An Introduction to the Paddling Scene in Santa Barbara

Stand-up paddleboarding and kayaking have become popular pursuits in Santa Barbara Harbor.
Stand-up paddleboarding and kayaking have become popular pursuits in Santa Barbara Harbor. Bo Campbell
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The coastal town of Santa Barbara, located less than 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles, has long drawn visitors for its beautiful beaches, scenic mountains, Mediterranean-inspired architecture, and world-class wineries. Those willing to leave dry land will also find one of the state’s top paddling destinations. Kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding have gained in popularity, as more and more people are discovering the sport as a great way to explore the waters around the city. From the unique caves of the Channel Islands to the beaches close to town, there are a wide variety of options for those who want to take to the water.

Paddling can be great exercise—or a more relaxing cruise. Customize your trip to fit your ability and interests, but keep in mind that it doesn’t take long to get comfortable on either a kayak or paddleboard. Here are just some of the options available for you to get out on the water.

Santa Barbara Harbor

Kayaking the calm waters of Santa Barbara Harbor.
Kayaking the calm waters of Santa Barbara Harbor. Damian Gadal

The protected waters of the Santa Barbara Harbor are an excellent place to get started paddling. You’ll find several local outfitters that will rent both kayaks and stand-up paddleboards—and you’ll find plenty of company. You’ll be able to paddle out to sea lions sunbathing on the buoys and see Stearns Wharf.

Santa Barbara Sailing rents single and double kayaks by the hour, while also offering both private and group tours of the area. Santa Barbara Sailing has a special launch just for stand-up paddleboards (SUP), making it easy to get started from their dock in the harbor. SUP rentals are available by the hour, and instruction is available for beginners. Group and private tours are available on the stand-up paddleboard as well. Once you’re comfortable in the boat, you can even paddle to Leadbetter Beach and ride some waves.

You’ll find additional rentals and tours at Santa Barbara Harbor from the Santa Barbara Adventure Company and Channel Island Outfitters. If you’re visiting West Beach, which is located between the Santa Barbara Pier and the harbor, Cal Coast Adventures rents both kayaks and SUPs. After a trip out on the water, you’ll find plenty of local restaurants to refuel, including Chuck’s Waterfront Grill or the Shoreline Beach Cafe right on the beach.

Channel Islands

Exploring the Channel Islands by kayak.
Exploring the Channel Islands by kayak. David Wilson

The Channel Islands are one of the most unique and spectacular settings that the Santa Barbara area has to offer—and a kayak may just be the best way to view them. You can kayak on your own, but most take advantage of an authorized outfitter at the Channel Islands National Park, which encompasses five of the islands. Most trips start at either the island of Anacapa or Santa Cruz, which you can reach via ferry (and watch for whales while en route).

Once on the islands, most kayakers make their way to the Painted Cave, one of the largest sea caves in the word at 100 feet wide and extending more than 1,200 feet into the island. That’s just one of hundreds of caves to explore along the rocky coast. You’ll like likely spot a wide variety of sea life, including sea lions and dolphins, as well as the islands' large population of birds.

The Santa Barbara Adventure Company offers several guided trips to the islands, which also can include snorkeling and hiking as well. One trip starts in the Marine Protected Area called Scorpion Anchorage and features about three hours of kayaking to explore the islands and caves. Channel Islands Outfitters has been leading trips to the islands for more than 25 years. Its Caves & Coves Classic adventure includes about four hours of kayaking, including exploration of the Elephant's Belly and Cavern Point cave systems. Aquasports offers full-day and half-day trips to explore the Channel Islands, as well as multi-day trips that include camping.

No matter which outfitter you go with, expect a trip to include all the gear you’ll need (including wetsuits), food for the day, and transportation to and from the Channel Islands.

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