The Ultimate Guide to Surfing on the West Coast

by Tom Sanchez

Surfing on the West Coast of the USA is an experience you’ll never forget. This is the home of Mavericks and Trestles and Huntington Pier, after all!

surfing on the West Coast

Surfing on the West Coast at a glance

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The good

  • Waves all year round
  • SoCal – the original home of surf culture
  • Some legendary spots, from Trestles to Maverick’s

The bad

  • Seriously cold up north
  • Onshore winds in spring
  • Polluted around the city spots

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

What’s in this guide to West Coast surf?

An introduction to surfing on the West Coast

Hardly a day goes by when we don’t dream of the West Coast. Stretching for thousands of miles from the Mexico Border to the iceberg-topped straits of Alaska, it’s one of the holy grails of global surfing. No questions. Not only will you encounter spots like the ferocious XXL breaks of Mavericks, but you get famous points in Malibu, the trio of quality peaks in Trestles, and surf towns that have changed and influenced the sport more than arguably anywhere else on Earth (San Clemente, Huntington, we’re looking at you, kid!).

Naturally, it’s California that stands out as the premier surf area on the West Coast. In particular, you’re looking at SoCal, which spreads from the San Diego to north of LA in a sweep of endless breaks, both beaches, points, and reefs, with everything from barrels to ankle burners for the groms. Don’t discount the rest of the region though. Alaska, for instance, remains one of the last great surf frontiers in North America, while Oregon lets you do battle with the Pacific elements on wild swells and empty beaches.

Basically, this is hallowed ground and you’re lucky to be surfing on the West Coast!

Where to go surfing on the West Coast

Rugged Oregon coast

California

California is unquestionably the most famous surf destination in all of America. Nicknamed the Golden State, it boasts a shoreline of 840 miles from tip to tail. That ranges from the dusty deserts near the Mexican Baja to the lush coast redwood forests on the Oregon border.

Between those, you’ll discover hallowed breaks like The Wedge in Newport Beach, Trestles down in San Diego, and Mavericks up north. Just mentioning those three should give a hint as to the sheer variety that’s on offer: One’s a big-wave spot for the gun boarders, the other’s a rippable A-frame, the other’s a fast sandbank shorebreak that’s a real adrenaline hit.

There’s just SO much to get through.

We’ve got a complete guide to surfing in California – check it now to plan your perfect surf adventure in the Golden State

Top surf spots in California

Oregon

Oregon takes over from where the wilder reaches of North California leave off. Under the gaze of the rising Cascades, the coast here gets rugged and raw. It’s not really the place for groms or kooks. It’s hard and heavy going, and the local legends about prowling great whites hardly help matters.

If you’re the sort who likes chasing empty lineups, or get a thrill out of taming slabby overheads in icy conditions, the Beaver State will be a doozy there’s no doubt. Just be sure to pack a good, thick wetsuit if you’re coming in the colder months!

We’ve got a complete guide to surfing in Oregon – read it to learn all about the best breaks in the Beaver State (Coming soon)

Top surf spots in Oregon

  • Gold Beach
  • Cape Lookout

Washington

Washington State is too far up the US West Coast to take anythign from those reliable SW swells that cross into Cali and the Baja, and even Oregon on occasion. That precludes any summertime surfing. So, it’s left to the winter nor’westerlies to kick in, which, to put it lightly, can be brutal.

Still, there are options. You can move into the Juan de Fuca channel west of Seattle to use the shadow of the Olympics as shelter and temper the oncoming W swell with high cliffs and coast headlands. The area is good, but is also notoriously inaccessible.

Better options are around Westport. That’s probably the main surf spot in Washington because it has a harbor break that can harness any south winds to create cleaner days than anywhere else on the Pacific Northwest. Down from that is a seemingly endless run of slabby beach breaks where you can sometimes catch a jewel on the way to the Oregon border.

We’ve got a complete guide to surfing in Washington right here! (Coming soon)

Top surf spots in Washington State

  • Westport
  • Seattle
  • Ocean Shores
  • Neah Bay Surf

Alaska

Alaska is truly untamed surf territory. Scratch that – Alaska is truly untamed territory. Period.

Home to 34,000 miles of coastline in the arctic Pacific north, it’s a land that can throw up some serious gems of surf to those willing to go chasing them. 5mm+ wetsuits are required. Big wetsuit boots needed. No messing around, you’ve got to have cojones to come this far.

Those who do are rewarded by deserted breaks in mountain-shrouded coves, where wild grizzlies are more likely sightings than VW campers.

We’ve got a full guide to the intrepid land of Alaska surf right here! (Coming soon)

Top surf spots in Alaska

  • Yakutat

Where to stay when surfing on the West Coast

The West Coast really lives up to its rep as the home of salt-washed surf culture. In the cafes and the beach shacks, and in the surf hotels, too…

Surfhouse

Surf-hotel-top-pick

Man this spot is cool. Close enough to the Encinitas beaches on the North Coast Highway 101 to feel the salt on the balconies, it’s a 1950s-styled getaway where good vibes reign supreme. They have proximity to some of the top spots north of San Diego, but also in-house instructors and rental boards (all Firewire).

Huntington Surf Inn

Best for: Surf comps on Huntington Beach.

Peer out of the window – that’s the world-famous Huntington Pier break just down the road. Yep, Huntington Surf Inn is right by the left-right shoulders of that epic wave. It’s the perfect place to experience the waves and the vibe of Surf City USA.

The Surfrider Malibu

Best for: Surfing in style

The Surfrider Malibu is one of our all-time favorite stops on the PCH. It’s bloody lovely. Inside, white-painted timber walls and sea oat rugs hit the perfect tone. Outside, there’s a flickering fire pit with views of the ocean. Complimentary boards and SUP boards for guests, too! Seriously quality.

When to surf on the West Coast?

Overall: Choose fall. It’s the all-round best option for surfing on the West Coast. Summer’s not bad, but don’t go as far south as San Diego. Winter is better for pros, while spring is fickle.

Summer (June-August)

Summer is pretty epic in California. The sun’s shining. The weather is hot. It’s a good time to be alive. Bring the longboard and you’ll score those Beach Boys waves down in SoCal, with Malibu in particular shining on the SW swells that roll up. Sadly, they are too southerly to make anything happen in Oregon or north California, while San Diego is facing the wrong way. Be patient, though because fall is on the way…

Fall (September-November)

We’d say that fall is the single best time to hit this region. If you’re planning that once-in-a-lifetime trip to go surfing on the West Coast, go after mid September. Why? Mainstay spots like Trestles and Huntington Pier are enjoying offshore Santa Ana winds. The swells have changed to add W into the compass, which brings more surf in San Diego and north Cali into play too. It’s generally good everywhere.

Sunscreen is a MUST for surfing on the West Coast, even if you’re coming in winter. LA is famously sunny, and San Diego is like being in a tanning parlour. We’ve got the best sunscreen options for surfers all listed with links to purchase, along with info on what you’re looking for in a block.

Winter (November-February)

You’ll need to pack at least a 4/3 for winter surfing on the West Coast. That’s the case even if you head all the way to San Diego – the water gets pretty darn cold. The reward will be the strongest swells of the year. They tend to originate up in the arctic, and bring the goods down to famous big-wave spots like Mavericks. Trestles is also good in winter, but Malibu can suffer.

Spring (March-May)

A tendency to go onshore and the increase in rainfall could just make spring the worst time to surf on the West Coast. That’s not to say it’s bad. There are still some wonderful days, especially if you happen to be around Huntington when those NW swell kick through the pier. Beware of pollution run off if you’re surfing in the LA beaches or up by Ventura. It can get bad after spring storms.

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.

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