Small Craft Morning

Kayaking San Luis Obispo Bay to Point San Luis Lighthouse

San Luis Obispo Bay is a lovely place to kayak. The highlands backing the bay and a jetty at its western end protect the harbor from tough paddling, though you still want to get out early—prevailing offshore winds can make the return passage rough—and be sure to hug the coast on particularly blustery days.

Your voyage starts in Avila Beach at the base of the Harford Pier on the west side of SLO Bay. The recommended route is to follow the coastline south all the way to Whaler’s Beach at Point San Luis, where an enchanting antique lighthouse awaits. The voyage is just under two miles round-trip, as the seagull flies, but you’ll want to tool around in the harbor a bit and maybe ply along the breakwater too.

Kayak San Luis Bay Sea Otters

The pacified bay attracts a variety of marine and bird life. Patches of kelp just east of Harford Pier lure a playful family of sea otters as well as curious seals. As you pass Smith’s Island, a big guano-stained rock, watch for standing-room-only pelicans.

After landing at Whaler’s Beach, pull your kayak up to dry sand and ascend the stairs to Point San Luis Lighthouse, perched on a bluff amid Monterey pines and eucalyptus trees. The main keeper’s lighthouse is at the northwest end of the station. Built in 1890, the ornate Victorian wooden house is immaculately restored and open for tours on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

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Wraparound vistas extend east across SLO Bay and down the coast all the way to hazy Point Sal and out to open sea. A swing, slung to a high bough of a girthy eucalyptus, lets the sitter feast on these sumptuous views, launching you feet-first toward this sparkling seascape.

You have the presence of Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant to thank for keeping the coast between Avila Beach and Morro Bay human-free, allowing plant and animal life to flourish. Kayaking to Point San Luis puts you at the threshold of the plant’s off-limits zone, making a voyage there all the more special.

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On days with sizable swell, it’s worth paddling along the breakwater past Whaler’s Island to watch waves crash dramatically against the rock wall, rocketing spray a dozen feet into the air. You might just garner a new appreciation for the protective power of jetties—and the sheer force of the sea.

DO IT: Rent from Avila Beach Paddlesports, which operates from an old boatyard at the base of Harford Pier from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Thursday through Monday, weather permitting. Guided tours and lessons also available. Words of warning: prevailing offshore winds can make the return passage rough, a real upper-body workout. Vincent Shay, owner of Avila Beach Paddlesports, says the best time to paddle is from 9 to 11 a.m., as winds can really pick up by the afternoon.

STAY: To bask in Avila’s mellow vibes even longer, consider overnighting at the Otter Lofts, a pair of charming condos in the heart of town. Avila Beach locals Vincent and Emily Shay rent these ocean-themed pads—a one-bedroom and two-bedroom, each with a kitchen and fireplace—and can offer insider tips for enjoying your stay. Both units are discounted for off-peak season. No pets allowed.

From the 101 Freeway, exit Avila Beach Dr. and head west for 4.5 miles to reach a parking lot at the base the Harford Pier. Avila Beach Paddlesports is at the east end of the parking lot.

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