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What will I see at the Santa Cruz Harbor? ​

Come see where it all started – Kayak Connection has been exploring the waters of the Monterey Bay from the Santa Cruz Harbor for 30 years!

With a mile of calm, glassy water to explore, the protection of the Santa Cruz Harbor is the ideal place for novice water sports enthusiasts to get used to the thrill of kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding.

For the more adventurous spirit or experienced paddler, the harbor offers the perfect gateway to the more dynamic waters of Monterey Bay. Just a few hundred yards outside the harbor, vibrant kelp beds provide habitat to a multitude of sea life, including curious sea otters and harbor seals.

Paddle just a bit further and enjoy the frolicking sea lions getting rowdy along the pilings of the Santa Cruz Wharf. While taking in sights of the Beach Boardwalk, Cowell’s Beach, Steamer Lane surf spot, and both of Santa Cruz’s iconic lighthouses, you may even be lucky enough to see dolphins or one of Monterey Bay’s migratory whales. The unique perspective of seeing Santa Cruz from the water is a special experience that will likely stay with you forever.

With easy parking and a waterfront location, Kayak Connection is a fantastic place to enjoy a quick hour-long kayak rental to rinse off the worries of the work week, or opt for a more leisurely 2.5 hour rental for more time to relax and enjoy the iconic views without a rush to get back to the dock.

An Overview of the Santa Cruz Harbor

The Santa Cruz Harbor is part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the largest federally protected ocean area in the continental United States, and one of the most wildlife rich ocean environments in the world.

On any given day in the harbor, you can see harbor seals, sea lions, Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets. Seasonally, it’s also a popular starting location for whale watchers and fishing charters.

Located 70 miles south of San Francisco and 35 miles North of Monterey, Santa Cruz Harbor offers more than 1,000 boat slips and immediate access to Monterey Bay.

The Harbor is adjacent to Seabright State Beach, Harbor Beach, and Twin Lakes State Beach, as well as a myriad of public art and wildlife viewing opportunities.

With four water view restaurants, the Harbor is the perfect place for a paddle and dine day-trip experience without ever having to move your car. If a beach picnic is more your style, walk to Deke’s Market and order a custom made-to-order deli sandwich for Twin Lakes Beach. Deke’s has a wide variety of refreshing beverages to go, including the best selection of Hard Kombucha in Santa Cruz County!

Be sure to walk out along the jetty to the scenic Walton Lighthouse for panoramic views (and photo opportunities!) of Monterey Bay. A hidden gem walking trail extends behind the harbor, into Arana Gulch, a wetlands wonderland with old growth Oak trees and vista meadows. You can easily get in your 5,000 steps after a fun paddle to round out your adventure.

Why Should I Visit Santa Cruz Harbor?

The Santa Cruz Harbor offers something for everyone, whether you want to get on the water or stay firmly on land.

In addition to the ample aquatic recreation activities (kayaking, SUPing, and more), the Harbor is also home to delicious waterfront dining, sandy beaches that are perfect for a day of relaxing with the family, galleries, shops, and more.

What Types of Animals Can I See at the Harbor?

The Santa Cruz area is well-known for its wildlife, and the Harbor is no different. This sheltered and secluded area is home to harbor seals, sea lions, bat rays, sea birds, and more.

If you choose to go out of the harbor mouth, you may encounter whales (gray or humpback depending on the time of year), dolphins, porpoises, and sea otters lounging in the nearby kelp beds.

From March through November, it’s possible to see large pods of humpback and gray whales swimming past the harbor along their annual migratory routes.

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Dog Paddle The Santa Cruz Harbor

There’s no need to leave your furry best friend at home with our “Dog Paddle” rental option. We welcome well behaved four-legged friends for an extra $10 per dog added to the rental price.

The Santa Cruz Harbor’s flat, tranquil waters make for an excellent dog-friendly kayaking adventure. Your dog should be comfortable around water, capable of staying seated and obeying simple commands, and able to swim (just in case).

If your dog is heavier than 35 pounds, a double kayak is necessary so that your dog has a safe, stable seat. Please bring a towel for your dog to sit comfortably and keep in mind that if any damage occurs to our kayaks there will be an additional charge.

*Please note our Elkhorn Slough location can NOT accommodate dogs due the the sensitivity & abundance of the wildlife at that location*

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dog friendly kayaking

How to Dress for Kayaking at the Santa Cruz Harbor

If you’re going kayaking in the Santa Cruz harbor, how you dress will depend on the weather.

During warm or hot weather, we recommend wearing the following:

  • A lightweight, UV-blocking, long-sleeved shirt.
  • A brimmed sun hat that protects your ears, neck, and face from the rays.
  • Properly fitted polarized sunglasses, preferably with an attached retainer to keep them from falling in the water.
  • Shorts or swimsuit.
  • Water-resistant sunscreen.
  • UV-blocking fishing gloves, which will protect the backs of your hands from sunburn.

In cooler weather, plan to bring the following items:

  • A sweat-wicking, long-sleeved, lightweight shirt.
  • A beanie or sun hat to protect your head from the elements.
  • Properly fitted polarized sunglasses, preferably with an attached retainer to keep them from falling in the water.
  • Water-resistant sunscreen.
  • Comfortable, lightweight shell pants made from water-resistant and non-binding material.
  • UV-blocking fishing gloves
  • A light fleece or softshell jacket or vest.
  • A raincoat, depending on weather conditions.

Regardless of when you hit the water, you should always wear a PFD (personal flotation device).

For maximum safety, we recommend wearing the PFD over your base layer and adding additional layers on top of the PFD, so you never have to take it off on the water. Since kayaking PFDs are lightweight and slim fitting, this won’t add bulk.

You will be paddling a stable sit-on-top kayak, and a wet suit is usually not necessary. You can rent one from us at an additional charge if you’d prefer.

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how to dress for kayaking

Should I Rent a Kayak or Book a Tour?

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kayak tour

Renting a kayak allows you the freedom to choose your own pace and explore to your heart’s desire, and it can be a terrific way to get in a workout or completely relax – it’s all up to you.

If you’d prefer a more immersive experience, we recommend booking a tour with one of our expert guides.

All Kayak Connection, all our guides are both talented naturalists with tons of knowledge about the local environment and skilled kayakers with rescue training.

A guide can point out animals and exciting features that you might paddle right by without noticing during a rental excursion.

They can also help make your trip more memorable by adding a bit of personality, enthusiasm and lending a local’s advice towards the rest of your journey.

In addition to learning from a seasoned guide, booking a tour is a great way to enjoy a unique experience of the Santa Cruz Harbor.

Some of our most popular tour options include the following:

  • The Sunset Kayak Tour. During this tour, we meet 2 hours before sunset and set out during “golden hour,” during which you’ll see otters, seals, herons, pelicans, and other native marine life. As the sky turns pink and the sun sets on the Central Coast, you’ll have a chance to snap some once-in-a-lifetime pictures. This tour is excellent for beginners and experts, doesn’t require any kayaking experience, and is perfect for anyone who wants to paddle a double kayak.
  • The Santa Cruz Wildlife Tour. Enjoy unforgettable wildlife sightings during our wildlife tour. This tour leaves the Harbor and allows you to explore the kelp forests of Monterey Bay, where you’ll see sea lions, harbor seals, dolphins, and the popular Southern Sea Otter. In the spring, it’s even possible to see migrating whales!
  • Kayak Fishing Clinics. Want to learn how to kayak fish? Our Kayak Fishing Clinics start at our dock in the Santa Cruz Harbor and take you out to areas full of lingcod, halibut, and rock fish during certain times of the year. This is an excellent option for novices or experienced anglers looking to improve their skills.

In addition to the tours and clinics listed above, we also offer a 4-week sea kayak club and private group tour options. Learn more about all of our kayak tours & rentals here.

sunset tour

When Is the Best Time of Year to Kayak the Santa Cruz Harbor?

Summer is a popular time at the Santa Cruz Harbor because our temperate weather makes for a perfect retreat from the inland valley heat.

With the Spring comes the migration of the gray whales and some of our more exciting kayaking whale-watching tours.

Our best weather arrives in the fall when the summer marine fog layer lifts, and we have calm, sunny, warm days through October.

Winter also brings gorgeous sunsets and fewer crowds.

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What Are Conditions Like and How Should I Prepare for My Trip?

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Every employee working at Kayak Connection will know the current conditions to help you plan your adventure. Please ask them how the swell, tide & wind forecast will influence your paddling on the day of your visit.

The protected waters of the Harbor are nearly always calm and accessible, but there are days when the ocean conditions require paddlers to stay in the Harbor waters and not paddle out of the harbor mouth onto open water. Ocean rentals are highly dependent on weather and marine conditions.

Strong afternoon winds (often 10 to 20 knots) can make paddling challenging. Plan your trip to take advantage of the favorable wind and swell conditions.

1-Hour or 2.5 Hour Rental? Harbor Rental or Ocean Rental?

We have two options for kayak and stand-up paddleboard rentals – A One Hour Rental or a Two and A Half Hour Rental.

The One Hour Harbor Rental was created for paddlers that want a quick outing on the water and then grab lunch or a beach towel to relax on the always-popular Twin Lakes Beach.

Both the One Hour and Two and Half Hour Harbor Rentals stay within the protected waters of the Santa Cruz Harbor, enjoying a mile of calm paddling. While working on your tan, you’ll take in the sights of the iconic Walton Lighthouse and all the gorgeous sailboats at berth. There’s also the occasional sea lion and harbor seal to make for an exciting wildlife encounter. If you are the kind of person who doesn’t like to be rushed, the two and a half hour rental is definitely for you. You will have more time to experience the chill Santa Cruz Harbor vibe and even enjoy a snack on board.

We recommend you bring a swimsuit and sunscreen; all necessary equipment is included.

If the ocean is calm, an Ocean Rental is the way to go to see it all!

There’s nothing like experiencing marine wildlife from ocean level, whether it’s observing napping sea otters wrapped up in kelp, friendly harbor seals coming up to give you a look, or maybe even dolphins spy hopping on the surface.

You’ll never forget the unique perspective of seeing Santa Cruz from the water. From the redwood forest covered mountains encircling the north side of the bay, to the panoramic views of the Walton Lighthouse, Beach Boardwalk, Santa Cruz Wharf, Steamer Lane surf spot and Lighthouse Point, the Santa Cruz Harbor is your gateway to it all.

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Have other questions about the Santa cruz harbor?

Just give us a call or send us a message to reach one of our friendly staff and we’ll be happy to help.