Surfing in California- The Ultimate Guide
The surfing in California is some of the best of the best. The surf culture is strong, and there are waves suitable for beginners, intermediates, advanced, and even for the likes of big wave thrill chasers.
I grew up surfing in California, and many of these breaks are very near and dear to my heart.
California is an incredible place to learn to surf, or plan a surf trip to if you’re already a surfer.
Whether you’re planning a surf trip to California, or already live here and want to branch out, this California surf guide is here to help you experience the awesome surf the golden state has to offer.
Please note: There are TONS more surf breaks in California than I covered in this guide. However, some surf spots are best left unwritten about. I’ll leave it up to you to explore the nooks and crannies of California to find the more under the radar spots!
Surfing in California: The Surf Regions
If you’ve never been to California, know this- it’s HUGE! This beautiful state has over 800 miles of coastline, and there is a huge difference between the surf in the southern, central, and northern parts of California.
For the sake of clarity, I’ll be breaking up California into 3 regions throughout this California surf guide: Southern, Central, and Northern.
Surfing in California: The Surf Seasons
Each region gets different swells and works at different times of year so we’ll cover this individually by region.
One of the things I love most about surfing in California is that you can pretty much surf all year long.
While different regions perform best at different times of year, there aren’t many days in California (if any at all) where there isn’t some surfing to be had.
Surfing California in the Winter
Winter is when the surf in California is at its best and biggest. In the winter, California receives tons of west and northwest swells, which keep the surf breaking pretty big from about December-February.
Surfing California in the Spring
In the springtime, those W/NW begin to transition to S/SW, and the surf changes accordingly.
You can certainly catch some solid springtime California surf, but it’s not going to be as big as in the winter, or as glassy as in the summer.
Surfing California in the Summer
Surfing California in the summer is pretty magical.
Longer days mean dreamy, glass-off sessions that run until 9:00 pm, and small, fun days.
In southern California, south swells run rampant and you can catch some really fun days in only your trunks or a bikini.
Surfing California in the Fall
Fall is my favorite time to surf in California. The days are still long, the water is still warm, the summer tourists have gone back home, and the Pacific starts to throw out some really nice, clean surf.
Surfing in Southern California
The surf in Southern California includes a healthy mix of point, beach, and reef breaks! There is plenty of surf to be had from the beginner- expert level of surfers.
Best season to surf in southern California
Honestly, the surf in southern California is good all year round. However, the best time to go depends a little on what you’re looking for.
If you’re a fairly advanced surfer looking to score some bigger waves, I’d recommend going in the winter.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for a fun surf in warm waters that’s a little more friendly towards surfers of all levels, I’d recommend going in the summer!
- Summer: averages between 60-69 degrees Fahrenheit
- Winter: averages between 57-59 degrees Fahrenheit
- Fall: mid 60’s
- Spring: low to mid 60’s
Crowd factors in Southern California
The crowds are pretty bad in SoCal. California is home to about 40 million people, and SoCal houses the majority.
And the word is out on California surf! On most days, expect there to be several other surfers in the water around you.
HOWEVER- there is surf to be had. Don’t let anyone tell you CA is “ruined” or there isn’t any room for beginner surfers, out of towners, etc.
Hazards of Southern California surf
While surfing in Southern California, you’re usually going to be sharing the waves with others. It’s a good idea to be aware of your surroundings, and practice safe board handling skills.
Unfortunately, the beaches in Southern California aren’t the cleanest.
Runoff, litter, and oil spills have all contributed to water pollution.
Luckily, more and more awareness about the situation has been raised, which is a good sign.
In the meantime, it’s a good idea to not surf after heavy rains in southern California, especially if the surf break is near a river mouth due to runoff.
Stingrays love the sandy beaches of Socal just as much as we do, so you want to be careful to avoid stepping on them! Always do the stingray shuffle when walking out to the lineup, and avoid jumping off your board onto the sea floor if you can.
Best surf spots in Southern California
Blacks Beach is located in San Diego, on the far south end of Torrey Pines State Beach and only a few minutes away from UCSD.
Without a doubt, Blacks Beach hosts some of the best surfing in San Diego, if not the entire state of California.
This beach break is also a SD favorite because it gets a little more size than surrounding surf spots due to an underwater canyon nearby.
Blacks is known to get pretty heavy, and in the winter especially, it’s not a good surf beach for beginners.
Pacific Beach is a neighborhood in San Diego just south of La Jolla, with a fun surf beach that’s great for both longboarding and shortboarding.
If you go to the far north end of the beach, there’s a fun little point break that’s great for a shortboard.
The southern part of the beach gets a little steeper and is better for shortboarding.
Just keep an eye out for stingrays!
Trestles has some of the best waves in California. Perfect A frames, glassy waters, and long rides.
Trestles is pure magic on a south swell.
With perfect waves in California, comes big crowds- Trestles is one of the most crowded waves in California. With pretty much every set wave, there’s going to be 2 surfers going each way, minimum.
But if you can hold your own, you’ll score on one of the best rides in California.
Huntington Beach, aka ‘surf city’ really lives up to the name. While the most popular spot to surf is right at the pier, the beauty of this beach is you can find awesome little peaks to surf on for miles, in either direction of the pier. Huntington Beach is also one of the best surf towns in California!
When the surf is good, (and even when it’s not) you can definitely expect crowds at Huntington Beach.
The Wedge is located in Newport Beach, California and it is NOT for the faint of heart. When the swells and tides align, the wave here breaks up to 30 feet, right in front of the shore.
This monster wave is created by a ripple effect of the man made jetty- when the swell angles are just right, a wave will bounce off the jetty as another rolls in, and they’ll form together creating a type of explosion.
To see exactly what I mean, check out this video here.
As this shore breaking wave is so unpredictable, it’s definitely not recommended for beginner/intermediate surfers, and can be difficult for even advanced surfers to read.
Malibu is about 30 miles north of LA, and a popular and iconic surf spot in California.
The surf here is fun for intermediate and beginner surfers in particular, as it doesn’t usually get too big.
Ventura Point has some really solid surf. If you catch a wave right at the point, you can expect a long, fun ride.
The beach is a little rocky here so definitely watch out for that!
Rincon is famed for having some of the best surfing in California. This right hand point break hardly produces more than a ripple in the summer months, but when it’s on, (usually in the winter) it’s ON.
It’s not unusual to see some pro surfers in the water here, as surfers like Lakey Peterson and even Kelly Slater spend lots of time in the Santa Barbara area.
Devereaux and Sands Beach
Located in Goleta, Devereaux and Sands Beach are adjacent to UCSB, making these breaks the college’s local surf spot!
Devereux is a long, fun point break and Sands is a rocky beach break.
In the summer months, you can find a little surf here but these breaks really shine in the fall and winter when the W/NW start to roll in.
For more on the Santa Barbara surf breaks, check out my in-depth Santa Barbara surf guide.
Jalama Beach is located near Point Conception, about an hour from both Santa Barbara and Pismo Beach.
It’s pretty out there, and there is a LOT of marine activity.
The surf here is incredible. When everywhere else in Santa Barbara is flat, Jalama is the place to be.
Surf at your own risk though, as I said earlier… There is a LOT of marine life here.
It’s a pretty high risk high reward situation though, and I’ve written a full guide on the Jalama Beach surf here.
Surfing on the Central Coast of California
While answers may differ depending on who you ask, the surf in Central California typically encompasses the area north of Santa Barbara, up through Big Sur.
The water here is colder, less crowded, and home to a little more active marine life than in Southern California.
As a SLO native, I’m pretty partial to the Central Coast surf. I grew up surfing Pismo, Morro Rock, and Big Sur.
I love the rugged beaches, lack of crowds, and even the messy waves these beaches (often) spit out.
If you’re looking to surf some fun, colder, MUCH less crowded waves, the Central Coast of California is where it’s at.
Best season to surf Central California
One of the things I love about Central California and SLO surfing is that they’re pretty surfable all year long. Even in the summer months, you can find some clean waves out at Pismo or Morro Bay.
However, when the surf here REALLY comes to life, is in the fall and winter, when there are more W and NW swells.
The winds die down a lot in the fall/winter as well, and sometimes you can score glassy surf all day long.
- Summer: 54-60 degrees Fahrenheit
- Winter: 55-56 degrees Fahrenheit
- Fall: 56-60 degrees Fahrenheit
- Spring: 52-56 degrees Fahrenheit
The spring is the worst and coldest time to surf on the Central Coast, while the fall is the warmest.
The surf on the Central Coast generally isn’t very crowded, especially compared to Southern California.
In the summer, tourists flood in and the beaches are often crowded with large surf schools teaching beginners.
However, if you get out around 7am it generally isn’t too crowded, as the majority of tourists don’t make it to the beach until later in the day.
Typically, you can expect to share the lineup with at least a few other surfers. However, some of the beaches on the Central Coast are so long that you can usually always walk a few minutes down from the main break and find a peak to yourself.
Hazards of Central California surf
The Central Coast is home to an increasing population of White Sharks. While this is a good sign that the coastal ecosystems are healthy, it also presents more of a risk for surfers paddling out.
It’s good to keep in mind that sharks aren’t interested in us.
- Rough Surf:
Particularly during winter swells, the surf on the Central Coast can get a little rough. Never go out in surf above your ability, and make sure all your gear is in order before paddling out on big days- especially your surf leash!
While the Central Coast hosts mostly beach breaks, there are a few reef breaks like in Shell Beach where you need to be wary of rocks.
Best surf spots on the Central Coast of California
Pismo Beach is one of the most popular surf spots on the Central Coast. It’s a beach break, with mushy, yet fun waves.
The surf here is really dependent on how the sandbars are.
The best place to surf in Pismo is right on the North side of the pier, where a super clean left comes through.
The pier is also the most crowded place in Pismo to surf.
For more on Pismo, check out my in-depth Pismo Beach Surf Guide.
Morro Bay is a quaint fishing town located about 30 minutes north of Pismo. The main surf spots here are at Morro Rock, and on Morro Strand State Beach.
The Rock is a big beach break located directly north of Morro Rock.
You can expect fun rights and lefts here, and when the sandbars are in order the surf here can get GREAT.
It does tend to get pretty windy here, so this is a beach you really want to make it out early to.
The other main surf spot in Morro Bay is at Morro Strand State Beach.
Morro Strand is a 3 mile long sandy beach break with lefts and rights forming all over from the sandbars. It’s relatively uncrowded, and very exposed.
For more on Morro Bay surf, check out my in-depth Morro Bay surf guide.
Cayucos is a small coastal town a few miles north of Morro Bay. Cayucos State Beach is the northern continuation of Morro Strand State Beach, and runs for about 6 miles.
Along this stretch of coastline there are tons of beach breaks, and you can also surf off the Cayucos pier when the swell is right.
For more on the Cayucos surf, check out my in-depth Cayucos surf guide.
Big Sur is a magical 90 mile stretch of rugged coastline just north of SLO county.
It’s home to majestic redwoods, impressive cliffsides, and most importantly, epic surf!
This stretch of beach is incredibly exposed, and offers many waves to be explored.
The most popular and accessible surf beach is Sand Dollar Beach, and other highlights include Willow Creek and Andrew Molera.
There are many other spots ready to be explored, so long as you’re equipped with an adventurous spirit and 4WD.
For more on surfing Big Sur, check out my Big Sur surfing guide.
Santa Cruz is home to some of the best beaches in California for surfing.
Picture eipic point breaks, a rich history of surf culture, and consistent swells.
One of the best surf spots in Santa Cruz is Pleasure Point- home to long and fun, yet insanely crowded rights.
The Hook is a fun right hand point break located at Cliff Beach, although even that gets fairly crowded.
For a thrill, Steamer Lane gets big and heavy in the winter months- best left to advanced surfers.
Santa Cruz is notorious for having some of the worst localism out of any surf break in California. When I’ve surfed there, I’ve done my best to be respectful, only paddle out with one other person, and let the locals go first- I’ve never had an issue.
Surfing in Northern California
Northern California is much rougher than the rest of the state, home to cold waters, and heavy, desolate surf breaks.
Best season to surf in northern California
The best seasons to surf in northern California are going to be fall, winter, and spring, as that’s when the swells will be most consistent.
The water temperatures in northern California range from the high 40s at their coldest, and high 50s at their warmest.
As the California surf up here is not for the faint of heart, the crowds in Northern California tend to be pretty minimal.
- Powerful surf:
The waves in Northern California are no joke- breaks like Maverick and Ocean Beach are notorious for absolute monster waves.
- Marine life:
Northern California has a lot of wildlife, including lots of elephant seals, which attract white sharks. Mendocino in particular is known for its white shark population.
- Rocky beaches:
Some of the breaks in Northern California can be pretty rocky, which is something you definitely want to be aware of while surfing a remote break.
Best surf spots in Northern California
A powerful, world famous beach break located right in San Francisco.
It’s known for its big waves which can get up to 15 feet +. Not a surf spot for beginners.
Mavericks, Half Moon Bay is one of the biggest waves in the world. It requires the perfect combination of swell and wind to break well enough to ride, and is only suitable for trained, professional, big wave riders.
Salmon Creek is a big beefy beach break in Sonoma County. The waves come as a result of the rivermouth, and a sandbar that forms perpendicular to it.
It’s not a great surf break, but when the sandbar lines up and the right swells come in, it can get really fun.
The local vibe is pretty mellow here, although the shoulder burn of the paddle out is real.
Located in Mendocino, Point Arena is a rocky reef break. It usually doesn’t break with swells less than 6 feet.
It’s known for intense localism.
Surfing in California: Final Thoughts
That’s a wrap on my California surf guide!
If you’re planning a California surf trip- congratulations, you’re going to have a BLAST. I hope this guide provided you with some inspiration.
The best break was Dana Point before the marina was put in the late 50’s or early 60’s. When all of southern Calif was blown out due to size Dana would serve up 25′ & 30′ right side monsters. Believe it or not we had a local old school guy who some times would come out in his canvas canoe and catch some nice ones but not the real big ones.Surfing in a canoe was done only in Hawaii. Fiberglass kayaks weren’t invented yet. No one knew of the old grey bearded dude who was the only canoe sufer I ever knew of on the main land.
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