From the balmy shores of San Diego to the chilly waters of Northern California, the Golden State’s coastline offers the allure of perfect waves for every type of surfer. In August 2018, the state assembly voted overwhelmingly to enshrine surfing as California’s official sport. A new holiday was even created to commemorate the cowabunga-inspired moment—September 20 is California Surfing Day. Here’s a look at California’s memorable surfing spots, whether you want to catch a wave yourself or observe some of the world’s best surfers.
Windansea Beach, La Jolla
This classic La Jolla reef break solidified its place in wave history in 1937, when surfing pioneer Woody Brown first rode here. Since then, the famed wave has become one of the most well-known in San Diego County, and even appeared in Andy Warhol’s 1967 film, San Diego Surf. Windansea’s wave can be sizable (ranging from 2–10 feet) and conditions tend to be unpredictable. Because of its difficulty—along with its reputation for being a competitive atmosphere—it best suits skilled surfers. Beginners may feel more comfortable at the calmer La Jolla Shores.
Part of Swami’s State Marine Conservation Area, this classic right point break in Encinitas(honored as one of the world’s top 20 surf towns by National Geographic) gets its name from the golden, lotus-shaped towers of the Self-Realization Fellowship high on the bluffs. You don’t have to be a pro to ride Swami’s but it’s most suitable for intermediate skill levels and up. The fellowship grounds provide a nice perspective on the waves corduroying the ocean below, plus the gardens are positively gorgeous.
Trestles (San Onofre State Beach), San Clemente
A series of point breaks named for the railroad bridge over San Mateo Creek, Trestles proves that when it comes to waves, size isn’t everything. To get here you have to hike from the San Onofre State Beach parking lot, and you’ll be glad you did. The waves are some of the most gorgeous you’ll find anywhere—world-class faces that some have claimed are the mainland’s best. Newbies should surrender the prime breaks to advanced surfers and look for more gentle stretches along the state beach.
The Wedge, Newport Beach
The Wedge should have been rightly named “The Beast.” After all, Newport Beach’s world-famous bodysurfing and bodyboarding wave is an absolute animal. It forms during south swells when waves refract off the rock jetty, then slam into a second incoming wave. The result? Thirty-foot-high mutant waves and all sorts of aquatic mayhem best observed from the safety of shore.
Huntington Beach Pier, Huntington Beach
With a pedigree that dates back a century to demonstrations by such Hawaiian surfing legends as George Freeth and Duke Kahanomoku, the pier at Huntington State Beach is perhaps Southern California’s holiest surf shrine. And as the site of the Vans US Open of Surfing, it remains a hub for American surfing. Depending on the day, even beginners can surf where such champions as Andy Irons and Kelly Slater triumphed. Across Pacific Coast Highway, you’ll find a pair of surfing superstores: Jack’s Surfboards (around since 1957) and Huntington Surf & Sport.
Surfrider Beach, Malibu
If you need evidence of Surfrider Beach’s significance, consider the fact that this right cobblestone point break at Malibu Lagoon State Beach was honored as the first World Surfing Reserve by the Save the Waves Coalition. It’s no wonder. The waves are virtually perfect, the likes of Miki (Da Cat) Dora surfed here, and Surfrider played a pivotal role as surfing moved into the cultural mainstream (thank you, Gidget). Surfrider isn’t for beginners but this is a wave to aspire to.
Rincon Point, Carpinteria
Dubbed the “Queen of the Coast” and described by surf historian Matt Warshaw as “America’s gold-standard point break,” Rincon straddles the border of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. The waves are so good during winter swells that Surfline.com concluded, “Some spots serve as undeniable proof that our Creator was a surfer.” If you’re driving on U.S. 101 and see a crowded line-up, pull off to watch the action. And in Carpinteria, Rincon Designs (659 Linden Ave.; 805-684-2413) is worth a stop for its branded clothing and surfboards crafted by master shaper Matt Moore.
Pismo Beach Pier, Pismo Beach
A classic beach town needs a classic wave and in Pismo Beach, you’ll find outstanding surfing on both sides of the landmark pier. Much of the time the waves here are suitable for beginners but are also high enough in quality to host the World Surf League Qualifying Series Pismo Beach Open in October.
Asilomar State Beach, Pacific Grove
While ephemeral Ghost Tree off Pebble Beach is Monterey County’s biggest and most notorious wave, Asilomar State Beach offers a much safer and consistent option for mere mortals. Asilomar is usually pretty mellow but it can get pumping on occasion, so check conditions. And when you need to warm up and refuel, just head over to Phoebe’s Café at the Asilomar Conference Grounds for a cup of coffee.
Steamer Lane, Santa Cruz
The cliffs overlooking this Santa Cruz spot, named for the steam boats that once chugged along the shoreline, form a natural amphitheater for catching all the action on the four breaks down below. Unless you have some skills, you might want to stick to the cliffs, where the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum commemorates local surf history. (The sport debuted on the U.S. mainland in Santa Cruz in 1885, when three Hawaiian princes rode the local waves on redwood boards.)
Mavericks, Half Moon Bay
A longtime local secret in Half Moon Bay and now the most famous wave anywhere on the mainland, Mavericks comes by its renown honestly. Celebrated in books, documentaries, and the feature film Chasing Mavericks, waves at this San Francisco Peninsula surfers’ mecca can rise to 80-foot faces when conditions are right (if this sounds a little too epic, head for the nearby Surfer’s Beach, which is perfect for beginners). Jeff Clark pioneered Mavericks (which was named for his dog) and you’ll find hoodies and other cool gear at his Mavericks Surf Company.