Six picturesque places to paddle in the redwoods

These waterways will float your boat

Smith River
Smith River, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. Photo by Jon Parmentier

Traveling on foot, wheels, and hooves are some ways to see the world’s tallest trees, but there’s nothing like paddling past magnificent coast redwood forests on beautiful rivers. These are the realms of playful river otters, magnificent ospreys, and at the coast, resting harbor seals. Here are great choices, listed from north near the California-Oregon border to the Santa Cruz Mountains in the south. Don’t own a boat? A simple web search will reveal rental businesses in these areas.

The Wild and Scenic Smith River, Redwood National and State Parks

In Redwood National and State Parks, the Smith River is a crown jewel of the National Wild & Scenic River System and the largest free-flowing river system in California. The best time to raft, kayak, and canoe is spring, when weather and water levels are ideal. The National Park Service lists these boat tour and rental businesses. The parks will not offer boating tours in 2022.

Three people sit in a dugout canoe on a sunny day. The people in the foreground and background paddle down a river with large wooden paddles.
A Yurok guide (in the background) takes visitors on a tour of the Klamath River in a Yurok redwood dugout canoe. Photo by Dana Poblete

Paddle through history on a Yurok dugout canoe, Klamath River

In Klamath, explore the redwood-lined Klamath River on a quiet adventure to a time when only dugout canoes transported goods and people along its banks. Unchanged for thousands of years, the Yurok dugout canoe, Oohl’-we’-yoch, honors the tallest trees on Earth by giving them new life as the Yuroks’ most prized creations. As these canoes glide across the water’s surface, expert guides offer information about the wildlife, geography, and history of the Klamath River, as well as Yurok history and the Yurok way of life. Book a tour. Learn more about this tour in “When the River Meets the Sea” episode of the League’s podcast, I’ll Go If You Go.

A greenish river is lined by trees on both sides on a partly cloudy day.
Access points to the Eel River are along the Avenue of the Giants in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Photo by Mike Shoys

The incredible Eel River, Humboldt Redwoods State Park

Spring and early summer can be great times to bring your kayak to the South Fork and Main Stem Eel River, which wind through Humboldt Redwoods State Park, home to the largest expanse of ancient coast redwoods. The Eel provides incredible views of old-growth redwoods and wildlife. River access points are throughout the park along the Avenue of the Giants. There are no boat rentals or shuttle services in the park. River conditions are unpredictable, so it’s best to call before planning a boating trip to the area, which is about a four-hour drive north of San Francisco. Contact the Visitor Center at 707-946-2263 for more information.


In the foreground, a smiling person paddles a canoe down a river on a sunny day. Trees line the shore.
The Navarro River winds through Navarro River Redwoods State Park. Photo by Save the Redwoods League

A tunnel of trees to the sea, Navarro River Redwoods State Park

Navarro River Redwoods State Park is as long and skinny as the river corridor it protects. Along Highway 128’s 11-mile-long “redwood tunnel to the sea” in Mendocino County, the park offers fishing, canoeing, and kayaking. Spring and late winter are the best times to navigate the Navarro River. Paddling California’s Flat Waters recommends paddling upriver with the incoming tide, and returning downriver with the outgoing tide. Check the tide predictions. The 8-mile Class I Ocean Run from the Paul M. Dimmick Campground put-in to the Navarro Beach takeout is a gentle float through the redwood forest that changes to a coastal beach as you approach the Pacific Ocean, says Paddling California’s Flat Waters. For more information, call the Mendocino District of California State Parks at 707-937-5804.


In the foreground and background, people paddle two canoes on a river on a warm, sunny day. Trees and brush line the shores.
Canoeing on the Russian River is a favorite summer activity. Photo by Dave Shumaker, Flickr Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A gentle float: Russian River, Sonoma County

The lower Russian River in Sonoma County is a popular spring, summer, and fall destination for paddling and swimming among coast redwoods in gentle current, unlike dangerous, fast flows during winter. Many canoe, kayak, and stand-up paddleboard businesses can be found online, some within a 90-minute drive of San Francisco. Contributing to the area’s popularity are wineries, restaurants, charming towns, and coast redwood parks such as Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve.


Three small docks float on a reservoir lined with tall trees on a sunny day. Small boats are docked two of the three docks.
Loch Lomond Recreation Area offers a variety of boat rentals. Photo by Don DeBold, Flickr Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

A reservoir oasis: Loch Lomond, Santa Cruz Mountains

Surrounded by 180 acres of second-growth coast redwoods, Douglas firs and oaks, Loch Lomond is a picturesque setting for boating, fishing, hiking, picnicking, and watching waterfowl. Near Santa Cruz, Loch Lomond Recreation Area offers paddleboat, fishing kayak, rowboat, and electric motorboat rentals.

About the author

Since 1918, Save the Redwoods League has protected and restored redwood forests and connected people with their peace and beauty so these wonders of the natural world flourish.

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