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Snorkeling in California: Our Top Picks in the Golden State

Snorkeling in California: Our Top Picks in the Golden State

When searching for great snorkeling places, world-famous hotspots like Hawaii, the Cayman Islands, and other tropical “bucket list” destinations are likely the first places that come to mind. However, there’s no need to travel outside the United States to find new undersea wonders. You’ll be able to find greener waters, beautiful kelp beds, friendly seals, rays, and an interesting variety of fish just by going to California!

Popularly known as the “Golden State,” this western gem stands out for its beautiful coast and excellent surf spots. It may not offer warm waters but with the right wetsuit undergarments, you’ll be able to have a safe and fun snorkeling experience with your family and friends. Check out these top five places to snorkel in California.

Best Places to Go Snorkeling in California

As a coastal state, California is home to an abundance of shallow water activities. This means you’ll mostly be snorkeling in Southern California, but you’ll be surprised where else you can do some freediving without traveling off-shore! Just be sure to research the best times of the year for venturing out into the waters as each season offers a unique experience. Don’t be surprised if you end up wanting to come back every year!

La Jolla

La Jolla best snorkeling in southern California

If you’re looking for a family-friendly snorkeling trip, consider the touristy La Jolla Cove in Southern California. Both novice and experienced snorkelers flock to this part of the San Diego La Jolla Underwater Park Ecological Reserve to enjoy some of the clearest waters in the state.

The entire park and reserve itself is rated as one of the 10 best snorkeling places in the world, thanks to its vast tidelands, a diverse range of marine life, and a fascinating display of undersea formations waiting to be discovered. You’ll find sea turtles, dolphins, urchins, shovelnose guitarfish, and even the biggest gathering of beautiful and harmless leopard sharks at the nearby La Jolla Shores from June to December. The La Jolla Cove also features seven sea caves, including Clam Cave, where snorkelers often swim through when the tide permits.

Around 100 yards from the La Jolla Cove Bridge Club is a 35-foot deep underwater graveyard (also known as “Tombstones”) that features markers placed in remembrance of departed spearfishermen and freedivers, including members of North America’s first diving and spearfishing club called the “Bottom Scratchers.”

Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands best places to go snorkeling in California

Just offshore from Santa Barbara is the Channel Islands National Marine Park, another popular snorkeling and freediving spot in California. It is composed of eight islands that present astounding views, as well as regular high winds and strong currents that make it recommendable only for experienced swimmers with proper equipment (like a dry snorkel).

Frequented snorkeling areas are around the islands of Anacapa, Santa Barbara, and eastern Santa Cruz.  Snorkelers will be able to see up to 50 feet deep during good weather conditions and explore kelp forests and sea caves filled with over a thousand underwater species, including sea lions, seals, dolphins, and whales.

The best part? You’ll get to enjoy a mix of tropical and cold waters averaging 52-66 degrees, for which you’ll need a wetsuit that will help you stay comfortable throughout your dives.

Catalina Island

Catalina Island best places to go snorkeling in California

A great snorkeling experience awaits you in Catalina Island. Located 22 miles south of Los Angeles, this well-known snorkeling and diving spot is accessible by plane or boat from Newport Beach. It’s surrounded by crystal clear waters with visibility up to 80 feet and is filled with abundant marine life.

Swim with horn sharks, eels, yellowfin tuna, guitarfish, giant sea bass, and other pelagic sea creatures in warmer waters compared to the Channel Islands. Make sure to stay for a couple of days to explore various beaches and snorkeling spots around the island with the assistance of visitor-friendly tour companies.

Make sure you check out the recommended snorkeling spot near the Catalina Island Casino, the protected bay called Lover’s Cove where you’ll find dense kelp forests, and Casino Point Dive Park (near the town of Avalon) where you can discover mysterious shipwrecks, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, tree fish, and—if you’re lucky—octopus.

Laguna Beach

Laguna Beach best places to go snorkeling in California

The small coastal city of Laguna Beach in Southern California can get pretty packed around the summer, but there’s one area that remains relatively undisturbed. At the bottom of the Heisler Park Ecological Reserve cliffs, you’ll find clear, pristine waters and tide pools that you can explore to your heart’s content—as long as you do not remove anything from the water.

One beach spot you shouldn’t miss is Shaw’s Cove, which offers views of beautiful reef structures and active marine life. Make sure you also sign up for a two-hour kayak tour that will take you to Seal Rock for a snorkeling experience amidst rich kelp forests, reef structures and, if conditions are right, California sea lions!

Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe best places to go snorkeling in California

Lake Tahoe, which straddles the border between California and Nevada, offers a few spots where you can enjoy a unique freshwater snorkeling experience. One of the most popular spots is at Sand Harbor, as it is both a family-friendly beach with shallow, blue-green waters near the shore, as well as a great scuba diving spot as it gradually goes as deep as 2,500 feet. Massive granite boulders line the corners of the beaches so you can do some practice jumps. 

Another notable snorkeling spot is Emerald Bay along the West Shore. It’s home to a pair of old wooden boats that steamers used for transporting cargo and an underwater forest of pine trees, following a massive landslide in the area.

Finally, check out the D.L. Bliss State Park, whose beautiful blue waters offer up to 75 feet of visibility. Here, you’ll love snorkeling at Rubicon Point, a popular cliff-jumping area that features an 800-foot rock wall.

Any other spots where you would like to go snorkeling in California? Let us know in the comments below!

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