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Surfing in California: Your Guide to the Best Waves

by Octavia Drughi

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The capital of surfing in the USA, California is the birthplace of surf culture. This stretch of coastline is home to some of the world’s most famous waves and surf towns.

California is the third largest state in the US. Everything about it is big, from the national parks to the surf. From classic point breaks to gnarly reefs and beach breaks, there are more waves than you can imagine, and most of them can be surfed all year round.  


Why go surfing in California?


Surfing is a way of life in California. Surf shops line the coast, wearing surf brands is the norm, and some of the world’s best board shapers call it their home.

If you’d like to get your feet wet, you’ll find numerous surf camps in California that offer guidance. And it looks like the sport will only continue to gain popularity. On August 20, 2018, surfing became California’s official state sport.

Surfing in Southern California is different from Northern California; not just the sea temperatures and the weather, but also the waves themselves.

With that being said, here’s the breakdown of the best surf spots in California by region: 


Surfing in Southern California


Southern California, aka SoCal, is the epicenter of modern surfing. This is where all the action is at, especially during summer. The Beach Boys’ California Girls captured the essence of 1960s SoCal’s youth and surf culture.

Stretching from San Diego all the way to the Mexican border, home of Hollywood, Disney, traffic jams, and a booming surf industry, Southern California has a little bit of everything. Whether you’ve never set foot on a surfboard or are already a seasoned surfer, you’ll find something to your liking.


Rincon, Santa Barbara


Recommended for: Intermediate and advanced surfers

In northern SoCal, at the county line between Santa Barbara and Ventura, Rincon is the very definition of point break and perhaps the gnarliest surf spot in California. Often referred to as the “Queen of the Coast”, it was popularized by the Beach Boys in Surfin’ Safari.

This long and beautiful right-hander wraps around a small beachside neighborhood. On a good day, it can get seriously long, offering rides of 400+ yards. With a good-size swell and a mid to lower tide, Rincon barrels like you won’t believe it.

Rincon puts on its best performance in winter. It goes flat in summer because the Channel Islands block the south swells.


Malibu, Los Angeles


Recommended for: All levels

West of Los Angeles, Malibu is an iconic Californian surf spot that has played an important role in the US’ surf culture. It was featured in several Beach Boys’ songs, and it has maintained its laid-back vibes to this day. Malibu is a place the entire family can enjoy.

At Surfrider Beach, you’ll find three perfectly peeling point breaks for all levels: First Point, Second Point, and Third Point. They are all world-class, but First Point is the most famous of the bunch, one of the world’s most revered right-hand point breaks.

Closer to shore, the waves are gentle enough for beginners. Further out, the surf gets bigger, and that’s where the more experienced surfers like to play. You are almost guaranteed to see famous surfers riding the waves at Malibu.

In 2010, through the efforts of the Save the Waves Coalition, Surfrider Beach and its surrounding area became the first World Surfing Reserve, which will preserve the stellar waves at Malibu as well as its emblematic surf culture for future generations.

The best time to surf at Malibu is summer. This is the ultimate SoCal surf spot, and it is always crowded.


Huntington Beach Pier, Huntington Beach


Recommended for: All levels

There’s a good reason why Huntington Beach has been nicknamed “Surf City USA”. Southeast of Los Angeles, this is the capital of surfing in California.

Besides hosting the annual Vans US Open of Surfing and being one of the most consistent surf spots on the West Coast, with great waves available all year round, it is also drenched in surfing history. George Freeth brought surfing to Huntington Beach over a century ago, and Duke Kahanomoku gave Hawaiian-style surfing demonstrations in 1925.

You’ll find a variety of sandbars working all year round, and waves for all levels on both sides of the famous pier. If the conditions are right, even beginners can take a stab at the very waves that made Kelly Slater and Andy Irons famous.


The Wedge, Newport Beach


Recommended for: Advanced surfers

Newport Beach has been described as a “skate park in the ocean”. The stretch of sand along the Balboa Peninsula is exposed to all sorts of waves for all levels, but the most famous one is The Wedge, located at the east end of the peninsula.

The Wedge is often described as a “freak of nature”. This powerful beach break is shallow and unforgiving. Expect large wedge-shaped waves, 30 feet (9m) peaks, and triple-overhead barrels; not for the faint of heart.

The Wedge gets big in summer and autumn, with a south swell. Nearby Seal Beach is your best bet when The Wedge isn’t working. It doesn’t get as big, but it is heavy and shallow. The pier, aka Blackies, is preferred for longboarders, beginners, and old-timers.


Doheny State Beach, Dana Point


Recommended for: Beginners and intermediate surfers

Dana Point is the original Californian surf town. Hobie Alter opened the world’s first retail surf shop here in 1954, and Doheny was California’s first State Beach.

Doheny State Beach was mentioned in the Beach Boys’ Surfin’ USA and Surfin’ Safari. It  is one of the best places to learn to surf in Southern California. The rocky bottom creates perfectly shaped waves, ranging at 3-4 feet (1-1.2m), while the jetty protects the beach from large swells.  


San Onofre State Beach, San Clemente


Recommended for: Beginners and longboarders

San Onofre State Beach is located next to Camp Pendleton in northern San Diego County, but it is accessed from San Clemente in Orange County. It is renowned for its laid-back and family-friendly atmosphere. Unlike other surf spots in California where localism can be an issue, the surf etiquette displayed here is exemplary.

San Onofre managed to maintain a 1960s beach vibe. RVs line the beach and barbecues and beach volley are the preferred pastime activities in between surf sessions.

There are three waves at San Onofre: The Point, Old Man’s, and Dog Patch, all classic longboarding point breaks. Old Man’s has soft, sometimes mushy waves, which make it ideal for beginners. In fact, San Onofre is one of the world’s best destinations for beginner surfers.

The best time to go surfing at San Onofre is in summer. During rare hurricane swells, San Onofre gets big enough to pose a challenge even for experienced surfers.


Lower Trestles, San Clemente


Photo credit: Troy Williams

Recommended for: Intermediate and advanced surfers

Trestles is the gem of surfing in Southern California. Located in the northernmost part of the San Onofre State Beach, Trestles is a collection of five reef breaks: Cottons, Uppers, Middles, Lowers, and Churches. They all offer ultra rippable lefts and rights.

Lower Trestles, is the absolute best of the bunch, often called the “jewel of surfing in Southern California.” This A-frame wave breaks over a cobblestone reef – the right is longer and the left is shorter, faster, and hollower. Both are world-class.

Lower Trestles is always crowded, no matter the swell size. When a southwest swell fires up the reef, it’s not uncommon to see some of the world’s best surfers trying out all sorts of groundbreaking tricks. You’d better bring you’re A-game because competition is fierce.

Trestles works best during summer. The competition isn’t as stiff at Uppers and Middles, but you’ll still have to fight your way through the line-up.


Oceanside Pier, Oceanside


Recommended for: Intermediate and advanced surfers

Oceanside has 3.5 miles (5.5 km) of beaches opening up to some very consistent surf spots. The beach break at Oceanside Pier works all year round, and offers quality and fun waves even in summer. There are good waves on both sides of the pier, which barrel with a low tide but can get mushy on a high tide.


Blacks Beach, San Diego


Recommended for: Advanced surfers

Black Beach, aka Torrey Pines City Beach, is located in La Jolla, between Torrey Pine and the Scripps Pier. Here, the La Jolla Submarine Canyon produces San Diego’s most powerful waves. Beginners, you should steer clear of this one.

Blacks is a fast, hollow, and unforgiving beach break that can hold huge swells. The best conditions can be found in winter, but it works all year round. It is renowned for its consistency and power, and it’s always crowded. Blacks is also one of California’s largest nudist beaches.


Surfing in Central California


Spanning from Santa Cruz all the way to Ventura County, Central California is less populated than SoCal. The waves are less crowded and generally more suitable for intermediate and advanced surfers. With that being said, you can find some inside peaks for beginners too.


Steamer Lane & Pleasure Point, Santa Cruz


Recommended for: Intermediate and advanced surfers

Santa Cruz is one of the world’s best surf cities, packed with surfing history. The waves here were first surfed in 1885 by three Hawaiian brothers, which is the earliest recording of board surfing in North America. In 2011, Santa Cruz was declared a World Surfing Reserve.

Steamer Lane was named after the steamboats that used to chug along the coastline as pioneer surfers paddled for the waves. This cold-water surf spot was the home break of Jack O’Neill, who went on to develop the first modern wetsuit. Thank you, Jack!

Steamer Lane is the most iconic surf spot in Santa Cruz, and it is home to four reef breaks that can get seriously heavy. Beginners should keep their distance. The Mark Abbott Lighthouse sits on top of the cliffs overlooking the waves, and hosts the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum. 

If Steamer Lane seems too big, Pleasure Point sits right across the bay and is slightly more accessible. It’s very consistent and offers long rides, which is why it is also more crowded.


Ventura Point


Recommended for: All levels

Ventura Point, aka C-Street, has two point breaks. The right is easier and slower, throwing some gentle rollers that are suitable for beginners and intermediate surfers. The left, also known as Pipes, is shorter, faster, and a lot more powerful. This barreling wave is where the more experienced surfers like to hang out.

Ventura Point picks up all swells and can handle any size. It is very consistent and works all year round, but Pipes puts on its best performance in winter. In summer, it gets very crowded. 


Surfing in Northern California


From the Oregon border to San Francisco, some of the least visited surf spots in California await adventurous surfers. Northern California, aka NorCal, is a raw and unspoiled region, home to super heavy beach breaks and rocky reef points, most of them suitable for hardcore surfers.

The water is cold, the surf is big, and there’s the occasional shark in the water. And yet, the most popular spots do see the occasional crowd.


Ocean Beach, San Francisco


Recommended for: Intermediate and advanced surfers

Just south of the Golden Gate Bridge, Ocean Beach is the most famous surf spot in the Bay Area. This is one of the heaviest beach breaks on the planet, often compared to Mexico’s Puerto Escondido.

When it’s head-high, it gets seriously crowded. But don’t worry, you’ll find plenty of peaks along this 3-mile (5km) stretch of beach, so scoring some waves should not be a problem. When it’s bigger, there’ll be far less surfers in the water and you should really consider whether you can make it out in one piece. The rips and currents are treacherous.

Ocean Beach is a swell magnet and can hold any size. With a dropping tide, it gets even more hollow. With a good swell, you’ll get set after set of 20-foot waves barreling to the shore.

South of Ocean Beach, Linda Mar is a mellow spot for beginners and longboarders.


Mavericks, Half Moon Bay


Photo credit: jacobovs

Recommended for: Experts only

North America’s prime big wave surf spot, Mavericks is one of the biggest and scariest waves on the planet.

In San Mateo County, only 25 miles (40km) south of San Francisco, Mavericks breaks off Pillar Point, in Half Moon Bay. Pioneered by Jeff Clark, who named it after his dog, it was once a hidden spot. Not anymore. Over the last two decades, the spot has been popularized in books, documentaries, and surf films like Chasing Mavericks. This fast and furious right-hand reef is shark infested, often foggy, and super cold.

For most people, Mavericks is nothing more than a show to watch from atop the cliffs. Few surfers are able to ride it. However, seeing your favorite pros trying to score a ride is a spectacular sight to say the least.

The best time to be charging Mavericks is during winter, when the waves frequently reach over 25ft (7.5m) and crests around 60ft (18m) aren’t uncommon. Waves of up to 80ft (24m) have been attempted here.


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