Don’t worry: no secret spots were harmed in the making of this article. Thanks to the internet surf cams and the coast-hugging 101 Freeway and Pacific Coast Highway, it’s not hard to find good waves from the Mexican Border to Ventura. Crowds are inevitable, but with a good attitude and a smile, it’s still possible to paddle out and score some fun ones. Here are the Top 10 Best (non-secret) Surf Spots in Southern California, from south to north:
- Sunset Cliffs, South San Diego
If you want to grab a glimpse of California before the sprawl, park by Point Loma, pack a lunch, and make the hike down to Sunset Cliffs. The reefs and points like a West/Northwest swell, so your best wave bet is for Autumn and Winter (though it can get fun in the summer). Respect the locals; most of them are third-generation dudes and dudettes for whom this place is like their living room. If you have extra cash and like haunted, historical places, book a room at the Hotel del Coronado. Built in 1888, the hotel sits across the water from Point Loma and has plenty of ghost stories! There’s a fun beach break in front of the hotel if you like bodysurfing.
Tucked between the college party town of Pacific Beach and the posh La Jolla, sits the reefbreak that is Windansea. This place is steeped in surf tradition and lore; dudes like Skip Frye, Mickey Munoz, and Bruce Brown (The Endless Summer) were all card-carrying members of the Windansea Surf Club back in the day. Today, the driftwood shack still stands, gazing out upon the perfect waves that break year-round on swells of any size or direction. If big, throaty barrels are your thing, take a walk south along the sugary sand and test your mettle at Big Rock. Local enforcement is in full effect here, look before you drop in.
This is the place to be on a big Northwest swell. It’s pretty easy to find; just look for the gold domes of the Self-Realization Fellowship, built for Swami Paramahansa Yogananda in 1937. The crowd factor is gnarly, but the vibe is generally mellow. It’s a right, but you can snag some fun lefts that race towards the point. Encinitas is the quintessential SoCal beach town with no shortage of hippies, yippies, spandex-clad crossfit women, Mexican food stands, and organic/vegan cafes. Get some waves, grab a burrito and a beer, and watch the sunset from atop the cliff.
Trestles is the Disneyland of Surfing…fun for the whole family. It’s a 20-minute walk from the parking lot, but worth it. Upper Trestles and Lower Trestles offer some of the best shortboarding waves you’ll find in California. Further down south is Old Man’s, a perfect spot for, well, old men on fat longboards. Old Man’s is a primo beginner surf spot, like California’s version of Waikiki. This spot used to be off limits when Richard Nixon lived here in his “Western White House.” Ask one of the old dudes in the lineup to tell you about how he used to sneak past the armed MPs to get some Trestles perfection. You’ll forget you’re in the middle of Orange County’s chronic sprawl as you walk along the dirt path surrounded by trees and the San Mateo Creek gurgling by. Oh yeah, watch out for the train! It sneaks up on you pretty quick.
- Newport Jetties/The Wedge
Bars, restaurants, house parties, yachts…and waves. Newport is for the surfer who wishes college never ended. Rent a beach house and a bike with a surfboard rack and you’re set. Summer is the best season for “Newps” as the south swells are pulsing in and everyone is partying. The waves are all beach breaks, except for Newport Point which can resemble Pipeline on a big south swell. And then, of course, is The Wedge, a demonic, mutant wave that destroys everything that comes before it. When the Army Corps of Engineers built Newport Harbor’s west entrance jetty in 1916, they had no idea they were creating a monster. On a south swell, the first wave of a set bounces off the jetty and runs parallel to shore. The next wave in the set collides with this wave and jacks up to heights of over 20 feet. It’s worth driving up Balboa Boulevard to watch the circus that is surfers, bodyboarders, and bodysurfers doing their best to become paralyzed.
- Huntington Beach
Surf City, U.S.A. (unless you’re from Norcal and claim this title for Santa Cruz). A long stretch of sand beach breaks punctuated by a pier with a Ruby’s Diner at the end. Don’t worry if you forgot something at home; you can find every surf shop/brand crammed into a two block area along Main Street. The U.S. Open of Surfing makes an annual stop here in July for a party of epic proportions. Bands, bikinis, beers, halfpipes, and pro surfers galore! This is the yin to the soul surfer’s yang.
- Haggerty’s/Palos Verde Peninsula
Haggerty’s is a perfect, left pointbreak on the north side of Palos Verdes Peninsula. Leave your attitude and your friends at home unless you want to return to a car sagging on slashed tires. But if you paddle out with humility, you’ll score some of the best lefts in California. Upper Haggerty’s is a performance wave best suited for shortboards. Lower Haggerty’s is easier to get into but still has perfect shape. Put on a show for the millionaires watching from the mansions on the cliffs.
“The ‘Bu” is where it all began (and ended, depending on whom you talk to). Miki “Da Cat” Dora and friends had this place to themselves before the Baby Boomers descended upon it with Frankie Avalon Beach Blanket Bingo movies and Gidget. The flawless right pointbreak would prove all too accessible to Hollywood just down the coast, thus resulting in a break that is as crowded as the PCH that leads to it. But hey, it still has its days, and if you get down there early enough to get a parking spot you just might get a wave to yourself. Summer south swells work best here, and if you don’t catch many waves, you might at least catch a glimpse of a movie star.
The “mile long closeout” sometimes lives up to its name. But sometimes you’ll find some hollow corners all to yourself. Public access abounds; just pull up and paddle out. Ironically, this is a “family” beach, but the seasoned lifeguards will tell you this spot has some of the gnarliest riptides in California. Best on a big south swell with Santa Ana winds blowing smoke off the backs. Plenty of peaks and plenty of barrels. Post-session grubs to be had at Trancas Market and the adjacent Starbucks.
- California Street
The last spot north to be considered “Southern California.” C-Street likes a northwest swell, but fires on a southwest swell in the Cove. Bring your longboard for The Cove or your shortboard for Ventura Point, a couple of hundred yards north. California Street offers something for everyone, from the beginner to the pro. Head to any of the micropubs a walk away from the break for post-session grubs and libations. This is your last chance to enjoy Socal before the water turns cold, sharky, localized, and relatively inaccessible.