16 legendary California surfing beaches

June 17, 2021 | Surfing
California: surf is where you find it | Photo: Shutterstock

In certain places, the California coastline is no less beautiful than Hawaii.

In fact, one could refer to the golden sands and luxurious green foliage of the Carmel, Point Lobos, and Big Sur area and say that Hawaii was a more tropical continuation of this most dramatic part of California.

Other parts of the southern seacoast are admittedly less interesting but could still be compared with southwestern Oahu or with the drier regions of Kauai.

However, the surf in California is much less spectacular than that of the big wave beaches of the North Shore Oahu.

On the other hand, there is plenty of surf with perhaps a thousand miles of surfable coastline.

The beach receives, facing to the southwestward as it does, the southern swells from many of the winter storms of the southern hemisphere.

Winter surf is caused, sometimes, by northern or western swells hooking around points and reefs.

The Kuroshio - or Japan - Current, which assures California a relatively mild and Mediterranean-type climate, is a cold current compared with the Atlantic Ocean's Gulf Stream.

And if we dare to mention it within earshot of the California Chamber of Commerce, the sea off the California coast in the winter is extremely cold, even in the southern parts which sink in the 50s °F - the San Francisco area sinks to the high 40s °F.

Even so, hardy souls with or without cold-resisting wetsuits may be found at all the surfing beaches when the surf is up.

California: the Golden State has perfect waves all year round | Photo: Shutterstock

Summer Surf

In the summer, the waters are much warmer.

From Santa Barbara south, temperatures in the high 60s °F are expected, or even higher in the San Diego area.

North of Santa Barbara, temperatures in the low 60s °F or high 50s °F are more normal, furnishing the beaches with one of the coldest seas for its latitude in the world.

This is the reason for the crowded beaches, and the small number of swimmers usually found in Northern and Central California - not as many visitors assume because of the natural prosperity-induced indolence of the population.

The summer surf in California is rather spasmodic, so that really good days are treasured and remembered.

When the surf is up, the whole coast knows about it.

However, the variety and number of surfing beaches make up for any inconsistency and somehow manage to absorb the increasing hordes of surfers competing for a place on the wave.

Beginning surfers tend to congregate at Huntington Beach or San Onofre and a few other beaches with shallow water.

On most California beaches, the rides are usually in the 100-200 yards class or less for length, but there are many piers, kelp beds, and other hazards to offset the shortness of the ride.

The best beaches, such as Windansea, Trestles, Malibu, and Rincon, however, can be compared favorably with any surfing spots in the world.

Because of the large number of beaches in California, a shorthand method of describing them has been adopted.

I am indebted to Walt Phillips for much of the information in this article.

Walt was a surf movie producer and the publisher of the magazine Surfing Illustrated.

An accomplished surfer, he was unluckily hit by his own board while surfing at Sunset Beach, Hawaii, in December 1961.

Although in a coma for four weeks, he completely recovered from the accident.

Windansea Beach, San Diego County

Windansea Beach, San Diego County | Photo: Shutterstock

Location
In La Jolla, at the end of Nautilus Street.

The Wave
It's a steep left or right-hand wave with a rapid, straight take-off. It may reach 15 feet in summer, but it is more often 6 to 10 feet. Waves have a distinct peak and change direction like a very small-scale Sunset Beach.

Best Season
It works best in summer in south swells, but due to the variation in reefs and headlands, it has north swell surf in winter and shore break. There some quality surf all year round, though.

Spots
From north to south, there's Simmons' Point, Banzai (shore break), Middle, Windansea, and Birdrock.

Currents and Rips
A strong rip when the surf is big. This was the place where Bob Simmons, the famous surfboard designer, lost his life.

Notes
Windandsea's Walls is one of the most difficult waves in Southern California and the best training for the really big waves of Sunset and Waimea Bay. Not for beginners.

Oceanside, San Diego County

Oceanside, San Diego County | Photo: Shutterstock

Location
About 30 miles north of San Diego.

Wave
It's a beach break with changing sandy bottom that makes surf extremely variable. Left and right-hand waves are available depending on whether you are on the north or south side of the pier.

Best Season
It works best with a west swell for summer surf, but it can also take south swell.

Spots
Either side of the pier.

Currents and Rips
None of importance.

Notes
The pier also has a hall where surfing films are shown.

San Onofre State Beach, San Diego County

San Onofre State Beach, San Diego County | Photo: Shutterstock

Location
Two miles south of Trestles in Camp Pendleton Marine Base.

Wave
It's a thin, well-shaped wave in a typical beach break.

Best Season
Winter and summer.

Spots
Outside on The Point and several inside breaks.

Currents and Rips
None to worry about.

Notes
The well-known San Onofre Surfing Club has around 1,000. Many members camp on the beach, and luaus and weekend parties are common.

Trestles, Orange County

Trestles, Orange County | Photo: Shutterstock

Location
South of San Clemente.

Wave
It's a thin, steep wave on a right, occasionally left, with a rapid straight up and down take-off. It's usually 3-4 feet but will occasionally reach up to 15 feet. Waves have a distinct peak and move around a lot like those at Sunset Beach. The cobblestone bottom provides consistent surf with much the same break at any given time of the year.

Best Season
Great and perfect in summer, but there's some good winter surf, too.

Spots
Lower Trestles, Upper Trestles, and Cottons.

Currents and Rips
Not dangerous.

Notes
Trestles is an iconic surfing beach with a point surf, much like Malibu or Rincon. In the past, the marines often laid rough hands on the surfers and even took their boards away. The US Surfing Association (USSA) worked to open up the beach.

Dana Point, Orange County

Dana Point, Orange County | Photo: Shutterstock

Location
Just 11 miles north of San Onofre on the coastal road.

Wave
Killer Dana, one of its most famous spots, was destroyed to build the Dana Point Harbor. The best surf was off the point. It was a rather slow wave with not much strength in it, but it could reach 10 or 12 feet on occasions. There was a faster break inside about 300 yards south of the parking lot, which was used mostly by kids. This break could reach 4 to 6 feet before it closed out. Both waves were consistent because of the stable rocky ocean floor.

Best Season
It gets big in winter.

Spots
The Point, Gravels, Middles, and Doheny State Beach.

Currents and Rips
There's a circular rip when the surf is up.

Notes
Dana Point was one of the beauty spots of the Pacific Coast. It was also one of the few places with a large, well-designed parking area for surfers and other users of the beach. The local surfable beaches are still crowded on weekends.

Brooks Street Beach, Orange County

Location
At the end of Oak Street in Laguna Beach.

Wave
It's an excellent beach break with good left-hand waves that hold up to 10 or 12 feet. They can be surfed at this height but start closing out at about 14 feet. The wave walls up inside and breaks all the way, along with a lot of backwash. The take-off is fairly straight up and down.

Best Season
Best in summer, not usually good in winter.

Spots
Take-off is by a little reef that sticks out on the left-hand side where there are some rocks. Rocks appear further out when the surf is bigger.

Currents and Rips
A strong rip at the north edge of the surfing area when the surf is running.

Notes
Excellent surf. Much enjoyed by hotdoggers. Closest surf on the coast to Yokahama Bay in Hawaii.

Newport Beach, Orange County

Newport Beach, Orange County | Photo: Shutterstock

Location
12 miles southeast of Long Beach.

Wave
It's a powerful left-hand wave on a beach break with a steep drop. It breaks from 2-20 feet.

Best Season
Best between Spring and Fall.

Spots
The Wedge and several breaks north.

Currents and Rips
None to worry about.

Notes
Newport Jetty is also excellent for bodysurfing and skimboarding. There's a good-sized parking lot in front, but it is charged for, and many tickets are given out.

Huntington Beach, Orange County

Huntington Beach, Orange County | Photo: Shutterstock

Location
Seven miles south of Long Beach on the coast highway.

Wave
It's a fine beach break. Expect surf up to 8 or 10 feet but more normally 4 or 5 feet.

Best Season
September is peak from westerly swell but very consistent all year round due to the exposure of the beach to south and north swells at all times. Best through fall and winter but also good in summer.

Spots
Right or left-hand waves if north or south of the pier.

Currents and Rips
None to worry about.

Notes
The annual surfing contest - the US Open of Surfing - has made Huntington Beach the surfing capital of California. Pier shooting is popular - it makes it a little bit hairier and may break your board in half. Very crowded. In the past, surfing was only allowed before 11 am, and after 5 pm; bellyboarding and bodysurfing were only are allowed between these hours.

Seal Beach, Orange County

Seal Beach, Orange County | Photo: Shutterstock

Location
Six miles south of Long Beach.

Wave
It's a well-shaped jetty/pier surf break providing waves of up to 10 feet. All spots provide very good and fast surf. Expect steep take-off and lots of backwash.

Best Season
All year round but best Christmas to end of summer. It picks up north, west, and southern swells.

Spots
13th Street. Pier. Jetty on South reef. A second jetty has created a completely new surfing spot.

Rips and Currents
Counteracted by the jetty.

Notes
In most pier breaks, you surf into the pier, but at Seal Beach, you surf away from it. In the past, warm water running out from the power plant made for pleasant surfing, but the bottom was covered with jellyfish, and stings were frequent. Seal Beach doesn't pick up onshore winds badly like many of the places in Southern California do. There are rather large (and increasing) crowds.

Palos Verdes' The Cove, Los Angeles County

Palos Verdes, Los Angeles County | Photo: Shutterstock

Location
Between Haggerty's and Lunada Bay.

Wave
It's a slow left-hand longboard wave - a San Onofre-type surf break. Rollers come in off the sea very slowly and are not very steep. It used to get high 10 or 12 feet years ago but recently seldom over 6 or 8 feet. A rather uninteresting 1/4 mile ride is possible.

Best Season
Winter break from the western swell.

Spots
The Cove, Portuguese Bend.

Currents and Rips
None to worry about.

Notes
Long, tiring walk down the steep cliff with a rocky beach at the bottom. It was a favorite with old-time surfers.

Redondo Breakwater, Los Angeles County

Redondo Breakwater, Los Angeles County | Photo: Shutterstock

Location
South Bay next to Palos Verdes.

Wave
It's an excellent, fast beach break with surf up to 10 feet. It provides a left-hand slide and a very steep take-off. You have to drop in quickly - at the end, the wave will line out on you, and you will get wiped out if you don't pull out soon enough. There is a big backwash, too.

Best Season
Best in winter.

Spots
Sapphire St., Torrance St.

Currents and Rips
Strong rip on the north side of the breakwater.

Notes
A fine surfing beach.

Hermosa Beach, Los Angeles County

Hermosa Beach, Los Angeles County | Photo: Shutterstock

Location
South Bay, about 13 miles south of Santa Monica.

Wave
A typical beach break with many good spots providing rights and lefts depending on which side you are on. Waves up to 4 or 5 feet and occasionally 6 to 7 feet.

Best Season
Especially during winter. Sometimes a few summer days with a southern swell, but it generally doesn't break well in this period.

Spots
Many. From the Redondo Breakwater, 2nd St., Pier Avenue, 22nd St., and Longfellow St. are among the best known.

Currents and Rips
No problem.

Notes
All South Bay beaches are similar.

Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles County

Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles County | Photo: Shutterstock

Location
South Bay, just 10 miles south of Santa Monica.

Wave
It's a typical beach break, but the sandy bottom washes out quite a bit. Both left and right slides.

Best Season
It gets big in winter from westerlies but breaks all year round.

Spots
On the north side of the pier in winter; on the south side of the pier in summer.

Currents and Rips
None to worry about.

Malibu, Los Angeles County

Malibu, Los Angeles County | Photo: Shutterstock

Location
In Los Angeles, just 10 miles north of Santa Monica.

Wave
It's a very well-shaped curl, sometimes up to 10-12 feet. More often, 2-4 feet. Even small waves give good rides.

Best Season
The summer surf only works with southern swells. Occasional west swells produce surf from "hooking around the point." The month of May has the best days, while the period from August to September provides the largest waves. There are perhaps 15 or 20 very good - but also very crowded - days per year.

Spots
Where the wave peaks near Third Point, experienced surfers can theoretically get a 1/4 mile ride. Beginners can surf in Malibu.

Currents and Rips
None to worry about.

Notes
Huge crowds are chief difficulty, but this does not seem to deter surfers. There may be more than 100 in the water at any one time, all trying for the same wave.

Rincon Point, Ventura/Santa Barbara County

Rincon, Ventura/Santa Barbara County | Photo: Shutterstock

Location
Santa Barbara 8 to 10 miles south of the city on the coast highway.

Wave
Superb surf. It's a well-shaped wave - pure perfection. Together with Malibu, it is one of the best on the coast. It is very regular as if produced by machines and still rideable at 15 feet - 1/4 mile rides are possible.

Best Season
It's definitely a winter surf spot.

Spots
The Cove, Rivermouth, and Indicator. Sandspit at the pier in Santa Barbara harbor has 2-4 foot waves providing long fast rides but variable due to sand bottom.

Currents and Rips
A good rip when the surf is really big.

Steamer Lane, Santa Cruz County

Steamer Lane, Santa Cruz County | Photo: Shutterstock

Location
At the north end of Monterey Bay, about 80 miles from San Francisco.

Wave
It delivers good surf held up by prevailing offshore winds. The winds in southern California are characteristically onshore and tend to break up waves. Steamer Lane is the best break, with waves of up to 20 feet. It has been surfed at 18, but the average is 5 to 6 feet. It starts outside the point, and you surf to the point.

Best Season
Steamer Lane is a winter spot. Pleasure Point and others mostly spring or early summer, but some breaks all year round.

Spots
Many. Cowels for beginners, Steamer Lane, River Mouth, Pleasure Point, Garbage Hole, Wild Hook, Sharks Cove for more experienced surfers.

Notes
Wetsuits are needed in very cold water. This area was popularised by Peter Cole, Ricky Gregg, and the Van Dyke family. At low tide, many spots have seaweed as a hazard. Rocky shores break boards.

There are many other surfing spots in cold water from San Francisco to British Columbia.

Some of the best-known surf breaks in the San Francisco Bay area are Rockaway Point, Roberts and Stinson Beach, Kelly's Cove, and Marin County.


Words by Desmond Muirhead and SurferToday

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