Best Surf Spots In Mendocino, CA: Point Arena, Smugglers Cove, & Big River

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Mendocino is a beautiful surf destination with a wide variety of breaks along the coastal highway. Mendocino doesn’t have the quality of waves you’ll find in other areas of California. Still, Mendocino county has fun, uncrowded waves, natural beauty, wildlife, and a charming town worth exploring.

Mendocino county has a rugged, rocky coastline with several beach breaks and reef breaks. Autumn is the best time to surf in Mendocino.  Mendocino has fun waves for beginners, and advanced surfers can find some big, gnarly surf in late Autumn and Winter. Full wetsuits are required.

 If you plan your trip well, surfing in Mendocino can be a memorable experience. Here is the information you need to know before you go.

Surfing In Mendocino: What You Need To Know

With its coastal cliffs, rivers, redwood forests, and wildlife, Mendocino is worth a surf trip if only to experience the isolated natural splendor of Northern California. Mendocino county has a few surf spots. Depending on the time of year, you can find everything from knee-high beach breaks to double-overhead reef breaks.

 Autumn is the best season for surfing in Mendocino because the swells begin increasing in size, and heavy winter winds and cold temperatures haven’t kicked yet. The water is always pretty cold in Mendocino, so wetsuits are required year-round. Booties and hoodies are vital necessities in autumn and winter.

The Mendocino coastline has abundant marine life. This means you need to be alert for the occasional curious great white shark. Other potential hazards include local surfers, who have a reputation for being somewhat protective of their local breaks.

While Mendocino is a rural county, visiting surfers will find everything they need for a great surf trip. There is plenty of accommodation, and some fine eateries too. Mendocino also has several surf shops and surf schools, so don’t worry if you forgot to bring wax or if you want to rent equipment or take some surf lessons.

When Is The Best Time To Surf In Mendocino?

Autumn is the best season for surfing in Mendocino. At this time of year (September to November), northwest swells start to arrive. The swells bring bigger, more consistent waves to the local breaks. In addition, the water temperatures are relatively mild in autumn, and offshore northeast winds start to clean the waves up after summer.

In winter, the waves get massive and rough in Mendocino. Storm swells, stiff offshore gales, and icy water provide some wild and intense sessions for experienced, adrenaline-seeking surfers from December to February. For the average surfer, however, winter is probably not the best time to surf in Mendocino.

Spring can also be a good time to surf in Mendocino. The weather conditions improve, and solid swells continue to arrive, so there are clean, decent-sized waves at this time of year. There isn’t much swell in Mendocino in summer, and there are many flat days, though beginner surfers can find small, gentle beach-break waves to ride.

Where Are The Best Places To Surf In Mendocino?

There are several beach breaks, reefs, and point breaks scattered along the Mendocino coastline. There are also some lesser-known spots that you might find if you can tap into local knowledge. Here are a few of the main surf spots in Mendocino county.

Point Arena

Point Arena is a sparsely populated city located in front of a small cove. The city is about 35 miles south of the town of Mendocino. Point Arena has two main surf spots.

The first spot is a rock-bottom peak in front of Point Arena Pier. It is generally a left-hand wave that breaks best on three to six-foot swells. The waves break about 300 feet from shore and fade into a deep channel. This spot is not ideal for beginners except on smaller days.

The second spot breaks at the point on the northern side of the cove. This spot has long right-hand walls and works in six-foot-plus swells. A high level of surf experience, physical fitness, and respect for the locals are required to surf this spot.

Smugglers Cove

Smugglers Cove is located on the south side of Mendocino Bay. The wave is a crumbly peak that breaks over a rock and sand bottom. It’s best suited for beginners and intermediate-level surfers.
Smugglers Cove is a sheltered spot that only starts breaking when open ocean swells are six feet or larger. Low tides with northwest winds are best for this spot.

Big River

Big River is a beach break situated in the Mendocino Headlands State Park, on the north side of Mendocino Bay. Breaking near the mouth of the Big River estuary and is more exposed to swell than Smugglers Cove.

Big River works on high tide. The waves are typically mush-burgers, but they can be fun when the conditions are right. While the quality of the waves at Big River isn’t world-class, the scenery of the Headlands Park and the convenient location near the town of Mendocino makes this spot worth checking out.

Caspar Beach

Caspar Beach is a fun beach break situated in the town of Caspar, roughly halfway between Mendocino and Fort Bragg. The beach is inside a cove, flanked by Caspar Creek on the north side and Caspar Headlands State Natural Reserve and Doyle Creek to the south.

Caspar Beach is well-protected from open ocean swells and slopes very gently into the ocean, so it’s an ideal spot for beginners. The waves at Caspar Beach are mellow. They generally don’t get much bigger than three to four feet (it gets bigger in winter but is usually too messy to surf).

Jug Handle Beach

A few minutes north of the town of Caspar is another spot called Jug Handle Beach. The beach is in a cove within the borders of the stunning Jug Handle State Natural Reserve. 

Like Big River, Jug Handle Beach is an ideal spot for beginner surfers because of its gentle gradient and the protection offered by the cove. The waves are mellow and mostly stay in the one to three-foot range.

Logistical Practicalities

Here is some important practical information to help you plan the logistics of your surf trip to Mendocino.

Getting Around In Mendocino

Depending on where you’re departing from, you could fly to Eureka in Humboldt County, or to Sonoma Airport in Sonoma County. Alternatively, you could drive to the county along State Route 1 highway. Once you’re in Mendocino County, the main way to get around is by car. You can access the surf spots by driving along Route 1.

Accommodation And Food

There are plenty of excellent eateries and places to stay along the Mendocino coastline. There are many small hotels in the main towns, and a host of cafes and restaurants, many offering artisanal quality fare.

Surfers traveling on shoestring budgets may prefer to find accommodation at one of the RV and camping sites dotted along the coast. Camping has the advantage of offering a more tangible experience of the

Surf Equipment: What You Need

Like any other Northern Californian surf destination, you’ll need to bring a full wetsuit if you want to be comfortable in the water. Ocean temperatures average about 55F in autumn, dropping to 51F in winter, and only rising to an average of 54F during summer.

A 4/3mm wetsuit is the bare minimum, even in summer. In autumn and winter, the icy northwest winds and air temperatures mean that a 5/4mm wetsuit, booties, hoodie, and even gloves are necessary to surf in Mendocino.

If you’re a beginner and need to rent equipment, or you’re an experienced surfer needing to stock up on leashes and wax, the Lost Surf Shack in Fort Bragg can meet your needs. Beginners looking for surf coaching can contact North Coast Surf School and get some lessons at Caspar Beach.


Mendocino is a beautiful North Californian surf destination.  The waves aren’t as good as other parts of California, but you can have some fun, memorable sessions if you time your trip well, and if the wind and swell conditions are in your favor. The waves, natural splendor of the coastline, and the charm of the seaside towns make Mendocino more than worth the trip!