Surfing the California Coast
If there is any sport that can be thought to epitomize the laidback vibes of life in California it is surfing. This is not surprising considering that this huge state includes hundreds of miles of coastline, stretching all the way from the warm, palm-lined beaches in the South, to rockier and colder beaches that can be found near California’s border with Oregon. Excellent surfing can be found even in this colder part of the state though, which explains why too many in the Golden States surfing is more than a pastime, but instead, it is a way of life.
Southern California (SoCal)
The regions of California are often divided into three. The Southernmost region is Southern California, also called SoCal, which starts at the state’s border with Mexico and moves upwards to Santa Barbara. When most are asked to picture California they most likely bring this part of the state to mind. This is where you will find sunny beaches, lots of palm trees, very warm summer days, and lots of California landmarks, including the Hollywood sign and Disneyland.
Like the weather, surfing in SoCal is also more approachable than in other parts of the state. For one, during the summer the water temperatures here warm up considerably, although bringing a wetsuit is still a good idea. This is especially true if you plan to surf SoCal in any other season when the temperatures of the Pacific will drop considerably. Furthermore, beginner surfers will have more options in terms of where they can go in SoCal, as surfing at every level can be found in these sunny waters. More expert surfers will be able to find some breaks to challenge themselves with as well though, making SoCal the perfect surfing destination no matter who you are.
The one big drawback of surfing in SoCal are the crowds, which can become excessive during the busy summer season. Think 15-50 people all queued up to surf some of the most famous breaks. To avoid these crowds, try to plan a surf trip that will allow you to be out there during business hours, Monday-Friday since the weekends are when these areas will become truly overrun. Another option is to seek out some lesser known beaches. Finally, planning a trip to SoCal during the offseason is a surefire way to enjoy some of the best breaks without having to contend with other people. If you do decide to head here in the winter, just remember though that the water temperature will be much colder, so plan accordingly.
Unlike the South and the North, the center part of California does not get is a short abbreviated name. However, within the world of surfing, this park of the state should be referred to as the Central Coast. Although some consider the southern part of this region to begin in Ventura County, surfers tend to count Ventura and Santa Barbara as part of SoCal, so those are the parameters we are going to abide by as well. With that conceptualization of the Central Coast in mind, we can consider the Central Coast as beginning in San Luis Obispo County in the south and stretching upward until it reaches Santa Cruz.
The Central Coast is where Big Sur is and is filled with more forest and parks than the land to the south. This makes it less populated, meaning you can expect to deal with fewer crowds on a surf trip to this region. The one exception to this are the beaches near Santa Cruz, where one can expect to find some small crowds. These are easily avoided though by heading a short distance out of town.
The lack of crowds may draw you to these more northerly beaches however, the surfing here is more difficult as well. The breaks in this region typically fall within the intermediate to advanced difficulty levels. Newbies can find some fun stuff within this region as well though, but will honestly have more fun (and safer) time down south. Furthermore, the best times of year to surf in this region are fall, winter, and spring. The water temperatures in this region are already colder than those in the South, and the fact that surfing here is best during the colder times of the year means that a wetsuit is a necessity.
Northern California (NorCal)
When looking into surfing in California a few patterns begin to emerge. The further north you go the gnarlier the surfing gets. In Northern California, also called NorCal, surfing is most definitely not for those who are new to the sport. For one, the water here is cold, especially during the fall-spring, which is when the best surfing can also be had. Furthermore, the richness of these waters means that the vast majority of shark attacks in California occur in NorCal. Finally, the surfing in this part of California is just, plain tough, and is made tougher by the fact that beaches here tend to be less developed and have strong local crews who can be quitter territorial.
The combination of powerful surf and local territorialism means that if you don’t know your way around breaks you are likely to have a bad time while surfing in NorCal. This doesn’t just have to do with being able to catch some truly formidable waves, but also entails having an understanding of surf etiquette. You most definitely don’t want to cut off a local at a territorial beach, as this could lead you to be verbally (and possibly physically) accosted. For this reason, make sure to research not only the quality of surf but also the local culture everywhere you go.
Because of the quality of the breaks in NorCal, it can still get quite crowded here despite the cold, tough conditions. Still, if you are looking for solitude it can most definitely be found in NorCal. This is especially true the further north you go, where the state becomes less and less populated.