours or very experienced paddlers. Great for those seeking more seclusion and abundant wildlife encounters and viewing opportunities. 

Things to note: There is a large population of resident harbor seals and the area is closed for several months each spring during seal pupping season. Paddlers will also enjoy viewing leopard sharks, a variety of shorebirds, sea otters, and the American White Pelican. If you go early, you might hear howling coyotes echo through the Estero at sunrise.  Overall it’s very shallow and extremely tidal. 

Tips: Paddleboards are advised to view leopard sharks below. If kayaking, you’ll want 12ft kayaks or longer. Kayaks, particularly sit-inside vessels, are less susceptible to wind. Hiring a guide is highly recommended due to tides, wind, and proximity to the ocean. If going without a guide, always consult tide charts. Launch early before the wind begins because a normal, NW prevailing wind blows on-shore in the afternoon. For more information, check out Drakes Estero by Kayak: Everything You Need to Know.


b1-kayaking-in-sf-bay-3Photo credit: East Bay Parks

East Bay

About: Separating San Francisco from Oakland, the East Bay offers convenient paddling options for city dwellers. Coast Guard Island and Alameda offer nice estuary kayaking, particularly the eastern side which offers more wind protection while expansive views of San Francisco and the Bay Bridge can be found along the western shore.

Distance from SF: Varies depending on the launch point, but approximately 15 miles.

Best for: Easy access from the urban center. East Bay kayaking offers a quick way to unplug and immerse yourself in nature while getting exercise.

Things to note: Brotzeit Lokal offers good access and a small marina. Paddlers can launch from here to explore the east side of Alameda Island.


B1-kayaking-in-the-sf-bay-4Photo credit: eBirds

Fagan Marsh State Marine Park

About: Fagan Marsh is a preserved wetland in the Los Carneros champagne district of Napa Valley abutting the Napa River. It offers a meandering 3.25-mile loop at high tide.  It is a major stop along the Pacific flyway with narrow sloughs and sweeping views of Mt. Diablo, Mt. Tam, Atlas Peak, and a rare perspective of Mt. Veeder. It's a lovely wine country paddling experience. 

Distance from SF: 44 miles

Best for: Great for families, bird lovers, and folks looking to immerse themselves in nature.

Things to note: Fagan Marsh is only accessible at high tide. Great Fall, Winter & Spring paddling with the peak of shorebird action in September- November. February is the peak of waterfowl migration, you may experience thousands of waterfowl flying overhead. Wildflowers bloom in April & May.  Flight of the American White Pelican can be seen at sunset during summer.

Tips: Hire a local guide to help you make the most of your first trip. The best sunsets in Napa Valley are from this location. You can add 1.5 miles to the paddle route when launching from the Cuttings Wharf boat ramp.


b1-kayaking-in-sf-bay-5Photo Credit: NVP

Napa River

About: One of the most scenic destinations for kayaking in the SF Bay Area, Napa River provides paddlers an opportunity to enjoy the full transition from wetlands in Los Carneros champagne region through the renaissance of Downtown Napa into the freshwater forest above the Oxbow in just 4 to 6 miles. The half-billion-dollar “Living River Restoration” ushered in an environmental resurgence over the past two decades, making Napa River the most biologically diverse river in the Bay Area.

Distance from SF: 54 miles to Kennedy Park

Best for:  Offering flat, tidal wider with little boat traffic, Napa River is ideal for families and beginning paddlers. It is also the closest warm water paddling to San Francisco, is very safe, sunny, and always close to shore.

Things to note:  Two distinct ecosystems exist here in a span of just 4 miles – saltwater wetlands to the south of town and freshwater forest to the north. Napa River is a major stop along the Pacific Flyway in Los Carneros, 6 miles south of downtown. Salmon, steelhead, and migratory striped bass arrive in the Fall during the peak of wildlife action. Sea lions and harbor porpoises often follow the salmon run.  River otters and beavers are also active.

Tips: Exploring the Oxbow District by water is highly recommended at tide levels above 2 ft and offers wind protection even during the afternoon hours, most days. For the best experience, ride the tide from Kennedy Park to Oxbow and double back to finish on the Main St Dock during a leisurely two-hour paddle.  Uber & Lyft are easily accessible above the Main Street Dock and just 7 min back to your car.


b1-kayaking-in-sf-bay-6Photo credit: Visit Petaluma

Petaluma River

About: A good place for families and kids to experience paddle sports in Downtown Petaluma at the Turn Basin. Paddle sports have become a central component to the Petaluma community and will only grow as the Petaluma River Park is completed over the next few years.  

Distance from SF: 40 miles

Best for: Good place for beginners of all ages to experience paddle sports. 

Things to note: Downtown Petaluma is more of a social experience, with easy accessibility, and high visibility and a great place to be introduced to paddle sports across a broad range of vessels. Petaluma is known for a NW wind that blows off the ocean, through the Petaluma Gap, and down the river in the afternoon. The Petaluma Valley south of town offers sweeping wetland views, oak-studded hills of Olampali, and a ridgeline that extends to Mt. Tam. For an in-depth guide, don't miss our Ultimate Guide to Kayaking and Paddling the Petaluma River.

Tips: For those seeking adventure and exploration, best to launch from the Petaluma Marina and paddle upriver to downtown to enjoy restaurants & shops, then paddle downriver in the afternoon with wind at your back. The marina launch offers immediate access from Hwy 101 and plenty of parking. Or, for the ultimate adventure, paddle one-way from either downtown Petaluma or the marina and ride the tide and wind to Lakeville Landing, or for a full-day paddle, continue to Black Point at the mouth of San Pablo Bay. Consult your local outfitter for rentals, launch times & shuttle.


b1-kayaking-sf-bay-6Photo Credit: Marin County CVB

Tomales Bay

About: Paddle Paradise! Arguably the best paddling on the West Coast of North America due to its sheer beauty, size, and orientation to the Pacific Ocean which brings warmer water, flatter water, and wind protection. Tomales Bay is also part of Point Reyes National Seashore, adding to the natural beauty of this SF Bay area kayaking destination.

Distance from SF: 53 miles

Best for: Experienced paddlers or guided tours. Be sure to check out nighttime bioluminescence tours for a one-of-a-kind experience. There is very little light pollution for nighttime excursions. The bay also offers flatter water than the open ocean and wind protection for an extraordinary experience. 

Things to note: Nick’s Cove/Miller Boat Ramp offers the best water access in Tomales Bay and the paddle to Hog Island and back is just 1.5 miles round trip. Paddlers must stay 300ft from Hog Island on the NW shore. A shallow channel exists between Nick’s Cove and Hog Island with a deeper channel on the West side of Hog Island.  Water can get choppy quickly, in the channel between Nick’s Cove and Hog Island. Check wind forecasts and plan accordingly. Wildlife lovers should note, a mating colony of cormorants live here, as well as brown pelicans and harbor seals. The life beneath the surface here includes leopard sharks, bat rays, and halibut.  

Tips: August - November are the best months for kayaking in Tomales Bay, although winter months can also be extraordinary. To maximize your time spent on the water, and ensure the best routes, timing, and launch locations we recommend a guide both day and night.  For rentals, stick to Inverness or Hearts Desire before 11 am and consult the tide charts.


b1-kayaking-sf-bay-7Photo Credit: Sonoma County Tourism

Russian River 

About: The northern reaches above Healdsburg during freshwater flows are world-class kayaking in the SF Bay Area. The bottom section can be crowded and unpleasant especially during drought years since the water is unclean. Joining the elbow-to-elbow summer crowds can be fun if you’re seeking a more social experience. But to avoid the chaos try the headwaters of the Russian River down by Jenner – or for those with advanced skills, hire a guide and paddle the northern reaches. With proper advice, you can also find a similar experience “riding the tide” on the Napa or Petaluma River.

Distance from SF: 87 miles

Best for: Advanced paddlers comfortable on inflatable paddle boards due to Class I/II rapids and many obstructions.   

Things to note: Extremely limited or no access.  Must hire a guide and leave a car at the finish.   Headwinds can emerge as early as noon.  Requires an average to above average rain year, particularly rains late in the season. Paddling here is only possible in late spring/early summer based on freshwater flows. The best route is the Upper Russian River at Cloverdale or Jim Town to Healdsburg.  Use extreme caution.


b1-kayaking-sf-bay-8Photo Credit: The Nature Conservancy

Elkhorn Slough

About: Located in scenic Monterey Bay, which is home to more than 2000 sea otters. This area has a rich history and was the original economic engine for northern California and the West Coast at large. It’s the home of Cannery Row and an abundance of aquatic life, largely a result of conservation spearheaded by the Packard Foundation. Beneath the surface, the Monterey Canyon and ocean currents combine to support incredible life throughout the water column, featuring deep trenches and meanders with the majesty of the Grand Canyon.

Distance from SF: 97 miles

Best for: Beginners, families, and those interested in ecological conservation and sea otters.

Things to note: In addition to abundant sea otters, kayakers are also likely to see some seals.  The landscape is agricultural and less interesting. And, there is a massive power plant at Moss Landing symbolizing the fossil fuel era of American History but the rafts of sea otters are adorable.

Tips: Consider launching from the beach at Monterey Bay Kayak and paddling along Cannery Row to Monterey Bay Aquarium. Or, for a much shorter distance (3 miles, round trip)  launch from the boat ramp at Coast Guard Pier and ply waters to the kelp forest off of Lover’s Point. Make sure to stay outside the surf break, check the weather, and be prepared for fog squalls that can be disorienting. When in doubt, hire a guide.


b1-kayaking-sf-bay-9Photo Credit: National Park Service

Aquatic Park Cove, San Francisco

About: San Francisco Aquatic Park Cove is a great place to become acquainted with paddle sports. Like Petaluma Turn Basin,  it’s easily accessible and beginner-friendly. The water is colder here than in Petaluma but the Cove offers better views and nearly immediate access by cable car.  

Distance from SF: 0 miles

Best for: Beginners, families, city dwellers, and others interested in paddle sports

Things to note: A unique urban paddling experience. For paddlers with coastal kayaking experience, we recommend paddling to Alcatraz or along the San Francisco shoreline for a unique view of the city.


b1-kayaking-sf-bay-10Photo Credit: California State Parks

Sausalito/Angel Island

About:  Ever wanted to see the Golden Gate Bridge from the water? This destination offers amazing views of the San Francisco Skyline and Golden Gate Bridge as well as the opportunity to paddle out to Angel Island.

Distance from SF: 11 miles

Best for:  Experienced kayakers comfortable with boat wake and ocean swells.

Things to note: There is a lot of boat wake, ferry traffic, and exposure to swells coming in under the Golden Gate Bridge. This area is foggy in the summer, the water is cold year-round and parking is difficult. 

Tips: Paddle along the coastline to experience Sausalito by water or embark on an adventure to Angel Island with a pit stop in Tiburon. Get out early and consult the tide & weather forecast to ensure the best experience.


B1-China-CampPhoto credit: Califonia State Parks

San Rafael / China Camp

About: Stop in Hwy 101 Surf Sport for advice on how to time your route to Marin Island National Wildlife Preserve or China Camp. The shallow brackish water is great for kayak fishing!

Distance from SF: 20 miles to Loch Lomond

Best for: Kayak fishing is great in this area. For live bait and a launch ramp with immediate access to Marin Island, or a day trip to McNears Beach embark from Loch Lomond.

Things to note: The water can be shallow at times, and tidal with wakes from oil tankers closer to the shipping lane. Water moves more swiftly in the deep channel, and gets shallow quickly close to shore. Be mindful of the ebb tide to avoid getting marooned! Paddle early with higher water levels and take advantage of the ebb and flow.


5 Additional Places Worth Kayaking in the SF Bay Area

While these spots didn’t make our top ten, they are worth checking out if you live or will be traveling to these areas. Each offers unique paddling and wildlife opportunities.

  • Lake Berryessa - Oak Shores, Napa Valley
  • Lake Solano, outside Vacaville
  • Grizzly Island, Suisun City
  • Corte Madera Creek to San Quentin, Marin County 
  • Benicia State Park & Glen Cove - Vallejo

As you can see, there is no shortage of options for kayaking in the SF Bay Area. Whether you are just getting your feet wet in the sport or are a veteran paddler, the bays and rivers of this bustling area offer something for everyone. 

At Napa Valley Paddle, we offer guided and self-guided tours to the top paddling destinations in the Bay Area as well as kayak and paddle board sales and rentals. From wine country paddles to bioluminescent and full moon excursions, we love to share the beauty of this region and get people out on the water. Book a tour or learn more about us right here.