We love spending time in California’s Sierras, the mountains in the eastern part of the state. This area includes Lake Tahoe, Yosemite National Park, Mammoth Lakes and more. Kayaking in the Sierras is very different from paddling in the Adirondacks or kayaking in South Florida. It’s full of quiet lake, hot sun and geology lessons along the shore. We love it here!
Kayaking California’s Sierra Nevada mountains is very different from paddling the coastal waterways of Southern California also. Here you’ve go towering trees, twisting, rapid rivers, and lakes reflecting the faces of mountains, all in a climate that allows you to experience the best of California (in the summer). Regardless of the season, California’s Sierra Mountain region is full of cool sights, fun hikes and great places to go kayaking.
If we didn’t include a Sierra kayaking spot you love, please let us know. Leave a comment or send us a note with your recommendation. We’re always happy to share more and add to our next trip to the California mountains!
Kayaking at Lake Tahoe in the Sierras
Spanning across a stretch of the border between California and Nevada, with the winning combination of clarity and a depth of over 1,600 feet, Lake Tahoe is a treat for those who enjoy seeing history preserved beneath them or complete immersion in nature. Water temperatures are between 40°F-65°F year-round. Yes, people swim but it’s too cool for me. I’ve gotten in and know that I prefer to enjoy kayaking on Lake Tahoe more than swimming.
Boats, docks, and other manmade objects that find their way to the bottom of lake Tahoe are nearly frozen in time due to the lake’s natural preservation. The water here is so clean that it is not required to be filtered before being bottled by local companies. You’ll see the many “Keep Tahoe Blue” stickers on peoples’ cars and it’s because this place is so gorgeous and special.
At 22 miles long by 12 miles wide, the 72-mile circumference of the lake provides lots of opportunities to find a cove to your liking or a launch for some of the coolest kayaking in the Sierras. Summer has great weather to paddleboard or kayak along the coves. Temperatures in the range of 50°F-80°F in summer make the cool water refreshing if you’re into that.
Intense kayakers looking for something extreme should be sure to visit this area in the winter months. Even with lows reaching the 10s in the harder weeks of winter, Lake Tahoe’s mass keeps the water from freezing over, leaving it more than able to still be paddled. Chilly but beautiful!
Sand Harbor State Park, Nevada
Yes, this is on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe, but it’s an easy location and the clarity of the water is amazing. Also, there are kayak and SUP rentals at Sand Harbor State Park, so this makes for a good place to stop if you aren’t planning a paddling vacation, but just happen to be in the area.
From the beach on either side of the State Park’s peninsula, put in your kayak or SUP and paddle the edge of the lake as far as you like. You’ll love the bald eagles, the epic rocks and the unbelievable blue water.
Baldwin Beach at South Lake Tahoe
With no need to haul kayak or SUP equipment down steep trails or through the woods, Baldwin Beach is as close to beach parking as one can get in the Tahoe area. Along the south shore of Lake Tahoe, one is able to look out over the water from their own vehicle. As it is a small pebble beach, water shoes are recommended if you plan to run along the shoreline, but they are not required.
Slightly further from town, Baldwin Beach is less popular with the crowds while still allowing for the shared beauty of the stretch of sand among the evergreens. This is a SUP friendly spot and a great paddle in California!
Kayaking the Sierras at Emerald Bay State Park, SW Tahoe
Along the southwest end of the lake lies the isolated Emerald Bay State Park. With several nearby campgrounds, hiking trails, and shores along the water, Emerald Bay is a gorgeous stop. This area is also home to California’s first maritime heritage trail. Scuba divers, or those confident with their freediving ability (reminded: COLD WATER), can tour the underwater interpretive panels, detailing the history of barges, boats, and piers.
With depths ranging from 10-60 feet, the clarity of the water allows those on the surface above to easily gaze at all that’s beneath them. The largest issue with this section is its difficulty to reach by kayak. With no immediate beach entry points to take a kayak or SUP off a car, you may have to enter the lake at Baldwin Beach (see above), paddling a mile and a half to the mouth of the bay. The semi-remote nature of this spot makes it all the more desirable to spend an afternoon. This is another SUP friendly Lake Tahoe kayaking spot if you don’t mind the lengthy paddle.
Tahoe Keys Kayaking, SE Tahoe
A quaint little suburban community on a set of keys, the Tahoe Keys are great, calm waters for those who enjoy exploring marinas on kayaks or paddle boards. One can park at the marina to easily get their watercraft into the water. If you are looking for something of a challenge, adjacent to the marina’s entrance, there lies one of the rivers that feed into Lake Tahoe. This is a good SUP spot.
Kayaking the Sierras: Upper Truckee River, SE Tahoe
Located adjacent to the Tahoe Keys, parking and getting to the water shouldn’t be an issue. It is recommended to visit towards the end of summer or beginning of fall for the best upstream river paddling conditions. Spring snowmelt can cause intense and difficult to navigate rapids; something that should be avoided like the plague for any entry-level paddlers kayaking. However, from September to October, this 21-mile long river proves an excellent course to check out native flora and fauna.
It can be exhausting paddling upriver, but the benefit of a route of this style is being able to relax on the way downstream whenever you so choose, nearly all the way back to your vehicle. Remember, THIS IS FOR AUTUMN PADDLING.
Commons Beach, NW Lake Tahoe
For those searching out a more family-oriented environment, in the sense of ease of transport, minimal hikes, and access to groceries all while being a stone’s throw away from the water, Commons Beach park is the spot for you. On the western shore of Lake Tahoe, Commons Beach is super popular for swimming in summer, and then within a few minutes walk you’ll find a variety of restaurants and hotels.
Community events, such as Wednesday movie nights or Sunday music in the park, are hosted at the beach’s amphitheater which are a perfect way to end the day if you’ve been out kayaking Lake Tahoe. The shoreline here may not be as naturally, aesthetically pleasing as the surrounding areas, but for kayakers bringing little ones along, it is a spot that’s hard to beat. Bring a SUP for paddling here too, if you like!
Yosemite Area Kayaking Spots
The United States’ third oldest National Park, Yosemite itself is a great example of our countries’ connection to preserving the natural world from our own impact. Most well known for its towering waterfalls and the world-famous granite cliff face, El Capitan and the incredible Half Dome, Yosemite National Park also hosts beautiful rivers and lakes, great for those seeking to get out on the water rather than up on top of a mountain. Enter from the west side as you head towards Mammoth Lakes, make a stop at Tunnel View and then continue onto some beautiful kayaking spots.
Note: before you plan your kayaking in Yosemite, review their regulations and make sure your plans fit with what the National Park Service both allows and considers safe within the park bounds.
Kayaking Tenaya Lake by Yosemite
Tenaya Lake is one of the best places for kayaking in Yosemite country. A glacial lake featuring a couple of dedicated picnic locations, hidden in the shadows of the towering mountains surrounding it, Tenaya Lake is a bit off the beaten path with most visitors not making this far east into the park.
Being outside of Yosemite Valley but still within the park itself, there is a comparatively minimal amount of traffic and distractions from other guests. Mountain faces reflected on the lake make for a stunning spot to go paddling. At the elevation of 8,150 feet, the intensity of the sun contrasted by the icy cold water makes for a refreshing day. This is a great Yosemite SUP spot.
Kayaking the Merced River in Yosemite National Park
This is the most epic of all the kayaking you can do in National Parks (or close to it!). True, when you’re kayaking in Yellowstone you can paddle past geysers, or Everglades National Park you’ve got alligators and manatees, and then Acadia National Park is epically Maine, but the views from the Merced River are top notch. Where else can you kayak and see waterfalls, granite cliffs and the most famous iconic sights in the USA?
Starting at Clarks Bridge just past Curry Village in the Yosemite Valley, put in and head downstream for four miles. You’ll come across class I and II rapids, as well as lots of calm areas. There are a few places to either stop or end your paddle, but I vote to go all the way to Cathedral Beach. This is our favorite picnic area and the ideal spot to end your Yosemite Valley kayaking.
Reminder: you need to bring your own gear for kayaking in Yosemite National Park.
Experienced Technical Paddling on the Merced River
If you’re a more experienced kayaker or even intense inflatable SUP user, you might want the challenge that the rest of Merced River has to offer. These are not routes for long, hard to quickly maneuver kayaks, but for short river kayaks. Starting at Redbud Picnic site as the put-in with a 14 mile away take-out site at Briceburg suspension bridge, one can follow the twists, waves, and drops that class III-IV rapids have to offer. All while immersed in a valley known globally for its jaw-dropping beauty.
If those 14 miles aren’t enough to satisfy, one can take the take-out point at Briceburg suspension bridge and instead have it be a put-in or continuation to follow the river another 12 miles, coming out at Bagby Reservoir. On this route, you’ll hit even more class IV rapids, making it essential to have a spotter. These routes should only be attempted by those with experience in white water environments as a fun day on the river can go wrong in a moment without proper training.
Kayaking in California’s Sierra National Forest
South of Yosemite and far less crowded is the Sierra National Forest. It lacks the same monumental rock formations that brought Yosemite its fame but the Sierra National Forest shouldn’t be overlooked. Kayakers and paddle boarders alike are sure to enjoy the rocky, pine-surrounded lakes; many with roads making them easily accessible. That’s not to mention the dozens of campgrounds across the forest, allowing for multiple-day exploration without ever needing to head back to civilization.
Wishon Reservoir Paddling
Between Yosemite and Kings Canyons National Parks you’ll find a few beautiful spots in the Sierras for kayaking, specifically there are some reservoirs open to paddlers that are a part of either the National Forest or they’re BLM sites.
Nearby to the Lily Pad campground and Wishon Village RV park, this open reservoir is great for kayaking if you want to get outdoors as well as avoid lots of crowds. Wishon Reservoir provides flat water that lets you cruise around the two-mile-long lake with ease, particularly in the early morning hours before it’s too hot out. Tired of paddling but still wanna spend the day on the water? Wishon Village also offers boat rentals, as well as most essentials at their camp store. This is a great example of public lands that you might not think of for paddling but is kind of awesome.
Kayaking California’s Sierras: Courtright Reservoir
If even an RV park is too many people for your liking yet you still enjoy the idea of paddling for days on end, surrounded by trees, less than ten miles north of Wishon Reservoir, you’ll find Courtright Reservoir. Courtright does offer you the ability to pay for a campsite, similar to Lily Pad campgrounds, but there are also areas dedicated to dispersed camping. Voyager Rock Campground is only accessible by high-clearance 4WD vehicles or by cutting across the lake. If you’re seeking to just “get away” from it all, bring your tent and hammock along, as there is no feeling like being along the water of alpine lakes.
Both the Wishon and Courtright Reservoirs are about two hours east of Bass Lake, which is pretty much the boating and fishing playground closest to Yosemite. The reservoirs are more mellow than Bass Lake, which makes them ideal for kayaking.
California’s Famous Bass Lake
Oh, what’s that? Didn’t I just mention Bass Lake? One of Sierra Nevada National Forest’s premier lakes for a variety of activities. Wake up early in the morning and kayak the shorefront of Bass Lake or feel free to spend a few hours strolling one of the dozens of trails the area has to offer. Hike up Glass Rock for a great vantage point. With numerous campgrounds and a resort on the lakefront, there are sure to be nearby accommodations for adventurers of all kinds.
Note: like with any manmade lake or reservoir, the water level fluctuates based on rainfall and raising/lowering the water. Bass Lake sometimes is much lower than you might expect, but you can still paddle it with caution.
Can I Kayak in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks?
I would love to say that Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks are prime kayaking destinations, but due to the nature of the rivers in both parks being very rocky and the rapids being Class III+, it’s not a destination we recommend for most paddlers. If you are an experienced rapids paddler, kayaking in Sequoia National Park is possible on the Kaweah if you have the skills and gear for a Class IV paddle, or the Kings River for a similar experience.
Outside of the southern entrance to Sequoia National Park is Lake Kaweah, which is beautiful and has three great launch points offering different views and shorelines to kayak along.
Launch sites on Lake Kaweah:
- Slick Rock Recreation Area
- Horse Creek Recreation Area
- Lemon Hill Recreation Area or the Kaweah Marina
Tours for Kayaking in California’s Sierras
4 Day Sierra Nevada Tour and Lake Tahoe Tour – A round trip tour from San Francisco, including accommodation, of Yosemite National park and the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. Have a guide show you the best spots, including Yosemite’s giant sequoias and the ghost town of Bodie State Historic Park. It wouldn’t be a complete tour without being able to also decide between kayaking or paddle boarding the pristine waters of Lake Tahoe.
Historic Tour Lake Tahoe West Shore – Take a morning tour of the calm waters of Lake Tahoe’s historic west shore. Have a guide teach you about how the lake was used before the modern introduction of casinos and resorts.
There are lots more wonderful places for kayaking in the Sierras, but this is a great list to start with. Don’t forget that you should always bring PFDs/life jackets and to check local regulations for where you can launch your kayaks. If you have more tips or places you want to recommend, please leave a comment or send us a note. We’re always happy to share more!