San Luis Obispo County is, of course, a great place for hiking enthusiasts. With generally mild weather year-round, an abundance of public lands, and a delightful combination of coastal and mountain ecosystems, it’s an ideal destination for everything from short day hikes to longer backpacking trips. These same qualities make it an ideal location for kayaking as well. Featuring about 100 miles of coastline along the Pacific Ocean and numerous lakes, ponds, and streams in the county’s interior, it’s a excellent place to get out on the water in a kayak.
Up until recently, though, it’s been something of a challenge to find detailed information on many of the best places to put your kayak in the water throughout the county. Paddler’s Secret Places, Where to Kayak in San Luis Obispo County, written by Andee Allen and featuring photography by Ashala Taylor, solves this problem by offering a thorough guide to all of the publicly-accessible kayaking locations in the county.
Available as an e-book on Amazon, Paddler’s Secret Places covers 25 different locations throughout San Luis Obispo County. Kayaking routes range from placid freshwater streams, lakes, and ponds to more challenging saltwater routes along the Pacific coast. Most of the locations profiled are found within the area’s numerous state and local parks, while a few (such as Franklin Ponds in Paso Robles) are on private property that is usually open to the public.
Each area described in the book includes detailed driving directions to the put-in, parking information, and a description of the route itself, where applicable. The book also presents valuable information about topics such as kayak safety and the use of tide tables. The book’s appendices include a general overview of California’s boating laws, other points of interest within the county (of which there are many), and useful contact information for each of the public parks where kayaking is available.
One notable missing ingredient is that there are no maps included with the book. Fortunately, most of the routes are short enough that you won’t really need a map, and the directions to the put-in are clear enough to get you where you need to go. I’ve included an overview map below of the put-ins as described in the book to help you find them.
As previously noted, kayaking routes in San Luis Obispo County include a broad mix of both freshwater and ocean locations. While the routes along the Pacific Coast are subject only to seasonal weather changes and the tides, freshwater routes are a different story. Although it may appear remarkably green and lush during the winter and spring, inland San Luis Obispo County nonetheless has a generally semi-arid climate, with most locations receiving relatively little annual precipitation, even in “normal” years. Also, the Santa Lucia Mountains of the Coast Range that bisect the county are only a few thousand feet high. Snowfall is rare, even at the highest locations, and so there is essentially no snowpack to recharge the area’s rivers and streams in the spring and summer as there is in the Sierra Nevada.
As a result of these climatic conditions, freshwater kayaking opportunities in the county are confined to a handful of manmade reservoirs and ephemeral streams. As an example, what should be the largest freshwater stream in the county, the Salinas River, is almost completely dry except after sustained, heavy rains. The stretch of San Luis Obispo Creek that runs along the Bob Jones City-to-Sea Bike Trail down to Avila Beach is one of the more (relatively) reliable stretches of freshwater in the county, and the book’s authors caution that it is usually only passable in late winter and early spring after significant rainfall.
It’s also a good idea to do some research before you attempt any of the routes in this book, as the current unprecedented drought has severely impacted some of the freshwater routes mentioned in the book. Water levels at reservoirs such as Nacimiento Lake are at historic lows. As an extreme example, Atascadero Lake in Atascadero dried up completely in the summer of 2014, and will almost certainly be dry again this summer.
Note that while this book is specifically geared towards kayakers, many of the routes are also suitable for other types of boats, rafts, and stand-up paddle boards. While the freshwater routes described in the book are suitable for an open-cockpit touring kayak, you’ll usually need a closed-cockpit kayak with a spray skirt if you plan to attempt any of the saltwater routes along the coast. Be sure that you’ve received proper training and know how to safely exit your boat in the event it capsizes before venturing out onto the open ocean.
For the freshwater routes, a long touring kayak with an open cockpit (or possibly a canoe or rowboat) is all you’ll need. Inflatable rafts can also be used, although you’ll want to check that the water depth is sufficient to prevent possibly striking a submerged obstacle, such as a tree branch, and instantly deflating your raft. (Been there, done that. Not recommended.)
Don’t have a kayak? You’re in luck, as many of the places mentioned in the book have kayak rentals available at or close to the put-in. Popular spots such as the Morro Bay Estuary and San Simeon Cove at William Randolph Hearst Memorial State Beach have rental kayaks available just a few steps away from the water. These kayak rental businesses are also a great source of up-to-the minute information about local conditions as well as possible hazards. Most kayak rental shops also offer classes to help you build up your kayaking skills before taking on one of the more advanced routes. For other, less well-known spots, such as Oso Flaco Lake in Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, you’ll have to either bring your own kayak or rent one in town and transport it to the put-in.
Paddler’s Secret Places is currently only available as an e-book, and only on the Kindle. If you’re interested in going kayaking in San Luis Obispo County, but don’t have a Kindle, consider downloading the free Kindle for PC app available on Amazon.
If you’re interested in more extensive kayak journeys along the coast, the book’s authors highly recommend the book ‘Adventure Kayaking – Trips from Big Sur to San Diego,’ by Robert Mohle. Mohle’s book covers a larger area, but sticks to saltwater routes along the Pacific coast. It includes a number of challenging, extended coastal tours along the San Luis Obispo County coast, as well as coastal routes north into Monterey County and as far south as San Diego.
Here’s a useful overview map of most of the main kayaking locations described in the book: