Where the swell is up: 13 epic surf spots in the U.S.

October 15, 2015                 6m read time
Kristen Bailey


No matter the season, you’ll find your endless summer—and in one case, your endless winter—at these classic surf towns and hidden beaches. From legendary spots in Santa Cruz to Ke’ei, Hawaii's best-kept secret, the varied coastlines along America’s shores produce a range of epic barrel waves and mellow beach breaks. Below are our top picks for all levels.

 

1. Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, North Carolina

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, North Carolina Bryan Elkus

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, North Carolina

Bryan Elkus

 

The 12-story lighthouse on Cape Hatteras, which you’ll find just north of Cape Point, is a destination in itself, but the waves here are the main draw for surfers from all over: The barreling, beachbreak beauties are some of the most consistent waves on the East Coast. The shoals and sandbars offshore and the ever-changing currents make for some diverse and challenging swells, so beginners may be better off riding the smaller waves at nearby Ocracoke Island. Since there’s no town behind the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the night sky is a spectacular sight. Enjoy the stars without any light pollution, then head over to nearby Kill Devil Hills, a tiny surf town, for some homestyle Tex Mex at Food Dudes Kitchen.

2. Paia, Hawaii

Colorful surfboards lined up along a fence in Maui EQRoy

Colorful surfboards lined up along a fence in Maui

EQRoy

 

Situated on Maui’s North Shore, Paia is a small, easy-going surf town inhabited by an eclectic mix of spiritually enlightened hippies, sturdy health food nuts, and eccentric artists. Paia’s soft, white sands and consistent swells beckon the pros during the winter months, when the waves are of the gigantic variety. Nearby are the more challenging waves of Ho’okipa, Honoloa Bay, and Jaws, but if you’re looking for those of the satisfying beachbreak variety, this is where you’ll find ‘em. Just a stone’s throw from the center of town, Paia’s shoreline is a good place to try your hand at windsurfing, kite surfing, and wave jumping as well. Just be sure to spend at least a little time on land, perusing the town’s many unique boutiques.

3. Yakutat, Alaska

Sunrise at Hubbard Glacier Alaska in Yakutat Luis Boucault

Sunrise at Hubbard Glacier Alaska in Yakutat

Luis Boucault

 

What makes this small, remote village on the Gulf of Alaska one of the most unique surf spots in the world—and a favorite haunt of the pros—is that you have to clomp through snow to get to the water, which, as you can imagine, is icy cold—we’re talking 38 degrees in January and just 50 degrees in August. But once you’re over the initial shock, you’ll find consistently awesome waves that top out around 20 feet, and you’ll be surfing against the backdrop of the 17,000-foot Saint Elias Mountains. You’ll need a wetsuit, gloves, and booties, which you can find at Yakutat’s only surf shop, aptly named Icy Waves.

4. Santa Cruz, California

Surfers walking to the water in Santa Cruz, California Steve Holderfield

Surfers walking to the water in Santa Cruz, California

Steve Holderfield

 

Set against the backdrop of formidable sea cliffs, Santa Cruz is Northern California’s nerve center for surfers, hosting a number of esteemed surfing events each year, including the O’Neill Coldwater Classic and the International Longboard Association contest. Beginners should start out gentle at Cowell’s, which features textbook longboarding waves. If you’re an experienced surfer looking for a challenge, hit the famed Steamer Lane, the most thrilling—and, when the powerful swell is up, the most dangerous—place to paddle out. Alternatively, try scenic Natural Bridges, which sometimes has conditions similar to Steamer Lane, but without the heavy crowds and extreme localism. If you’re in the need for gear, visit the family-owned Freeline Surf Shop, which has a knowledgeable and helpful staff of die-hard surfing enthusiasts.

5. Ke’ei, Hawaii

Aerial shot of Kealakekua Bay, near Ke’ei Beach in Hawaii Vlad Turchenko

Aerial shot of Kealakekua Bay, near Ke’ei Beach in Hawaii

Vlad Turchenko

 

The Big Island is packed to the hilt with beautiful sights, but for surfers, its beauty lies in Ke’ei, the virtually unknown fishing beach that most tourists only end up finding after their GPS fails them. Thanks to the 300-foot long underwater reef, the waves at Ke’ei are pretty consistent, and they’re of the fast, steep, and barreling variety. Most are left-hand waves that can last 400 yards or more, and they’re ideal for both longboarding and shortboarding. Post-surfing, refuel at Ke’ei Cafe. The mom & pop spot concocts the best coconut shrimp this side of the Mississippi.

6. Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina

Surfer riding a wave at Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina Sirena Designs

Surfer riding a wave at Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina

Sirena Designs

 

From August to October, during the height of hurricane season, Wrightsville Beach in Southeastern North Carolina is a good place to either develop your surfing legs or brush up on your existing skills, thanks to its warm waters, and consistent mix of both close- and far-breaking waves. The area’s chill vibe and polite Southern hospitality will make you feel right at home among the locals—from the cool kids breakfasting at Causeway Cafe to the old fishermen who cast lines off the beach’s wooden piers. Wrightsville Beach is home to the annual East Coast Wahine Surf Classic Championship and offers 4 miles of wide, open beaches with rolling dunes that will ensure the non-surfers in your party have a good time, too.

7. Haleiwa, Hawaii

Stephanie Gilmore competes in the Cholo's Women's Hawaiian Pro on November 17, 2010, at Haleiwa Beach, Hawaii.  Mana Photo

Stephanie Gilmore competes in the Cholo's Women's Hawaiian Pro on November 17, 2010, at Haleiwa Beach, Hawaii. 

Mana Photo

 

On the north shore of Oahu, just an hour’s drive from Waikiki, stretches a beach known as the 7-Mile Miracle, where pros come from around the world to challenge the waves.  Considered by many to be the surfing capital of the world, Haleiwa is where legendary surfer Eddie Aikua first took to the waves. However, it’s not recommended for beginners during the winter months, when 50-foot swells are common. Summertime brings friendlier waves, and those who don’t surf will enjoy snorkeling in the clear waters. Experienced surfers should try Ali’i Beach Park, which has consistent waves, but beginners and kids should stay inside the break and work the long, rolling waves.

8. Ruggles, Rhode Island

Surfboards at on the beach in Newport, Rhode Island slack12 Follow

Surfboards at on the beach in Newport, Rhode Island

slack12 Follow

 

In the small Rhode Island town of Newport, ride year round at Ruggles, where consistent, huge waves are known for barreling up. During hurricane season, the waves get even bigger, and surfers come from all over to enjoy the bounty. There’s a stretch of exposed reef breaks far out, and there are a few areas punctuated by big rocks where only experienced surfers should venture. The best time to surf here is from late summer to the end of hurricane season. After beating the swells into submission, be sure to stop at the Black Pearl Restaurant for a piping hot bowl of New England style clam chowder to take the edge off your hunger.

9. Palm Beach, Florida

Lifeguard station and the Atlantic Ocean in Palm Beach, Florida. Jon Bilous

Lifeguard station and the Atlantic Ocean in Palm Beach, Florida.

Jon Bilous

 

During the Palm Beach off season, the crowds thin, but the waves continue rolling in, including plenty of midrange barrels. The water here is warm and clear year round, and the sandbars that line Palm Beach’s 47 miles of Atlantic coastline make for good surf spots all along its length. With its regular 15-foot beachbreak waves, Reef Road is one of the best spots for experienced surfers. You won’t find waves like this anywhere else in the state. After you’ve worked up an appetite, grab a burger, lobster roll, or fish ’n’ chips at Nick and Johnnie’s Patio and Bar, located just a block away from The Breakers hotel.

10. Encinitas, California

Encinitas Beach Ocean Shore in Southern California, United States. welcomia

Encinitas Beach Ocean Shore in Southern California, United States.

welcomia

 

Located about 30 miles north of San Diego, Encinitas is a quintessential Southern California surf town that sports a good mix of wind and consistent waves, particularly in the autumn, when north, south, and combination swells roll in and the water is around 70 degrees. Over at Moonlight Beach, advanced surfers enjoy challenging waves on the north and south ends while beginners fare well in the middle, thanks to a line of offshore sandbars. Don’t leave Encinitas without stopping in at Hansen’s, the legendary 16,000 square-foot surf shop that opened its doors in Oahu in 1961 before relocating to southern Encinitas. The town itself is an easygoing mix of outdoor enthusiasts and New Age spiritualists.

 

11. Montauk, New York

Waves at Montauk in New York  john.beil

Waves at Montauk in New York 

john.beil

 

Known among fans of Showtime’s “The Affair” as the place where it all went down, Montauk, located at the east end of Long Island, is a real-world mix of New England fishing village and seashore escape for wealthy Manhattanites. Celebrities, including Cynthia Nixon of "Sex and the City," Fox News's Bill O’Reilly, and singer Jimmy Buffet, all own vacation homes here. Waves are constant with swells coming from the south, east, and west, but the best time to surf here is June through November during hurricane season. Fill up afterwards at O’Murphy’s Pub and Restaurant, a quiet local spot for traditional Irish country dishes and seafood.

 

12. Snake River, Wyoming

Guy surfing on Snake River in Wyoming Mavrick

Guy surfing on Snake River in Wyoming

Mavrick

 

Landlocked in Wyoming? Luckily, when the snow melts, you can catch a seemingly everlasting wave on the Snake River. From around May to early August, the so-called Lunch Counter Rapid swells into full churn. Unlike in the ocean, this wave doesn't break, and surfers have reportedly ridden it for 20 minutes or more. The water is often a chilly 40 degrees and the river has rocks, but it’s worth a try if you’re an experienced (and maybe slightly crazy) surfer visiting Jackson Hole. Despite the risks, the river can get crowded with surfers, rafters, and kayakers all trying to get in on the action, so bring a wetsuit and your shreddin’ A-game.

13. The Great Lakes

Surfer on the rocks at the Great Lakes / Man with a frozen beard steven_jamesP / GROGL

Surfer on the rocks at the Great Lakes / Man with a frozen beard

steven_jamesP / GROGL

 

Bring your board and your wetsuit to the Great Lakes for ice-cold but rewarding waves. Instead of a buoyant salty ocean, the lakes are filled with freshwater, so you’re in for an entirely new surfing experience. Sheboygan, Wisconsin—dubbed “Malibu of the Midwest”—has been a surf destination for more than 50 years. Surfers come here to catch lake waves and enjoy the charming, midwestern town’s active lifestyle. The best time to surf the lakes is late August through April when massive storms on Lake Michigan and Lake Superior can create roaring 30-foot waves.

Kristen Bailey

Kristen is a freelance writer based in beautiful Lincoln, Nebraska, which is conveniently located smack in the middle of the country for easy access to both coasts and everywhere in between. When she isn’t writing articles or exploring new cities, you’ll find Kristen building things in the backyard, writing songs for her indie rock band, The Inbetweens, or creating sweet, yet macabre, collages from images found in old textbooks and other ephemera.

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