Deservedly christened “the happiest place in America,” San Luis Obispo is the perfect coastal getaway. The secluded surf spots are surrounded by breathtaking vistas and are inhabited by a plethora of marine life—gear up in your neoprene and paddle out in the chilly swell of this Californian paradise.
With more than 80 miles of breathtaking coastline, you are spoiled by the choice of secluded surfing spots. Surf under the twinkling lights off the pier at Pismo Beach, paddle out next to the majestic Morro Rock or perfect your technique at Cayucos.
Granted, this laid-back destination is not on many bucket lists; San Luis Obispo is far more than a sleepy little surf town. Stroll through the farmer’s markets, embrace the budding nightlife, and soak up the incredible natural beauty surrounding San Luis Obispo.
The 5 Best Places To Surf In San Luis Obispo, CA
San Luis Obispo County is better known for its California Polytechnic State University than its swell. In fact, there is not a single pointbreak graces this rustic 85-mile coastline; however, if you are a big fan of break breaks, you will be abundantly spoiled in San Luis Obispo.
Although the prime surf spots are rare gems in the San Luis Obispo area, the novelty of being surrounded by the breathtaking landscape far outweighs the quality of the surf. Gear up in your neoprene, and search for that adrenaline rush in the boil-ridden peaks. What’s best is that you are miles away from the hustle and bustle of California.
1. Pismo Beach
Pismo Beach has several sought-after surf spots, but the pier is by far the popular spot with a good break at high tide and the best swell direction coming from the southwest. Pismo Beach is typically the most consistent and shapely of all beach breaks in the county, and it is appropriate for surfers of all skill levels. What’s more, there are no protruding rocks on the sandy bottom.
The pier is just over a thousand feet long and fully lit most of the time, which makes for some very atmospheric night surfing. It’s in a slightly northwest swell and isn’t as exposed as many other sandbars in the area, so it’s less windy. The south side of the pier is typically a better surf spot than the north side, and the further south you travel from the pier, the quieter the surf.
You can enjoy nice rides from the south, and the best waves are knee-high to a few feet overhead. Pismo Beach is about a 10-minute drive south on U.S. Highway 101 from Cal Poly.
2. Morro Bay
Morro Bay is another Central Coast surfing destination with a good break. The surf is generally better on the north side of Morro Rock, a volcanic relic that stands roughly 500-feet tall. Because of the endangered peregrine falcons that inhabit its cliffs, The Rock, as locals call it, has officially been declared a state preserve.
Swells hit the sandbars and create various breaks because the beach faces west. The waves are more consistent and powerful further north. Surfing waves range from knee-high to several feet overhead, and the best swells come from the west when an easterly wind is blowing. When the tide is medium to high, this is the best time to surf. Morro Bay is best suited for beginner surfers.
Tourists frequently visit Morro Rock and the nearby campgrounds, but the water itself is rarely crowded. Cal Poly is a mere 15-minute drive from Morro Bay.
Cayucos is a beach town that can provide good surfing during certain swells. Captain James Cass founded the town in 1867 and built its 900-foot-long pier with the help of his brothers. Because the town is protected from northerly winds, it is usually warmer than other nearby seaside towns. Cayucos’ pier also offers a nice break from the pilings.
The surf is at its best when the tide is high, the swells are from the southwest, and the wind is from the northeast. The cleanest waves range in size from waist-high to a few feet overhead, and the break is suitable for beginners to intermediates.
The ocean floor is mostly sand, with a few protruding rocks to the south. Cayucos is about 20 to 25 minutes north of Cal Poly on California Highway 1 and is less crowded than Pismo Beach.
While Cambria is a popular tourist attraction, nearby Moonstone Beach is one of the more secluded Central Coast surfing locations. San Luis Obispo’s best-kept secret is on Moonstone Beach Drive near the mouth of Santa Rosa Creek. The coastline is unpredictable and ever-changing. Furthermore, parts of the beach are frequently closed to the public when elephant seals come ashore.
When there is a powerful swell from the west to southwest, it is low tide, and there is an easterly or northeasterly wind blowing; the waves are usually at their best. The ideal waves are waist-high to about two feet overhead, but the conditions are less favorable for surfing when the tide is high because there is usually a shore break.
The bottom is sandy, but there are some protruding rocks. Moonstone is about a half an hour drive north on California Highway 1, and San Simeon is a short 10-minute drive north of Moonstone.
5. Pico Creek
Pico Creek, located south of San Simeon, is the best surfing spot. This location has a reef break that can be enjoyable on large and small days. The reef is directly in front of a creek mouth and provides a smooth ride that peaks on the outside and frequently changes on the inner peak.
You won’t be disappointed by this spot when the swell is larger than chest-high to a few feet overhead. At low tide, and when there is a southern swell with a northeast wind, the waves are at their best. Because the bottom is sandy with occasional rocks, this is another location best suited for intermediate surfers.
When Is The Best Time To Surf In San Luis Obispo, CA?
Unlike in southern California, where the coastline is hidden behind Point Conception and the Channel Islands, the northern and central coasts are entirely exposed to swells, storms, and wind from the north Pacific. This makes surfing on the central coast much more seasonally dependent, not so much due to seasonal swell activity as it is due to seasonal wind patterns.
Surfing San Luis Obispo, CA In the Fall
You can expect oily glass, long-interval west swells, and neoprene-warming sunshine all day in September and October. Orderly swells and ideal traveling weather combine to make the Central Coast, like Europe this time of year, a joyous grab bag for surfing.
That’s not to say that winter doesn’t make an appearance every now and then, bringing with it massive, wind-whipped storm surf and horizontal rain. However, the tourist influx diminishes significantly after Labor Day weekend, so fewer gawkers mean more quality exploration space for you. These local surf spots are fantastic in the autumn, so you almost can’t go wrong visiting in September or October.
Surfing San Luis Obispo, CA In The Winter
Winter is prime surfing season for lower Santa Barbara County, but it’s less than ideal for the rest of the Golden State. Persistent south winds, large northwest swells, and driving rain contribute to poor surfing conditions. You can always check Hazards, which is offshore during south winds, but other surf options are virtually nonexistent.
It’s a great time of year for sipping coffee and curling up by the fire with a good book. Highway 1 through Big Sur is periodically closed this time of year due to natural impediments such as slides and slip-outs. The sights and sounds of a gray, tumultuous ocean are breathtaking; however, the surfing is not.
Surfing San Luis Obispo, CA In The Summer
The surf is quite dismal during the summer, although this can be good for the beach breaks north of Point Arguello, which are only surfable when they’re small and clean. Although fog can impede onshore breezes, persistent wind in the outer waters frequently results in rougher conditions, despite calm breezes at the beach.
South swells can work wonders in a few northern nooks, such as Cayucos, but most Central Coast spots require a more westerly pulse to function properly. During the summer, your best bet for finding good waves is to head north toward Pismo and Morro Bay, where there’s almost always some rideable surf.
San Carpoforo Creek and Sand Dollar Beach in southern Big Sur welcome smaller swells, so that’s another good option. Bring your fishing gear or longboard if you’re visiting this time of year, but don’t rule out a punchy south swell. Aside from the smaller surf, one of the most significant drawbacks to summer in this area is the tourists.
Surfing San Luis Obispo, CA In The Spring
Spring is the worst time to surf in the San Luis Obispo area because of the strong north-northwest winds, which cause bad conditions and some of the coldest water on the West Coast.
Avila Beach, north of Pismo, may have something, but don’t get your hopes up. During a north wind, the area just north of Cayucos can be semi-offshore, and San Simeon Bay, while not really a surf spot, can be useful in times of true desperation.
Big Sur Rivermouth is by far the best spot to check during north wind; this spot is offshoring all spring, so you’ll undoubtedly see other surfers here. The weather and swell action in spring can be like autumn, which means that the conditions are unpredictable.
The vibrant colors of spring, on the other hand, are well worth a visit, and don’t be surprised if you end up spending far more time photographing the scenery than surfing.
What Are the Dangers Of Surfing In San Luis Obispo, CA?
Although the Central Coast’s significant great white shark population is likely exaggerated, this area is undoubtedly inhabited by these magnificent creatures. While shark alerts frequently chase surfers out of the water, you are generally safe in northern Santa Barbara County or lower San Luis Obispo.
Once you travel into the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which begins at San Simeon, you will be welcomed by the barking of sea lions and elephant seals. Be reassured that these blubbery pinnipeds are the primary food source for great white sharks in the area.
Great white sharks are not the only predators that inhabit this area. Killer whales have been sighted in Big Sur, although there has only been one recorded killer whale attack on a surfer. Big Sur is also home to the California Sea Otter State Game Reserve, so the area is teeming with animals, seaweed, rocks, and cold, nutrient-rich saltwater.
Although sharks have been spotted in the surf zone, the chances that you will have any close interactions with them are pretty slim. Hypothermia, rocks, and currents will most likely cause you more trouble than a shark.
How To Eat, Stay, And Shop Surf Culture In San Luis Obispo
Your trip to this cozy little surf town would not be complete without some laid-back California dining. Indulge in Splash Cafe’s iconic clam chowder and a grilled sourdough slice. However, if you’re looking for a quick grab-and-go on your way to paddle out, grab a snack at High Street Deli. For a sweet bite to take on the road, try out Brown Butter Cookie Company.
Immerse yourself in the coastal culture by purchasing new gear or even a retro surfboard at Central Coast Surfboards. If you are interested in exploring some of the area’s rich history, head to Pismo Beach Surf Shop. This quirky little store is the oldest surf store on the Central Coast. It offers surf museum tours, plenty of guided activities, and some unique gifts as the perfect souvenir of your trip.
Recharge after a long day’s surf at one of the many cozy accommodations that San Luis Obispo has to offer. SLO Brew Lofts has a laid-back, creative atmosphere in its multi-room suites and comfy studio flats. However, if you’re a social butterfly, Hotel San Luis Obispo will tickle your fancy with its restaurants, bars, rooftop lounge, full-service spa, bocce ball court, and even a luxurious swimming pool and jacuzzi.
Deservedly christened “the happiest place in America,” San Luis Obispo is the ideal coastal getaway for those after a peaceful surf. The magnificent vistas and marine life make surfing San Luis Obispo a unique experience. There are several secluded surf spots along the 80 miles of breathtaking coastline. Paddle out under the twinkling lights of Pismo Beach Pier or alongside the majestic Morro Rock.
Furthermore, this is ideal for new surfers since several surf spots are suitable for beginners, such as Cayucos or Moonstone. Take a break from your board and stroll through the farmer’s markets, embrace the budding nightlife, and soak up the incredible natural beauty surrounding San Luis Obispo.