The Ultimate Guide to Surfing in Monterey

by Tom Sanchez

Surfing in Monterey is about venturing to raw and rugged spots on the Big Sur or checking the beaches that spread up lovely Monterey Bay.

Surfing in Monterey at a glance

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The good

  • Big Sur swells can be gnarly AF
  • Monterey Bay’s beach breaks
  • This is an awesome town – a seafood mecca too

The bad

  • The geography makes it hard to track the swell if you’re not used to it
  • Sharks

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 Monterey surf?

An introduction to surfing in Monterey

Surfing in Monterey

As you leave behind the south-swell-loving beaches of SoCal and creep into the Central Coast of California, places like Monterey will be the backbone of your surf trip. We’re not gonna’ say they are better or worse than iconic wave destinations like Malibu and San Clemente. They are just different. You should see that instantly as you cruise into wide Monterey Bay, where W and winter NW swells rule the roost, the ocean is considerably colder (4/3s are a must) and the palm trees are swapped by stone pines.

Monterey is actually sat in the midst of some epic surfing territroy. Rocky points meet big sweeps of sand here, so there’s something for all levels. Yes, the winter swells are usually the best, but fall can do that much-loved combo of offshores from the mountains and 3-5-foot sets that are glassy as hell. It’s hard to pinpoint all the locations becuase loads are hidden behind the uber-slick golf courses, others are secrets held close by the local crews.

A guide to the Monterey surf spots

Sand Dollar Beach

Sand Dollar Beach is one of the first class surf breaks on the legendary run of Central Coast that is known as the Big Sur. We’ll get to the wave in just a moment, but let that sink in for a sec – this is your chance to surf on what many people consider to be the most dramatic run of shoreline on planet Earth (sorry NZ!). The main break at Sand Dollar Beach is a wedgy reef that runs mainly right over the boulders. We love days of 3-5 foot here. Anything more and you’ll spend loads of energy on the paddle because Sur rips are something else. Sharks are always a hazard, but there’s not so many crowds in these parts which is nice.

Big Sur Rivermouth/Andrew Molera

Andrew Molera Point is the northwest end of a long fishhook of a beach. As it arcs into the headland, it sets up a lovely little opening that lets W swells kick in and break off the rocks. When there’s power to them and the wind is offshore, the result is one of the cleanest barrels on the Big Sur. Otherdays the thing is a fat, open-faced wave that’s a joy to crack on with. Can get rough, lots of rips in strange directions, and sharks are, as ever, an issue. Stunning location balances that out.

Carmel Beach

Carmel Beach s the first of the main points for surfing on the Monterey Peninsular. It’s got an almost head-on westerly orientation, which keeps the power up and the swells big during the fall and winter months.

Occasionally, small days will turn it into a great beginner and intermediate spot, when the long, arcing rights come into the bay, break over the sand, and quickly turn to fun mushburgers. There are rocks underfoot but they’re quite deep. If you don’t come to Carmel Beach for the waves, come for the town and the golf. One of the most famous courses in America is to the north of the main break, and this is one seriously lovely beach town, with quaint cottages and charming boutique B&Bs.

Ghost Tree

Ghost Tree used to be a secret local spot. That was before some gun-ho local TV channel discovered a crew hitting the big sets one winter. Now it’s a well-known alternative to Mavericks. In any case, you won’t want to get out here unless you got the XXL game on – it’s a huge wave that throws you on a fast drop into a beefy slab in front of a stretch of unforgiving rocks. You can’t bail or you’re on them and that’s never good news.

Moss Landing

Moss Landing is north of Monterey town, right in the heart of Monterey Bay. Head over the undulating dunes when it’s 4-5 foot and you can look forward to something like the West Coast’s answer to Hossegor. It can get gnarly with winter NWerlies, which is when the barrels get rolling – the rights are best. Other days it’s classic Cali beach break stuff, with mushy tops and plenty of power.

Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz has established itself as one seriously fmaous name in the annals of surf history. You will want to pencil in a stop here if you’re heading south to go surfing in Monterey, if only to see the place where the modern wetsuit is thought to have been invented or try your hand at some of the top breaks on the CA Central Coast – The Hook, Pleasure Point, and others.

Check out our complete guide to surfing in Santa Cruz right now!

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 Monterey

We’ve chosen just a few of the top hotels for surfers heading to Monterey. They’ve got style, comfort, and good proximity to the swells. Check em’ out…

Sanctuary Beach Resort ($$)

Surf-hotel-top-pick

We recommend the Sanctuary Beach Resort because we have a soft spot for the beach breaks that run north through Monterey Bay to Moss Landing. We also recommend it because it’s darn lovely. You’ll escape the crowds and have a cute little timber cottage wedged into the dunes with views over the Pacific Ocean. Sunsets are awesome and the surf is right outside your door.

Portola Hotel & Spa ($$-$$$)

If you want to check off the sights and attractions of Cannery Row while surfing in Monterey, the chic Portola Hotel & Spa could be a fine hotel. It’s smack dab in the middle of the city, with seafood eateries and bars in abundance nearby. The inside is pretty slick – modern but West Coastey surf vibes galore. Remember it will be a drive to the surf breaks from here.

Pine Inn – Carmel ($$)

Feel the kitschy atmosphere of Carmel at this Neo-Victorian mansion B&B. The insides are sumptuous and timeless, and it’s located in one of the most lovely towns on the Central Coast. For surfing, you’ll need to hold off for the W-NW swells to come into Carmel Beach, which is a short walk down the road.

When to surf in Monterey Bay?

Central California is different to south Cali. Here, those southerly swells that originate in Mexico and beyond have a hard time cutting up the coast anyhow, so you’re usually best off waiting for the stronger surf of fall and winter.

Surfers in Monterey

Summer (June-August)

There can be surfing in Monterey in the summer months. It’s just that the dominant swell direction is from the south, which is okay for the coves and points on the Monterey Peninsula and the Big Sur, but not ideal for the big Monterey Bay beach breaks. If there are swells around, it’s usually when there’s some more W in the direction. Expect a waiting game.

Fall (September-October)

We’d put fall down as the very best time to surf in Monterey. It’s got a good balance of warmer waters, fine weather, and – here’s the kicker – offshore winds coming down from the mountains. They really help up shape up the beach breaks in Monterey Bay, while added NW elements in the swell keep things purring along nicely. 4/3 min is needed and bring the booties.

Winter (December-February)

The Central Coast, like the North California coast, can get pretty darn gnarly in the midwinter. Strong storms cross the Pacific seaboard from Alaska way and churn up heavy swells. Waves like Maverick’s are quick to hoover it up and that’s when the drama happens. The same goes for the Monterey Peninsula. So, it’s good, but it’s not really for beginners.

Spring (March-May)

Spring is a hard one to define when it comes to surfing in Monterey. You’ll sometimes get good continuation in the NW swells to keep the main breaks pumping well into March. Other times it’s less reliable and there’s not much happening at all. It’s a roll of the dice, though the weather is improving and any swells that do come in tend to be less mental than in December or Jan.

Surf shops in Monterey and surroundings

Surfing in Monterey isn’t quite as headline an act as it is in nearby Santa Cruz. But there are still some cracking places to top up on wax and grab that tailpad if required. Take a look…

On The Beach Surf Shop

On The Beach Surf Shop is probably the best all-roudn surf outlet in Monterey. Situated on Lighthouse Ave, they’ve got stock of Reef sandals and aloha shirts galore. The board rack offers one of the best selections of Al Merrick boards we’ve seen int he state. They also do wetsuit-board rentals for the standard rate of $50/day.

Route One Surfboards

Check out this board emporium on the edge of Monterey Airport. Run by Bobby and Malachai, it’s a good drop-in if you’re after some new fibreglass, epoxy or foam for that Cali surf trip. The guys offer great advice and really know their surfboard designs.

Where to eat and drink in Monterey

You’ll dine on some lovely stuff in this seafood-mad corner of the Golden State, we can promise you that much…

Monterey town

El Cantaro

El Cantaro is a vegan Mexican kitchen that’s sorta taken the center of Monterey by storm with its creative faux-meat tacos and whatnot. We love it, mainly because it’s central and healthy, but also something different to the usual Monterey surf-turf. Ariba!

The Fish Hopper

No trip to Monterey could possibly be complete without a stroll down Cannery Row – the historic seafood canning area made famous by John Steinbeck. That’s where you’ll find The Fish Hopper, one of the town’s most famous names. The cuisine is surf-turf with a distinct Cali flavour. The seating is right above the Pacific Ocean.


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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