The best breaks of SoCal: Secret and not-so-secret surf spots
If we're being realistic, many of SoCal's 'secret' surf spots aren't so secret anymore. Thanks to streaming surf cams and long stretches of ocean-hugging road like the 101 and Pacific Coast highways, spotting great breaks from the Mexican border to Ventura is a cinch.
Crowds can be inevitable sometimes (especially in the summer when lineups get long), but with the right vibes and etiquette, it’s still possible to paddle out and score some fun rides. Here are SoCal's 10 best beaches for surfing—on waves with locals and tourists alike.
1. Swamis, Encinitas
Swami's, the internationally-admired surf spot in Encinitas, San Diego County, is the place to be during a big Northwest swell. It’s pretty easy to find—just keep your eyes peeled for the gold domes of the Self-Realization Fellowship, built in 1937 for Indian yogi and guru Swami Paramahansa Yogananda. The crowd factor at Swami's is gnarly, but the vibe is generally mellow. It’s a right break, but you can snag some fun lefts that race towards the point. Encinitas is a 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 the clifftop.
2. Huntington Beach
A long stretch of breaks punctuated by a pier with a Ruby’s Diner at the end, Huntington Beach is Surf City, U.S.A. (unless you’re from NorCal and claim this title for Santa Cruz). Don’t worry if you forgot something at home; every surf shop and brand you can think of is crammed into two blocks 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 place is the yin to the soul surfer’s yang.
3. Sunset Cliffs, San Diego
For experienced surfers who aren't intimidated by a few rocks, pack a lunch, park by Point Loma, and hike down to Sunset Cliffs in South San Diego. A west/northwest swell is ideal due to the reefs and points, so your best bet for waves is during fall and winter (though it can be fun in the summer, too). A good rule of thumb: Respect the locals. Most of them are third-generation dudes and dudettes for whom this place is like their living room. If you're visiting from out of town, have some extra cash, and enjoy the thrill of staying in a haunted place, book a room at the gorgeous and conveniently located Hotel del Coronado. Built in 1888, it sits right on the sand and has plenty of tales to keep ghost hunters entertained. Plus, there’s a fun beach break in front of the hotel for bodysurfing.
4. Newport Jetties
Bars, restaurants, house parties, yachts…and waves. Newport is the place for surfers who wish 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 has aptly been described as "one of those 'Moby Dick'-style waves. Elusive. Mythical. Legendary." And then, of course, there is the infamous 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, jacking the crest up to heights of more than 20 feet. It’s worth driving up Balboa Boulevard to watch the brave circus that is surfers, bodyboarders, bodysurfers and even stand-up paddle boarders doing their best to become paralyzed.
“The ’Bu” is where it all began (and ended, depending on whom you talk to). Miki “Da Cat” Dora (a.k.a. the original iconoclast of mainstream surfing) and friends had this place to themselves before the Baby Boomers descended upon it with Frankie Avalon "Beach Blanket Bingo" movies and "Gidget." Alas, the flawless right point break 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.
6. Windansea, La Jolla
Windansea, tucked between posh La Jolla and party-town Pacific Beach, is steeped in surf tradition and lore. Dudes like Skip Frye, Mickey Munoz, and Bruce Brown (from the classic surf documentary “The Endless Summer”) were all card-carrying members of the Windansea Surf Club back in the day. Decades later, the iconic palm-covered driftwood shack built in 1946 by local surfers 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, so be sure to look before you drop in.
7. California Street, Ventura
The northernmost spot still 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 hundred yards north. California Street offers something for everyone, from beginners to pros. Stroll to any of the micropubs, like Anacapa Brewing Company, for post-session grubs and libations. This is your last chance to enjoy SoCal before the water turns cold, sharky, localized, and relatively inaccessible.
8. Haggerty’s, Torrance
Haggerty’s is a perfect left point break 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. And be sure to put on a show: Millionaires watch from their mansions on the cliffs.
9. Zuma, Malibu
The “mile long closeout” often lives up to its name. But once in a while, you’ll find some hollow corners of Zuma all to yourself. Public access abounds—just pull up and paddle out. Ironically, this beach is touted as family-friendly, but the seasoned lifeguards will tell you this spot has some of the gnarliest riptides in the state. It’s best on a big south swell with Santa Ana winds blowing smoke off the backs—plenty of peaks and plenty of barrels.
10. Trestles, San Clemente
Alternatively, Trestles—a collection of surf spots at San Onofre State Beach–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 all of 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. It 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. Oh yeah, watch out when crossing the train tracks—the locomotives sneak up on you pretty quick.