Surfing in San Diego is some of the best in the USA – this is the heart of SoCal and a bucket-list spot for any surfer!
An introduction to San Diego surf
List the top three most famous surf towns in the USA and there’s no way that you haven’t mentioned San Diego. This bustling city on the Mex-US border is credited with putting wave riding into the big time. Duke Kahanamoku came in 1916 to show the world the amazing feats of “stand-up Hawaiian surfing.” Wetsuit pioneers are said to have come from the Scripps Institute in La Jolla. The first fibreglass shaper Bob Simmons tested his prototype boards here in the 50s. It’s the stuff of surfing history and there’s WAY more where that came from.
Of course, there’s no way you could have all that and not the epic surf to match, right? Right. San Diego doesn’t disappoint. From the very moment you cross from the Mexican Baja, there are A-frame beach breaks and then the reef peaks below the Point Loma head. Further north brings the chilled surf town of Ocean Beach and the forever-chilled La Jolla into the picture, offering some of Cali’s finest, glassiest lefts and rights, and rides to suit all levels, from beginner foamer to seasoned WSL pro.
This guide will run through the creme-de-la-creme of the surfing in San Diego. It’ll show the best seasons, the top spots, and the best accommodations for those coming with the board in tow. We’ve also got a couple of gear recommendations based on Cali’s unusual seasonal water pattern, which can sometimes (only sometimes, though) pulling out the 3/2 in the midsummer.
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Surfing in San Diego at a glance
What’s in this guide to surfing in San Diego?
A guide to San Diego surf spots
Keep reading for a detailed run through of all the surf spots in San Diego.
Pounding beach breaks come off W and NW swells down in Imperial Beach. It’s one of the last spots you can hit before the Mex border and it’s a good flurry of real Cali stuff to say farewell. The shorebreaks are heavy and unforgiving, but they offer both lefts and rights off A-frame peaks. There’s pollution in the water most of the year but the crowds are a fraction of what they are in the city.
Point Loma has a few pretty remote breaks that don’t have the quality of the others in the area. It’s okay though, with W swells crashing into some nice points here. The trek there and the difficulty of parking typically make it more of a local’s spot. One of the adventurers.
The Sunset Cliffs are the collective name for the series of spots that lie beneath the rugged cliffs of Point Loma south of San Diego. You’ll need to take the narrow staircase down from Sunset Cliffs Blvd. The waves are a mix of lefts and rights. Works best on an oncoming tide that will chomp up over the reefs. Decent for longboarders when its mid tide, but rides for shorties too. The Sunset Cliffs are slightly trickier to reach than SD’s beach breaks, but they reward that adventure with emptier line ups.
Ocean Beach is one of our favorite parts of San Diego. A cool surf town that’s stayed nice and mellow while the rest of the city ditches the 60s for the 2010s, it’s a sort of retro flyback with cool cafes thrown in for good measure.
The beach here has some fantastic consistency in the fall and winter, with a good NW orientation that sucks in much of the dominant swell from the Pacific, at least in fall. There are a few spots. South of the pier is better for intermediates+. It’s quick and over rock, with a deadly left and a right that can thread you through the pier stilts – proper CA stuff.
Past that there’s a nice run of beach break with some longboards and beginners. Avalanche gets gnarlier at the top end. It’s home to the local OB crew and they’re not the nicest around. Overall the area deserves kudos as one of the best all-round surf districts San Diego can offer.
Dog Beach is the more sheltered end of Ocean Beach. It’s tucked into the side of the Entrance Channel canal. That adds loads of protection to the NW, keeping swells down low. It’s a pretty decent beginner surf spot of southern San Diego. You can also bring the pooch along to play.
Mission Beach is one of the most famous names when it comes to surfing in San Diego. It fronts the whole of Mission Bay out on the Pacific side, where it unfolds in miles of say before the city’s most lively promenade. The issue here is never consistency. It’s the opposite – Mission doesn’t hold up all that well on any swells that are 8 ft+. You’ll notice big closeouts then and the paddle cna be a nightmare. That leaves the spring, occasional summer days, and fall to offer the pearly rides of left and right off peaky A-frames. Fun stuff but often very crowded.
Pacific Beach is an easy-going stretch of SD shoreline that will welcome any traveling surfers with open arms. The town of Pacific Beach itself is worth a visit even if you’re not surfing. It’s a vibrant mass of college bars and hip drinkeries flooded with young professionals.
The reason we love coming to this spot so much is that there’s a noticeable drop in that SoCal localism that plagues the Loma points and Ocean Beach. The folk here are smiling and chilled. There’s also great variety in the varying spots. You can hit Tourmaline to cruise the log on glassy swells. You can hit the Pacific Beach pier when there’s some punch in the waves and your fish is in the quiver. Basically, you can choose from a multitude of breaks which all work differently on different tides.
Legends have been made and boards have been broken on Windansea. This fantastic right reef holds up better than any in northern San Diego. It’s a killer shoulder that’s not scared of going hollow. Choose the staircase down from Neptune Place to join the paddle out, but watch out for rips side to side and the local crew. Beware the shorter left off the peak, which is enticing but very tricky. The other direction is more rippable and has a lip that won’t give up too fast – a few turns doable.
This expert-level wave is an unforgiving rock-reef break that comes in real shallow on the headlands to the south of La Jolla. It’s always being surfed when it works, which is with big W-NW swells and mid-tide.
The name La Jolla should be etched into the minds of surfers everywhere. Why? For one, it’s home to the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, which is where some people thing the wetsuit was invented. It’s alsos one of San Diego’s best breaks. It’s largely beach break but draws in loads of power from the deep out-at-sea canyons to the west. Southerly winds get offshore here, which is a nice change for a mosty west-facing shoreline. You’ll find the top breaks on the south end of the bay, rolling in like a point left towards the pier. La Jolla is a chilled surf town at heart. There’s rarely bad vibes.
Blacks Beach (Torrey Pines)
Another of the most legendary surf breaks on the coast of SoCal, Blacks Beach gets a nice hit of pretty awesome winter swells that keeps it pumpin with some of the biggest waves in San Diego. It’s fed by the same submerged canyon that gives La Jolla its quality. That means decent height whenever there’s something on, but Blacks holds well. It’s got multiple peaks but three really stand out. South Peak is the left on the bottom end – a fast, peeling left. Opposite is the North Peak, which is a shortboard barrel goin right. The middle of the bay is the A-frame that puts Blacks on the map. Dolphins are regulars.
Del Mar is a surfer’s paradise. There are all sorts of breaks packed into this happening surf town on the 101. With a few foot in the swell, you can hit 11th Street on South Beach, where the reefs will peak up perfectly for mellow longboard waves and cruisers. Main Beach, meanwhile, is perfect for middling swells. Too high and it’s a guaranteed close out. Somewhere in the 3-5 foot range and you can hit any one of 25 peaks along the sand, all good, often hollow. The northern end of town has Del Mar Dog Beach, where there’s a rivermouth break off the San Dieguito River to give strong and shouldering waves that are better for experienced surfers.
It’s almost 30 minutes’ drive up the coast highway from San Diego to Encinitas. The reason to make it? This spot was named the third best surf town in the US by Surfer Magazine. That ain’t bad. We also LOVE the vibes. It’s proper SoCal stuff between the palm-lined boulevards and retro cafes.
In the water, you’re looking at scoring all sorts. Grandview Beach is where the groms will go, got a swell window that’s almost always on (SW to NW works). For something harder, head to Swami’s. It might be near the meditation centre, but there’s nothing chilled about it. The wave can go up to 12 foot with ease and still break. There’s always a crew on it and you need to be sure you know what you’re doing if you want a shout at dropping in successfully.
We’ve got a complete guide to surfing in Encinitas right here
San Diego loyalists often sniff when you say you’re headed up to Carlsbad. It’s true – there’s not the same quality in the beach breaks here as further south. But don’t let that put you off. What it lacks in hollowness, this one makes up for in smaller crowds and good vibes. It’s true North County coastline stuff, with fall a standout season that can offer regular A-frame rides on the central beach.
We’ve got a complete guide to surfing the town of Carlsbad. Check it out right now…
Where to stay when surfing in San Diego
Our all-round top pick for surf stays in San Diego
Pantai Inn is lifted over the rocky breaks of La Jolla cove. It’s a cozy, classic West Coast lodge with clean and spacious rooms with a touch of Balinese charm about them. The “deluxe continental breakfast” is perfect for starting a day on the surf.
Tower 23 Hotel
Best for: Surfing south La Jolla
Tower 23 Hotel merges the retro styles of the 50s with cool modernism. It’s right by the breaks of Crystal Pier, so you can be on the waves just moments after leaving your suite. Returning in the evening means watching the sunset by a flicking firepit above the Pacific Ocean.
Best for: True SoCal vibes in Encinitas
Surfhouse will always be one of our favourite picks for surfers in San Diego. We’ve listed it as one of the best surf hotels in the United States overall! It doesn’t claim the top spot for surfing in San Diego simply because it’s technically in Encinitas a tad to the north. 100% worth checking out though!
Ocean Beach Luxury
Best for: Big groups (families & friends)
Ocean Beach Luxury is a corker. We’ve searched and searched Ocean Beach and central San Diego for cracking group stays and this is one of the best out there. It’s a super-cool pad with Scandi-cool interiors and a patio with a fire pit, all within a stone’s throw from Ocean Beach.
Step-by-step guide to planning your Surfing in San Diego trip right now
Step one: Book flights to the Surfing in San Diego…Lately, we like Omio for searching flights. It’s a nice interface and has lots of airline options. We also use Skyscanner because that sometimes offers deals that even beat going direct to the carrier!
Step two: Book your surf camp Book Surf Camps is the numero uno online booking platform for fully-fledged surf-stay packages on the internet right now. Then there’s Booking.com. That has consistently unbeatable rates for hotels and a nifty map feature that lets you check EXACTLY how close your hotel is to a surf break.
Step three: Get insuranceThis is kinda’ important. Not just for surf trips but for any trips. SafetyWing is great for nomad travelers. They offer rolling contracts that cover amateur surfing.
Step four (optional): Rent a car If you’re surf camping then you might not need wheels. If you’re not then we’ll just say this: We’ve never been on a surf trip that wasn’t improved by having our own car. Use RentalCars – they’re the best.
Step five: Enjoy!
When to surf in San Diego
You won’t get better than fall surfing in San Diego. The season sees the best and most consistent SW and W swell conditions to get Ocean Beach all the way to La Jolla working. Then you add in the occasional pus from the N channel and it’s all about finding the right break, because there’s always something on the menu. Offshore winds are the icing on the cake – they crash down from the Santa Ana Mountains to add some serious class to the waves.
Summer in San Diego is a dream. Really. It’s warm – both in and out of the water – and the vibes are good. Okay, so there’s a visible dip in the swell as those Arctic storm systems hibernate, but you never go more than a couple of days without something to ride (usually). The temp in the H20 is balmy enough for just a shorty or springsuit at 2mm by July. However, upwelling can throw in freak cold-water draughts from the north and that means you could find yourself needing the 3/2 and a set of boots any day in the summer without warning. Keep em handy, folks!
Fall beats all when it comes to surfing in San Diego. There are loads of reasons for that, but they main one is the swell. September is the month that things start switching up from SW to NW channels. You’ll get a mixture of the two throughout the whole season, so there will be days that work well on different breaks, helping the whole coast turn on the goods. The second things that’s great about fall is the wind. The so-called Santa Anas starts. That’s a prevailing easterly, blessing virtually all these places (apart from, maybe, La Jolla) with offshores from morning until night. It’s also WAY less crowded from Labor Day onwards.
Swell directions for the surfing in San Diego come mainly from the north after November has been and gone. That’s good and bad news. The good news is that it’s powerful stuff, which can light up some of the best breaks (Swami’s, Ocean Beach). The bad news is that water temperatures gradually decrease. You can usually manage through to December in a 3/2 but then it has to be 4/3 time and booties to match. The surf can also be too heavy for groms and beginners, so it’s not the time to come if you’re learning.
The spring on the waves in SD is like the fall, only not quite as good. Yes, you get that mix of NW and SW swells in the 180-360 channel, but it’s never as consistently nice in April as it is in September. There’s lots of surf on, only dominant onshore westerlies can really mess it up and cause closeouts on the key west-facing beaches. For the best conditions rise early and enjoy it before the gusts start.
Surf shops in San Diego
There are loads of great surf shops here – this is San Diego folks! Whether you’re after that new shaped board or just a 3/2 to carry you through the SoCal summer, there’s always something to suit.
Ocean Beach Surf & Skate Shop San Diego
Ocean Beach Surf & Skate Shop San Diego has been serving the good people of Ocean Beach with wax, wetties, and fibregalss since 1990. Their shop stocks the latest in surf gear – the board rack has logs, shorties, fish, eggs, you name it! There’s also a whole load of skating equipment, and they do rentals and lessons (just $35/hour).
Head up to Encinitas and drop into Hansen Surfboards. This is one of the most iconic surf apparel and gear distributors in the US. They have a couple of outlets on the West Coast but also work online. Check out their site right here for potential click and collect on boards and wetties.
Where to eat and drink in San Diego
You won’t be short on spots to get that post-surf brunch or smoothie in San Diego. This city is known as one of the coolest destinations in SoCal and the range of bars and eateries follows suit. Here are just a couple that we totally love…
Midway between La Jolla Cove and Mission Beach, Seaside Smoothie is precisely the sort of Beatnik-chic spot you’d expect of SoCal. The menu reads healthy fruit and veg mixes, along with veggie breakies and avo on toast (compulsory in these parts). It’s well located for getting between many of the best surf spots in SD.
Wonderland Ocean Pub
Wonderland Ocean Pub is a mainstay of Ocean Beach. Come here to munch on hearty Americana breakfasts and lunches while watching the Pacific waves crash into the pier. The surf viewing is second to none. Cocktails are fantastico too.