Santa Cruz, California, is one of the most important surfing destinations in the United States. Home to Jack O’Neill and the rumored birthplace of the wetsuit, the Santa Cruz surf culture runs deep, all the way back to the late 1800s, when three Hawaiian princes came to Santa Cruz and brought surfing with them.
And it never left- to this day, Santa Cruz California is one of the best surfing destinations in the world. With several world-class breaks, and everything from mellow longboard waves to steep, powerful, perfect barrels- the Santa Cruz surf has a lot to offer.
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Santa Cruz surf overview
Located on the northern edge of Monterey Bay, Santa Cruz offers a variety of waves to suit everyone from absolute beginners, to experienced surfers looking for a really nice wave.
Home to the famous Steamer Lane and birthplace of wetsuit pioneer Jack O’Neill, this California surf town has a super rich surfing history that will get you stoked to hit the water! Not to mention, the surf here is some of the best in California.
The different Santa Cruz surf breaks
One of the things I really like about surfing in Santa Cruz is how diverse the waves are. If you’re in the mood for cruisy longboard waves, Santa Cruz hits the spot. If you’re looking for something steeper and heavier, you’re only a short drive away. This diversity is what makes Santa Cruz one of the best surf spots in the state for ALL levels of surfers. Here’s a breakdown of the different Santa Cruz surf breaks:
Pleasure Point is a legendary right hand point break in Santa Cruz. When I was first getting into surfing, I swear I caught some of the longest rides I’d ever had at Pleasure Point. The bottom is a rocky reef, so you’ll definitely want to be careful surfing here at lower tides.
The deepest takeoff spot is a bit steep, but the second peak is pretty mellow.
When the surf is smaller, Pleasure Point is a world class longboarding spot. When it gets bigger, it’s still good for longboarding, but it also gets excellent for shortboarding- especially at that first takeoff point.
Depending on the time of year, there can be a TON of kelp here. So much kelp that your longboard fin will literally get completely stuck. I remember paddling out to the lineup, and having to paddle with my board upside down (fin facing up) so it wouldn’t get totally stuck in the seaweed. It worked pretty well!
Steamer Lane is one of the most famous surf breaks in California. Steamer Lane breaks right off the cliffs on West Point Drive, right underneath the Santa Cruz surfing museum– a pretty fitting location for a surfing museum I’d say.
This Santa Cruz surf break is one of the most famous high performance waves in the state. It’s excellent for shortboarding. The break is fast, powerful, and consistent- and always crowded.
There are 4 different takeoff spots at Steamer Lane: The Point, The Slot, The Middle Peak, and Indicators.
The Hook is a super fun surf break in Santa Cruz, right by the intersection of 41st and East Cliff Drive. It’s another right hand wave that breaks pretty fast and has a nice shape. This break is usually super crowded, so it’s best to go out with the expectation that you’re going to be sharing the wave with a lot of surfers- just be patient, respectful, and have fun with it! It’s also super rocky here, so watch out. And be careful coming up and down the stairs at higher tides, so you don’t get smacked by the waves coming up the stairs after a surf.
For beginner surfers, Cowell’s is the place to be! The right hander is small but clean, and it’s the perfect spot to catch and ride your first green waves. The wave works on a low tide, and is almost always super crowded with beginners learning to surf, kids, and just a ton of people having fun. Since it’s such a beginner friendly spot, the vibe here is pretty chill and upbeat. Just watch out for rogue foamies!
Manresa State Beach
Manresa State Beach is located a little bit south of Santa Cruz, in Watsonville- although it’s still worth a mention. If you’re sick of the crowds in Santa Cruz, and keen on surfing a slightly more rugged, albeit beautiful beach, definitely check out Manresa State Beach. This beach break is super exposed, and picks up a ton of swell, but also a lot of wind. It’s best to surf here early in the morning. The wave here can be a little messy, or it can be really good,depending on how the sandbars are behaving. Just keep an eye out for marine life, as there have been shark attacks here in the past.
Keep in mind, Manresa isn’t a beginner spot. There’s a super strong rip, and the break can quickly get pretty heavy.
Best swell(s) for Santa Cruz:
The surf spots in Santa Cruz typically work the best with a SW swell, period of 12-16 seconds, and offshore winds.
Santa Cruz surf seasons
The best seasons for surfing in Santa Cruz are fall, and winter. However, summer is great for beginners seeking out smaller waves, and spring can also host some fun surfing. One of the best things about surfing in Santa Cruz, is that there is rarely a flat day.
Where to stay for a Santa Cruz surf trip
Budget Pick: The Surf City Inn & Suites-Affordable, close to the beach, an indoor swimming pool, and free parking.
Mid-range: The Dream Inn – A surf-inspired hotel with ocean views and easy access to Cowell’s Beach.
High-end: Beach Street Inn & Suites– This beachfront surf hotel has ocean views, TVs in the rooms, and a pool & hot tub.
Gear for a Santa Cruz surf trip
You’ll need a wetsuit for surfing in Santa Cruz. I recommend a 4/3 wetsuit year round, and in the winter you might want to pair it with some booties, and maybe even a hood.
Definitely bring along some good, reef safe sunscreen for your surf trip to Santa Cruz.
- Reusable water bottle
I never go on a surf trip without bringing my Hydroflask. Seriously, carrying a reusable water bottle everywhere is a game changer!
- Changing Poncho
While you can definitely do it the old-school way and change under a towel, it’s simply wayyyy nicer when you can slip into a soft, fuzzy poncho to wear while you change out of your wetsuit.
- Wetsuit Changing Mat
This wetsuit changing mat is one of my favorite surf accessories. It keeps your wetsuit safe from getting torn on the asphalt, or from getting all dirty if you’re changing on dirt or loose rocks. It’s also nice because when you’re done changing, you can cinch it shut and keep your wetsuit from dripping all over the place.
Santa Cruz Surf FAQ’s
Are there surf schools in Santa Cruz?
Can you rent surfboards in Santa Cruz?
Yes! If you don’t bring your own surfboard to Santa Cruz, it’s all good because there are tons of rental shops. Cowell’s Surf Shop is one of the best options for surfboard rentals in Santa Cruz.
Does Santa Cruz have big waves?
In the winter, the surf in Santa Cruz can definitely get pretty big, and Steamer Lane can get heavy.
Where are the best Santa Cruz surf spots for beginners?
Cowell’s is the best surf spot for beginners in Santa Cruz.
The Best Santa Cruz Surf Shops
If you’re keen on getting some shopping in, you’re in luck- Santa Cruz has so many good surf shops! I was particularly impressed by their inventories of good, high-quality women’s wetsuits. I think the wetsuit selection in Santa Cruz is the best in California. Which definitely makes sense given that Jack O’Neill is from Santa Cruz, and the wetsuit was created here!
O’Neill Surf Shop
As the birthplace of the wetsuit, O’Neill is a legendary name in the surf industry. Founded by Jack O’Neill, this Santa Cruz surf shop is an iconic destination offering a wide selection of surfboards, wetsuits, clothing, and accessories. Known for their innovative wetsuit designs, O’Neill continues to be a top choice for surfers seeking high-quality gear.
Freeline Surf Shop
Established in 1969, Freeline Surf Shop is a family-owned business with deep roots in the Santa Cruz surf community. They offer a diverse range of surfboards from local shapers as well as top international brands. In addition to boards, you’ll find wetsuits, clothing, and accessories.
Midtown Surf Shop and Coffee Bar
Combining two of life’s greatest pleasures – surfing and coffee – Midtown Surf Shop and Coffee Bar is a must-visit Santa Cruz surf shop. They also have a fantastic selection of boards and surf gear.
Hazards of surfing in Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz has a super gnarly reputation for having bad localism. Localism typically involves a territorial mentality among local surfers who believe they have priority and ownership over a particular surf spot, and may view outsiders or non-locals as unwelcome or disrespectful.
When I’ve surfed in Santa Cruz, I haven’t really experienced much of that- although I tried my best to be extra respectful in the lineup, and was careful to follow the rules of surfing.
It’s just something good to be aware of though- don’t paddle out like you own the place, don’t drop in on people, don’t snake anyone, don’t bail your board, and you should be fine.
Santa Cruz is super rocky, and a lot of the surf spots here break on rocky reefs, so definitely watch out.
Sharks are one of the hazards of surfing in Santa Cruz, as the area is known to have a significant population of great white sharks. While shark attacks on surfers are rare, they do happen, so it’s something to be aware of.
Other tips for Santa Cruz surf
1. Check the tides: Many of the surf spots in Santa Cruz are super tide dependent. Some only work at low tide, and some are best on a mid-high tide. Make sure to check the tide chart before heading out, and plan your session accordingly.
2. Explore different surf breaks: One of my favorite things about surfing in Santa Cruz is how many surf breaks there are within such a short drive. Honestly, Santa Cruz really reminds me of surfing in Ericeira, Portugal– and not just because they’re both World Surfing Reserves! But because of how quickly you can hop from surf break to surf break. If you plan a surf trip to Santa Cruz, be sure to check out as many different surf spots as possible.
Santa Cruz surf guide- final thoughts
That’s a wrap on this surf guide. Santa Cruz is one of my favorite surf trips to take whenever I’m driving up north from surfing the SLO county surf breaks.
I love the glassy, foggy breaks, and there’s something about surfing surrounded by the kelp beds that makes you feel like you’re out somewhere really rugged- not in one of the most bustling surf towns in California!