The Ultimate Guide to Santa Cruz Surfing

by Tom Sanchez

Santa Cruz surfing is arguably where it all started for the USA. The town is now legendary for its waves and its surf-culture history.

Surfing in Santa Cruz at a glance

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The good

  • Amazing variety of spots
  • Steamer Lane has awesome rights
  • Offshore winds are from the north – AKA winter surf is a go!

The bad

  • The localism can get sickening here
  • Surf competitions pop up without warning, but hey, it’s good watching

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 Cruz surfing?

An introduction to Santa Cruz surfing

Santa Cruz surfing

Santa Cruz isn’t the only town on the West Coast to have the nickname of Surf City. However, we’d say it’s probably the most deserving of the moniker. There are over 10 fantastic breaks here. They run the gamut from mellow logger waves sheltered from the dominant NW swell to frothing peaks with speedy right-hand channels. AKA there’s a wave for all, but the quality means you’ll rarely be alone in the line up.

Put together, the town is pretty epic from top to bottom. We’d say it’s one of the most important places in the development of modern surfing. Jack O’Neill is thought to have tried a prototype wetsuit here in the 70s; Hawaiian princes are thought to have ridden the rivermouth in the town way back in 1885 – one of the first instances of surfing in mainland America, no less.

All that culture weights heavy on the mind of folk who paddle out to the legendary spots Steamer Lane et al today. Surfing in Santa Cruz isn’t just about catching waves, it’s about riding waves that have been ridden by giants in the sport, and doing as well as you can.

A guide to Santa Cruz surf spots

We’ll go south to north on our hunt for the top SC surf spots. First off, the places to hit inside Monterey Bay, then through Santa Cruz town, and then the south- and west-facing beaches and points further along the headland.

Steamer Lane wipeout

Monterey

You can venture south along Monterey Bay to reach the chilled surf spots of Monterey town itself. They actually go from the beach breaks in the bay (good in winter because they’re sheltered from bad onshores) to the rugged coves of the Big Sur, which can be gnarly business and require some serious guts.

We’ve got a complete guide to surfing in Monterey and its surroundings. Read that right now for extra info…

Manresa Beach

Manresa Beach caps off the northern end of Monterey Bay. The location gives it a more W-facing orientation than most of the places in Santa Cruz proper, which kills the summer S swell pickup but adds some grit to the winter nor’westerlies. We find the paddle pretty killer. Expect the lats to burn. The payload is a pretty deserted lineup, at least compared to Steamers and Pleasure Point. A-frame peaks are the norm. They’ll give out lefts and rights, although goofy-footed riders are likely to be the happier of the two at the end of the sesh.

Capitola Beach

Capitola Beach is the most protected of all the inlets that stretch west between Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay. The upshot? It’s the most beginner-friendly of the whole lot, with the possible exception of Cowell’s Beach, which is ALWAYS crowded. Sadly, recent seasons have seen an uptick in the crowds on Capitola (as of 2021). It’s not a huge problem as the take-offs are stretched down the whole beachfront, and the waves are mellow as a marshmallow, so you’re not coming here to rip off the lip. The ride is on a fat and cruisy longboard wave that runs in front of the cliffs. Rights are better. Not many hazards apart from other learners paddling out.

The Hook

The Hook is a much-loved right-hand point break that comes off the southerly rocks of Cliff Beach. There’s usually a crowd here to hoover up the W swells that wrap into the bay and create long, fun and often glassy rights that are perfect for the loggers. A touch of bad-attitude localism lets you know you’re still in SC and not Malibu. The main problem is the kelp blooms, which will often drift in off the out-at-sea forests.

Pleasure Point

Pleasure Point is the first of the real star spots when it comes to Santa Cruz surfing. Perfectly situated to grab any W and NW swells that come in from September to March, and with the added blessing of the NW offshore winds in the fall, it’s got some added consistency. There are actually several take off points. Don’t be surprised to find 200+ surfers scattered in the water between the main point at 30th Street and the end of The Cove beach, where the shallower sandbanks all but kill the wave. Between them are around three or four main breaking points, which can link up beautifully if there’s enough power. Most of the time the whole area is claimed by the Santa Cruz locals ripping the whole show up. Fun to watch but we’d probably steer clear.

Cowell’s

Everyone and their dog is down at Cowells on a good day when it comes to Santa Cruz surfing. The most versatile and accessible break in the city, it bridges the gap between the main wharf and the legendary peaks of Steamers. The wave is well-protected from NW-W swell channels, so it’s the very definition of cruisy. Longboarders and Mini Mal lovers are the ones that really own the spot, but foamers and beginners also love it. Crowds aside, Cowell’s is THE best learner location in Santa Cruz. Nothing can beat it if you haven’t surfed before.

Steamer Lane

It hardly gets more epic than Steamer Lane. Say the name. Then say it again. Then sigh in awe. Trestles, Mavericks, The Wedge – this one’s a true Cali star and we absolutely LOVE it. As in San Clemente. there are actually three separate breaks on offer at Steamer Lane.

(1) The Slot

This is a hectic take-off and there’s not much reward for the FML drop in that’s required to get into the channel. The main reason people rip up here is to show off. And why not? There’s always a willing crowd of onlookers when it’s on. Basically, it’s a steep ride straight to the right off the cliff face. Rocks are everywhere and they come fast. Requires some big action in the NW swell compass to be at its best but can be cool to witness when it is.

(2) Middle Peak

The break that really made Santa Cruz surfing what it is, this one’s an enticing A-frame with two very different sides. We’re bias cos’ we rode it as a goofy and that meant a fast, sectiony ride that loves to barrel at anything remotely overhead. Classic California stuff. The right cooks a little longer in the bay so falls more relaxed and easy going. We love it as sit-in-the-pocket ride but loggers and shorboarders looking to rip off the lip will find loads to like. Never expect Middle Peak to be empty. There’s high competition for waves here.

(3) Indicators

Another famous section that’s rarer and more fickle. Requires overhead and strong swells to get going. The break is inside both The Slot and Middle Peak and when it’s working it’s always busy. The reward for the waiting game in the line up is a long (one of the longest in the town, in fact) right-hand runs. It can sometimes be enough to rip all the way towards Cowell’s Beach. Great wave but you’ll need to watch the forecast.

Natural Bridges

There’s a rough right that’s got some lovely power in it around 1.5 past the headland from Steamer Lane. On fall W swells it will kick into the shoreline and get extra shape thanks to dominant N winds, which are offshore here. It’s not an easy spot. The reefs fringe the front of Natural Bridges from one end to the other, and it’s not uncommon for the drop-on point to be just a couple of meters off them. You’ll need to pull in right and have a strong bottom turn to save from landing somewhere hard. Experts only. Natural Bridges doesn’t work best on super high tides.

Four Mile

Check out Four Mile on big-wind, big-swell days. Tucked neatly into a crescent conch bay, you guessed it, four miles north-west out of Santa Cruz city limits, it’s got great protection from the on-coming NW winds that are often cross-shore here. Bigger swells will be tamed as they wrap into the bay and create some pretty rippable rights that are steep and hollow. Hazards include rocks and localism.

Davenport

One of the last spots on the Cabrillo Highway as you head north from SC is on Davenport Beach. Things get a bit gnarlier here because there’s more exposure to W swells and the wind is often crossshore at key periods. The upshot is that there can be some good summer sets coming in, so it’s worth tracking this way if you’re keen to surf and it’s all quiet down in The Lane. The bad news? There’s lots of potential but often not as good as it looks at Davenport. Sets that tickle you out back can close out in sections and we find it’s easy to misread and miss the golden one.

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

WETSUITS (Men):

  • SUMMER: XCEL Comp 2mm Short Sleeve Springsuit | A high-performance spring suit for men that has the Channel Flex tech we LOVE from Xcel. Perfect for longer sunset and sunrise sessions in SoCal between June and August. 
  • SPRING/FALL: Men’s Xcel Comp 3/2  FA19 | A solid 3/2 to carry you through the Cali shoulder seasons, the Comp is one of our forever favs. It’s got Plush Thermolite insulation and is super stretchy. 
  • WINTER: Vissla 7 Seas 4​/3 Chest Zip Wetsuit | The 7 Seas is one of the top all-rounders. We like it for SoCal because the 4/3 feels like a 3/2 and you often don’t need to go the whole hog here. Solid and versatile suit for whatever San Clemente can muster in winter. 

WETSUITS (Women)

  • SUMMER: Rip Curl 2mm Dawn Patrol Long Sleeve Springsuit | 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. This is corker for the ladies – it’s got the E5 neoprene (warm and flexy) along with blind-stitched seams. 
  • SPRING/FALL: Sisstrevolution 3​/2 7 Seas Print Back Zip Wetsuit | Sisstrevolution are making some awesome suits right now, and this 7 Seas is no different. Good tech and looks fantastic too. 

BOARDS:

  • LibTech Nude Bowl | The dream of a one-trick quiver, this versatile board offers some extra volume but also a real party on the rails. For us, there’s not much that can beat it at the intermediate level. 

SUNSCREEN: Salt & Stone SPF 30 Lip Balm | Super important stuff – take this to SoCal and reapply like every 20 minutes. Summer surfing here can burn!

Where to stay when surfing in Santa Cruz

Choose one of the following hotels to get from suit to Santa Cruz surfing in just a matter of second. Oh, or just to have somewhere darn lovely to stay when you’re in this capital of USA surfing…

Dream Inn Santa Cruz ($$)

Surf-hotel-top-pick

We’d go back and back to the Dream Inn Santa Cruz everytime we happened to be in this surf town. For one, the location is perfect for hitting both Steamer Lane, the Hook, and Pleasure Point. More than that, the place oozes cool West Coast vibes. It has surfboards decorating the corridors and retro-cool rooms with views across the Santa Cruz Wharf. Perfect for surfers.

Sea & Sand Inn ($$)

Another fantastically located surf hotel that sits on W Cliff Lane, just a stone’s throw from where Middle Peak tears into Steamer Lane, the Sea & Sand Inn offers a little more classic comfort. Choose this if you like more traditional hotel rooms with fans, fireplaces and balconies.

Ocean Echo Inn & Beach Cottages ($$$)

Across on the eastern side of the bay from Steamer Lane and on the doorstep of The Hook and Pleasure Point, Ocean Echo Inn & Beach Cottages are great for groups and couples who want a little more privacy. You can book multi-room places done out in nautical styles, some with decks that boast sea views.

When to surf in Santa Cruz?

Santa Cruz didn’t become a surf mecca for nothing. There’s rarely a down day here. South swells kick through in summer, adding plenty of head-on action to the right points at the Lane and beyond, with good action further down the Cabrillo Hwy and in Monterey Bay. However, it’s fall and early winter that really come up trumps for us. They bring powerful NW and W conditions and the winds can often bend offshore.

Santa Cruz surf spot

Summer (June-August)

Summer in California is all about the south swell. Now, we’d say Central Cali and North Cali don’t deal with that quite as well as SoCal, but Santa Cruz still picks up decent head-on stuff and the place can shift into a longboarder haven when its mellow and there’s some size. Winds will usually pick up in the afternoon, so try dawnies and earlier sessions.

Fall (September-October)

For us, this is the PERFECT time to plan a Santa Cruz surfing trip. Fall has all the elements you need for this famous Cali surf destination to get pumping. The first is a W element in the swell compass, which is spot on for the points of Steamers Lane and Pleasure Point. The second is winds that tend to come NW or N, which are always offshore in Santa Cruz.

Winter (December-February)

Winter keeps things pumping pretty nicely in Santa Cruz. It tends to usher in the bigger swells that originate in the NW. So, it’s surf comp time – don’t be surprised to rock up and find The Lane shut off to everyone bar a handful of pros (wonder what the local crew think of that, eh?). Big overheads aren’t uncommon and they’ll squeeze the top performance sessions out of key locations, especially Pleasure Point and Natural Bridges.

Spring (March-May)

A mixed season, spring has some of the attitude of winter with a diminishing NW element to the swell. Days in April will often be for the pros, while May can be minimal friendly and better for groms. Watch out for spring tides, which can ruin spots like Natural Bridges, and storms, which can bring pollution onto the hazards list.

Surf shops in Santa Cruz

Are you kidding me? Santa Cruz is ram packed with surf shops, surf rentals, surf instructors – you name it. Hey, they say Jack O’Neill invented the wetsuit here! Where better to get that new neoprene kit?

O’Neill Surf Shop

Obviously, you’ll want to drop into the O’Neill Surf Shop in Santa Cruz. Located right on Beach Street by the wharf, it’s one of the flagship outlets of this towering brand name. Does surf fashion, wetsuits, UV rashies – you name it.

Freeline Surf Shop

Highly rated Freeline Surf Shop sits right on the cusp of Pleasure Point. It can get busy with wax-hungry locals looking for their sticky stuff in the morning. But they sell much, much more than that. We’re impressed with the massive board rack and the array of wetsuit brands. Also a great surf fashion section.

Where to eat and drink while surfing in Santa Cruz

Post-surf dining in Santa Cruz is a joy. There are a whole load of cracking locations that can sate the appetite once you’re done ripping the rights of Pleasure Point. Check out…

Verve Coffee Roasters

We’ve got such fond memories of dropping in to Verve Coffee Roasters en route to Pleasure Point. A stripped-down, hipster sort of joint with some of the best coffee around, the caffeine fixes powered us through some great sessions. It’s also a lovely interior to sit in, though we rarely did (surf was a-calling).

Jack O’Neill Restaurant & Lounge

Named for arguably the most legendary surf innovator who ever did grace the waves of the Central Coast, the Jack O’Neill Restaurant & Lounge has farm-to-table organic food, healthy salads and West Coast surf-turf galore. It also has a wonderful location right by the wharf overlooking Steamer Lane. Watch the right-hand rippers while you eat.


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

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