Looking for the definitive guide to surfing in California with waves for all skill levels?
Whether you’re completely new to surfing or an experienced pro, California has some of the best surf spots in the world just ready to be discovered.
Let’s look at some of the top surf spots for anyone just starting before moving on to some of California’s most challenging waves.
What Are The Best Surf Spots For Beginners In California?
When you’re just getting to grips with the sport, finding a spot that’s safe, easy to access, and has consistent waves is key.
Here are three California beaches I’d recommend for anyone who wants to learn to surf:
Located in Dana Point, Doheny Beach is a popular spot for learners and longboarders.
This beach break has a gentle, sloping bottom, creating slow-moving waves perfect for learning how to stand up and ride along the wave.
It has a designated surfing area, so you won’t have to worry about colliding with swimmers and beachgoers while catching waves.
Here are the guys at 74 Surfboards making the most of a perfect summer swell:
La Jolla Shores
La Jolla Shores is a beautiful San Diego beach that’s ideally suited to people early on in their surfing journey.
It has a wide, sandy bottom; plus, lifeguards patrol it, so you can feel safe while you’re out in the water.
Aim to head here when the waves are in the waist to chest-high range.
Much bigger, and the waves can start to close out without offering much of a surfable wave face.
Located in Santa Cruz, Cowells is a great spot for amateur shredders.
It has a long, gentle slope, making for perfect waves that slowly peel across the sand-covered bottom before breaking on the shore.
The rights can go for hundreds of metres here, so make sure to warm up those paddling muscles for the trip back out.
The beach break is protected by a seawall, creating a sheltered area that’s great for escaping strong winds, especially when other spots nearby are messy and blown out.
Where Are The Best Places For Intermediates In California?
Now you’ve mastered the basics; you want to find long peeling walls with enough power to start trying various tricks and manoeuvres along the face of the wave.
Here are California’s best surfing locations for anyone looking to level up their skills,
Trestles is located in San Clemente, Orange County, and I will go out on a limb and say it’s the best wave in Cali.
Ground swells hit the cobblestone point as an A-frame before a long right breaks down with several sections for turns.
The left is shorter and sharper, but its steeper face makes it perfect for anyone who wants’s to perfect their aerial surfing.
Its exposed location on the coast means it gets consistent surf most year-round.
It also hosts the best surfers in the world when the WSL finals roll around each year to decide the final winner of surfing’s most coveted prize.
*Pro tip – Trestles is easily one of the busiest breaks on the planet, so try to surf very early or late to avoid the crowds.
Take a look at last year’s final to see how the pros deal with this wave, much like a skatepark.
Malibu is a classic right-hand point break with several sections and a whole ton of people all competing for a wave.
It’s a great spot for intermediates due to its long, mellow waves, but the crowd factor here can be a real problem.
I’ll leave it up to local photographer Brad Jacobson to explain why Malibu’s peaks get as chaotic as they do:
Steamer Lane is located in Santa Cruz and mixes the rugged look of Northern Cali with a dedicated surf scene.
The right-hander starts at the top of the point before rifling into the bay.
The waves start steep, with several sections for turns and the occasional barrel to be had for the lucky before it starts to break into deeper water as it moves around the headland.
Steamer Lane has a dedicated crew of local shredders who are there every time it’s on, so make sure to act respectfully if you choose to paddle out here.
*Interesting fact – Santa Cruz has the honour of being one of the few world surfing reserves that can be found worldwide. Ensuring protection for the local waves and wildlife.
Watch Kolohe Andino show you how it’s done across two swell days that kept giving.
What Are Some Of The Most Dangerous & Challenging Spots Along The Coast?
Now let’s move on to some of the most serious surf breaks this state offers.
The waves in this section are strictly reserved for experienced chargers who know exactly what they are doing out in the ocean.
Mavericks in Half Moon Bay sits among the planet’s best big wave surf spots.
With waves reaching up to 60 feet, this is not for the faint of heart. Massive waves come out of deep water before unloading onto the shallow reef.
It gained popularity in the 90s when big-wave pioneer and surfing legend Jeff Clark eventually exposed it to the world after charging it alone for 25 years.
It’s a right and a left, with the right being the better of the two, offering gigantic walls to ride and the occasional cavern for anyone brave enough to tuck in.
Now you’ll find jet skis, boats and spectators anytime it starts to awaken but don’t be fooled; Mavericks is still a serious wave that should only be tackled by the very best.
Here’s a short film on Cali’s most notorious big wave surf spot.
The Wedge in Newport Beach is a bit of a celebrity, appearing regularly on surf media across the internet and social media.
It’s known for its powerful shore break, creating surfable waves up to 30 feet for anyone willing to risk life and limb.
The spot relies on the boulder jetty that runs along the side of the beach, which causes the swell to refract, creating the iconic wedge-shaped waves we all know and love.
But the real kicker here is the heavily sloping beach, meaning that waves appear out of deep before detonating into ankle-deep water.
This makes for a gladiatorial arena of broken boards and legendary tubes; remember to jump feet first to avoid any nasty surfing injuries.
Here’s some footage from a swell in Spring 2023, where the conditions aligned to produce some epic barrels for the lucky few who go out there:
Blacks is a small part of the much larger Torrey Pines State Beach, but this secluded spot nestled beneath Torrey Pines hides a big secret.
Much like Nazare in Portugal, a large submarine canyon funnels swell directly off the Pacific Ocean onto the waiting sandbanks.
This results in large wedging waves that tend to fold over into powerful tubes that rifle down the banks.
The same canyon can make for some treacherous rip currents, so only head out if you’re confident in the ocean and do not paddle out alone.
Here’s Black’s going mutant XXL back on January 5, 2023, with terrifying walls of water hammering into the bay.
Seal Beach is a bit hit-and-miss, with it being a miss more often than not.
Most of the time, it’s essentially a close-out with swells dumping straight onto the shore.
But when the conditions align and the angle of the swell is right, it can turn into an absolute barrel monster.
It’s still 50/50 if you make it out, but you can guarantee it’ll be a memorable ride.
Check out some of the locals doing their thing below with epic results.
Iconic Surf Spots
Our list of the top places to surf wouldn’t be complete without a few regional classics to round it off.
Let’s look at two of the most famous surf spots along the coast.
Huntington Beach Pier
Also known as “Surf City USA,” Huntington is the surfing capital of California, with many of the world’s leading surf brands making it their base of operations.
It’s also home to the US Open Of Surfing, a challenger series (previously the world surf league qualifying series) event where a combination of up-and-comers and tour veterans battle it out for a spot on the prestigious WSL World Tour.
The pier is a great vantage point to watch the action, with thousands of people flocking to the surfing contest yearly.
The wave itself offers fun bowls and a left that breaks towards the pier.
It’s famous for its deep channel that runs between the inner and outer bank, requiring you to do the ‘Huntington hop’ to navigate the deep water.
Here are some highlights from yesterday’s event in fun head high surf.
Next up, we’ve got Rincon Point. Located on the border of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, Rincon is often referred to as the “Queen of the Coast.”
This point break is easily one of the best waves in Southern California, with long, peeling waves can offer rides of up to a minute or more.
The top of the point is fast and walling; you’ll need to beat multiple sections to reach the inside.
The inside point is a whole different story with perfect pace making it easy to reel off four to seven manoeuvres in rapid order.
Here’s a raw-uncut session from June this year featuring a roster of local pros and average joes taking on the perfect rights.
Frequently Asked Questions
Now we’ve taken you to some of the most famous spots in California; let’s answer some of the internet’s most pressing questions about surfing here.
What is the best beach to surf in California?
The answer to this question depends on your skill level and the kind of waves you like.
Huntington Beach is a great all-rounder with lots of space to spread out, but if you’re looking for long perfect rides, you can’t look past the cobblestone point at Trestles.
Where are the biggest waves to surf in California?
What’s the best time of year to surf in California?
Autumn and winter tend to get the most consistent swell with favourable wind.
That being said, you can still get some great swells through the spring and summer when mother nature allows.