Slip into a kayak for a new perspective on the rivers, lakes and saltwater of the Southern Oregon Coast.

Along with the allure of the broad blue Pacific, water comes in many forms on the South Coast, from hidden coves and serene sloughs to wild rivers flowing through coastal forests. A nimble kayak gives you an immersive way to experience it all. 

“There’s a personal aspect to kayaking that really appeals to people,” says Dave Lacey, owner of South Coast Tours, now in its 13th year and offering many trips for paddlers from novice to expert. “You’re powering it yourself. You’re close to the water­ — you can lift up bull kelp, peer down at crabs. You’re stealthy and unobtrusive, so it’s a great way to see wildlife.” Here’s an overview of options to get into the water on your own or with a guide.

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Kayaking in Port Orford (Photo by Justin Myers)

Guided Saltwater Paddling Adventures

A guided trip is a wise way to go in the Pacific, where conditions can change rapidly. Besides providing the right gear and guidance for local conditions, your ability and your interests, a guide will also know where to go to see cool things. Guides always enrich the experience, notes Lacey, by sharing their knowledge about the local habitat, history and geology. 

South Coast Tours offers two sea-kayaking trips to safely navigate saltwater. On the Port Orford Ocean Wildlife Kayak tour, you’ll paddle past caves, tide pools and a cool old Coast Guard station, spotting curious harbor seals and purple sea stars splayed out across the rocks. Orford Head is also a prime area to spot gray whales. 

Not for the faint of heart — or the inexperienced — is how Lacey describes the Arches Territory tour, which explores the coastline of the Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor between Gold Beach and Brookings from the water. Participants carry inflatable kayaks down a steep path to launch and paddle under several rock arches and along high cliffs.   

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South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve (Photo by Chris Hornbecker)

Wild Rivers and Estuaries

As they approach the Pacific, all coastal rivers merge with ocean tides to create these brackish estuaries and wetlands, unusually rich habitats home to a wide range of plants and animals. 

Near Coos Bay, plan to see diving bald eagles and stalking herons in the South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, gliding through tranquil waters surrounded by thousands of acres of protected lands. The reserve offers occasional guided trips and has tips for paddling the slough on your own, including information about where to launch at the Port of Coos Bay in Charleston. 

If you’re planning to go without a guide, keep in mind that paddling can be deceptively tricky in these tidal areas. Be sure to time your trip so you’re working with, rather than against, currents and tides. The more gradual a river’s descent, the stronger its tidal influence. Some rivers, like the Coquille, often work best if you shuttle upstream, and then ride the current and tide to the Pacific.  

If you’re interested in taking on the Rogue River — the first of the Coast’s many federally designated Wild and Scenic Rivers — you might sample its changing character on three different stretches. Launch from the new accessible kayak launch — funded by Travel Southern Oregon Coast — at the Port of Gold Beach for a flatwater paddle in the Lower Rogue estuary; put in at Agness for a spicier whitewater run; or sign up for a full-day, 13-mile adventure with South Coast Tours through remote Copper Canyon.  

Near Brookings, the Wild and Scenic Chetco River has adventures for all skill levels from multiday whitewater trips to relaxing paddles in calm waters. Near its mouth at Brookings, the Chetco broadens into a calm estuary, where otters, sea lions and seals may join your party. Rent a kayak at Riverside Market on the river’s north bank for your own adventure, or book a 1.5-hour tour of the Chetco boat basin for a guided wildlife tour

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Tenmile Lake (Photo by Manuela Durson)

Easy Inland Paddling Options

Inland lakes and slow-moving river stretches are ideal for a languid paddle — a good choice for families or anyone not sure of their paddling chops. If you’re renting or bringing your own kayak, check out this comprehensive handbook of launch sites and local knowledge on rivers like the Umpqua and Coquille. 

Near the Oregon Dunes, the long arms of Eel Lake and Tenmile Lakes sprawl like octopus tentacles through marsh and forest, with warm, protected waters. Tenmile Lakes Park in Lakeside has a new boat launch and kayak-rental kiosk. Access Eel Lake at nearby William M. Tugman State Park, and stay for some excellent fishing. Empire Lakes near Coos Bay is another good inland option, with a new launch at John Topits Park. The kayak launches at both Tugman and Topits are accessible and were funded by Travel Southern Oregon Coast.

If You Go:

  • Tour operators like South Coast Tours provide participants with all the necessary equipment, but if you’re paddling on your own, be sure to bring a life jacket or borrow one for free from a loaner station near several South Coast waterways. 
  • Dress in layers — avoid cotton — and bring water. 
  • Kayaks longer than 10 feet require a Waterway Access Permit. Some launches also have fees, payable on-site. 

Header photo: Kayaking Coos Bay by Justin Myers