The Ultimate Guide to Santa Barbara Surf

by Tom Sanchez

Santa Barbara surf is something truly special. What else would you expect from a place eulogized by The Beach Boys and home to The Endless Summer?

Santa Barbara surf 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

  • Nice surf-student vibe around the university
  • Great right-hand point breaks (classic California stuff, eh?)
  • We love cool little surf towns like Carpinteria

The bad

  • Dead in the summer months – like nada happening
  • Some pollution close to the town

This guide is just one part of our complete guide to surfing in California and surfing on the West Coast

What’s in this guide to Santa Barbara surf?

An introduction to Santa Barbara surf

Santa Barbara surf setting

Santa Barbara is the stepping stone between South California and the Central Coast. The Santa Barbara surf takes the nod from its northern side, though. That’s mainly down to the huge barrier that’s formed by the Channel Islands that lie directly to the south. They stifle any summer S swells and leave the place looking positively Aegean from around June to August.

Still, that’s not to say the Santa Barbara surf isn’t epic. It most certainly is. It’s just that waves here are temperamental and real inconsistent. Wait for fall and they will start rolling on any W or strong NW swells. When that happens it can be bliss. Point breaks reign supreme, catching those winter storm systems and churning out glassy right barrels and beach break A-frames that can rival any in California. It’s just a waiting game.

Budget wise, Santa Barbara can be a hard push. It’s strange though – this is a land where A-lister mansions roll into empty Central Coast territory; where the mountains crash to chic vineyards. You can usually find somewhere affordable, and it’s doubly worth it because the town is a historic gem (just check out those UNESCO missions!).

A guide to all the Santa Barbara surf spots

Running south to north, this guide goes from the end of Ventura County through the heart of SB surf territory.

A barrel in Santa Barbara

Ventura

Ventura is a squiggle in the West Coast that bends both south and south-west, offering up a series of bays that are perfectly positioned to absorb that oncoming west swell in fall. Adding to that are rocky headland points surrounded by boulders, which can produce some serious quality. Among them are the epic Rincon Point and the sectiony right point at Pitas – both of which are world class.

Check out our complete guide to surfing in Ventura, CA, right now

Carpinteria (home of Rincon!)

The right-point wave at Rincon is a killer example of how California just keeps turning on the goods as you move north. Strong W-NW swells see it get to its best. Then, you’ll have sets of wally waves crashing into the point and peeling right into the bay. They’re sectiony and rippable and often as hollow as can be, but always busy. Carpinteria also has action on its main beach. That’s known locally as Tarpits. It’s an all-round fun spot that we love to surf on smaller swells, when the ankle burners get rowdy and there’s room to rip to the right.

Miramar

Longboarders love the mushburgers that are up for grabs in east Santa Barbara. Cue Miramar, which usually takes a decent winter swell spell to work best. Rocks underneath are the hazard. Don’t scratch your shiny new Malibu. Bad memories.

Montecito (Hammond’s Reef)

A gnarly right breaks at Hammond’s Reef just off the El Camino Real. It reminds us of a heavy Portuguese break. Comes in thick and heavy with a fast take off into a really open-face wave with lots of power. If you can paddle fast enough you’ll be rewarded by a beefy shoulder to carve up for 50-100m. Rocks underneath. Not a beginner’s wave.

Sandspit

Santa Barbara’s answer to The Wedge, the Sandspit is an unforgiving backwash wave that slaps up off the Santa Barbara Harbor jetty. We’d actually say it’s even MORE unpredictable than Wedge. The water really wreaks havoc as it slaps back into the ocean. There are regular broken boards (and probably bones) but the ride is a short, sharp adrenaline hit like nothing in the area. Don’t step on local toes.

Leadbetter Beach

Leadbetter Beach is a quality right that breaks off the rocks just around from the town harbour. Favored by both longboarders and performance surfers, it’s pretty versatile as a spot and can hold a surprising amount of size and power. The real treat is in the length of the ride, which can often be over 100m down the front of the cypress-topped bluffs. Crowds can be an issue.

Mesa Lane

Navigate down the bluffs between the stone pines and the flower thickets at the end of Mesa Lane to find this fun and often-uncrowded Santa Barbara surf spot. There’s a touch more westerly exposure here, so winter can be very reliable. The waves are

Campus Point

Campus Point is a true joy of the Santa Barbara surf scene. It might be one of the mellowest waves in town, but the crew is friendly and the vibe is usually good. Named for the proximity of the University of California, Santa Barbara, which is just up the road. Beginners eat your heart out on the fun and crumbly reef break that’s up front. Out back are bigger wedges. The only hazards are a few rocks but they tend to be easy to spot.

Devereux

Devereux is another popular spot for UCSB students and it offers a touch more punch because the shelf is deeper and there’s more chance to catch winter westerlies. The vibe is usually real nice and it’s hardly ever busy. We’d say the wave is a little mushy but it’s long and cruisy too.

Sands Beach

Sands Beach enjoys the most westerly exposure of any of the main surf beaches in Santa Barbara university district. That keeps the sets rolling in throughout the winter months, whenever there’s a touch of W or NW in the direction. The upshot? It’s a great place to check from September onwards. The setting is stunning. Behind a row of low dunes and pine-palm trees, the beach starts in the south-east and rolls north-east from there. The line up gathers down at the main point beneath the villa, which means lefts are the predominant ride, but there are also lots of rights. Usually pretty mellow but can transform into a performance A-frame. Watch out for rips around the rivermouth.

El Capitan

A very high-quality right hand point break just over 14 miles north-west up the 101 from Santa Barbara downtown, El Capitan is always busy when it’s on. It’s immune to the swell shadow to the south (formed by the Channel Islands) because it needs W elements in the swell to work. They will crash into the cobblestone reef that juts from the Cali shore here to give fast and sculpted barrel waves that are almost unrivaled on this part of the coast. Local crew can be protective but they do wait for this one to get going every year.

Refugio State Beach

Thick palm trees give way to a cinnamon-colored run of sand in Refugio State Beach. It’s another right-hand point with some serious class if there’s W elements in the swell compass. Unlike El Capitan, this one’s a much more forgiving take off over deeper reef. It’s often used by improvers and intermediates and will accommodate longboarders on mellower, smaller days.

The Ranch

A wave with some serious teeth and character, the Ranch can sometimes feel like a mini Nazare as it curls into the low-lying reef shelf north of Santa Barbara. Best on big W and NW days, it’s a wedgy peak with a right and a left. The left’s usually a no-no though, cos the landing is super shallow. The right can be a blast – fast and demanding with a strong requirement on the bottom turn. The paddle out can be super solid. Be ready to do a lot of ducking.

Tarantula’s

One of the first Santa Barbara surf spots to actually feel any of the south swell that’s largely cut off by the Channel Islands, T’s – as it’s known locally – is a reef break that offers some gnarly left tubes at the south end of Jamala Beach. It’s not for the faint hearted becuase there are rips and rocks in the channel. The wave isn’t unlike a Balinese wet season screamer, with a fast barreling overhead and a shoulder that holds plenty of shape down the line.

Jamala Beach

Jalama Beach is the last spot in the offing when it comes to Santa Barbara surf. You’re already __ miles off the 101 and anything north of here is really hard to access (there are some spots, but they’re secrets, so shh!). Jamala’s main spot is the beachfront break in front of the RV grounds. The south end is known as Tarantula’s and it’s a gnarly reef A-frame. The beach break is mellower but not mellow in itself. You’re still looking at fast and challenging waves that regularly suffer from strong onshore winds. Pick a day with easterlies and it will be glassy.

What we’d take on a south California surf trip…

WETSUITS (Men):

  • SUMMER: Rip Curl 2mm Dawn Patrol Long Sleeve Springsuit in Camo | By June and July the south swells will have brought some warmth to the SoCal waters and there’s a three-month window when you can usually get away with a shorty. The Dawn Patrol is a solid all-rounder and we love it in this camo.
  • SPRING/FALL: Quiksilver Syncro 3/2 | A solid 3/2 to carry you through the Cali shoulder seasons, the Syncro is one of our forever favs. It’s warm but also flexy, thanks to that pretty awesome StretchFlight x2 tech on the key panels.
  • WINTER: Rip Curl Dawn Patrol 4/3 with Chest Zip | A 4/3 is usually enough to carry you through the winter in SoCal. New seam taping and outrageous thermal stats make this one a great option, and not at a silly price point either. 

WETSUITS (Women)

  • SUMMER: Rip Curl 2mm Dawn Patrol Long Sleeve Springsuit | This is corker for the ladies – it’s got the E5 neoprene (warm and flexy) along with blind-stitched seams. 
  • SPRING/FALL: Rip Curl E Bomb 3/2Loving the colors on these new E Bomb summer+spring steamers. The tech and the style is perfect for the medium waters in south California. 

SUNSCREEN: Sun Bum Original Face Stick 30 SPFSuper important stuff. South California is sunny, you know. No matter the time of year, you’ll need at least a 30 SPF stick like this, and the Sun Bum is water resistant for 80 mins and completely paraben free.

Where to stay when surfing in Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara surf hotels aren’t hard to come by. We’ve chosen some of the ones we LOVE below. Be sure to book early because they fill with beach goers in summer and surfers in winter…

El Encanto ($$$)

Surf-hotel-top-pick

Okay, so you’ll need some cash to stay at the lovely El Encanto. But if you’re looking to treat yourself, we can’t think of any spot we’d rather be in SB. It’s got a bluff-top location with views over the Pacific Ocean, and a touch of the Spanish Hacienda about it. The pool is the star of the show, though. Lush.

Beachside Inn ($$)

Beachside Inn enjoys a prime location near the waterfront of Santa Barbara downtown. From here, you can easily drive out to the point breaks that lurk to the west, or hit the main city beaches like Leadbetter. The place is a perfect midrange choice with some West Coast charm about it. Some of the rooms have a view across the main marina.

Circle Bar B Guest Ranch ($$-$$$)

Give yourself a taste of the other side of California by escaping into the sierras that surround the lovely Circle Bar B Guest Ranch. It’s a gun-slinging cowboy stay with a horse corral and creaking timber verandahs overlooking the peaks. The only downside for surfers is that there’s a 15-minute drive to the coast, but that takes you to the superior point breaks that lie west of Santa Barbara proper.

When to surf in Santa Barbara

Fall onwards is the peak time in Santa Barbara. Things will stop almost overnight again when the swell direction turns south. Basically, nothing happens from June to August and that’s that. Read on to find out why…

Sets coming into Santa Barbara

Summer (June-August)

The dominant swells during California’s summer come from the south. That’s fine for places like Malibu and LA, but Santa Barbara surf spots are all protected by the Channel Islands archipelago. That cuts out ALL the action that filters up from the Equator. Simply put: Don’t come here expecting waves between May and August.

Fall (September-October)

Fall sees the first chance of west elements in the swell. They’re actually the best for the world-class right points that Santa Barbara surf is known for – El Capitan and Refugio State Beach among them. Offshore winds also help matters, which is why we’d say this is the overall best time to surf in this part of California.

Winter (December-February)

The winter sees the W swell change to a more NW direction. That’s still fine for Santa Barbara spots. The only issue is the increase in onshore winds, which can play havoc with the more exposed beaches at Jamala and Refugio. You might be better focussing on spots like Devereux and Campus Point for the added protection.

Spring (March-May)

Spring is an unpredictable time of year in Santa Barbara. Sometimes the waves are okay – mainly when the westerly swells stick around for longer. Sometimes it’s awful out there – when the summer kicks in early. Sadly, it’s basically impossible to tell what you’re gonna’ get. Roll of the dice time.

Surf shops in Santa Barbara

Get kitted out for your trip to the Santa Barbara surf with help from one of the many surf vendors that make their home in the town.

Surf N Wear’s The Beach House

You’ll find everything you need to get started in the surf emporium that is the Surf N Wear’s The Beach House. It’s a big shop with expert assistants that are well-known for helping out complete beginners looking to hit the waves (although the Santa Barbara surf isn’t the best for that). Still, drop in to find branded surf wear, boards, wetties – you name it.

Common Folk Surfboards

Support a local shaper by dropping into Common Folk Surfboards. This local handicrafts eye-catchingly stunning boards with a bit of a retro feel to them. We’ve seen a few in the water. Jealous to say the least.

Where to eat and drink in Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is an enthralling town with a rich history. It’s also got some cracking cafes and bars…

Dune Coffee Roasters

The coffee is simply FANTASTIC (AKA fantastically strong) at this glass-fronted coffee roastery in the heart of Santa Barbara. Dune also has a tasty array of sweet cakes, muffins and pastries. The outdoor area is a lovely spot to kick-start the day.

Shoreline Beach Cafe

A staple of Leadbetter Beach, this American-Mexican grill and taco house excels in seafood, sandwiches and nachos. The location is the icing on the cake. You can sit out on the sand and munch a jalapeno-filled wrap while watching the waves roll in. Heaven.


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 guide is just one part of our complete guide to surfing in California and surfing on the West Coast

You may also like

Leave a Comment