Local paddle pros pick their favorite spots in the Bay Area & beyond

There’s a reason they call it the “Bay Area,” ya know. Because it ain’t Phoenix, it ain’t LA, it ain’t Dallas, and it sure as hell ain’t Des Moines – not that there’s anything wrong with those places!

(Ed. Note: That last clause, exclamation point included, will, we hope, cool the ire of folks who may have some allegiance to these places or, through no fault of their own, may even live in one.)

And it’s not called the Bay Area because of its high concentration of fresh-cuisine restaurants, or a silicon-infused economy, or a even liberal-greenie-yuppie-techie reputation. It’s called the Bay Area because, yep, there’s a big wet thing in the center.

Often, though, it seems it’s just a big wet secret. For all the millions who swarm around San Francisco Bay daily, perhaps only a fraction of a percentage point of these folks actually ever explore, or enjoy, the region’s defining geographical feature. Indeed, it’s likely that their most intimate contact with the bay comes when they have to pay a $4 toll to cross it. Little do they know that the waters below them are a world-class spot to mess about in a kayak, as Mark Twain might have put it.

To entice a few who find this a sad fact of crazy metro farsightedness, we’ve called upon a group of Nor Cal paddling experts and asked them to pick their favorite Bay Area paddling spots. They range from the obvious jewel of Angel Island, to the subtle winding charms of the Peninsula’s Corkscrew Slough, to the wind-whipped spray-in-your-face paddling to be had at the intersection of bay and delta near Benicia.

And since the Bay Area also includes the coast, we’ve liberally included suggestions for nearby paddle hot spots such as Half Moon Bay and Tomales Bay. And like any good Nor Cal kayak infomercial, we’ve even thrown in, as a bonus, a couple sodium-free paddling alternatives just for reading: a fine, easy-access Sierra lake ringed by granite and scented with pine that’s just a couple hours drive from the bay, and a jungle-like paddling experience in the Central Valley.

If you’re going to take such geographic richness for granted, you may want to consider moving to Dallas or Des Moines … The real estate’s cheaper and you’ll save on bridge tolls. And the rest of us will have an easier time getting our kayaks to the water. –Pete Gauvin

Marin Headlands, Golden Gate area

  • Chosen by: Kenny Howell
  • Residence: Montara
  • Occupation: Program Director, California Canoe & Kayak
  • Years Paddling: 30

Essential gear and knowledge to paddle this area: A trust-worthy ocean kayak, marine radio (or other signaling devices), knowledge of tidal currents, rough water and surf zone skills, and good judgment. File a float plan before launching with the Coast Guard station at East Fort Baker, which makes a good launch site for this trip.

Hazards: Strong tidal currents, fog, shipping, winds, ocean swell, and rock gardens.

Rewards: World-class scenery as pretty as a postcard, exhilarating kayaking along sea cliffs, arches, caves and tunnels, wildlife sightings, remote beaches, and fascinating geology unique to the San Francicso coast – the “Franciscan Formation.” This is one of the greatest places to kayak on the west coast of North America, one that every experienced sea kayaker should do at least once. I never get tired of kayaking here – it’s always exciting and beautiful.

Best time to go: Indian summer (September to early November)

Insider secrets and tips, like where to enjoy a bite or get a cold beer: Paddlers need to choose their days carefully before heading out to the Marin Headlands. Check the marine forecast. Go when the tidal currents aren’t too extreme. You can ride the ebb tide out the Golden Gate (launching from East Fort Baker), take a lunch stop at Kirby Cove or the Bonita Cove area, then ride the flood tide back into San Francisco Bay after lunch! The Presidio Yacht Club at the Horseshoe Cove marina is open to the public, but has irregular hours and service. When it’s open, typically on weekend afternoons, you can grab an Anchor Steam beer and sometimes a hamburger while watching the sunset over the most spectacular bay in the world.

Bair Island and Corckscrew Slough

  • Chosen by: J.J. Ganjei
  • Residence: San Jose
  • Occupation: Owner and guide for Outback Adventures, San Jose and Larkspur
  • Years Paddling: 15

Essential gear and knowledge to paddle this area: Bay Area residents may not realize that there’s an island within a stone’s throw of Redwood City’s shoreline. In fact, Bair Island consists of three islands – inner, middle, and outer – which are all managed by the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Outer Bair Island is only accessible by small crafts and is an excellent destination for kayakers due to its protected waters, wildlife, and exploration possibilities.

Put In: Launch your kayak at the Port of Redwood City located just north of the Hwy. 101 Woodside Road/Seaport Blvd. exit.

Hazards: During large tidal changes moderate currents may exist in some channels. Likewise, since many channels are shallow, an outgoing tide can leave you stuck in the muck if you’re not paying attention. It is highly recommended that you go with an experienced guide for your first adventure.

Rewards: Packed with shorebirds and winding channels, Bair Island offers kayakers miles of wildlife-rich exploration. Highlights include intimately exploring a saltwater tidal marsh in solitude, ample birding opportunities, paddling out to the bay from within the island, and spotting the occasional harbor seal.

Best time to go: Outer Bair Island literally has a maze of narrow channels to explore allowing you access the many reaches of the island. Most of these narrow channels are only accessible by kayak during tides above three feet and many lead to dead ends. Be sure to plan accordingly or risk becoming lost or stuck in the pungent bay mud and having to wait many hours for a rising tide.

Insider Tip: Keep in mind that due to the fragility of the marshlands, getting out of your kayak is strictly prohibited. Be sure to exercise a “do not disturb” ethic when viewing wildlife and be careful not to bump your kayak into the marsh banks.

West 9th Street Beach, Benicia

  • Chosen by: Vince Darwood
  • Residence: Benicia
  • Occupation: Owner of Futura Surfskis
  • Years Paddling: 43 years

Best place to go: West 9th Street Beach or boat launch in Benicia

Essential gear and knowledge to paddle this area: Sunscreen, sunglasses a hat and a paddle.

Hazards: Few hazards beyond the tugs, Kia movers and oil barges from Valdez. The river is close to a mile wide here and provides a very moderate paddling venue with just enough current and bump to make it interesting.

Benicia is the second oldest city in California (2nd to Monterrey) with loads of historic significance and architecture. There is a story on every corner. Benicia is the last bridge crossing of the 447-mile Sacramento River before it empties into San Pablo Bay.

Rewards: The confidence of knowing you can paddle in the same waters as Jack London, the same place where the Pony Express crossed on it’s way to Oakland and the general store where the secret was leaked of gold being discovered at Sutter’s Mill. Also see the old California State Capitol Building used in 1854.

Best time to go: Mid to late summer when the sun and water is always warm and the wind is graceful.

Inside secrets, or any other local knowledge, like where to enjoy a bite or a cold beer: Always fun to paddle near the First Street Pier around the islands where the currents swirl without threatening your safety. You may see surfskis and outrigger canoes around because Benicia hosts two clubs and a concentration of performance paddlers.

A wide variety of dining options settle onto first street but visiting The Chill, at 362 1st Street is always fun and tasteful. The Chill is a paddler-owned wine bar where you might meet other paddlers. Also visit Kinder’s B-B-Q and deli where they mix their own miraculous sauces. Both are a popular stop.

Angel Island

  • Chosen by: Mark Pastick and Margaret Collins
  • Residence: Santa Cruz
  • Occupation: Owners of Kayak Connection, Santa Cruz and Moss Landing
  • Years Paddling: 40-plus

Essential gear and knowledge to paddle this area: Paddlers must know the best tide times to cross Raccoon Strait. Mornings are usually the best time to paddle. A truly sea-worthy sea kayak is needed to handle the wind and chop. Also recommended: VHF radio, GPS, flares, snacks, water, and cell phone to order pizza when you return.

Hazards: More often than not the wind blows strong in the afternoon. Tides, particularly during the full moon and new moon, can be treacherous, with currents rushing through the strait at up to 4-6 knots. If you don’t know how to read a tide chart, check with local kayak stores for the best times to paddle, or better yet, to join a guided trip.

Rewards: Stunning views of San Francisco and the Marin Headlands, and the entire bay for those good for a hike to the top of Mount Livermore (788 feet). Paddlers can land for lunch at Ayala Cove, which also makes a good stop if you’re interested in paddling to Alcatraz and back.

Best time to go: Any time of year can be good. Spring and summer are beautiful. Winds are calmest in the fall.

Insider tips: One can land at Ayala Cove, have lunch (and a latte in the summer time) and go for a hike on some of the many trails around Angel Island. The views of the San Francisco skyline are stunning from the top of Angel Island. There is a lot of history on Angel Island. It was the Ellis Island of the West Coast and also was the seat of missiles pointed at Russia during the Cold War.

Foster City Lagoon

  • Chosen by: Vince Pao
  • Residence: San Carlos
  • Occupation: Owner of Aquan Sports
  • Years Paddling: 12

For beginners looking for a safe practice location or experts looking to improve their fitness, the Foster City lagoon offers an excellent nine-mile round trip paddle. The FC lagoon is entirely enclosed so there are no significant tidal issues or risk of being pulled out to sea. Morning paddles are quiet and beautiful, and while afternoon winds can be significant, the water typically remains fairly calm year round.

Essential gear and knowledge to paddle this area: Put in at Catamaran Park (corner of Shell Blvd and Catamaran St), which is located near the center of the lagoon loop. To the east are several restaurants, which include docs for a mid-paddle snack (be sure to bring proper lines to tie up your kayak). Enjoy watching the elite water kayak polo games often held to the west of the park.

Rewards: Numerous watercraft share the area, but no gas power boats are allowed, leaving the lagoon quiet and clean for the enjoyment of kayakers, outriggers, wind surfers and electric boats. Evening paddling is a delight in FC, but bring adequate light for yourself and your boat.

Inside secrets and other tips, like where to enjoy a bite or get a old beer: After paddling, enjoy the patio at Chalet Ticino (1058-C Shell Blvd., Charter Square Center; 650-571-0507) to try one of the Swiss specialties or jump out of your kayak at the Chevy’s dock and head over to Plaza Gourmet Deli (929 Edgewater Blvd., 650-638-0213) for an oversized cheese steak (work it off on the paddle home).

Hog Island, Tomales Bay

  • Chosen by: John Granatir
  • Residence: Inverness
  • Occupation: Owner of Blue Waters Kayaking
  • Years Paddling: 20+

Best place to go: The Hog Island area of Tomales Bay, including White’s Gulch. The Tule Elk viewing and the scenery are spectacular. Birds and marine life abound!

Essential gear and knowledge to paddle this area: Bring a paddle jacket, layers, and emergency gear. Knowledge of local weather patterns and a Tomales Bay tide chart are essential.

Hazards: Local wind conditions can be intense and fast changing. Hypothermia is the biggest hazard to all boaters. Bring extra insulation – more than you think you will need.

Rewards/Highlights: The Tule Elk range is a big highlight. Be careful not to harass the animals. Speak to a ranger from the Point Reyes National Seashore about protocols for viewing.

Put In: The most popular spot is Miller Park boat ramp in Marshall at Nick’s Cove.Second would be the Blue Waters Kayaking site in Marshall.

Best time to go: Anytime is good, but morning low tides provide opportunities for wildlife viewing in the eelgrass tidal channels.

Insider tips, like where to enjoy a bite or get a cold beer: A well kept secret that is being discovered is the Marshall Store. It has some of the absolute best barbecued oysters on the planet, a causal atmosphere, and great views.

Pillar Point and Half Moon Bay

  • Chosen by: Thomas Bastis
  • Residence: San Carlos
  • Occupation: Aquan Kayak instructor and adventure racer
  • Years Paddling: 20

Essential gear and knowledge to paddle this area: VHF radio, compass and safety and rescue gear suitable for open-ocean paddling advisable. For those intending to spend time playing in the surf, a helmet is strongly recommended.

Hazards: Fog, ocean swell outside the harbor and breaking surf in some shoreline and reef areas, such as Mushroom Rock.

Rewards: The beach at the Pillar Point harbor is the launching pad to one of the most famous surf breaks in the world. Kayakers comfortable with open ocean paddling can paddle through the opening in the sea wall, and then head due west for half a mile where Mavericks awaits. Most of the year Mavericks is a small break, but in winter months kayakers can view the famous wave up close.

A reliable smaller wave breaks west of mavericks, providing excellent practice for those interested in experiencing the surf in their kayak. For those looking for an open ocean paddle, a channel marker lies approximately 1 ¼ miles northwest of the Pillar Point harbor entrance, from there head two miles northeast to reach another channel marker before heading back to the harbor (err towards the shore on the way home to watch the surfers or to practice surf entry).

Insider tips, like where to enjoy a bite after or get a old beer: After kayaking, enjoy the views at Sam’s Chowder House in Half Moon Bay (4210 N. Cabrillo Highway; reservations, 650-712-0245; fish market, 650-712-1731), or try the local’s favorite, Ketch Joanne Restaurant at Pillar Point Harbor (650-728-3747). For microbrew lovers, the Mavericks Amber Ale at the Half Moon Bay Brewing Company (650-728-2739), located at the harbor, tastes even better after a paddle, particularly accompanying a burger or fish & chips.