There’s nothing quite like skimming across the open ocean or braving the rapids in a kayak. Whether you opt for a peaceful excursion or a more thrilling endeavor, there are plenty of spots to choose from.

From Alaska to Antarctica, these unreal locations will have you going home with bragging rights, no doubt.

A kayaker near a rocky bay. Sea lions and birds sit on the rocks.
Kayaker observing sea lions on rocks at La Jolla, near San Diego © Ron_Thomas / Getty Images

San Diego, California: kayak among the leopard sharks

Kayaking off the coast of La Jolla can be amazing year-round, however, if you go from July through September, it’s extra special. That’s when leopard sharks show up in droves. Because of the nutrient-packed, shallow water and dense kelp forests, it makes a really great place for pregnant leopard sharks to cruise along. But, don’t worry, they are typically no longer than 4 feet long and are harmless. Not only do you get to see them, but you will also experience four microhabitats throughout the La Jolla Underwater Park

Keep your eyes peeled for shovel nose guitar fish, dolphins, sea lions, lobsters and turtles. You can take an hour-long leopard-shark tour with Everyday California or opt for a sea-cave tour. Hike Mt Soledad after for views of San Diego County.

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Guiding a kayak into the ocean just off the Maui coast
Guiding a kayak into the ocean just off the Maui coast © Frank Gaglione / Getty Images

Makena Beach, Maui: spot sea turtles through the clear water 

Off the shores of Makena Beach, on Maui’s southern coastline, is a beautiful kayaking spot. Here, a series of underwater lava formations, created by submarine volcanoes, makes an ideal home for green sea turtles. Maui Kayak Adventures takes guests out to this area for a morning kayaking session and snorkel. Thanks to the clear, turquoise water, it’s easy to spot marine life like angelfish, octopus, butterfly fish and moray eels. Keep an eye out for gorgeous red pencil sea urchins (they make for great photos), and stick around afterward for a beach cleanup. Keep your distance from turtles; these guys are endangered.

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Two people in a kayak move through icy water, surrounded by snowy hills and ridges
Enjoy the peace when kayaking in Antarctica © antarcticboy / Budget Travel

Antarctica, Cuverville Island: the world's coldest, driest, windiest place to kayak

This is a bucket-list kayak adventure like no other. First things first: wiggle your way into a heavy-duty dry suit, thick gloves and booties to keep the body heat in. This will protect you from the 32°F (0°C) water. You are in the world’s coldest, driest, windiest locale, after all. Start paddling and soaking in your surreal surroundings. Penguins are easy to come by.

They hang out on the shoreline and hop from rock to rock, toboggan down the mountains, dive into the ocean and dart beneath your kayak. If you’re lucky, you’ll also spot Weddell seals lounging on the snow banks. You may also see crabeater seals, orcas and humpback whales. Overhead, it’s easy to spot fast-flying petrels, Antarctic terns and albatrosses with wingspans up to 11 feet. The only noise is the sound of ice chunks, called bergy bits, clinking against each other, perhaps some avalanches and the click of your camera. So, how exactly do you get there?

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A person wearing a yellow jacket in a white kayak points at a vast wall of ice with green hills behind
Kayaking in southeastern Alaska © Sergey Yechikov / Shutterstock

Alaska, Inside Passage: bears onshore while humpbacks glide beneath you

There’s nothing quite like sitting silently in your kayak as bears frolic on the shore, just 50 feet away. Here it’s not uncommon to come across sea otters, seals, sea stars, bald eagles and pods of humpbacks. During whale season (Apr–Nov), you’ll see several in every direction breaching and flippering. The Southeast panhandle’s famous Inside Passage is home to moose, grizzlies and puffins, too. 

Alaska's best beaches for bears, bald eagles and natural beauty

A photo taken from the front of a kayak of a peaceful lake at dusk
Look for deer in the surrounding forest in Apopka, Florida © OwensImaging / Getty Images

Apopka, Florida: take in the lush greens of central Florida 

Visit Rock Springs Run State Reserve, about a 45-minute drive from Orlando, to paddle your way upstream through super clear, 70°F (21°C) water. On a warm day, it is the place to be. The only sounds around will be the rhythmic drumming of woodpeckers and the steady hum of cicadas. Make your way down the narrow canal toward a spot called Bonsai Bend where branches of hundred-year-old oak trees nearly dip into the water. Get Up and Go Kayaking takes guests through this picturesque area in clear kayaks, which serve as a giant magnifying glass.

Certainly makes it easy to spot otters and fish and they glide by. And in the surrounding forest, you can sometimes see deer, herons and egrets. It’s pretty rare, but every now and then a black bear may wander by. Check out Jacob’s Island where you can climb a tree platform and plunge into the water below. As you paddle downstream back to the entryway, consider climbing the tree and taking your turn on the rope swing. Pro tip: Hit the springs on a weekday morning; it’s much less crowded then. 

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Two kayaks, each with two kayakers, in a wide curving bay backed by a dark rocky coastline
Keep an eye out for the incredible wildlife of the Galápagos © Joel W. Rogers / Corbis Documentary / Getty Images Plus

The Galápagos Islands: one of the world's greatest destinations for marine life

Get to know the local marine life as you explore designated areas of Galápagos National Park. Keep a lookout for rays and sea turtles swimming along, marine iguanas lounging on the rocks and blue-footed boobies flying overhead. Just be sure to bring your snorkel mask and fins; there’s a lot to explore. You’re bound to see penguins darting to and fro, and it’s quite possible you’ll come face-to-furry face with the supercharged sea lions as they burst into a gentle swirl of backflips, leaving a trail of bubbles in their wake.

First-timer's guide to the Galápagos Islands

Vail, Colorado: a chilling and refreshing rapid ride

Gore Creek, which runs through Vail Village, is known for its fun rapids. Check in with Alpine Quest Sports to rent a kayak and be prepared for some serious fun.  

Even in the summertime, the water is chilly, so you may want to rent a dry suit. And if you aren’t up for kayaking, there’s always stand-up paddleboarding, rafting or SUPsquatching (a giant paddleboard that typically carries eight to 10 people).

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This article was first published Aug 4, 2020 and updated Mar 9, 2022.

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