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Drakes Estero by Kayak: Everything You Need to Know

Seals as seen from a kayak in Drakes Estero

The magnificent Point Reyes National Seashore offers abundant opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts, from hiking trails to wildlife viewing to exploring the shoreline by kayak. Drakes Estero, a wildlife-rich habitat and designated marine wilderness just off of Drakes Bay, offers a unique location alongside the park for kayakers to boat alongside harbor seals and leopard sharks and take in the beauty of the coastline from the water. 

However, since Drakes Estero is a protected ecosystem and it opens up to the Pacific Ocean, there are some important things to consider before kayaking the Estero. Below, we’ll walk you through some frequently asked questions and common concerns about exploring Drakes Estero by kayak and offer insider tips for making the most of your next paddling adventure.


What is an Estero?

An 'Estero' is a Spanish term that generally refers to an estuary, a partially enclosed coastal body of water with one or more rivers or streams flowing into it and with a free connection to the open sea. Estuaries form a transition zone between river environments and maritime environments and are subject to both marine influences, such as tides, waves, and the influx of saline water, and riverine influences, such as flows of fresh water and sediment. The inflows of both seawater and freshwater provide high levels of nutrients in both the water column and sediment, making estuaries among the most productive natural habitats in the world.


When is the Best Time to Kayak Drakes Estero?

Drakes Estero has one of the largest resident populations of harbor seals on the West Coast, and paddlers should note it is closed to visitors during seal pupping season, which runs March 1 - June 30. July and August are active times to visit the Estero (thanks to the activity of the seals), but high winds and fierce tides can make these months less ideal for paddling. September through November are the best months overall for kayaking Drakes Estero.  December, January, and February are also wonderful times to paddle with less wind, but kayakers should be mindful of Elephant Seals on Drake’s Beach, which begins in December.

Tips for Experiencing Drakes Estero by Kayak

Leave early in the morning for the best wind and tide situation. Paddle out on a slack tide or small ebb to Drake’s Beach, have a picnic, and take a short walk to see the Pacific Ocean. Ride the tide back. The prevailing wind should also be at your back upon the return but not always! Be advised, that the west shoreline is shallow, and there is a large trough on the eastern shoreline with deeper water. Guides are highly recommended due to the impact of the tides. It’s easy to get stuck in the mud or drawn out to sea by the tides. Tours take place during neap tides and launch early.  


What Wildlife Can I Encounter While Kayaking Drakes Estero?

Drakes Estero is a goldmine for wildlife lovers, particularly those fond of large sea mammals including seals, otters, and friendly leopard sharks. Migratory and resident birds are also abundant in the Estero. Birdwatchers can see Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Cormorants, American White Pelicans, Brown Pelicans, Avocets, Long-Billed Dowitchers, Long-Billed Curlews, Sandpipers, Western Sandpipers, Yellow Legs, Surf Scoters, Buffleheads, Coots and Sanderlings among others. 

Drake’s Beach is a major breeding ground for Elephant Seals. Most of these aquatic beasts huddle on secluded beaches, beginning 1.5 miles SW of the spit (mouth of Drakes Estero) just beyond the Kenneth C Patrick Visitor Center.  If elephant seals are present on the 1.5 miles stretch of beach near the mouth of Drakes Estero, you must keep 25ft distance. The beach is closed from the far side of KC Patrick Visitor Center for 3.5 miles to the Lighthouse/ Chimney Rock, beginning in December.


Is it Safe to Kayak in Drakes Estero?

Yes. The primary safety concerns for paddling Drakes Estero are the potential for high winds and fierce or low tides. The water is shallow, so paddlers often find themselves stuck in the mud at low tides. For this reason, it’s best to only paddle on neap tides, which occur between the full and new moons. And during higher water levels above 2.5ft.   Avoid large tidal swings, particularly the ebb.

Insider Tip: Do not plan on GPS working in Tomales Bay, it is hit & miss depending on your cell network as is cell phone service in general.  Always bring a compass and learn how to use it prior to launch. 

Is Drakes Estero Good for Beginning Paddlers?

Drakes Estero is not the best destination for beginning paddlers due to high winds and complex tides. A better place for beginners is the Napa or Petaluma Rivers. 


Where Do I Put in at Drakes Estero?

There is only one launch point at Drakes Estero. It is full of oyster shells buried in the mud, so be sure to wear water shoes or sandals. You will get wet during the launch.  

The coordinates to the launch location are 38.0828648, -122,9322099      

Look for a sign on Sir Francis Drake Blvd to “Drakes Estero” on the left, about 12 minutes from Inverness.   Exit onto a dirt road that dead-ends at the launch.  


Can I Swim in Drakes Estero?

Technically, you can swim in Drakes Estero, but it’s not recommended because most of the Estero is very shallow and the water is cold year-round.


What Should I Wear to Kayak at Drakes Estero?

The water in Drakes Bay and Estero ranges from around 52-56 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year, so protection from drips while paddling is crucial in colder months. As with any active outdoor activity, non-cotton layers, including performance fabrics and merino wool, are your best option because they wick moisture and regulate body temperature best. A waterproof jacket and pants are helpful in cooler months when staying dry is paramount. Gloves are optional but are essential in winter. Sunscreen, sunglasses, or a hat are advisable year-round due to UV rays reflecting off the water. Finally, waterproof shoes or sandals are essential because your feet will get wet during the launch, and lots of oyster shells will be buried in the sand at the launch site. Don’t forget any appropriate safety gear recommended or required by your tour guide or within the park. 


Are There Kayak Tours Available on Drakes Estero?

Kayak and SUP tours are abundant on Drakes Estero. They include full and half-day excursions, often to Drake’s Beach. They typically launch before 9:30 am to exploit tide and wind conditions. The tide level must be above 2.5 feet during the neap tides. Some self-guided tours are also available for more experienced paddlers. Taking a tour is strongly recommended for your first trip to Drake’s Estero and will help ensure you have a safe, fun paddling excursion by leveraging the best routes and timing your trip for the best overall experience. Fun fact: early risers might be treated to the unique sounds of a “coyote sunrise” that echoes throughout Estero, thanks to the population of coyotes that live in the Point Reyes area.


What is the Best Type of Kayak for Paddling Drakes Estero?

Because of the distance and proximity to the ocean, Drake’s Estero requires longer kayaks (12’+) that can move swiftly through the water. Longer paddle boards are also a great way to explore, especially if your goal is to see the wildlife beneath you.


3 Reasons to Explore Drakes Estero by Kayak

  1. It’s arguably the best kayaking experience in the SF Bay Area, offering pristine, secluded, unrivaled wilderness and incredible wildlife. The terrain has the look & feel of Baja Mexico.  
  2. Rivals Elkhorn Slough for wildlife, but instead of sea otters, you’ll find an abundance of harbor seals and sea otters that will keep you company. Elephant Seals are present in December and January. Paddleboarders will likely experience leopard sharks, sometimes huge colonies of leopard sharks, with a guide. The natural environment here is more pristine than Elkhorn Slough, however, thanks to protection by Point Reyes National Seashore.
  3. Leopard sharks are abundant in Drake’s Estero. They move in to feed with the flood tide and out into deeper water during the ebb tide. These friendly sharks scavenge for food and are beautiful to watch beneath the water.


As you can tell, Drakes Estero in Point Reyes National Seashore is a magnificent destination for kayaking, especially for wildlife enthusiasts and anyone who appreciates breathtaking shoreline views. As with any kayaking adventure near the open ocean, common sense precautions, proper gear, and safety measures are essential to ensure your visit is enjoyable and safe.

At Napa Valley Paddle, we’ve led kayak tours and facilitated paddling expeditions in Drakes Estero for several years. Our experienced guides provide helpful safety and kayaking tips while treating guests to an unforgettable experience in this rich, diverse marine wilderness. If you’re curious about exploring Drakes Estero by kayak but prefer a group excursion, you can find details about all of our Bay Area kayaking and paddling options right here