It is time to get out on the water. Where do you start? How do you build skills? What do you do if you don’t own a boat? These pages provide resources to find outfitters and recreational programs that can help you get started and become a safer boater. The foundation of being a boater on the Bay is preparation and safety – from there the fun and exploration will follow!
We distribute these waterproof, tear-proof maps at special events all around the Bay. You can download the PDFs below, use our web version, or contact us to request copies.
North San Pablo Bay – Petaluma River / Sonoma Baylands / Napa River
North Central SF Bay – San Pablo Bay / Marin / Richmond
South Central SF Bay – Richardson Bay / San Francisco / East Bay
South SF Bay – Bair Island / Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge
Suisun Marsh – Suisun City / San Joaquin River Delta
Learn to Paddle, Row, Windsurf or Kiteboard
Build Your Skills
The best way to get started enjoying the Water Trail is to take a class or go on a guided trip. The Bay has challenging conditions and can be dangerous if you are inexperienced. Classes range from beginner to advanced and are a great way to build skills. Clubs are another good resource for developing skills. Contact individual clubs to learn more.
Many of the local outfitters offer rentals, classes, and guided trips. Get started by choosing a county from the menu on this page.
There are risks associated with recreation on San Francisco Bay. The Bay is one of the world’s busiest ports, influenced by tides, currents, and weather. Calm conditions can quickly turn to gusting winds. Low tides can expose wide mudflats that can prohibit returning to shore for hours.
The following tips will help you stay safe, but above all, be prepared, use good judgment, and take responsibility for your safety. The U.S. Coast Guard has seen a rising trend in the number of people requiring assistance.
Visit the Bay Conditions icon located at the bottom of each page for real-time weather, current, and tide information to help you plan prior to launch.
Know before you go
- Seek instruction and practice boating rescue skills.
- Plan your trip based on weather, tides, current, wind, and your own capability.
- Prepare for the unexpected flip or fall into cold water. Cold water can kill quickly.
- Inform someone you trust of your trip plan.
- Always label your gear with name and contact information.
- Wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device and keep it snug.
- Wear a wetsuit and/or other insulating gear.
- Have emergency equipment such as radios, flares, whistles, and repair kits.
- Bring drinking water and fuel for your body.
- Carry lights if you will be out in low light conditions.
On the Water
- Always pay attention to what is around you and use common sense.
- Review maps of shipping lanes and stay out of traffic. Understand the navigation Rules of the Road from the U.S. Coast Guard.
- Carry a waterproof map and compass. Fog can reduce visibility to zero.
- Scan for potential hazards and changing weather conditions.
- Travel with a companion or group.
In a Group
- Know the skill level of others in your group.
- Take responsibility for yourself.
- Communicate effectively.
- Stay close in hazardous conditions and when crossing shipping lanes.
The San Francisco Bay temperature ranges from 45⁰ – 60⁰ F and can lead to death in as little as 30 minutes.
Hypothermia is a dangerous and potentially fatal condition that results when exposure to cold temperatures cause the body to no longer maintain its core temperature. This can happen very quickly in cold water. Be aware that hypothermia causes the body to lose dexterity, making swimming difficult or impossible.
Cold shock is a dangerous and sometimes fatal condition that can result when someone is suddenly immersed in cold water, like an unexpected fall into the water. The sudden exposure of the heart and chest to cold water typically causes an involuntary gasp for air, sudden increases in heart rate and blood pressure, disorientation, and possibly cardiac arrest.
The best prevention is to “dress for the swim” and practice your rescue skills before you need them.
See the American Canoe Association tips for more information about how to prevent and treat hypothermia.
Tips from the Coast Guard
Put your name and contact information on your gear, boat, and board. The U.S. Coast Guard often finds boats, boards, and gear on the Bay. By having your contact information on your gear, the Coast Guard can contact you right away to make sure you are safe, preventing them from making a search effort if it’s not needed, and can reunite you with your lost gear.
Contact the U.S. Coast Guard if you lose your gear. Once you are safe, call the Coast Guard at 415-399-3451 to report your missing gear. This step will save the Coast Guard time and money that might otherwise be spent searching for a missing person they fear has been separated from their equipment and needs rescue.
San Francisco Bay is a precious resource for both people and wildlife. We are fortunate to share the Bay with a diversity of wildlife. The open bay, tidal marshes, creeks, and rivers not only provide us with scenic beauty and a place to recreate, but are unique and valuable ecosystems for more than 500 species of wildlife, including nearly 300 bird species. Remember to be considerate of the wildlife you do encounter and avoid disturbing them by maintaining buffer distances. They need their energy for feeding, raising young, and survival.
Observe From a Distance
San Francisco Bay is the largest estuary west of the Mississippi and is a complex and rich ecosystem surrounded by over seven million people. The Bay supports more than 500 species of wildlife, including 105 threatened and 23 endangered species, such as the Ridgeway’s rail and salt marsh harvest mouse.
The opportunities to see wildlife, enjoy the water, and travel to areas inaccessible from land, are some of the reasons we enjoy getting out on the Water Trail. We need to remember that we can often cause a disturbance to the critters we are trying to see. There are ways to lessen our impact and in return, be rewarded with seeing wildlife behave naturally, as well as knowing that we are protecting our resources.
Pay attention to behavior signs from wildlife that you are too close.
Disturbance signs usually begin with an alert response, where an animal stops its activity such as sleeping, foraging, or resting, and begins to watch you. If the animal gets more threatened this usually escalates to flushing behavior (the animal moves away from the disturbance suddenly). Put yourself in their “shoes”!
Maintain the recommended buffer distances from sensitive species.
Remember that there is variability amongst individuals and areas. Even if you are far away, if the animal shows a disturbance response, you are too close. It can be very rewarding to learn the natural behavior of different species. The use of binoculars is an excellent method of observing wildlife without causing a disturbance.
Buffer Distances to Protect Wildlife
|Rafting waterfowl||820 feet (250 meters)|
|California Ridgeway’s rail and black rail habitat||50 feet (avoid channels less than 100 feet wide)|
|Roosting California brown pelicans||164 feet (50 meters)|
|Nesting wading birds||656 feet (200 meters)|
|Nesting snowy plovers||656 feet (200 meters)|
|Nesting burrowing owls||246 feet (75 meters)|
|Pacific harbor seal haul-outs||Pupping season (March – July) 492 feet or 150 meters (328 feet or 100 meters all other times).|
Paddle at a constant heading and speed when passing wildlife.
When passing by wildlife, maintain constant heading and speed, avoid sudden stops or sudden changes in heading or speed, and avoid paddling directly at animals.
Protect sensitive habitat.
Only launch and land in designated areas and avoid making unauthorized landings or informal trails. Trampling not only destroys habitat for endangered species by destroying vegetation or spreading invasive species, but boaters could inadvertently harm endangered species by disturbing nests or stepping on small animals such as the salt marsh harvest mouse while landing or entering habitat.
Plan your trip to avoid sensitive habitat.
Avoid areas where you know there are sensitive species, such as harbor seal haul-outs, narrow channels, high tide refuge, roosting sites, and nesting colonies. Do not attempt to rescue injured animals. Instead contact your local wild animal rescue group or Marine Mammal Center.
Prevent the spread of invasive species.
San Francisco Bay is at risk of weed invasions that may colonize new areas in the Bay. Weeds may be dispersed by mud or sand attaching to gear or boating equipment. Help protect the Bay and your gear by rinsing off your equipment and boat before you leave or visit another site.
To learn more about accessibility features at various Water Trail locations please visit the Trailheads tab which links to detailed information for each site.
The Water Trail’s programmatic approach to meaningfully enhancing the accessibility of water access to the Bay is guided by the San Francisco Bay Area Water Trail Accessibility Plan, which provides a blueprint for how to make the Water Trail program when viewed in its entirety, accessible to persons with disabilities. The final Accessibility Plan was released in January 2015, that document is linked above.
The Water Trail program has provided a variety of grants and planning support to develop accessibility enhancements to boat launches around the Bay. You can always send us feedback about accessibility at launch sites by contacting us.
In addition to reviewing the site-specific information on accessibility that is provided on this website for individual Water Trail sites, interested persons can take advantage of a variety of outdoor recreational programs that provide universal access to the Bay. The following is a list of some Bay Area programs and resources that provide water-related accessible outdoor opportunities or additional information.
A Wheelchair Rider’s Guide: San Francisco Bay and the Nearby Coast
A free guide funded by the California Coastal Conservancy that describes in detail wheelchair access information for more than 100 shoreline parks, trails, historic sites, and other sites of interest around San Francisco Bay and along the coast from Point Reyes to Santa Cruz.
Bay Area Association of Disabled Sailors (BAADS) – San Francisco
Seeks to make all aspects of sailing accessible. To fulfill this mission, BAADS offers members dinghy sailing every Saturday and keelboat sailing every Sunday out of South Beach Marina (Pier 40), adjacent to AT&T Park.
Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program (BORP) – Berkeley
BORP is the leading provider and promoter of accessible sports and recreation opportunities for children and adults with physical disabilities in the greater San Francisco Bay Area.
Environmental Traveling Companions (ETC) – San Francisco
ETC opens the beauty and challenge of the great outdoors to people with disabilities and disadvantaged youth. Every year, more than 2,000 people join ETC to raft whitewater rivers, ski alpine meadows, kayak the waters of the Golden Gate and Tomales Bay, and build leadership skills.
Healing Waters – San Francisco
Provides outdoor trips specifically for people with HIV and AIDS.
Ride-A-Wave – Santa Cruz
Provides children with special needs the chance to feel the thrill of riding a wave and experience a safe, fun-filled day at the beach, whether they are physically, developmentally or economically challenged.
Shared Adventures – Santa Cruz
Founded on the belief that recreation, fun, challenge and access to the outdoors are an essential part of a healthy and fulfilling life, Shared Adventures is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the quality of life of people living with disabilities.
California Coastal Commission: Beach Wheelchairs
The California Coastal Commission website has a map and list of California beaches that provide use of beach wheelchairs.