California is a surf destination like no other. It was here that surfing evolved from an ancient Hawaiian tradition to a cultural colossus that influenced music, fashion, and films. From the moment surfing first arrived in North America—in Santa Cruz in 1885—it struck a chord with adventurous sorts and eventually evolved into a popular lifestyle. It’s easy to understand the allure. Because, let’s face it: What’s cooler than surfing? You could spend a lifetime experiencing California surfing. (One perfect day to visit the Golden State is on Sept. 20 for California Surfing Day.) Meanwhile, here’s a quick introduction to California’s quintessential—and official—state sport.
A is for Aerial
The crowd-pleasing aerial is a maneuver during which the surfer lifts off from a wave crest, goes airborne, then returns to the wave face, ideally after executing spins or flips. They were inspired by ollies, a familiar skateboarding move.
B is for Bikinis and Boardshorts
Longer in length to protect against surfboard rails, boardshorts are functional and fashionable. For a classic version, try Huntington Beach–based Katin USA. Traditional bikinis aren’t suited for wave action, but surf bikinis employ form-fitting materials to guard against slippage.
C is for California Surf Museum
Close enough to Oceanside’s beach to hear the surf, the California Surf Museum, with its wave-shaped roofline, displays the board (complete with massive bite gouge) that Bethany Hamilton was riding when she was attacked by a shark. There’s also an exhibit tracing the evolution of board design—from 100-pound solid-wood dreadnoughts to today’s lightweight fiberglass shortboards.
D is for Divas
Along with the dudes there are divas: Twins Izzy and Coco Tihanyi launched Surf Diva Surf School in 1996 to introduce more women to wave riding. Open to both men and women, Surf Diva offers lessons and rentals at La Jolla Shores and Del Mar, and also operates a surf boutique just steps from La Jolla Shores.
E is for Encinitas
On the stretch of the San Diego coastal highway dubbed “Surf Route 101” in the 1964 song by The Super Stocks, Encinitas is the home of the fabled point break Swami’s. It gets its mystical moniker from Paramahansa Yogananda, the Indian guru who created the Self-Realization Fellowship Encinitas Temple, a spiritual retreat atop the bluffs that’s notable for its gardens.
F is for Fish Tacos
It’s the original Cali-Baja cuisine. Many surfers discovered fish tacos in Ensenada and San Felipe during wave-seeking quests in Baja. While there are now endless variations, the original fish taco consists of a white fish fried in a light, tempura-style batter and served on a pair of corn tortillas, with shredded cabbage, a sour cream–based sauce, and salsa. Spray of lime highly recommended.
G is for Gidget
Before the movie Gidget (Sandra Dee) and the television show Gidget (Sally Field), there was Kathy Kohner—the real-life Gidget. Tales of days on Malibu’s beaches inspired her father Frederick Kohner, an Academy Award–nominated screenwriter, to write the 1957 novel about his daughter’s adventures that helped launch the surfing craze. Stop into Duke’s of Malibu, where Kathy serves as the restaurant’s “ambassador of aloha.”
H is for Hotels
In the old days if you wanted to stay close to the waves, you just slept right on the beach. These days there’s no need to rough it, not with such stylish surf-centric California hotels as Tower23 at Pacific Beach in San Diego, Surfhouse in Encinitas, Surf & Sand Laguna Beach, the Kimpton Shorebreak Huntington Beach Resort, and the Dream Inn on Cowell’s Beach in Santa Cruz.
I is for International Surfing Museum
Surfing legends George Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku helped introduce the sport to Huntington Beach. The International Surfing Museum honors these icons with displays of their boards, while outside a true longboard—42 feet in length, 1,300 pounds, and once surfed by 66 people simultaneously—just begs for selfies.
J is for Jack O’Neill
The late surfer and entrepreneur is generally considered the inventor of the neoprene wetsuit (though others claim the honor). Before moving to Santa Cruz in 1952, O’Neill also opened what is believed to be the world’s first surf shop in San Francisco. The O’Neill Surf Shop in Capitola displays vintage boards and one of his earliest wetsuits.
K is for Kelly Slater
Considered surfing’s G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time), Kelly Slater helped invent a machine that generates a “perfect” wave at the WSL Surf Ranch in the Central Valley town of Lemoore, near the Sierra Nevada foothill cities of Visalia and Fresno.
L is for Laguna Beach
From Brooks Street to Rockpile to Thalia Street, Laguna Beach offers a wide variety of surfing options. If you’re just starting out, consider Thalia Street, which features approachable waves. If you want to watch and gawk, head to Rockpile and marvel at its perfect—and quite challenging—break.
M is for Mollusk Surf Shop
With stores in San Francisco, Silver Lake, and Venice Beach, the Mollusk Surf Shop bridges the chasm between these regions by celebrating surf culture and offering a big selection of boards, whether you’re planning to take on a monster wave or just want a long, gentle ride.
N is for Noseriding
An artful maneuver, noseriding involves riding on the front tip of the board. Considered one of surfing’s classic disciplines, it is gaining in popularity and has spawned its own competitions. "Hanging ten" is the best-known variant, which is most typically performed on longboards in smaller waves.
O is for Outerknown
Cofounded by none other than Kelly Slater, Culver City–based Outerknown brings together surf style and sustainability. The enlightened brand seeks not only to protect the environment but also the workers who make its clothing. Among Outerknown’s eco-friendly methods, the company uses Econyl, a nylon yarn made from old fishing nets, in its boardshorts.
P is for Point Break
If ever a film could be both the best and worst surfing movie of all time, it would be Point Break. Keanu Reeves stars as a former college quarterback and now undercover FBI agent Johnny Utah alongside Patrick Swayze as Bodhi, a surfer-mystic and leader of a gang of bank robbers. You won't forget immortal dialogue, like “I caught my first tube today—sir!”
Q is for Quiksilver
From its humble origins in Australia, Huntington Beach–based Quiksilver grew into a surfwear giant, spinning off the women’s line Roxy and sponsoring World Surf League competitions. The brand lives by this credo: “We believe boardriding is a universal source of fun, freedom, and natural energy, so powerful it transforms lives.”
R is for Rincon
It takes a special wave to inspire the title of “Queen of the Coast.” Indeed this point break along the Santa Barbara-Ventura county line produces some of the country’s very best waves during its prime winter season. Author William Finnegan rejected the “Queen” branding, instead de-scribing Rincon as “…the best wave in California, a long, hollow, wintertime right of astonishing quality.” In nearby Carpinteria, find board designs and Rincon-branded gear at Rincon Designs Surf Shop—even if you only watch from shore.
S is for Santa Cruz
Regarded as the birthplace of mainland surfing thanks to a day in 1885 when a trio of Hawaiian princes fashioned boards out of redwood planks, Santa Cruz remains a major American surfing capital. For viewing, you can’t beat the natural amphitheater that overlooks Steamer Lane. And in a lighthouse atop the point at Steamer, the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum honors the local heritage.
T is for Tarantulas at Jalama Beach County Park
No beach is farther off Highway 1, but plenty of surfers drive the 14-mile detour in Santa Barbara County when there are south-southwest swells at the break known as Tarantulas. And a fair portion of those surfers fuel their sessions with California's quintessential Jalama Burgers.
U is for U.S. Open of Surfing
The world’s largest surf competition at Huntington Beach Pier is a weeklong celebration of all things surf and more—with concerts, art exhibitions, and skateboarding and BMX demonstrations, all free to the public.
V is for Venice
Not far from the bizarre bazaar that is the Venice Beach boardwalk, on winter days with west-northwest swells you’ll find surprisingly good waves at Breakwater, Venice’s primo spot. Serious surfers should check out the boards crafted by Venice-based master shaper Guy Okazaki.
W is for The Wedge
Gnarly doesn’t even begin to describe the mayhem unleashed in Newport Beach when summer south swells reach the jetty at the end of the Balboa Peninsula, bringing to life the Frankenstein monster of a wave at The Wedge. A world-class bodysurfing and bodyboarding spot, The Wedge’s waves can reach 30 feet. Not safe for newbies but quite a show from shore.
X is for X Games
Surfing debuted at the X Games with a 2003 competition in Huntington Beach. It is now a part of the Olympic Games after its debut at the 2020 Games in Tokyo, Japan. Italo Ferreira and Carissa Moore were the first gold medalists.
Y is for You Should Have Been Here an Hour Ago
Surf literature hit the big time when William Finnegan won a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. An earlier classic, You Should Have Been Here an Hour Ago, is the 1967 autobiography of Oceanside’s Phil Edwards, named “one of the 25 Most Influential Surfers of the Century” in 1999 by Surfer magazine.
Z is for Zinc Oxide
Long before SPF 100+, surfers relied on zinc oxide for sun protection. While guarding against the effects of UV rays is important to anyone who spends a lot of time in the water, chemical-based sunscreens are harmful to coral reefs. Mineral-based protections aren’t perfect but they’re better. Also, look for sunscreens that are identified as micro-sized or non-nano to further reduce impacts on the marine environment.