The Ultimate Guide to Surfing in California

by Tom Sanchez

Surfing in California is one of those unforgettable experiences we think all surfers should have. It’s not just the breaks – which are amazing – but the whole vibe of this salt-washed Golden State. Let’s go…

Surfing in California

Surfing in California 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

  • Trestles – has to be one of the best spots on the planet
  • That coast from Malibu to Ventura. It changed our lives 🙂
  • There are too many pluses to list (is that a valid plus?)

The bad

  • Some pollution in urbanized surf spots
  • The localism in some places is crazy

This guide is just one part of our complete guide to surfing in the USA

What’s in this guide to California surf?

An introduction to surfing in California

Hold. The. Phone. Surfing in California is epic. Don’t let the naysayers tell ya’ about that localism on Lunada Bay. Don’t listen to folk who say this shoreline’s overdone; too busy. Never.

The Golden State is one of the homes of surfing. It’s the birthplace of the Malibu board, where the wetsuit was invented, the land where loads of greats have cut their surfing teeth: Duke, Jack O’Neill, Kathy Kohner Zuckerman – the list goes on and on!

It’s almost impossible to overstate the quality of the surfing that occurs in California. There are world-class waves like Trestles and the Huntington Beach Pier to add to your musts, along with logger jewels like the Malibu point. Yet, they lie alongside endless stretches of fun and approachable beach break, from Carlsbad to Long Beach, where groms and beginners will enjoy the ride.

This guide will take a look at some of the key spots in this timeless surf state.

Where to go surfing on the West Coast

This guide will take a look at some of the key spots in this timeless surf state. We’ll go from south to north, from the famous glassy waves of SoCal to the fearsome pounders of north California, offering a taste of what’s on offer, and access to expert, ultimate guides to some of the world’s best surfing hotspots.

A surfer in San Diego

San Diego

Oh – San Diego. The sun-kissed city at the very end of the US West Coast will always will be among the most iconic surf destinations in the world. It’s got legendary surf towns in its boundaries – places like Ocean Beach, where there’s a 70s vibe about the promenade and the winter waves break left and right for all levels. Throw in La Jolla and Windansea for some pretty epic intermediate and pro surfing, plus access to all the chilled surf towns in the North County and it’s easy to see why this one should be close to the top of your California surfing bucket list!

Check out our ultimate guide to surfing in San Diego

Encinitas

Warning: You might just want to stay in Encinitas forever. This relaxed surf town is exactly the sort of place you’d expect to find on the Pacific Coast Highway as you cruise from San Diego. It’s got shapers and wetsuit outlets by the bucket load; a testimony to the town’s place in the annals of surfing history. When it comes to breaks, there are loads that adore W-NW swells. Moonlight State Beach brings the quantity and some good crumbles for beginners and groms. Swamis turns on the style with a Bali-esque drop in over rock reef whenever you get bigger NW days in the midwinter.

Check out our ultimate guide to surfing in Encinitas

Carlsbad

Carlsbad is one of the first places north of San Diego where summer south swells really make their presence felt. For that reason, it’s often got big crowds on the hunt for anything that’s working within driving distance of La Jolla. No worries: There’s lots to go around. The main break is on Carlsbad Beach itself, which is run through by sandbanks that give peaky lefts and rights. Tamarack is a more steady offering that relies on rivermouth banks to harness W swells into cruisy shoulders that look like a sort of mini Mundaka.

Check out our ultimate guide to surfing in Carlsbad right now

San Clemente

San Clemente is part of surf vocab from California to New Zealand’s south island. Some of the world’s best wave riders found their craft here on the beach breaks around the San Clemente Pier. More than that, this is the home of Trestles, which is widely considered to be one of the best spots on the whole US West Coast. We actually love San Clemente for its mix of epic waves and beginner spots. It’s kinda’ good for everyone and you’d be pushed not to love it!

Check out our ultimate guide to surfing in San Clemente

Laguna Beach

Laguna Beach – just a mention of the name should conjure images of bona fide SoCal living. In fact, we’d say come to Laguna to chill first and surf second. World-class breaks are a little thin on the ground, but you do get Thalia and Brooks Street, which offer some hollow lefts on their day. The point is that there’s just too much epic surf in the vicinity if you’re dying to get in the water everyday. Laguna Beach is better for sipping cocktails, shopping, and a bit of surf on the side.

Check out our ultimate guide to surfing in Laguna

Newport Beach

Newport Beach is a classic LA surf town on the edge of the OC. It’s probably best known for the monstrous leviathan of a wave that is The Wedge. The truth is that very few people – mere mortals, we mean – will surf that. Most will stick to the mid-tide beach break havens of Blackies and 56th street, which are consistently smaller than Huntington, a tad more rippable, and enjoy regualar S swells in the summer months.

Check out our ultimate guide to surfing in Newport Beach

Huntington Beach

Huntington Beach is writ large in the history of surfing. This is one of the most epic places to paddle out in America, and the place they say that surfing was brought to the masses in the early 1900s. The Huntington beach Pier enjoys a rep as one of the most famous spots on the Pacific coast, mainly because it’s got those thru-pier rides and a central location in the story of world surfing. Expect lots of people in the line up and competitions throughout the season. Surfing in Huntington Beach is banned for much of the summer.

Check out our ultimate guide to surfing in Huntington Beach

Long Beach

Long Beach might be sat in the middle of some of California’s most famous surf towns, but it’s sheltered by a huge coastal breakwater that means any serious waves are tamed before they make it into the bay. There’s talk of that going, which would work wonders for the town from a surfer’s point of view. For now, you’ll be limited to rare SW mega swells and Seal Beach, but also within striking distance of Huntington and Newport Beach if you’ve got a car.

Check out our ultimate guide to surfing Long Beach

Los Angeles

Los Angeles isn’t considered one of the most iconic surf cities in the world for nothing. There are more beach breaks here than you can shake a Hollywood snow globe at. They’re pretty regular, thanks to the consistent onslaught of westerly swells straight out of the Pacific. Humans have added some class to the mix, too. That comes in the form of the piers, at Santa Monica and Venice, where the waves shape into bowly drops with perfect open faces on offshore days. Malibu is also pretty darn special, mainly for those world-class right points.

Check out our ultimate guide to surfing in Los Angeles right now

Malibu

Malibu won’t disappoint. It’s got some of California’s most epic point breaks, which cruise across the face of very handsome beaches. Throw in a range of secluded beach breaks and a variety of breaks for all levels and you’ll start to see why it’s such a doozy, without even factoring the long and deep story of surf culture that finds its roots here. Malibu tends to work best in the summer months, when those S and SW swells really add class and glassy looks to the points. Heaven.

Check out our ultimate guide to surfing Malibu right now!

Ventura

Made famous by The Beach Boys but earning its stripes thanks to the epic that is Rincon Point, Ventura is yet another of the Golden State’s top-draw surf towns. It’s not as much of a looker as Malibu, but it churns out quality right points and less-busy beach breaks for all levels. Most of them are easy to access from the 101, too.

Check out our ultimate guide to surfing in Ventura

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is Endless Summer pedigree. Expect high-quality waves that are beloved of some of the US’s best West Coast surfers. The cream of the crop are El Capitán State Beach (hollow and fast) and the beginner point at Leadbetter Point. Rincon is also within reach if you cruise to Ventura. More than that, Santa Barbara is a haven for surfers of all stripes. It’s relaxed and has a lovely setting beneath the Central Coast mountains – a must stop on a 101 surf trip if you ask us…

Check out our ultimate guide to surfing in Santa Barbara

Monterey

Monterey might be best known for its aquarium and the gritty novels of Steinbeck. But there’s surf in these parts too. That’s mainly thanks to the open sands of Monterey Bay, which curl north to open onto any NW or W swell systems, culminating with famous Santa Cruz.

Check out our ultimate guide to surfing in Monterey

Santa Cruz

The epic that is Santa Cruz is well documented. Some of the best surfers and surf innovators in the USA have hailed from these parts. They cut their teeth on breaks like Steamer Lane – ultra-reliable and always a different challenge – and Pleasure Point – a myriad set of breaks with revolving tubes and frothy backwash peaks. It’s pretty, it’s always fun, but there’s usually a crowd in the water. Still, legendary stuff.

Check out our ultimate guide to surfing in Santa Cruz

San Francisco

San Francisco is at the gateway of northern California, which is among the least-surfed territory in the Golden State. We love venturing up that way when we want to escape the busier breaks of SoCal and Santa Cruz. Be warned: It’s rarely beginner stuff. San Fran itself offers a few urban breaks, where the Golden Gate bridge and the coastal mountains soar overhead. Check it out…

Check out our ultimate guide to surfing in Santa Cruz

Half Moon Bay

Half Moon Bay is where surfing in California goes a little bit Nazare. This is big wave territory and it’s mighty, mighty stuff. Honestly, this spot IS NEVER for beginners. Winter swells regularly see it clock up 50+ foot and it’s gun territory extraordinaire. Amazing to watch when it’s pumping but mere mortals should stay away.

Check out our ultimate guide to surfing Half Moon Bay

Where to stay when surfing in California

You shouldn’t have to look too hard to find an amazing place to stay during your surfing in California. We’ve picked three of the best in the state because…well, they’re awesome…

Where to stay in California

Surfhouse

Surf-hotel-top-pick

The Surfhouse is one hell of a place to stay for surfing in California. It’s just a short hop over the road to the beach breaks of Encinitas, which love to get glassy and can usually cater to a mix of levels. It’s also a stylo spot with a retro vibe and a fun atmosphere – a great place to meet paddle-out pals like.

The Surfrider Malibu

Best for: Very cool surf vibes

The Surfrider Malibu is a 101 stay with a difference. It’s got all the style and class of a true West Coast boutique hotel, only it’s built with surfers in mind. The views are of legendary Malibu First Point and there are boards and wax for guests free on site. Nice.

Huntington Surf Inn

Best for: Being close to the world-class break that is Huntington Pier.

If there’s a US open or WSL event on down the Huntington Pier – good luck getting a room at the Huntington Surf Inn. Basically, book early and you’ll find yourself within eyeshot of one of California’s most iconic breaks, where the pros assemble to ride the bowly pier spots on the north and south.

When to surf in California

Cali gets waves all year round. The south is split between San Diego in the NW channel (winter) and the LA/Ventura region (better in summer), while the north excels on tamer fall and spring systems. There’s always something around.

Winter (November-Feb)

Winter is the most reliable of all the seasons for swell. However, it’s not the time to come a-hunting for those iconic Cali glass waves. It’s more likely you’ll grab a frothing overhead thumper in winter, which is why we usually say it’s prime time for expert riders, especially with Maverick’s and Blacks Beach hitting their zenith. For smaller winter surfing in California, consider heading Laguna or Malibu way, where there’s protection from those NW swells.

Spring (March-May)

Spring is probably the worst overall season in California, which is the same as saying it’s the worst of a very good bunch. AKA you will find lots to surf in most places. The key here is that the swells start moving from NW to SW and that can have a huge impact on where’s working. The main issue is onshore winds. Generally, north Cali is wild and stormy, while SoCal works well – particularly San Diego and the North County.

Cover up – the sun in California can be pretty strong. A decent stick with non-nano Zinc will be one of your best friends here. Check out our guide to the best on the market for 2021 to stock up before you go.

Summer (June-August)

Summer surfing in California is the stuff dreams are made of. As the south swell channels get kicking, the iconic surf spots from Carlsbad and San Clemente all the way to Ventura start receiving regular sets. Further north than that is more fickle, and it can be a chore finding decent conditions upwards of San Fran. Early morning sessions are the best, but mainly because surfing is strictly controlled on many of the best beaches – Huntington, Encinitas – between certain hours, which forces the lineups to pack into other spots when the flags are up.

Fall (September-October)

Fall beats the whole shebang here for us. It’s the best time of all to plan a surf trip to the Golden State. A mix of SW and W swells keep SoCal running. They also bring some joy to the more fickle breaks of the north. However, it’s the offshore Santa Ana winds that make life a real joy in the water. Trestles and others can look glassier than your freshly glassed 9 footer in these parts in October. Lovely. Water’s still warm, too, but bring a 3/2 and a 4/3 with a hood just in case.


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 article is just one part of our complete guide to surfing in the USA

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2 comments

George Hansen April 18, 2021 - 2:59 am

Awesome, thanks!

Reply
Tom Lacmundy April 18, 2021 - 12:57 pm

No worries!

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