Six ideas for getting on the water this summer

By Anthea Raymond

California’s drought is now officially “mega,” with fire risk at an all time high. Rivers are running dry and lakes will be low, but don’t give up hope. There are still plenty of ways to hit the water in style.
Photo of a house boat

House boating on Shasta Lake. Photo courtesy of Bridge Bay At Shasta Lake


Houseboating has always intrigued us. For a day trip, we like the “patio boats” at Bridge Bay at Shasta Lake. These flat platforms are ideal for cruising the state’s biggest reservoir for a picnic and swim. The California Delta near Stockton is also popular and a distinctive place for multi-day trips. Unfortunately, the briny water mix of fresh and salt water there takes its toll on equipment, leading to Bridge Bay closing its rentals there a few years ago. Try VRBO or AirBNB for a rental if you’re really keen. 

Photo of a harbor seal poking his head above water

A curious harbor seal in the Elkhorn Slough. Photo: Emma Levy / Kayak Connection

Explore an Estuary

Estuaries form along the coast, where sea and fresh water mingle, creating a unique habitat. California has a number of them, with the Elkhorn Slough off Monterey Bay being one of the biggest. It is also home to the state’s largest population of sea otters. Seven hundred species of plants and animals live on the protected flats of the slough, making it the place for wildlife viewing. Mornings are a good time to beat the wind and it is never a bad idea to check the tides as well. Try Kayak Connection or Monterey Bay Kayaks (MBK) — both rent kayaks for a paddle up the slough, as well as unique guided tours: three hour tours, bird watching, SUPing and moonlight paddles to name a few. 

The East Bay Estuary on San Francisco Bay is a scenic option, with long marshy flats and a view of the bridge. California Canoe and Kayak at Jack London Square in Oakland is now open for rentals. 

And don’t overlook Southern California’s Upper Newport Harbor. It too has much to offer, though the shorebirds sometimes have to duke it out with the passing boats. Paddle deep into the harbor though, and it’s tranquil and secluded. Southwind Kayaks has a location right on the bay for rentals. 

People paddling open deck kayaks on a lake

Paddling Big Bear Lake. Photo courtesy of Visit Big Bear

Lounge Lakeside

California has thousands of lakes, so it’s not quite fair to single out one or two as summer destinations. In Southern California we love mountain lakes like Big Bear and Silverwood. We also like Silver Lake and June Lake in the Eastern Sierra near Ansel Adams Wilderness.

Best to head out soon though. Even in the wettest of times, lakes are prone to algae blooms; not sure what will happen in a mega-drought. The blooms can be toxic, especially to pets. Make sure to check water quality, take posted warnings seriously, and if necessary avoid water contact for you and your pup.

Paddling on the LA River

Paddling the LA River. Photo by Maria Teresa Giancoli

LA’s the Place 

Los Angeles is known as a beach town, but it began as a pueblo next to a river, the Los Angeles River. Long neglected, the river is now seeing a renaissance, with a world-class park, a greenway, and a cultural center among the amenities planned for its banks. The riverbed itself is still mostly concrete to help it control flooding, but in two sections wildlife and plants thrive. Now in its tenth year, kayaking these sections of river has become an Angeleno rite of passage. 

Visitors love the verdant surprise that awaits them too. In the summer months LA River Expeditions runs guided trips on both these stretches, and has a long history as a steward of the area. LA River Kayaks offers reasonably priced rentals on both these stretches as well. 

Photo of a girl learning to surf

Surfing Mondos. Photo courtesy of Lovewater Surf School

Try a Longboard 

Ready to test out a longboard or SUP in the surf? Summer is a prime time to hit one of California’s baby beach breaks, with warmer water and breezes. We love Mondos in Ventura County for its long rolling waves, friendly vibes and easy parking. Some call it the Waikiki of California. You’ll even see boogie boarders there. 

Bolinas, north of Stinson Beach in Marin County, is another newbie favorite, though you’ll park in the neighborhood and walk to the break. Both these spots “work” best at mid-tide, and do fine with the south summer swell. If you’re wanting instruction, Lovewater Surf School loves Mondos too. Bolinas Surf Lessons has it covered in the north. 

Photo of a commerical rafting trip.

Rafting the South Fork American River in California. Photo courtesy of Raft California

But Don’t Give Up on Whitewater 

Summer wouldn’t be summer without a little splish-splash in a raft. Conditions are changing daily for many outfitters. At least one worries they might shut down by mid-July due to lack of water. But one reliable go-to for a good time is the South Fork of the American River. Planned recreational releases there make flows predictable and consistent at least on weekends and several weekdays. You’ll have many options for Class III-III raft trips – OARS, ARTA, Raft California and River Runners to name a few – though camping in the area is more difficult. When really stuck, we stay at the KOA near Route 50 in Shingle Springs. 

Read more articles by Anthea Raymond here.