The Ultimate Guide to Surfing in the USA

by Surf Atlas

Surfing in the USA should be on everyone’s bucket list. Names like Hawaii and California are the big time, but this great country spans both the Pacific and the Atlantic to offer more breaks than you could possibly hope to get through in a lifetime. It’s a surf mecca, no questions.

Surfing in the USA with camper

Surfing in the USA at a glance

We might use affiliate links in this post. Basically, you click em’ and we get a little something from your booking or purchase. They help us keep offering more and more in-depth surf guides to awesome places all around the globe. So, thanks for that!

The good:

  • The sheer number of surf breaks in the USA is mind boggling!
  • California is the original home of surf culture
  • Hawaii’s North Shore
  • Empty Eastern Seaboard beaches

The bad:

  • Storm swells that ruin the east coast
  • The pollution and localism of south Cali

This is just one part of our guide to surfing in North America

What will I find in this guide to surfing in the USA?

An introduction to surfing in the USA

Where to begin?

Let’s start by saying this: The USA is the world’s original surf destination.

It all started way back in 1885 at the Santa Cruz end of the San Lorenzo River. Three Hawaiian princes took to the waves on handmade planks fashioned from Cali’s great redwoods. They were drawing on the ancient traditions of their people, the Polynesian royals Hawaii.

Later on, Olympic prodigy and surf legend Duke Kahanamoku would take the sport into the bigtime with sessions in Hawaii and SoCal. He was joined by Tom Blake, the inventor of the modern board. Together, they turned places like Waikiki and Malibu into world-famous spots and gave birth to modern surf culture.

To put it simply: Without America there might just be no such thing as surfing at all!

Coast to coast surfing on both the Atlantic and Pacific

Surfing in the USA can’t be pinned down to just one spot.

There’s a whopping 95,471 miles of shoreline in this country. Let that sink in for a moment. 95,471!

That’s enough coast to cover two huge stretches on the world’s two largest oceans. It’s enough to take you from a sub-tropical south in Florida to an icy north in Alaska and Washington State, with everything from wave-bashed sand stretches to rugged reef locations in between. Variety is the keyword. Consistency is rarely a problem.

Yep, there’s surfing in the USA for pretty much all sorts of boarders. Complete beginners can cruise on longboards over the glassy sets of Waikiki Beach. Pros can be eyeing up the slabby XXL waves of Mavericks. Intermediates can chase the A-frames of sandy Long Island. Turn-hungry shortboarders rip up the peaky Atlantic down in Cocoa Beach, FL – the home of a certain Kelly Slater.

If you’re thinking of planning a surf trip to this corner of the globe, you really can’t go wrong!

Where to surf in the USA?

Let’s break it down a little. First off, all the spots in the USA can roughly be divided in two: The West Coast and the East Coast. On top of that, you’ve also got to factor in the legendary surf mecca of Hawaii, which might be a couple of thousand miles off the California coast, but is a rite of passage for pretty much any board rider surfing in the USA.

Surfing in Malibu USA

The West Coast

Welcome os the US Pacific breaks. Often known collectively as the West Coast, these are the most famous spots for surfing in the USA. We don’t say that lightly – we haven’t mentioned Hawaii yet, remember. But there’s no denying this land is now the epicenter of modern surf culture (go watch Point Break if ya’ haven’t already, okay?)

The spots are endless. They range from the wild and unforgiving swells that lie under the Olympic Mountains up in Washington to the beaches along the border with Mexico. The south of the West Coast is the most iconic of all. It’s where you’ll find SoCal – San Diego, Malibu. The peaks there are glassy Pacific walls that are just asking to be ripped up.

Further north, into Oregon, you’ll see the lineups thing but the conditions become unpredictable. The dominant swell channels switch from the SW to the NW and that brings onshores and rain. The Beaver State and beyond is soul-stirring but it’s not easy going.

We’ve got a complete guide to surfing on the West Coast of the USA – check it out right now!

Surfing on the East Coast USA

The East Coast

The Atlantic coast, also called the Eastern Seaboard, is a more upcoming surf territory. It still has some serious pedigree and class, especially on strong tropical storm swells. Of the lot, it’s Florida and the Carolinas that stand out from the crowd, but there’s excellent surf to be had all the way up to New England. Generally speaking, the locals here are hardy bunch who aren’t afraid to paddle out in thick snowstorms.

It’s not without its famous surf towns either. The Outer Banks are up there. So’s Cocoa Beach, the home ground of one Kelly Slater.

We’ve got a full guide all about surfing on the US East Coast – check it right now!

Surfing in Waikiki USA

Hawaii

The Aloha State is hallowed ground in the world of surfing. Heard of The Duke? Yep, this was his stomping ground. If history’s to be believe, the art of wave riding actually originated in the Polynesian society of these stunning islands.

Fast forward to today: Hawaii is still a major surf mecca. There are breaks for all levels. Waikiki is the go-to beginner spot, offering cruisy longboard peaks below Honolulu’s big hotels. The North Shore is at the other end of the spectrum – that’s where Oahu really lets the Pacific rip, at tubular masterpieces like the Banzai Pipeline.

We’ve got a complete guide to surfing in Hawaii – check it out right now!

The best surf camps in the United States

The United States isn’t short on surf camps. No sireee, from chilled SoCal motel-hotel boutiques to happening Hawaiian tiki stays, there’s a whole bunch of places to kick back in when you’re surfing the USA…

Surfhouse ($$)

Surf-hotel-top-pick

The Surfhouse makes it’s home in one of California’s most legendary surf towns – the original SoCal mecca of Encinitas. It’s got a retro 50s vibe and breezy rooms that overlook the waves of Leucadia State Beach. Getting in the water is a cinch – they have experienced in-house instructors and packages include rentals of Firewire boards and wetties. We don’t make this our top pick in the USA lightly. It’s class.

Moana Surfrider ($-$$)

Best for: Beginners

This Westin Resort is typical of the deluxe hotels that now congregate around famous Waikiki. No guide to surfing in the USA would be complete without a nod to that iconic wave. It’s easy-going, cruisy longboard stuff. This hotel, on the other hand, is flamboyant, five-star opulence, with a beachfront location, a colonial facade, and suites that overlook the Pacific.

Beachcomber Inn ($-$$)

Best for: Advanced surfers who want to hit Trestles!

Beachcomber Inn takes us back to the hallowed surfing territory of California. It puts ya’ right on the side of T-Street Beach (a legendary surf spot for vintage lovers) near the epic San Clemente Pier. You can rent standalone villas with awesome views of the West Coast waves. And if that’s still not enough, Trestles is to the south!

When to surf in the United States?

There’s no such thing as a “best” time to go surfing in the USA. Basically, this country is just so vast and spans so many individual surf spots across two oceans that it would futile to try and pinpoint the month when it’s turning on the goods. Anyway, here’s an attempt…

SeasonWest CoastEast CoastHawaii
SpringUnpredictable swells between the SW and NW mean you need to watch the forecast. Onshore winds are the main issue but there are some epic days on points like Trestles. Some okay days, some totally off days. That’s the story of the East Coast generally. The fickleness is compounded by cold waters, shark threats and NE onshore winds. It’s not the best time, to be frank.Quality is the keyword on the waves in the Aloha State. Spring is actually the perfect time of year to surf here. It’s not as big as fall but winds are consistently offshore and there’s loads of action.
SummerCentral California is smaller but can be awesome as the SW swells set in. Better for beginners and long boarders. San Clemente-Malibu hits its best. San Diego is flat. Oregon and Washington are flat.Hurricane action in the Atlantic can throw in some strong swells in the SE channel. That fuels the OBX and Long Island, so you do get some barrels here in late summer especially. The water’s never that warm, though you might get down to a 3/2 south of MASouthern Hemisphere storms send regular swells up to Hawaii, meaning the south-facing beaches work best in summer. There can also be some big waves, and the dominant winds are from the NE, so glassy days abound!
FallThe peak surf season on the West Coast. Leftover SW swells power the LA region but increasing NW action feeds San Diego and northern California with some class acts. Moreover, is when Mavericks starts showing its teeth. Mostly, though, it’s the season of westerly offshores. Pits of all shapes and sizes, A-frames that look plucked from a photoshop session, and offshore winds – these are the gifts of fall surfing on the East Coast. It’s prime time. The consistency of the West Coast is still the aim, but there’s little to complain about. Fall is pretty much the peak season for surfing in the USA and Hawaii is no different. Regular, big swells and offshore winds are the gift, and the North Shore will start going by mid October if you’re brave enough.
WinterBig NW storm swells crash down the coast. They’re usually what bring out the surfers in the Pacific Northwest – a hardy bunch – and are what’s needed to get San Diego pumping. You gotta’ be hardcore to surf the winter on the East Coast. North of NYC this is 5/3 territory with booties and gloves. South of that it’s at least 4/3 all winter. Actually, the waves can be tantalizingly good, especially with a NE wind and some storm surges. Just be careful and stay warm!The iconic Oahu North Shore gets its mojo back for the winter months. It’s a roaring mass of XXL swells that demands guts and skill. West-facing shores are generally better because they get the bulk of the groundswell coming off the Pacific.

We might use affiliate links in this post. Basically, you click em’ and we get a little something from your booking or purchase. They help us keep offering more and more in-depth surf guides to awesome places all around the globe. So, thanks for that!

This is just one part of our larger guide to surfing in North America