Surfing has been a part of Santa Barbara culture long before it became a globally recognized sport. Today, this cozy beach town is home to epic surf breaks as well as some of the sport’s most well-known names.
Santa Barbara, CA, has a rich history of surf culture. Powerful autumn and winter swells beckon surfers from all over to test their skills in this legendary pointbreak paradise. With spots such as the iconic Rincon Point, Sandspit, and Leadbetter Point, you are guaranteed to find your perfect wave.
As home to The Endless Summer, Santa Barbara encompasses culture. Its iconic right-hand point breaks attract surfers from across the globe. The laidback student atmosphere around the university and cozy surf shacks create the perfect spot for a surf holiday.
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The 13 Best Surfing Spots In Santa Barbara, CA
Santa Barbara County is divided into the lower east-to-west stretch from the county line up to Point Conception is known as SoCal, while the dramatic change in the coastal direction above The Ranch is known as the Central Coast.
Santa Barbara has at least a half-dozen ideal point setups that are dormant most of the year due to the Channel Islands’ perpetual shadow. However, autumn and winter welcome solid northwest swells up to 6-feet. These are the 13 best spots in Santa Barbara to drop into!
1. Rincon Point (Carpinteria Beach)
Rincon is home to the famous break, dubbed “The Queen of the Coast” by local surfers. Rincon Point has long been a testing ground for surfboard technology and design by Santa Barbara’s most famous surfers and shapers, with waves peeling flawlessly for up to half a mile.
This spot is one of Northern California’s gems. Powerful northwesterly and westerly swells bring the right-point wave to its peak. Keep an eye out for hollow waves that wall into the point. They can be rough for beginners, but the lineup to catch these waves is always busy.
Carpinteria’s main beach, termed Tarpits by the locals, is also bustling with activity. It’s a fun spot to surf on smaller swells when the ankle burners get rowdy, and there’s room to rip to the right.
2. Leadbetter Point
Leadbetter Point is the ideal place to get your surf legs under you. This downtown location, just west of Santa Barbara Harbor and across the street from Santa Barbara City College, offers small breakers perfect for beginners.
Furthermore, it is a popular spot for longboarders and performance surfers since its westerly winter swell can hold a surprising amount of size and power. The real treat is the ride’s length, which can often be more than 100m down the front of the cypress-topped bluffs. However, its legendary breaks draw in crowds. Make sure you arrive early to avoid a busy lineup.
3. Campus Point
Campus Point is an absolute highlight of the Santa Barbara surf scene. It may be one of the gentlest waves in town, but the friendly locals create an upbeat atmosphere. The University of California, Santa Barbara, just up the road, inspired the name.
Beginners are spoilt with fun and crumbly reef break up front, while larger wedges can be found in the back. However, keep an eye out for rocks, as these can be a hazard to you and your board.
This spot is best checked out in winter when swells create perfect top-to-bottom barrels off this shale-layered point, despite being a relatively calm surf spot. The surf at Campus Point improves dramatically around September and continues to improve as the winter swells increase. Average wave heights range from two to four feet but have reached as high as fifteen feet!
The Sandspit has unforgiving backwash waves that slap-up off the Santa Barbara Harbor jetty. The water and rocky coastline wreak havoc, and there are regularly broken boards. This surf spot is best in the winter, but it is not suitable for beginners. Sandspit waves break with heavy backwash and long spinning tubes.
Sandspit’s thick, hollow barrels that seem to break below sea level summon almost every surfer in the Santa Barbara to the lineup to try their luck at a legendary 6-second barrel.
5. Hammond’s Reef (Montecito)
Just off the El Camino Real, Hammond’s Reef has a gnarly right break reminiscent of strong Portuguese breaks. However, this is not the spot for beginners. The swell comes in thick and heavy, with a quick takeoff into a huge open-face wave with tons of power. If you can paddle quickly enough, you’ll be rewarded with a beefy shoulder that you can carve up for 50-100m.
However, be aware of the rocks that are a hazard to you and your board.
6. El Capitán State Beach
El Capitan, a very high-quality right-hand point break just over 14 miles northwest up the 101 from downtown Santa Barbara, is always busy when it’s on. It is not affected by the swell shadow to the south created by the Channel Islands because it requires westerly elements in the swell to function.
They will collide with the cobblestone reef that juts out from the California shore here, creating fast and sculpted barrel waves that are almost unrivaled on this stretch of coast. Local crew can be protective, but they look forward to this one every year.
7. The Channel Islands
There are a plethora of exclusive surf spots in the Channel Islands. Surfing at these locations can be dangerous due to exposed breaks, swift currents, and rocky reefs, so only expert-level surfers should attempt to ride these waves.
Generally, the north shore islands are ideal for surfing during the northwest swells of winter and spring, and the south shore islands are best during the south swells of summer and fall.
8. Jalama Beach Park
Jalama Beach is the hidden gem of the Santa Barbara surf scene. This spot is located just north of Point Conception and off the beaten path. Jalama Beach Park is ideal for surfers looking for a bit of a challenge since it boasts beach and reef breaks, and the challenging conditions necessitate prior experience and higher skill levels.
Jalama is frequently exposed to high wind conditions. Tarantula’s is the south end, and it boasts a rough reef A-frame. However, the beach break is calmer. You’re still looking at fast and challenging waves that are frequently buffeted by strong onshore winds.
Devereux is another famous University of California, Santa Barbara student hangout. This spot packs a little more punch because the shelf is deeper, and there’s a better chance of catching winter westerlies. The atmosphere is usually pleasant, and it is rarely crowded. The wave is on the mushier side, but it’s also long and cruisy.
10. Mesa Lane
Although there are several beach and reef breaks between Hendry’s Beach and Leadbetter Point, they rarely provide decent breaks and are challenging to reach. Mesa Lane, previously known as The Pendulum, can occasionally offer surfable waves on an incoming tide in the fall, winter, and spring.
Like Hendry’s Beach, Mesa Lane is popular with the local after-work and after-school crowd. To find this fun and more exclusive Santa Barbara surf spot, you will have to navigate down the hillsides between the stone pines and the flower thickets at the end of Mesa Lane. Winter can be very consistent because there is a little more westerly exposure here.
11. Refugio State Beach
In Refugio State Beach, thick palm trees give way to a cinnamon-colored stretch of sand. The waves roll onto the rocky shores, where they are pushed into moderate and slow-moving waves that circle the point. The waves are typically small, with crumbling tops and a gentle right break, making them an excellent choice for beginners.
Another advantage of the point extending into the water is that it acts as a windbreak. This means surfers won’t have to worry about onshore winds, which are common along the central coast and can ruin an afternoon surf session with choppy and confusing conditions.
12. The Ranch
The Ranch boasts waves with serious teeth that curl into the low-lying reef shelf north of Santa Barbara. It’s a powerful peak with a right and a left that’s best on big westerly and northwesterly days. On the other hand, the left peak is usually avoided because the landing is so shallow.
However, if you’re looking for some more fun, you should paddle further right. This part of the peak can be fast and demanding, with a strong emphasis on the bottom turn. The paddle out can be extremely powerful, so be prepared to duck a lot.
Tarantula’s, known locally as T’s, is a reef break at the south end of Jamala Beach that boasts some gnarly left tubes. It was one of the first Santa Barbara surf spots to feel the south swell that the Channel Islands essentially cut off.
The channel is known to house rips and rocks, so it’s not for the faint of heart. The wave is similar to a Balinese wet season screamer, with a fast overhead barrel and a shoulder that holds much shape down the line.
When Is the Best Time of Year To Surf In Santa Barbara, CA?
Although this classic Californian surf town has something to keep you occupied with throughout the year, the surfing is highly seasonal because of the angle of the coastline and the alignment of the Channel Islands situated offshore.
Surfing Santa Barbara In The Fall
We recommend planning your surf holiday in Santa Barbara during the fall. Enjoy September and October with oily glass, long-interval west swells, and neoprene-warming sunshine all day. Fall is a transitional season, so expect the best and worst.
However, the tourist influx diminishes significantly after Labor Day weekend, so fewer sightseers allow for more quality exploration space for you. Autumn is also when lower Santa Barbara County awakens from its summer slumber, and those fabled right points can become downright magical.
Surfing Santa Barbara In The Winter
Winter is, without a doubt, the most consistent time of year for pointbreaks. Aleutian storms can make everything north of Point Conception a riot, but once the swells start filtering around the corner, the entire area transforms into a thigh-burning pointbreak paradise.
Surfing Santa Barbara In The Summer
Surfing in summer is generally flat and desolate, but this can be advantageous for the beach breaks north of Point Arguello since most of these waves are only surfable when small and clean. Although fog can impede onshore breezes, persistent wind in the outer waters frequently creates junky conditions, despite calm air at the beach.
Lower Santa Barbara County is simply depressing this time of year, and it’s no surprise that many locals leave for a month or two.
Surfing Santa Barbara In The Spring
Spring is the least ideal time to surf Santa Barbara. Minimal swell and a strong northwest wind result in flat, onshore surf. Furthermore, because the northwest winds cause upwelling, the water is as cold as it gets all year.
Where To Shop, Eat, And Live Surf Culture In Santa Barbara, CA
After a long day of paddling out into Santa Barbara’s powerful swell, you are bound to work up an appetite. For a mouthwatering burger and fries, head to The Spot. This laidback little shack is just steps from Carpinteria beach. Fresh seafood and cocktails are an absolute must when visiting the coast. Check out Santa Barbara FisHouse for a festive atmosphere and delicious surf and turf!
Experiencing Santa Barbara to the fullest means frequenting their cozy beachside accommodation. In the heart of downtown Santa Barbara, you will find waterside views and a charming atmosphere at Beachside Inn. However, if you’re looking to encompass California ranch culture, check out Circle Bar B Guest Ranch. Although it is a short drive from the coast, you are guaranteed a peaceful stay.
Take a break from chasing barrels and treat yourself to some new gear at Surf n Wear’s The Beach House. This is the perfect place for beginners to get kitted out since the store clerks are experts on all things surfing. If you’re interested in taking home a retro board that encompasses that Californian surf culture, head to Common Folk Surfboards.
As home to The Endless Summer and some of California’s best right-hand point breaks, Santa Barbara encompasses a rich history of surf culture. Powerful autumn and winter swells attract surfers from all over to test their skills in this legendary pointbreak paradise. With spots such as the iconic Rincon Point, Sandspit, and Leadbetter Point, you are guaranteed to find your perfect wave.