Kayak Camping in the Golden State
If you’re looking for a few options to spend your next trip, try kayak camping in California! The options are endless and the scenery is amazing!
Southern California’s stretch of the Colorado River, known as the Lower Colorado, is well worth a canoe or kayak camping trip.
The best stretch of Class I water begins near Blythe and ends at the Imperial Dam near Yuma, AZ. All about 100 miles from the border with Mexico.
Where to Start
The official River Trail Guide from the California Department of Boating & Waterways recommends that you put in at a park called Mayflower Park. This is just outside of Blythe and is a perfect put-in with free, public parking. You’ll need to run your own shuttle, by sending two cars to the takeout and parking one there.
This is a 2-hour drive one way, so you may want to do it the night before you start your trip. The takeout (where you’ll park one or more cars) is at Squaw Lake Recreational Area, on the California side of the river, 76 miles downstream.
For a shorter (45 mile) paddle, you can put in at Walter’s Camp, on an island at mile 30. If you do decide to put in here for a shorter paddle, the staff at Walter’s can shuttle you for a fee of about $70 per vehicle.
The trip can be broken up nicely into a four-day canoe or kayak camping trip, with a lighter first day. Some of the campsites are paid campsites, and you will need to reserve them ahead of time.
Where to Camp – Trip Plan (4-day)
On day 1, plan on camping at Mohave Wash, which is a jetty with three free, first-come-first-serve sites. Here you can see a drawing by early native people.
On day two, 23 miles of paddling will get you to Walter’s Camp, which is a reserve-ahead paid site.
On the third day, 22 more miles will take you to the Picacho State Recreation Area, which has three boat-in sites.
These do also have a use fee, so plan on reserving ahead. From there, another 20 miles will get you to Squaw Lake for the takeout. Make sure you have a map to help you find the right place for the takeout because the lakes are a bit maze-like.
- Guide Book
- Day 2 Camping and Shuttle Link (if putting in at Walter’s Camp at Mile 30): Walters Camp
- Day 3 Camping
What You’ll See
These 76 miles of river wind through State Park land, which makes it an interesting route to paddle. It has plentiful wildlife, pristine lakes that you can detour through, and several historical sites that give you an idea of what the early settlers encountered and how they lived. This river was the original highway of the 1800s, so canoe or kayak camping along it makes you feel like you are paddling through another era.
There are some incredible things to see on this trip. Along the way are interpretive sites that offer a glimpse into history.
Mohave Wash, the first stop on this route, has a drawing up on the bluffs above the campsites. Just downriver of Walter’s Camp is a small reproduction mining town, Norton’s Landing, which is used as a stop for the steamboat tours that steam up the river each day.
There are also one or two more “cabins” along the way – small stone shacks – to give you an idea of what life would have been like back then.
There are also several smaller lakes that you can access from the main channel. These offer a secluded spot to see more birds and wildlife than you would in the main channel with higher traffic.
This route is extremely easy from a water perspective; the water is Class I all the way from Blythe to Imperial Dam. Do be on the lookout for significant riffles after a big rain or if a dam has been released upstream.
However, there are some desert hazards.
Because this river runs through the desert, the best time to enjoy it is between November and February. Late spring, summer, and early fall all have temperatures in the 100s.
Respect the desert, and avoid heat exhaustion!
November through February and even into March, the nights often fall into the 30s. Come prepared with enough layers to bundle up at night!
Where to Start
The put-in is outside of a town called Auberry – 40 minutes northeast of Fresno.
You will take Smalley Road out of town to the powerhouse. You can park here and shuttle two cars to the takeout in Fresno.
Fresno has made a priority of having the river be accessible to the public, so there are several parks that you can use to park the car for a few days. The farthest downstream is a newer one at the intersection of Nees Avenue and Palm Avenue. Spano Park is being expanded to allow for better access to the river at that point, along with more parking.
What You’ll See
The San Joaquin River, located in Central California, runs from the Sierra Nevada mountains all the way to Fresno.
At the point our route begins, there’s a bend in the river known as Squaw Leap. The river is wide and slow and has lots of curves.
The country here is fairly lush – trees line the river, and high green hills are visible behind them.
This is not survival country. This is a river to relax on.
This section of the San Joaquin runs in and out of preserved land – both a State Recreation Area and a “River Parkway” network of local parks and reclaimed ranches.
The San Joaquin has stretches of rapids, many of them upstream from Squaw Leap, but there are long portions of the river with only Class I water – perfect for canoe or kayak camping. The almost 40-mile route that we’ll cover here starts at Squaw Leap, which is known for its rapids – many Class III and even some class IV. If you are extremely experienced, you can start your trip at the top of this bend (and stop to scout each rapid before running it!), for the rest of us, it’s wiser to start after this bend.
Where to Camp
About 16 miles downriver of the put-in, the river enters Millerton Lake, a man-made lake in a State Recreation Area. The recreation area has camping sites that you can reserve ahead of time.
Plan on paying about $36 per campsite.
There are also some free boat-in sites along the river above the lake, but camping at Millerton will give you the farthest downstream site so your next day will still be manageable. Get back on the river early for day two, paddle out of the lake on its southwest corner, and continue downstream to the takeout in Fresno.
The Sacramento River, in Northern California, has been dammed and diverted all along its course. However, there is one stretch of river, from Redding to Red Bluffs, that has remained pristine, supporting all kinds of wildlife, from beavers and otters to osprey and eagles.
The route begins at Redding, halfway between Sacramento and the Oregon border. The river continues on from Red Bluff south through Sacramento, all 150 miles of it easily paddled, but we will focus on the 54 miles of untamed land between Redding and Red Bluffs
It’s yet another amazing place to go kayak camping in California!!
This easy canoe or kayak camping trip covers some of the best fishing water in the state (trout and steelhead). Cold water bubbles up from the bottom of Shasta Lake and pours through the dam above Redding. This cold water with plenty of oxygen is a perfect recipe for trout.
There are also a few Class II rapids at the beginning of this route, which also create oxygen-rich trout havens downstream.
Pay attention as you run them, as you may get stuck against a rock if you aren’t careful, but you will not need to portage around them.
After the first day of paddling, the rapids peter out, as do the trout.
Where to Camp
Camping is extremely easy along this route.
The river has plenty of wide beaches, gravel bars, and islands to camp on, all for free. If you do about 18 miles per day, you’ll be camping.
Part of the reason this route is still so pristine is that the people who camp here follow “leave no trace” practices.
To do your part, make sure you pull up your boat and camp on durable surfaces like sand or gravel; dig deep enough latrine holes (6-8 inches) far enough from the water (200+ feet), and whatever you pack in must be packed out – no burnt or buried trash.
When to Go
Spring may be the best time of year to paddle this route because summer draws crowds of people who may be loud enough to scare away the wildlife. Temperatures average in the 50s and 60s in spring, 70s in summer. The autumn brings spawning salmon and fishermen.
For the shuttle, there are two outfitters in Redding that may let you park in their lots during your trip. They’ll shuttle you back from Red Bluffs at the end of it, but none of them have that posted on their site as a regular service they offer. Head Waters Adventure and North Country Raft Rental
Don’t leave any valuables in your vehicle because there are sometimes break-ins, in Redding in particular.
Lake Tahoe, in the Sierra Nevadas near Reno and Carson City, is a world-famous ski destination.
But it also boasts a healthy watercraft population in the summer. There are a few hidden bays that are boat-in only, and one, in particular, is both beautiful and remote-feeling: Emerald Bay.
What You’ll See
Emerald Bay is linked to the main lake by a narrow mouth of water, which then opens into the bay. While Lake Tahoe’s water is famously blue, the water of the bay is a vivid blue-green.
There are many reasons to camp at Emerald Bay.
One is a replica Scandinavian castle on the shore – Vikingsholm. There is also an island in the middle of the bay, which boasts a stone teahouse, which was built as a replica of a Scandinavian original.
Where to Camp
To camp at Emerald Bay, you can either park at a lot along the road uphill and access the hiking trails toward Vikingsholm, or you can paddle in. The campsites are best accessed by boat.
Where to Start & Difficulty
The best put-ins are the public boat launches all around the lake. Pick one at this here at North Tahoe Parks for a free launch and parking. Then paddle around or across to reach the bay.
At Lake Tahoe, hazards on the water are limited. Do pay attention to the boat traffic on the water, because Tahoe is a popular destination and allows motorized craft.
Sticking close to shore should keep you out of harm’s way.
The parks department also wants to make clear that bear-proofing is essential at every campsite.
Be prepared ahead of time with a “bear bag”. This is a sturdy waterproof bag that you can be looped with a rope, over a tree branch, to keep out of a bear’s reach.
When to Go
The best time of year to paddle the bay is from roughly Memorial Day through Labor Day. The weather in September through at least mid-May has low temperatures in the 20s. Besides being risky camping weather, very cold winters at Tahoe even see the lake freeze over.
These four corners of California will have any paddler itching to get on the water. Make your plans now for the kayak camping trip of a lifetime.
If you’re unsure of what to bring when you’re planning your next trip on California waters, check out our Kayak Camping Checklist for ideas!
Are you completely new to kayaking and after you read this you now want to devote your life to kayak camping, check out our Beginner Kayaking Guide first so you’ll know what you need to be prepared for!
Have fun! Be safe!
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