Though its precise origins remain murky, surfing was first practiced by Polynesians—called heʻe ʻana—most notably on the Hawaiian islands, and was an essential part of their culture. A way of life. It was much more than a hobby.
In Tahiti and Samoa, surfing was how warriors trained for battle. In Hawaii, it was considered a spiritual pastime, a way of communing with the gods and a means of artistic expression. It was called heʻe nalu, which translates into English as ‘wave sliding.’ Pretty cool, right?
When the Europeans arrived, they witnessed the practice with the appropriate amount of astonished bewilderment. When visiting Hawaii in 1866, Mark Twain famously tried to surf, but couldn’t do it.
Then, a century later, surfing took California by storm. After WWII, the development of short, fiberglass boards (in contrast to traditional Hawaiian ones, shaped wood from trees such as the koa ʻulu) allowed more people to afford them and meant bigger waves could be conquered.
In the 1960s, surfing became a pillar of Southern California culture, as it remains today. Whether you’ve never tried surfing or you’re a practiced waxhead, there are few more fun things to do than harness the power of the ocean and ride along some properly glassy break. Here are the best SoCal spots to do just that.
10 Huntington Beach Pier, Huntington Beach
Piers make for good surfing. A big structure jutting into the ocean blocks wind, creating a ‘point,' which means a longer ride.
Yet, of all the piers that attract surfers like moths to a naked lightbulb, Huntington Beach Pier (also known as Surf City USA) is the most famous. It’s got some of the most consistent swells anywhere on the Left Coast and hosts the annual Vans US Open of Surfing.
With waves that range from 3-foot cruisers to 12-foot monsters, there’s fun to be had for everyone who can stand on a board.
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9 Cardiff Reef, Encinitas
Called just ‘Cardiff’ by most, this SoCal locale is beautiful, and it produces smooth, regular waves year-round. This is thanks to the flat and shallow Cardiff Reef, which produces enough range in wave size for all skill levels. So, even if you're an amateur, fear not, as those small peaks will help you get your balance and learn the essentials. A nearby break, called Pipes, is also dependable and often less crowded.
8 Dana Point, Doheny Beach
In 1954, Hobie Alter, the man who invented the process for creating foam-and-fiberglass surfboards, opened the world’s first retail surf shop in Doheny Beach. Considered the first Californian surf town, it was also the first state beach, and its praises are (literally) sung in the Beach Boys’ tune: Surfin’ USA.
The rocky bottom creates sere glassy breaks at a low-key angle, with 3-4 feet of face, and the jetty guards against bigger swells banging against the shore. It’s a great place to learn and a laid-back spot for bonafide shredders to show off.
7 The Wedge, Newport Beach
This spot is best known for its intense backwash ride—a deep wave that moves fast and breaks on the shore.
The waves here get so big—up to 30-feet of curling watery action—that it’s most popular among bodyboarders. Still, for brave and skilled surfers, it’s worth checking out.
6 Blacks Beach, San Diego
This spot is part of Torrey Pines City Beach in La Jolla where the Submarine Canyon churns out the gnarliest swells in San Diego. These waves break hollow, which means they curl over with tremendous speed and force.
For surfers looked to catch tube, the term for riding inside the barrel of a breaking wave, totally encased in water, there are few better SoCal spots. The swells are best here in the wintertime, but it’s nearly always crowded.
5 Trestles, San Clemente
Trestles is actually a collection of five mild reef breaks: Cottons, Uppers, Middles, Lowers, and Churches.
Lower Trestles produces the most reliable A-frame waves, which means the wave breaks evenly from the middle, so you can drop its face from either left or right. But the winds here and the rocky bottom make waves that break far offshore and cruise towards the beach.
The catch is that it’s not an easy spot to get to. You can park and then walk down an asphalt trail to Trestles from the trailhead at Cristianitos Road, near where it crosses over the San Diego Freeway.
But expect to see taunting graffiti from locals, with phrases such as ‘no kooks,’ which basically means ‘no amateurs’ along the trek to the shore.
4 Rincon, Santa Barbara
Rincon is the main surf spot in Santa Barbara, a town with stunning Spanish architecture. The waves in Rincon break along a cobblestone point that translates into a long ride when the conditions are right.
The caveat here is that the tides affect the surfing conditions a lot, so, if you’re looking to catch the perfect wave, timing is important.
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3 San Onofre State Beach, San Diego
San Onofre State Beach is a laid-back spot that is a favorite among long-boarders. While a lot of other surf spots have aggressive locals with a ‘no kooks’ attitude, San Onofre is famously friendly.
There are three waves breaks: The Point, Old Man’s, and Dog Patch. Old Man’s has the gentlest waves, rendering it the perfect place to learn to surf.
2 Oceanside Pier, San Diego
The Oceanside Pier has a reliable beach break all year, with good waves on both sides of the point. If you’re surfing during high tide, bring a longboard; the waves can get mushy. But, during low tide, prepare yourself for some biggish barrels.
1 Malibu Lagoon State Beach, Los Angeles
Malibu Lagoon State Beach—also called Surfrider Beach—boasts a long pointbreak. The beach is broken into three sections, the first, second and third points that divide beginners from the experts. (First point is the easiest and popular among novices and longboarders.)
The tapering, smooth-breaking waves here that are rideable all year and are considered some of the best in the world.