The Ultimate Guide to Surfing in San Clemente

by Tom Sanchez

Surfing in San Clemente is hallowed stuff. This is the home of Trestles (a trio of breaks that’s simply world class) and where loads of US surfers first joined the sport.

Surfing in San Clemente 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

  • The home of Trestles
  • Cool surf town
  • Lovely beaches

The bad

  • Occasional pollution
  • Cold upswelling waters without warning – pack the 4/3!

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 KW?

An introduction to San Clemente surf

San Clemente surf beach

San Clemente is a name that’s going to be forever entwined with the world of surfcraft. You simply cannot put together a history of surfing without mentioning surfing in San Clemente. Shapers, world champs, innovators – they’ve all come from this humble spot above the bluffs of the OC south of Laguna Beach. More than that, it’s still a cracking place to surf, with something to cater to all levels, but a special offering to confident intermediates who want to sample true California swell.

There’s nothing that can match the fame of Trestles. One of the premier surf spots on the West Coast, it’s a touch to the south of San Clemente town, where it churns out perfectly hollow right barrels and rippable shoulders whenever the south swell gets kicking in the summer. Mix in a couple of mellow longboarder spots (Onofre, we’re looking at you) and beach breaks like T-Street (once a practice ground for the likes of Mickey Munoz and Hobie Alter) and you begin to see why San Clemente is a regular on surf bucket lists.

A guide to San Clemente surf spots

Carlsbad

Carlsbad is just another in the long line of awesome surf towns on the coast between San Diego and LA. You can’t go wrong pulling over the VW here. It’s a decent beach break that welcomes learners with mushy summer waves. It’s also near to some of the legendary Cali spots, like Blacks and the original SoCal home of Encinitas.

We’ve got a complete guide to surfing in Carlsbad

San Onofre

Mellow San Onofre is the longboarder’s mecca of the OC. It’s also one of the most beginner-friendly spots of all the surfing in San Clemente. SW summer swells bring in regular chest-high sets that peel both left and right.

The main peak is at Old Man’s. There, even unknowing beginners can make surfcraft look easy by pulling into the pocket on one of the cruisy waves. To the south is the Dogpatch. It’s for total beginners and smaller groms, with light and easy-going waves that roll in softly and slowly onto the shallow beach shelf. Parking is right on the beach and the beach is simply stunning!

Church

Church is a lot like Lower Trestles only with a fraction of the crowds. It’s not quite the same quality, which is why it ain’t got a place in the surf hall of fame, figuratively speaking. Breaking right further down the beach, it’s punchy and fun on a high tide. Works best in the summer months. Try to come during the week when there’s a chance you’ll be totally alone.

Trestles

Just below the railroad on San Onofre State Beach lies one of the best surf spots on the whole of the West Coast: Trestles. It’s made up of three sections.

(1) Lowers (Lower Trestles for the long name) is the best of the bunch. It’s WSL pedigree, a hollow right that curls beautifully off San Mateo point in a perfect angular tube that mimic the creme-de-la-creme of Aussie beach breaks.

(2) Middles (MIddle Trestles) is a more fickle wave that breaks both right and left. It’s still fun and can get hollow but never holds the shape as Lowers because it doesn’t have the point for support.

(3) Uppers (Upper Trestles) is another high-quality right north of the point that brings some crumbliness to the mix but have some stellar rides. Lowers hits its peak in the summer months with SW swells, but Middles and Uppers get better with an element of the west in the compass direction – that’s fall and winter. Access is hard, over the Trestle Bridge (hence the name) by the creek.

Cottons

Cottons is the icing on the cake of the triumvirate that is the Trestles breaks. It’s not one of the big three here, but still has its joys. Primarily amazing for longboarders, it comes off the point to give both lefts and rights atop the sand. Right in front you’ll be able to see the house where Nixon stayed while he was prez.

T-Street

Just below the pier at the end of the Esplanade (where we see our dream house on the front row!) is T-Street. It’s earned a place up there with Trestles and Black’s Beach because it was the place where loads of big names in the sport cut their teeth before due diligence was done on Cali’s other major spots. It’s still great stuff, but surfing is banned in the daytime throughout the summer months, which is when that sweet SW swell kicks in. No worries, winter can be good with anything below 330 degrees in the swell direction and some offshores, though fall is the perfect time to seize T-Streets A-frames.

San Clemente Pier

Sandbars stick like glue to the San Clemente Pier to forge some half-decent beach breaks on this ever-popular run of sand. It’s usually crowded in the better summer and fall months, thanks to the proximity to the city. The saving grace is that it works on virtually all tides, so sessions can be spread throughout the day. At 6ft with a WSW swell, the pier can get hollow, but it’s typically a very sectioned wave with some rippable spots and some pure mush.

Laguna

Laguna Beach might be more associated with convertibles and chic villas, but you can also catch some classic California waves here. Head to Thalia for the best, where SW swells will offer up some solid rights. Crowds and localism could be an issue.

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 San Clemente

Choosing the right place to stay is instrumental to nailing that surfing in San Clemente. Here are the establishments that, in our humble opinion, stand out from the rest…

Beachcomber Inn ($$)

Surf-hotel-top-pick

We won’t lie – the Beachcomber Inn is simply SPECTACULAR. There’s no better location in San Clemente. You wake, open the door of your little coastal villa, and viola: There’s San Clemente City Beach with the pier jutting into the Pacific. Surfers cannot go wrong with this one.

The Surfbreak Hotel ($$)

Built for surfers by surfers, The Surfbreak Hotel is a short drive down I-5 from San Onofre State Beach and Trestles. It’s also got sleek rooms done out with a touch of West Coast style, and suites which have their very own surfboard racks so you can always keep an eye on the quiver.

San Clemente Inn ($$)

Active travelers are sure to love the gym, the hot tubs, and the fully fledged health facility at the San Clemente Inn. It’s close to the town’s main surf beach and has surf-themed lobby art to boot.

When to surf in San Clemente

Summer and fall are the best times to go surfing in San Clemente. They bring the most reliable S-SW swells up from below the Equator, which is precisely what’s needed for Trestles to get working. Later months like September are the ones for the intermediates and up, but June and July are better for learners.

San Clemente surf

Summer (June-August)

San Clemente shines in the summer months. SW swell dominance is perfect for lots of the breaks here, not least of all Lowers in Trestles. That legendary spot hits its perfect size and consistency around June to July. What’s more, the water’s warm and the vibes are good. Things tend to be smaller (ahoy groms) if you stick to San Clemente Beach. The main downside is that T-Street is totally off limits for the summer season.

Fall (September-October)

Fall is always amazing in this part of south California. When it comes to surfing in San Clemente, you get a mix of regular offshores from the sierras and swells in the SW-W channel. That’s the perfect combo for breaks all the way from Trestles to T-Street, which will be open again after the tourists leave. A 4/3 is probably the best choice of suit for fall, mainly because upwelling can drop temps without warning.

Did you know that surfers are three times more likely to develop melanoma than non surfers? Yikes…

A good block is totally essential!

We’ve got the complete lowdown on the best surfer’s sunscreens on the market right now, focussing on the creme-de-la-creme. AKA: Zinc-infused blocks that are easy to pack and apply.

Winter (December-February)

Winter is never bad on the Cali coast, but there’s always a chance that things will be blown into oblivion by onshore winds. NW swells also don’t gel too well with the shape of the SW-facing coast here, and you’ll largely be limited to chasing the best days on Middles and Uppers down in Trestles. Still, there’s LOTS of surf to be had. Just be sure you pack a thick suit, good booties, a hood and some gloves.

Spring (March-May)

Spring ushers in the major change in the swell from the Arctic to the South. That means later months in the season – May, mainly – can be real good on spots like Trestles that like southerly swell dominance. Sadly onshores are the main issue, as they can spoil the glassiness that’s the gift of Church and T-Street when they’re at their finest. There tends to be some good mushburgers around throughout spring for beginners though.

Surf shops in San Clemente

San Clemente is no stranger to surfers, so expect a pack of surf shops to match…

SoCal Surf Shop

At the base of the Santa Ana foothills a touch inland from San Clemente, a small SoCal Surf Shop covers all extreme sports (mainly surf and ski). We particularly like the range of Sun Bum sunscreen and the range of sustainable wetties from Matuse (relatively rare stuff).

Icons of Surf

No matter if you’re searching for that retro egg or the speedy fish tail for Trestles, Icons of Surf has you covered. They also do wetsuits, rashies, and everything in between. The location puts them on the main El Camino Real just on the north side of town.

Where to eat and drink in San Clemente

San Clemente surfer

Check out this selection of places to eat after hitting the surf in San Clemente. Both are solid favorites in the town and have been good to us in the past.

Rapport Coffee by Cafe Smith

If you can drop by here on your way to Trestles, do it! Your caffeine fix will be one of the best-brewed cafe fixed in South California. What’s more, the spot is pretty cool, with metro tiles covering the walls and a hipster Scandi edge to the design. Always a favourite.

Gibroni’s Pizza

Gibroni’s Pizza is nothing short of legendary on the San Clemente dining scene. It’s been going for years and offers crispy-sided Detroit-style pizza straight out of the Midwest. It’s cracking, but also we reckon that there’s nothing quite like pizza after a long surf sesh. AMIRIGHT?!


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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2 comments

Garrett April 15, 2021 - 12:28 pm

You forgot Pedro’s tacos

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

Cheers for the tip Garret! We’re already planning a SC return and Pedro’s is on the list 🙂

Reply

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