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Guide to Surfing the California Coast

Guide to Surfing the California Coast

California. The birthplace of modern surf culture. All the stereotypes are true. People say “dude” too many times in a conversation with a heavy California accent. Navigating the California coast for waves reveals an intriguing surf culture filled with intriguing contradictions. Amongst lineups bustling with surfers donning brands like Ripcurl, Billabong, Patagonia, and Quicksilver, the irony of striving to seem nonchalant about brand spending is evident. Despite the occasional tensions in crowded waves and the paradoxical fashion statements, the undeniable truth persists: California’s shores host exceptional waves awaiting eager riders.

The best part about a surf trip to California is that, unlike heading to Hawaii or Indonesia, there aren’t many waves an intermediate surfer couldn’t ride. There aren’t many hollow waves or sharp reefs, nor are there secret spots all to yourself—unless you want to brave the scary and rugged Northern California coast.

Here are the 5 best breaks to surf on a trip to California:

1. Cardiff-by-the-Sea: Surfing The California Coast

Surfing Cardiff by the Sea, Surfing the California Coast
Classic Cardiff ritual

Ocean floor: Reef

Wave direction: Right and left

We’ve surfed world-class breaks all around the world but when people ask what my favorite break is, I still say Cardiff. The entire stretch from Swami’s to Solana Beach holds a pristine reef that can pump out some awesome peaks.

The breaks can vary in shape from north to south…

It’s not too often that you’ll see a long border out at George’s, the furthest south break, where the peak stands up a bit more steeply.

At Cardiff Reef, where the south end of the campground meets the river mouth, you’ll find a pristine point break where SUPs, longboarders, and semi-pro surfers hog all the waves.

At Swami’s there will be cruisey longboard waves on the small days or huge A-frames on large swells.

Then there are the fun peaky breaks all along San Elijo State Beach. This is always my favorite place to go because the waves are almost always good and the crowds don’t get too crazy. It’s the best bang for your buck as far as the epic wave: crowd ratio goes.

And finally, there’s the stretch between Cardiff Reef and George’s. This is the place to go if you’re seeking tube time and the peaky corners aren’t doing it for you.

Related: Outdoor Adventure Guide to San Diego

2. Steamer Lane/ Pleasure Point, Santa Cruz: Surfing The California Coast

Surfing Santa Cruz, Surfing the California Coast
Gabi tearing up a fast little right-hander at Steamer Lane

Ocean floor: Reef

Wave direction: Rights

I’d been wanting to surf here for years until finally, last April, we took a road trip up to the world-famous surf break. So famous that while surfing in the water, streams of tourists kept coming up to the railing to take a photo of “the famous surfing spot” as one tourist said.

If you’re brave enough to enter the 40-something-degree water, this will be one of the best waves you’ll ever surf. You don’t have to be a pro to surf this wave and the localism is not as bad as you hear, though it is slightly present at the furthest right peak. Otherwise, people were super friendly and shared the waves.

Steamer consists of two peaks, though when a good set comes in the two peaks combine.

The north peak is for more experienced surfers as it is a faster takeoff and can be a better and longer wave. Be warned that there is a teensy bit of localism so as usual, respect the locals. Again, best for experienced surfers since there is a big cliff jutting out into the ocean at the North Peak. Mess up on the takeoff and could be splashed against the cliff.

The south peak is a more longboard-friendly takeoff but is still a nice fast once you’re up. I love how the wave at Steamer is fast on your board so you can make some fun maneuvers but you don’t have to race the corner.

Pleasure Point is another option if it’s too big for you at Steamer. The vibe is even more chill at Pleasure Point unless there’s a huge swell, so if you’re not feeling up to an aggressive lineup, head here.

Related: Best Women’s Wetsuits for Surfing

3. Oceanside: Surfing The California Coast

Surfing Oceanside, Surfing the California Coast
Perfect peak rolling through Oceanside just north of the pier
Photo credit and copyright Surfing Waves

Ocean floor: Beachbreak

Wave direction: Lefts and rights

Many pro and amateur surf competitions are held here for a reason.  From the Harbor to the Pier there are plenty of fun waves for anyone to have fun. The South Harbor Jetty is my personal favorite where a fast left hits the jetty on the north side and the same as a right on the south side.

The vibe can be competitive when it’s good, but usually, the crowd spreads out, giving everyone a good shot at getting waves.

South of the pier is also a very good and varying wave depending on tides. At full tide, it’s fat and slow corners, while at low tide, it’s fast and rampy.

Related: The Best Surf Spots in Europe

4. Lower & Upper Trestles, San Clemente: Surfing The California Coast

Surfing Trestles, Surfing the California Coast
Hiking down the iconic Trestles train tracks to surf Lowers

Ocean floor: Reef rocky

Wave direction: Rights and lefts at Lowers; rights at Uppers

Trestles is made up of 4 breaks: Cotton, Uppers, Lowers, and Churches.  Upper lowers are the most famous and are the epitome of a competitive lineup but there’s a reason. There aren’t many better rights around (Steamer is one of the better). Fast, holds up, and has moderately warm water.

The only better option for surfing Uppers or Lowers would be if you got lucky with a reservation at San Onofre Campground.  Here, the waves are nearly as good and the crowds are significantly smaller.

Military personnel can camp at Churches or you can take the long walk in to get here.  We liked surfing Cottons, as it was less crowded and still packed a fun punch.

Related: Guide to Surfing Portugal

5. C-Street/Ventura Point, Ventura: Surfing The California Coast

Surfing Ventura, Surfing the California Coast
Walking out along the rocks to surf Ventura Point

Ocean floor: Reef rocky

Wave direction: Rights

C-Street AKA Ventura Point is a right that, at times, has been known to stream an entire mile across the bay.

If you’re sitting at the point you’re technically sitting at Ventura Point. C-Street lies a bit further into the bay, the name for the access point’s street name.

While it can get epic here, there are lot of days where it’s still good but certainly not epic. Though a reef, this wave can be helpfully shifty at times dispersing the waves among the crowds.

Ventura can of course vary with swell but overall this wave has an easy takeoff, big open corner, and depending on swell, can be great for any size board.

6. Rincon: Surfing The California Coast

Surfing Rincon, Surfing the California Coast
The Queen doing her thing
Photo credit and copyright Woody Woodworth via Surfer Magazine

Ocean floor: Reef

Wave direction: Rights

Rincon, AKA "The Queen," is one of the most epic rights in the world if you can manage to snag a wave. Like all famous waves, getting a wave amongst the crowds is usually the hard part.

The tough thing about Rincon's crowds is the utter perfection of the wave. Because the wave goes on so flawlessly down the bay, the guys who catch waves right on the peak are gonna stay on the wave the whole way to shore. There aren't waves that break inside so you have to either fight for a wave on the peak with the big boys or hope that someone falls off the wave before it ends and you can snag before the next guy does. 

Bonus- Pacific Beach, San Diego: Surfing The California Coast

Surfing San Diego, Surfing the California Coast
Even if the waves aren't firing, the beautiful stretch of coastline as seen from the water is worth a paddle

Ocean floor: Beachbreak

Wave direction: Rights and Lefts

While this may not world-class break, it can deliver a lot of fun and it's usually where I choose to surf in San Diego when it's too small in Cardiff.  While the whitewash is popular among surf schools for teaching beginners, the outside breaks are peaky and can be long depending on the swell size and direction.  

Typically it's better on a fuller tide, and if the tide gets too low or the swell is too big, head north a few hundred yards to Tourmaline a.k.a. "Old Man's" where the long boarders and a hundred of their closest friends congregate.  Or if you are looking for a faster, steeper wave, head south to the pier and try your hand at the fast little left.

Related blogs:

Ever surfed the California coast? Let us know your favorite break in the comments section below!

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Tuesday 4th of January 2022

Thank you for this fantastic guide! This is extremely helpful. There is no better way to relax body and soul than to go for a surf trip. To those who are new in surfing , consider checking this list out to help you get started:


Monday 6th of September 2021

Rincon all d way...

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Monday 17th of September 2018

[…] surfing blogs: Best women’s wetsuits, Guide to surfing the world’s longest lefts, Surfing the california coast, Guide to surfing Bali, and Beginner and Intermediate’s guide to surf spots in […]


Monday 30th of July 2018

Very nice and informative post. I really enjoy your point of view on Surf Trip.

Outdoor Adventure Guide to San Diego • Nomads With A Purpose

Wednesday 31st of January 2018

[…] for learning to surf, and cruiser waves at Old Man’s (Tourmaline Surf Park).  Read our blog Guide to Surfing the California Coast for more info on PB and Cardiff.  Be sure to grab a scone at Brick and Bell, they’re the best […]

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