Surfing California: Your Essential Guide To The West Coast Waves

This is our Essential Guide to Surfing California. Keep reading for everything you need to know to plan your ultimate California surfing trip.

The sunshine stretch of 900 miles spanning from San Francisco to San Diego is best known as the golden state of California. The third-largest state in America is also one of the most famous for a number of reasons; Hollywood, Alcatraz, Disneyland, the Golden Gate Bridge, and of course, miles of pristine beaches with delicious waves.

It’s no surprise then, that the home of skateboarding, the X-Games and Kelly Slater, is a mecca for action sports enthusiasts, including surfers.

To cover this expansive destination, we’ve carved it into three main areas;

  • North California; San Francisco, San Jose, Greater Sacramento, and Santa Cruz.
  • Central California: San Luis and Monterey,
  • Southern California (SoCal): Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Diego.

Surfing California: The Essentials

What airports service California?

There are numerous routes into California, but Los Angeles International (LAX) is by far the best connected, as the fourth largest airport in the world. This is also the best airport for visiting southern California; although if you’re traveling further down south, San Diego airport may be a better option.

Meanwhile, for central and northern California, there are two main airports with global connections; San Francisco international and Sacramento International.

What’s the local currency?

US dollars ($) is the main currency used in California. ATMs are widely available and electronic forms of payment are accepted in most outlets. Specifically, in the tech hub of Silicone Valley in the Bay area, Bitcoins and other forms of cryptocurrency may too be accepted.

What’s the local language?

English-American is the main language spoken in California. With the state being so close to the Mexican border, Spanish is also frequently used.

With plenty of local ex-pat communities, other less common languages include; Chinese, Korean and Armenian.

How can I get around California?

You’ve heard the saying ‘LA is a great big freeway’, this is in no small part to the huge car culture in the state. As such, there’s plenty of car hire companies to use, a popular option for road-trippers.

However, don’t be put off using the local transport. It is efficient and affordable, even if most locals use their cars. This includes buses and trains throughout the state, with the addition of the metro in Los Angeles and cable car in San Francisco.

Expect to pay $1 to $3 for a single trip, with savings to be made using multi-day passes. For long journeys by coach, Greyhound buses are a nationwide favorite.

Taxis are easy to flag down in cities, although they are metered some accept credit cards. Uber and Lyft are popular options in the main hubs too.

Finally, if you plan to stay local, there are many bicycle hire shops to make the most of the blissful weather.

Surfing California: The Surf Season

California is a year-round destination with warm weather, although it gets typically hotter the further south you go.

There can be great variations too, for instance, San Francisco and the bay area is known for its changeable temperature, which can go from warm to cold in a single day. While San Diego is known for its consistently warm weather, with sunshine 266 days a year.

Generally speaking, summers are mild and dry, while winters can get colder and wet – offering prime conditions for surfing.  Expect average daily temperatures of 70°F to 80°F.

Surfing is more than a sport in these parts, it’s a way of life – they even celebrate ‘California Surfing Day’ annually on 20 September!

Surfing Southern California

‘SoCal’ is all about the surf, making it a prime destination for pros. There are countless places to cover – too many to mention, but some unmissable spots include…

The all-action Orange County – home to some of the best surf spots in the entire state, suitable for all levels. These include the world-famous Huntington Beach, a mecca for surf, skate, and BMX, and home to the International Surfing Museum and annual World Surfing Champs. Expect waves of 12ft high if you come at the right time.

Newport Beach is a favorite for surfers and bodysurfers alike, while next door the infamous Lower Trestles (aka ‘the Lowers’) offers a notable point break for accomplished surfers. While Crescent Bay in Laguna Beach is another haunt known for its rugged coastline.

More than just a glamourous destination, Los Angeles delivers pristine beaches lined with palm trees and exercise enthusiasts. A-list haunt Malibu brings a laid-back vibe, with manageable waves suitable for groms and beginners. Further down in Venice Beach, this bustling spot is loaded with restaurants, cafes and exercise freaks in equal measure! Head to Venice Beach Breakwater for the waves.

Towards the Mexican border, the weather and waves heat up in Cardiff Reef, San Diego; a surfing stalwart since the 1940s. Friendly and charming, it welcomes surfers of all levels, making it a great spot for beginners. After hours, the city has plenty of bars and restaurants too.

Surfing Central California

With dramatic mountain peaks, swirling surf and a Spanish colonial legacy, Santa Barbara is a picturesque city attracting tourists for many reasons. One of these is Rincon – a classic point break with a fair share of swell, although not always consistent. Nonetheless, it has become somewhat of a legend around these parts and is even host to the Rincon Classic surf comp. Split into three parts, there’s ‘the indicator’, ‘the cove’ and ‘river mouth’ for pros to take on.

surfing california santa cruz

Then there’s Santa Cruz, better known as ‘Surf City’ for its unrelenting and unapologetic love of surf. Despite attracting the pros, there’s plenty of room for novices too. Cowell’s is a good place to start, offering sympathetic waves. Once graduated ‘The Lane’ (Steamer Lane) is loaded with reef breaks and pacific winds that only the experienced should brave.

With it, Monterey County brings consistent waves and a relaxed feel. Asilomar State Beach is popular with locals, for kayakers, bodyboarders and surfers co-existing amongst its friendly sea life – and there’s plenty to spot as you paddle along. Similarly, Lovers Point is a great place for confident surfers.

Surfing Northern California

Big bridges, big hills and of course big waves – San Francisco is the place to go big, or go home! But beware, you’ll be sharing the water with great white sharks in the area too

The Pacific area, notably Ocean Beach delivers tough waves with varying swells that can be unforgiving

Not far away, surfers travel from waters afar to visit Mavericks in Half Moon Bay. This famous cold-water break conjures up monster waves for hardy surfers only! A notorious spot for big wave surfing, there’s always something going on, whether it’s the Mavericks Challenge Surf Content or the World Surf League.

Further up the coastline, serious surfers should head to Patrick’s Point for gnarly waves. If adventure is your thing, Redwood National State Park is within driving distance too.

Learning To Surf In California

When surfing is declared the state sport, you know there’s no shortage of schools for learners.

If you’re heading to the north, in and around the bay area you can book one-day classes from $105 at Adventure Out, which provides a thorough induction to the sport.

In central California, Cowell’s in Santa Cruz is a great place to learn the ropes. The local surf school offers a private two-hour lesson from $100, to get to grips with the basics.

To the south, the family-run Kapowui Surf Club offers a welcoming place for learners to flourish, without any of the usual pretension. Head further south and the Surf Diva Surf School in San Diego straddles the Jolla shoreline making it a gentle spot for starting out, lessons start from $72 upward for an hour.

Where To Hire Kit in California

There’s really no shortage of options for kit hire throughout the state. With prices and stock being widely available, most visitors find this easier than hauling their own kit.

Northbound in San Francisco, the Aquashop offers surfboards for hire by the day from $25. While Salty’s Supply in Patrick’s Point has a host of wetsuits and boards at affordable rates.

On the Beach surf shop in Monterey County offers half and full-day hire for a range of goods, this includes wetsuits from $15.

Back in Los Angeles, if you’re looking for long rentals, the Malibu Longboards school offers a surfboard and wetsuit for the week for just $99.  Finally, when in San Diego, the Surf Diva Surf offers bargain rentals starting from $6 for a wetsuit.

Where To Eat?

Your body’s a temple, right? That’s just as well because California is one of the purveyors of clean living.

To the north, San Francisco is nothing short of a foodies paradise. Here you can find everything you’re looking for and more. Nourish Café and The Plant Café Organic are just some of the ‘greener’ options, while Marlowe will astound you with its experimental menu, including brussel sprout fries and a beef and lamb burger, delish!

In central Cali, Santa Cruz has numerous hip hangouts, from Primal Santa Cruz to Hula’s Island Grill and Tiki Room – for guaranteed good times. In keeping with the theme, Hula’s Island Grill in Monterey conjures up Hawaiian surf vibes all the way!

Dedicated to all things clean, Health Nut in south California delivers fresh produce from wraps to salads and is a firm favorite with the Kardashian clan. Fancy something well, fancy? Then head to Beverly Hills for five-star dining at Mastro’s Steakhouse, or celebrity hangout Craig’s in West Hollywood.

After a hard day of surfing, Kaju Tofu in Huntington Beach is the place to go, with plenty of vegan options.

Of course, tacos are a staple in these parts, so when in San Diego lookout for Taco Surf for hearty dishes, Baja Bay Surf & Taco in Ventura, not forgetting Surf City Fish Grill in Huntington, for more of the same.

Surf Camps In California

You’ll find plenty on places to stay up and down the Pacific Coast Highway in California, but be warned it can get pretty pricey! The standard motel can cost anywhere between $70-$100 a night, and if you’re not careful you can find yourself booking into a pretty fancy hotel offering rooms at $500+ a night. We’ve put together some of our favourite (and more reasonable) surf camps in California for you to check out below.

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If you’d like to see our full collection of surf camps and resorts in California click here.

Enjoyed our ultimate guide to surfing California? Check out all of our Surfing Destination Guides here.