The Ultimate Guide to Surfing in Carlsbad

by Tom Sanchez

Surfing in Carlsbad takes you far enough north of San Diego to enjoy some of that summer south swell on classic southern California beaches.

Surfing in Carlsbad at a glance

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The good

  • This is legendary SoCal surf territory so there’s lots around
  • The triple breaks at famous Blacks Beach
  • Fall offshores (the Santa Ana winds)

The bad

  • Some crowds
  • Some pollution
  • Not the prettiest town in South California

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 surfing in Carlsbad?

An introduction to Carlsbad surf

surfing in Carlsbad

Carlsbad might not be a star of south California, but we’d say it’s a reliable and solid option for surfers on their way along the Pacific Coast. The town doesn’t have the same charms as, say, Encinitas. Much of it is for military families out of the nearby base, but there is a latent hippy feel to Leucadia in the south. You’ll need to be prepared to travel through all of it in search of the best breaks, which tend to fire on different swell angles and work on different tides.

Talking of those breaks…there’s a good variety in these parts. The majority of the shore is taken by unremarkable but decent beach breaks. They link up as you go from Tamarack to Oceanside in the north. South of the town is a speckling of reefs and artificial jetties, which is where the true quality of surfing in Carlsbad.

Another thing that’s going for this speck on the North County map is its location. San Diego locals go through one hell of a summer drought with waves from June to August. Not so in Carlsbad, where the dominant southerly pulses from the Equator work their magic even when the mercury is high.

A guide to Carlsbad surf spots

Keep reading for a detailed run through of all the surf spots in Carlsbad

San Diego

San Diego is one of California’s most iconic surf towns – forget that, it’s one of the world’s most iconic surf towns. The breaks in the city start right on the Mexican border in the south. From there, they pass Point Loma – a patchwork of off-the-beaten-path reefs that can be great on bigger swells. Then you get into the famos SD surf spots of Ocean Beach, La Jolla and Blacks Beach. Awesome stuff and a must for all surfers at least once in their lives.

We’ve got a complete guide to surfing in San Diego right here

Blacks Beach

The quality of Blacks Beach is nothing short of iconic. A trio of separate breaks from this famous spot on the northern reaches of La Jolla in San Diego. Pick your way down the rocky path to the sand and you’ll see em. The southernmost is South Peak, a majestic left that invites big lip turns in the same way as Ulu’s and Raglan. The middle of the beach is a cruisy A-frame where the main line up usually meets. The top end of the bay has a solid right called North Peak – it’s a fast drop in into a tube that’s regularly hollow. Holds up high, very rippy, some localism, but a bucket-list ride if you can get it.

Encinitas

Just a mention of the name Encinitas is usually enough to excite North County surfers. This is one of the original SoCal surf towns. It’s chilled, easy going, and has breaks for all levels. The best of them are the reef at Swami’s and the long stretch of beach break in Grandview, which caters to beginners and pros with its fatter sets.

We’ve got a complete guide to surfing in Encinitas right here

Tamarack

Tamarack Surf Beach is the name for the southernmost portion of Carlsbad Beach itself. It’s noticeably different because here the sandbanks will align along the rivermouth to offer punchier lefts and rights. The jetties play their parts too, shaping the oncoming W swells into neat point breaks that are great on 4-6 feet.

Carlsbad Beach

Come off the north end of the Tamarack promenade to meet peaky beach breaks of Carlsbad Beach. They’re consistent but often lack shape. Great for all levels on different swells, though we love it on windless morning at mid or high tide when there’s 5-7 foot in the swell. That’s when the A-frames peel in, hollowing out lovely left-hand and right-hand rides through a short barrel and onto the sand.

Oceanside

There are two breaks at Oceanside. The first is the main beach, where the waves are similar to Carlsbad proper – think peaky A-frames with lefts and rights that are governed by the prevailing sandbanks. HIgh tide sorta’ cuts out any power, leaving whitewash mush for the groms to play on there. Further north you can meet Oceanside Harbor. It attracts a pretty unfriendly crowd but does give some mighty nice peeling rights that could be worth a little vitriol. It’s a nice spot for longboarders and shortboarders alike.

surfer in Carlsbad

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 Carlsbad

Carlsbad has some great hotels fringing the coast by its best surf spots. Here are a few that we love or have heard are cracking.

Beach Terrace Inn ($$$)

Surf-hotel-top-pick

Just as the name implies, this one’s a corker of a spot to stay if you simply want to experience the ocean. The surf breaks are a hop away from the sunning terraces of your suite. The hotel itself, meanwhile, offers a glorious Pacific-side pool and rooms with 42-inch flat-screen TVs in a SoCal style.

Tamarack Beach Hotel ($$)

Tamarack Beach Hotel is a lovely mid-ranger with plenty of style. The obvious draw for surfers is how close you’ll be to the eponymous break of Tamarack Beach. We also imagine we’d like returning here after a session on the waves – the suites are simple but clean and there’s a flickering fireplace in the lobby. Nice touch.

Carlsbad by the Sea Hotel ($$)

Carlsbad by the Sea Hotel is stylish and modern, but also comes with a nice outdoor pool area. It’s not within walking distance of Carlsbad Beach but gets onto our selection mainly because it’s right by the freeway, which makes it easy to explore surf towns like Encinitas and San Diego on your trip.

When to surf in Carlsbad

Fall always comes up trumps for surfing in Carlsbad. It’s the best time of year because it sees a mixture of SW and NW swells, which adds variety to the compass direction to help all manner of beach breaks and points in the North County start to work. The main reasons for the autumn winning the day is the wind – it’s a regular offshore from the mountains.

surfing beach Carlsbad

Summer (June-August)

The main complaint with summer surfing in Carlsbad isn’t the lack of swell. It’s the crowds. There’s loads of bodies in the lineup and that makes a hazard in itself. The swell situation isn’t all that bad, especially when you get the warm-water currents of June and July flowing in from the south (incidentally this is the first place on the Cali coast where SW really hit in earnest). Early surfs are best, before the winds get going. We’d also recommend having a car or staying right by where you want to surf. That way, you can either explore to lesser-known peaks or get in before sunrise.

Fall (September-October)

The best time to surf in Carlsbad is when the summer crowds leave the North County coast and the swells starts picking up after a quiet summer. Cue Autumn. Yep, the fall brings in a lovely mix of SW, W and NW swells that can help keep everywhere from Cardiff Reef to Carlsbad Beach churning out the sets. Combine that with offshore winds, which roll down almost consistently in the mornings from the Santa Ana Mountains and it’s the best time to be paddling out. Woop.

Winter (December-February)

The Pacific really shows its teeth in December, Jan and Feb. For experienced surfers looking for the bigger rides Carlsbad can muster, it’s the season of choice. Breaks like Oceanside at the harbor and pier can be sheer quality as the NW direction wraps into the bay to feed an almost endless series of right breaks. Other spots, like Carlsbad Beach itself, don’t fair so well (it’s closeout central).

Spring (March-May)

There’s lots to look forward to if you come surfing in Carlsbad in the spring. March is better if you’ve surfed lots before, so you can make the most of the strong NW channel swells that help the world-class waves of Encinitas and the Oceanside Harbor get to their best. Wait for May if you’re learning to surf here. It’s all-round quieter and easier on the paddling muscles, not to mention warmer in the water. Gear wise, we think a 4/3 and a 3/2 combo with boots for March surfing should see you through.

Surf shops in Carlsbad

Carlsbad is brimming with great surf shops. You can get both pop-out boards in the warehouses and more local service if that’s what you’re after…

Offshore Surf Shop

One of the highest-rated surf shops in Carlsbad, Offshore Surf Shop is a couple of steps off the main beach. They do rentals on everything from foamies to intermediate short boards and are always ready to advise on breaks and whatnot. Good place.

Witt’s Carlsbad Pipelines

If you’re looking for a charming West Coast surf shop that’s run by locals, Witt’s Carlsbad Pipelines could be the place for you. They’re great at offering advice on suits for groms up to experts and have a huge range of surf fashion. The place is something of a gathering point for the local surf community truth be told.

Where to eat and drink in Carlsbad

Carlsbad has a couple of stand-out spots that we’ve really enjoyed visiting on previous surf trips. They include…

Vinaka Cafe

Go local by dropping into the Vinaka Cafe for your morning munch. The baristas are real friendly and they know their stuff to boot. The location also sits on the way to the main Carlsbad beach or the highway for access to nearby surf breaks.

Campfire

Campfire has caused some serious waves on the Carlsbad dining since it first opened its doors. It’s a quirky stop with a metal-wood interior that serves up hearty fare straight from the grill. It’s filling but also creative. Always worth the dollar bills if you’re passing through on a surf trip.


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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