Orange County has one of the most iconic coastlines in California and has been a surfing epicenter since the 1950s. There are dozens of surf spots in the Orange County area, set against rocky cliffs, palm-lined beaches, and classic So-Cal beach culture.
Orange County has many world-famous beach breaks, reefs, and point breaks. There is swell for most of the year, though autumn and winter produce the best waves along this stretch of the Southern Californian coast. The waves in Orange County range from knee-high and fun to heavy and double-overhead.
The variety, quality, and consistency of waves in Orange County make this a worthy surf destination for novice and advanced surfers alike. Knowing when and where to surf is the key to any good session in Orange County. Here’s what you need to know before you go!
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Surfing In Orange County: What You Need To Know
Orange County is a Californian surf mecca with rich beach culture, more than 40 miles of beautiful beaches, and a panoply of world-famous surf spots. The roots of surfing in Orange County go way back to 1925 when Duke Kahanamoku first introduced surfing to the Western world at Huntington Beach.
The county has a temperate climate and consistent swells from the Pacific Ocean. Orange County gets waves throughout the year, but autumn and winter bring the biggest and best quality waves. The colder temperatures at this time of year mean that surf spots are less crowded.
Orange County also receives swell in summer, though the waves are often small and onshore. Still, it’s possible to score fun sessions in summer, and the weather and water are much warmer than in winter. Due to the pleasant temperatures, summer is a crowded time to surf in Orange County.
Some beaches in Orange County have blackball rules in summer, so it’s important to check this out to avoid disappointment. It’s also generally worth paying attention to the warning flags posted at lifeguard towers that inform surfers of dangerous currents, jellyfish, and other potential hazards in the water.
There are great white sharks that swim along the Orange County coastline, so common sense is necessary to reduce the chances of shark encounters. Surfers should always be alert when surfing near river mouths and are advised to avoid these areas after rain events when the water gets murky.
When Is The Best Time Of Year To Surf In Orange County?
Orange County has waves throughout the year, but the conditions and vibes in the water are quite different depending on the season.
Autumn And Winter
The prime time of year to surf in Orange County is autumn and winter. In autumn (September to November), big, long-period W/NW swells start to arrive, and offshore Santa Ana winds begin to clean the waves up. Crowds also start thinning out in autumn because the water gets colder.
Winter (December to February) is the peak of the swell season in Orange County. The conditions are world-class, with W/NW swells consistently hitting the Orange County coastline, groomed by the prevailing Santa Ana winds from the northeast. There are also many days with light winds and glassy conditions in winter.
Spring And Summer
Spring and summer also offer many good days for surfing Orange County. During spring (March to May), Orange County receives W/NW and S/SW swells. The westerly angle of these mixed swell directions makes them favorable for the beach breaks in Orange County. Winds from the northwest often create onshore conditions in spring.
Surfing in Orange County in summer is starkly different from the wintertime. There are fun waves on the occasional S/SW swell in summer, but many days are small or flat. The water in Orange County warms up considerably in summer, making wetsuits unnecessary while boosting the crowd factor significantly.
When To Suit Up
Water temperatures in Orange County are lowest in winter, dropping to an average of 59F. Full wetsuits are essential at this time of year. Booties and hoodies might be necessary on the coldest days. The water is much warmer in summer, averaging about 69F, so it’s possible to surf comfortably in baggies.
At the northern end of Orange County is the city of Seal Beach and one of the most well-known surf spots in the county. The beach itself is wedged between the harbor to the south and the San Gabriel River mouth to the north. Seal Beach has blackball rules in summer.
The surf spots are on either side of the pier in the middle of the beach. The waves are generally short, fast, and fun, producing hollow barrels on head-high offshore days. Seal Beach is suitable for surfers of all skill levels, but beginners might want to look elsewhere when the waves get big.
The north side of the pier has more consistent waves and tends to be slightly larger than the south side. Seal Beach handles strong NW winds better than many other surf breaks in Orange County due to its orientation and terrain.
Bolsa Chica Beach
Bolsa Chica Beach is a long, gently-sloping beach situated in the Bolsa Chica Basin State Marine Conservation Area, roughly two miles south of Seal Beach. The beach has mellow and beginner-friendly waves, and its not restricted by blackball rules.
While Bolsa Chica Beach usually has small waves, it is a consistent break. On bigger swells, the waves mostly closeout across the beach. Crucially, Bolsa Chica does not get crowded, and there is ample space down the beach to surf in solitude.
Huntington Beach is just south of Bolsa Chica. Known as Surf City, Huntington Beach is the surfing capital in Orange County. The beach itself is roughly nines miles long, separated by the famous pier where professional surfing competitions have been held annually for decades.
Huntington Beach is a fun and rippable surf spot suitable for beginners in summer. In autumn and winter, the waves get all-time, producing clean four to six-foot peaks and hollow barrels. It gets crowded on good days, so catching waves requires patience and nimble paddling skills.
Surfers mostly ride the north and south sides of the pier. The waves are pretty similar on both sides, but the south side tends to have longer rides, while waves on the north side are shorter and hollower.
Winter is usually the best time to surf the south side of the pier, with clean NW and W/NW swells wrapping around the pier, producing perfect A-frame peaks. The south side has blackball rules in summer, so the north side of the pier (which is not blackballed) becomes the focus of surfers’ attention at this time of year.
Newport Beach is a city about a mile south of Huntington Beach. The sandy, wide beach runs south for a few miles, ending at the tip of the Balboa Peninsula. There are several excellent surf spots in Newport Beach, including 56th Street and the world-famous Wedge.
56th Street is a super fun surf spot situated at the northern end of Newport Beach, near the mouth of the Santa Ana River separating Newport from Huntington Beach. The waves break along the north side of 56th Street Jetty, which is the first of a series of small rock jetties along Newport Beach.
56th Street is a left-hand, sand-bottom wave that works best in the two to four-foot range. The take-off is at the end of the jetty, and the waves are fast and highly rippable. When it’s offshore, 56th Street has clean walls and hollow barrels. Novice surfers might enjoy 56th Street on smaller days.
At the southern end of the Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach is one of the most infamous sand-bottomed waves in the world: The Wedge. If you didn’t already know, The Wedge is a supernatural, mutant, left-hand surf spot situated in the corner of Balboa Beach and Newport Harbor Jetty.
The Wedge produces unreal waves because of the fortuitous synergy between the beach’s gradient, its exposed swell window, and swell refraction caused by the jetty. Waves bouncing off the jetty at right-angles connect with incoming waves, doubling in size, power and speed, and creating legendary, warped, barreling wedges.
The Wedge ranges from one to twenty-foot in size, depending on the swell conditions. The waves break over shallow sandbanks close to shore, with many successful and unsuccessful rides ending on dry sand. The speed and unpredictability of the Wedge make it a tricky spot to ride, even for locals.
The Wedge is black-balled in summer. On small days, The Wedge can still be a heavy, crowded spot and it is generally not recommended for beginners. On big days, The Wedge is for confident and skilled surfers only. It is one of the best places to watch death-defying surfing up close and personal.
Laguna Beach City is about three miles south of Newport Beach along the Pacific Highway. Laguna Beach has several small beaches, but much of the shoreline is steep and rocky. It’s not as popular for surfing as other places in the county, but Laguna Beach has a few excellent surf spots such as Rockpiles and Thalia Beach.
Rockpiles breaks is on the north side of a small cove, in front of a tiny beach strewn with boulders and backed by tree-lined cliffs. It’s a right-hand wave that breaks over a rock and sand bottom. The primary take-off zone at Rockpiles is between two exposed outcrops of rock.
This spot is ideal on four to six-foot swells from the northwest, and the waves here are long and super fast, with occasional barrel sections. This is generally not a beginner-friendly surf spot, though inexperienced surfers might enjoy surfing the inside shore-break section on smaller days.
Less than a mile down the sandy shoreline is Thalia Beach, a fun beach break that’s suitable for surfers of all skill levels. The waves break close to shore at Thalia Beach and are typically beginner-friendly. Nonetheless, the waves often get good enough to satisfy more advanced surfers. Look out for the blackball flag in summer.
The city of San Clemente is an exceedingly popular surf destination about five miles south of Laguna, just round the rocky headland at Dana Point. There are some world-famous waves in the San Clemente area. Let’s look at a few of them.
T-Street Beach is a world-famous surf break where many of the best Californian surfers first learned to ride waves. The waves are generally mellow and super fun, and surfers of all skill levels frequent this consistent spot. Take note that T-Street has blackball rules in summer.
The dominant peak at T-Street is a long right-hand wave on the north side of the beach, close to San Clemente Pier (another excellent beach break). There are some sections of shallow reef and rock, but T-Street is mostly a sand-bottom surf spot.
Trestles Beach is one of the most well-known surf zones on the Californian coast. Though technically within the northern border of San Diego County, Trestles is included here because surfers access the beach by walking a mile from the southern end of San Clemente. The long walk is more than worth it.
Trestles Beach consists of a series of rock and sand-bottom surf breaks. To the north is Cottons, which is a fairly mellow but super fun left-hand wave that’s ideal for beginner and advanced surfers. Just south, at the top of the headland are the crown jewels: Upper Trestles and Lower Trestles.
Uppers is a long, fast, right-hand point-style wave that rivals Jeffrey’s Bay on S/SW swells and offshore north easterlies. Just down the point is Lowers, another world-class surf spot with long, hollow, high-performance rights and lefts. Upper and Lower Trestles work best between four and six-foot.
Uppers and Lowers are powerful, and the paddle-out can be exhausting. The crowds are also intense on good days. Beginners will generally have more fun further down the point at Middles, a right and left, or at Church, which is a long right-hand wave at the bottom the point.
Surf Travel Logistics In Orange County
If you’re flying to Orange County, you’ll have to land at John Wayne Airport, just over a mile east of Huntington Beach.
Unless you’re staying close to your desired surf spot, you’ll need a car to get around. Most of the surf spots in Orange County are accessible by driving along State Route 1.
Like most of California, Orange County is not a cheap surf destination. But there is a dizzying variety of places to stay and eat, so it’s possible for surfers traveling on shoestring budgets to find less expensive options for accommodation and food.
Orange County is a legendary surf destination with waves to suit eager beginners and the most advanced surfers. The crowds can be intense. However, the quality, variety, and consistency of the waves in Orange County make this a worthwhile destination for surfers looking for the Classic Californian surf experience.