Are you interested in learning where the top 12 snorkeling spots are in California? If you are, read on.
In this guide, you will learn where these fantastic snorkeling spots are located in California, when to go and what snorkeling gear to bring. Some are these snorkeling spots are known and others are hidden gems.
As many know California has a beautiful coastline that stretches from north to south for about 750 miles. Along this magnificent coast, there are beautiful beaches, rock pools, islands and mysterious caves that provide pure excitement to the snorkeler.
Just a side note before we begin. In most cases, you will need a wetsuit. Here’s a recommendation. California has some chilly waters and at times can get rough. So, please be careful and use your best judgment when snorkeling in California. There will always be another day if conditions don’t look good.
So here we go, from north to south (not in ranking order).
Location: Glass Beach is a beach adjacent to MacKerricher State Park near Fort Bragg (10 miles north), California. Google map
Glass Beach is as unique as they come. Where does it get its name? Well, it gets its name from sea glass created from years of dumping in the past. It seems strange now, but this was a common practice.
A little history. The beach was basically a dump until the 1960’s when it was closed. In the 1990’s things started to change and the environment became more important. A focused effort to clean the beach began and what people found to their surprise was beautiful sea glass that was once garbage. This beautiful sea glass was left and can found on the beach, in rock pools, and in the deep clear ocean. Fantastic for snorkelers!
For snorkelers or for divers it’s not just the sea glass that is the main attraction. There are fantastic rocks coming out of the ocean where you can find a plethora of sea life. Swim out to these rocks and you will come across rock cod, lingcod, sea urchins and small octopus. Some have said the sea glass actually releases beneficial minerals that have created a special environment for sea life (I’m not sure that is true).
Casper Bay/Beach is another Northern California snorkeling destination you need to check out. In most cases, the water is calm and is great for snorkeling, swimming, and kayaking. It’s relatively shallow water in most areas. It’s also another well-known beach for abalone diving (go south).
The beach is nice and sandy and is in the middle of Casper Creek and Doyle Creek. Lookout from the beach and you can’t go wrong. You will see fantastic rock formations sticking up from the ocean. Swim out to these rocks and strap your mask and snorkel on and look down. You will come across sand dollars, rock cod, sea urchins, anemones and maybe a Ling Cod or two.
Smugglers Cove, Sea Ranch, CA
Going down the coast it’s time to do some snorkeling at Smugglers Cove. Located in the community of Sea Ranch, CA. This is an absolutely beautiful area and great for snorkeling and diving. This link will show it’s beauty.
Don’t be surprised if you see some dolphins playing as you snorkel around the rocks. Sea Ranch is also a fantastic place if you are into Abalone diving. Check the latest regulations on Abalone diving if interested and if it’s currently permitted. Regulations constantly change.
San Carlos Beach
San Carlos Beach is located in Monterey, CA next to the Coast Guard Pier. Where some of the previous fantastic California snorkeling spots can take a little effort to get to, San Carlos Beach couldn’t be easier. It’s right in Monterey. This is also a popular dive destination for beginner divers. There are lots of kelp that attract an abundance of sea life. From Pacific rock cod, sand dollars, and a friendly seal… you will love San Carlos Beach. When you’re done snorkeling go out and explore Monterey…great place!
Monterey, CA is a great place to snorkel and I have another great spot for you. McAbee Beach. It’s another easy entry snorkeling beach. This is actually the spot I got scuba diving certified at. It’s very similar to San Carlos Beach, but one of the cools things you will come across are old the pipelines that have made an artificial reef schooling with marine life. It’s also another great place to go kayaking if you are interested.
Stewart’s Point/Carmel River Beach
We made it to Stewart’s Point/Carmel River Beach, Carmel, CA. Well, this happens to be one of my most favorite spots in the world. On a calm clear day, you might think you are in Hawaii. It is absolutely fantastic for snorkeling and scuba diving. I have done both many times here and I can’t recommend it enough (The picture is my son at Stewart’s Point).
First, Stewart’s Point is just south of Carmel Beach. Carmel Beach is the main beach located in Carmel…beautiful. Stewart’s has all kinds of rock formations and inlets to explore. You will find rock cod, sand dollars, mussels, sea urchins and if you’re are diving maybe a Pacific Halibut. In the summer there will be an abundance of kelp. I love exploring through the kelp. It’s always good to bring a good dive knife with you. Just in case you need to cut some kelp.
A little south of Stewart’s Point is Carmel River Beach. They merge into each other. At the north end of the beach and the south end of Stewart’s Point is a fantastic place to go snorkeling. The beach has beautiful white sand and the water is clear and calm on most days. I do stress caution further down the beach. Don’t go out and snorkel from the middle of the beach. It can produce some pretty big waves and there’s a known riptide….always stay safe!
Another great spot is the south part of Carmel River Beach. Great rock formations to explore. If you look out from the beach you will see Monastery Beach to the left and to the right Point Lobos. Two awesome places to check out, but I wouldn’t snorkel. Popular spots for scuba diving though.
As you drive south on Highway 1 make your way to Big Sur. It’s a great location to go snorkeling. Take your time and explore this beautiful coastline of California. Look for safe conditions and pick your spot off the highway. In many cases, you will be snorkeling where no one has before. You might need to do a little hiking, but it will be well worth it. It’s an absolute must if you want to take your California snorkeling adventure to the next level.
That’s right, Lake Tahoe is a fantastic place to go snorkeling in California and Nevada. The lake is clear, clean and a beautiful blue located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Lake Tahoe is the largest Alpine Lake in America and one of the deepest. Crater Lake, in Oregon, is the deepest.
Lake Tahoe is roughly split in half between California and Nevada. There are great places all along the California side, but I’m my favorite place is on the Nevada side – Sand Harbor.
Sand Harbor has beautiful sandy beaches and huge granite boulders coming out of the lake. The visibility is incredible. Take your snorkel gear and if you have a kayak it’s even better. You can get away from the crowds if needed in the peak summer months. Lake Tahoe is an all-around great place to explore and have a vacation.
As we continue to make our way south we come across the beautiful city of Santa Barbara. The ocean is getting a little warmer, but for an extended duration of snorkeling, I would still use a wetsuit.
Refugio State Beach (Google Map) and Tajiguas are about 18 miles north of the city of Santa Barbara off Highway 101 and offers a great experience for the snorkeler. You will come across sea anemones, sea stars, calico bass, rock cod and maybe a sheephead or two.
As you snorkel and explore each end of Refugio Beach you will come across some shallow reefs and kelp forests with an abundance of sea life. Take a look at the sandy bottom and you might just see a Halibut blending into the sand. This is also a great area if you like to spearfish.
Another great advantage to the Santa Barbara area for the snorkeler is the many great beaches just off Highway 101 where you can just pull over and snorkel. Grab your snorkeling gear and just go and explore!
California Channel Islands
If you don’t know there are some beautiful islands just off the Santa Barbara Coast, the California Channel Islands (National Park). This archipelago off Santa Barbara consists of five beautiful islands (San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, and Santa Barbara) that are truly world-class for the avid snorkeler. There are a total of eight California Channel Islands. Three of the islands are further south.
The visibility can at times be 100 feet plus where you will come across an abundance of sea life. Expect to see White Sea Bass, Halibut, Sheephead, Yellowtail, Garabaldi and Bat Rays. The islands are also great if you like to scuba dive where you will also come across spiny lobsters.
Unless you know someone with a boat you will need to sign up on a snorkeling tour. I’ve never been on a tour with Channel Islands Adventure Company, but they come highly recommended (I have no affiliation with them). You can also Google, snorkeling Channel Islands and get a list of companies.
If you like to spearfish and want to learn a little more about the California Channel Islands I have a post here you might find of interest.
Santa Catalina is also one of the eight Channel Islands. It is located further south off the coast of Los Angeles (southwest of LA, Long Beach). Catalina is the only channel island that has a real civilian population. Avalon is the main resort city on the island with daily ferries/boats that come from the mainland of California.
When it comes to Catalina Island snorkeling check out Lover’s Cove and Avalon Underwater Park. Both of these snorkeling and dive spots are great and you can walk straight there if you happen to be staying in a local hotel in Avalon. Just ask anyone on the island. They will point you in the right direction. Visibility can be absolutely fantastic all-around Catalina Island. There’s a good chance when snorkeling you will come across Garibaldi, Leopard Sharks, Bat Rays and many rock cod and even Yellow Tail when in season. There are also a couple of wrecks you can check out if you want to scuba dive.
If you want to venture out of Avalon and explore the island you will find many snorkeling spots untouched and ready to be explored.
San Diego (La Jolla)
There are many places to snorkel in the San Diego area. My favorite would be La Jolla. La Jolla is a beautiful beach town just north of San Diego.
This is easy snorkeling for the entire family. If you don’t have your own equipment there are several places you can rent from in La Jolla.
First, I would explore the La Jolla Underwater Park. You can sign up for a guided snorkeling tour or just go out and explore.
It’s also great to take a kayak out and explore the caves in the area (snorkel too). La Jolla Cove is home to seven caves. The picture you see here is Clam Cave.
Here’s a couple of things that are unique to La Jolla and to look out for.
Leopard sharks are in abundance between the months of June and December. Thousands and Thousands of female pregnant leopard sharks migrate to the warmer shores of La Jolla. Don’t worry they are totally harmless. Most of them are only a couple of feet in length.
“Tombstones” – About 100 – 125 yards out from La Jolla Cove Beach Club and 40 feet underwater lies a “tombstones” dedicated to “Spearos” – spearfishermen that have fallen over the years.
Snorkeling Gear Recommendations
If you don’t have any snorkeling gear check out my recommendations below.
There are some great places to go snorkeling in California from north to south. I hope I piqued your interest to go out and discover a couple. A friendly reminder, If you aren’t familiar with Californian waters they can be cold at times and get rough. Please use your best judgment when snorkeling and always side with caution. When the conditions are great, snorkeling in California is one of the best places to go in the world. Now go out and have some fun!