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The Napa River: A Complete Guide for Outdoor Enthusiasts

A kayaker enjoys paddling along the Napa River marshlands

Although Napa Valley is synonymous with wine, the region offers ample outdoor activities and adventures too. With temperate year-round weather, gorgeous seasonal wildflowers, and easy access to the Napa River, outdoor enthusiasts would be mistaken to believe that wine is the only attraction in the region.

The Napa River is fed by local watersheds and courses through downtown Napa merging with San Pablo Bay. At approximately 55 miles long it is one of the largest rivers in the central coast range and winds through many different types of landscapes from coastal wetlands to vineyards to urban and agricultural environments. Due to its length and location, the river is a favorite destination for paddling, fishing and boating as well as wildlife viewing. In this article, we’ll help you get to know the Napa River so you can know when, where, and how to make the most of your time on (or in!) the water.


Where is the Napa River?

The Napa River, a vital and picturesque waterway, originates from the slopes of Mt. St. Helena and meanders through the breadth of Napa County before it finally merges with the waters of San Pablo Bay. For those curious about its course, it's important to note that the river is not just a secluded natural wonder but integrates seamlessly into both wild and urban settings. The river's navigable waterways extend from the tidal wetlands located south of downtown Napa, stretching north beyond the urban canopy of the Oxbow District, reaching as far as Trancas Crossing Park. The Napa River flows south into the northern reaches of San Pablo Bay, offering a unique blend of ecological zones that are both a sanctuary for wildlife and a haven for outdoor enthusiasts.


Is the Napa River Freshwater?

The Napa River presents an intriguing blend of freshwater and saltwater, characterizing it as brackish. This unique combination arises from the river being fed by freshwater sources starting at its origins before it eventually mingles with the saline waters of San Pablo Bay. The interplay between these freshwater and saltwater influences is most apparent in downtown Napa, where the "salt line" — the point up to which saltwater intrudes — fluctuates based on rainfall and tidal changes. This dynamic interaction between freshwater flow and tidal saltwater has sculpted the river's distinctive oxbow curve in the heart of Downtown Napa, creating a fascinating ecological and visual feature of the area.


Can You Swim in the Napa River?

While the Napa River is impacted by agricultural runoff, including pesticides, it remains a popular swimming destination among locals in freshwater swimming holes, up valley. Its status as the most ecologically diverse river in the Bay Area, combined with regular cleansing by natural flood events every two to three years, helps maintain its vitality. Down valley, the warm water near Kennedy Park are especially clean and is suitable for adults, thanks to filtration by a vast, 300-acre restored wetland area. Although the river's brackish waters in the tidal region can be less inviting for swimming, Lake Berryessa offers a prime alternative with its fresh water.


Where Can You Fish in the Napa River?

Fishing in the Napa River is particularly rewarding for those targeting striped bass, with the best conditions present during the summer and fall months. The clarity of the water, heavily influenced by winter runoff, becomes optimal in the fall.  Water temperature is also a factor because the bait fish spawn above a certain threshold.  If migratory shorebirds are feeding along the floodplain, bait fish are likely present which attracts the big fish.  For an adventurous fishing experience, renting a kayak allows anglers to follow the tidal flows from Cuttings Wharf to the Downtown Napa area, casting lures along the shore in pursuit of these ambush predators. Striped bass, known for their vast migratory patterns, can be encountered throughout the river, from its mouth up to Trancas Crossing Park. Additionally, for those looking for a guided experience, chartering a boat to explore the Napa-Sonoma Marsh offers another fruitful avenue for anglers.


Can You Kayak the Napa River?

Certainly! Kayaking on the Napa River offers a wonderful experience for both novices and seasoned paddlers alike. The river, known for its mild tidal currents, provides an extraordinary adventure, especially when considering the patterns of the prevailing WSW winds. Consult the tide chart or call a local outfitter and paddle a morning, high tide.  The winds typically start around 1 pm, increasing to speeds between 4-8 mph from 2 pm to 6 pm, which is most noticeable in the late Spring and early Summer months. During this time, kayakers can enjoy a thrilling one-way trip from Kennedy Park to the downtown area in the afternoon, riding both the wind and the tide. The afternoon wind is less prevalent in the Winter and Fall, offering calmer conditions suitable for all paddling experiences.  

Regarding the best routes for kayaking, the Downtown/Oxbow District shines in the summer months when the trees above the Oxbow regain their foliage by late April. In contrast, late summer and fall bring a pleasant change as shorebirds arrive, making a trip from Kennedy Park to the Oxbow District notably engaging. During the colder months, particularly January - April the wetlands of Los Carneros or the area south of downtown near Kennedy Park become prime spots for kayaking. This period aligns with waterfowl migrations and the blooming of wild radishes in Fagan Preserve, creating a picturesque paddling experience that highlights the natural beauty and ecological diversity of the Napa River area.


Where Can You Hike Along the Napa River?

  • Oxbow Preserve   
  • Wetlands Edge Trail      
  • Kennedy Park to Imola Bridge or Downtown   
  • Buchli Station    
  • Trancas Crossing Park
  • Oxbow Commons to Trancas St

What Lives in the Napa River?

A wide variety of fish and water-loving mammals live in and along the river including:

  • Steelhead
  • Chinook Salmon
  • Striped bass
  • Sturgeon
  • River otter
  • Beaver
  • Migratory sea lions
  • Harbor porpoises
  • Mink

What Types of Birds Can Be Found Along the Napa River?

Birdwatching along the Napa River is equally rewarding, with resident birds like the Kingfisher, Egret, Great Blue Heron, Red Tail Hawk, Harrier Hawks and Peregrine Falcon making regular appearances. The arrival of migratory birds such as Black Neck Stilts, Sandpipers, Yellow Legs, and Long-Billed Curlews alongside Canvasback Ducks, Bufflehead Ducks, and Mallards during specific seasons, marks the river as a hub of avian diversity. July and August see shorebirds flocking to the area following an increase in bait fish and improved water clarity, while September welcomes songbirds. Waterfowl season begins late September/October when a variety of ducks take residence in Fagan Preserve and the wetlands surrounding Los Carneros.  These birds prepare for their northward migration in February, providing a splendid display for wildlife enthusiasts.


Which Sections of the Napa River are Most Scenic?

When exploring the most scenic sections of the Napa River, the area from Downtown Napa up to the Lincoln Bridge, particularly from May through November, stands out for its vibrant urban forest, especially in the fall. This period highlights the dynamic ecosystem of the river, teeming with shorebirds, and witnessing the migration of salmon, striped bass, and steelhead, which in turn attracts sea lions and otters, and even the rare sight of a harbor porpoise. Kayakers and nature enthusiasts are encouraged to set aside a full or half day to paddle from Kennedy Park to downtown Napa, venturing further into the northern reaches beyond the Oxbow to experience the stark, beautiful transition from salt marsh to dense forest. 

In contrast, the winter and spring months offer spectacular paddling experiences in the Los Carneros wetlands, when the winds are gentler, and the Pacific Flyway is bustling with migratory birds. This time of year is also renowned for its breathtaking sunsets and panoramic views of the surrounding mountains, making it a prime location for those seeking serene beauty and a direct connection with nature's rhythm.


Ready to Explore the Napa River?

The Napa River provides outdoor enthusiasts with myriad opportunities to get out and enjoy nature, whether they are squeezing in a midday stroll while downtown or planning a full-day fishing or paddling adventure on the water. With abundant wildlife, diverse landscapes, and generally flat, calm conditions, the Napa River is ideal for families, less-experienced boaters, and those looking for something unique to do in Napa Valley!

Here at Napa Valley Paddle, the Napa River is our home base, our playground, and one of our favorite places to share with novice and experienced paddlers alike. We offer kayak and paddleboard rentals, lessons and several different guided and self-guided tours in the region helping visitors and residents experience the Napa Valley in a whole new way – from the water. Let us show you the Napa River by booking one of our tours today.