Santa Cruz County is an epicenter of Californian surfing and beach culture. Waves get so good in Santa Cruz that it’s more than worth the effort of negotiating the infamously crowded line-ups along this mythical stretch of central Californian coastline.
Santa Cruz is an iconic Californian surf destination. It has many beach breaks, points, and reef breaks with excellent waves for beginners and advanced surfers. Santa Cruz receives regular south swells in summer and large northwest swells in winter. The waves are excellent but can get crowded.
Santa Cruz is a small county packed with a diverse range of surf spots that work with different swell conditions and at different times of the year. As with any surf trip, good information is crucial for scoring the kinds of waves you like to ride.
Surfing In Santa Cruz: What You Need To Know
Santa Cruz County has a wealth of surf spots along its 29 miles of stunning Californian coastline. The area can be divided into two distinct sections.
The southern half of Santa Cruz’s coastline is mostly taken up by a long sandy beach that is protected by Monterey Bay. The northern half of the coastline is exposed, rocky and steep.
The beach breaks in Santa Cruz are ideal for all surfers of all skill levels. Beaches to the north are exposed to open ocean swell and get heavier waves more suited to advanced surfers. When conditions are ideal, the beach breaks have world-class waves.
The reefs and points are the reason for Santa Cruz’s fame. These surf spots are suited for experienced surfers who can handle the powerful waves and currents, as well as the intense local hierarchy.
Santa Cruz has swell year-round, but there are marked differences in local seasonal swell patterns. The waves are largest in winter when Santa Cruz gets north swells. In summer, south swells arrive routinely along the Santa Cruz coastline.
The water is cold most of the time, so full-suits are needed throughout the year. In winter, the water gets cold enough to justify donning booties and a hoodie!
The cold ocean and abundant marine life off Santa Cruz make this a favored area for Great White sharks. Crowds and assertive local surfers can also pose a potential hazard when surfing in Santa Cruz. Caution and common sense are needed to minimize the chances of an unpleasant encounter here.
When To Surf In Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz is a great place to surf any time of year. The waves vary from winter to summer, so it’s worth knowing about the seasonal changes in local swell and weather patterns.
Fall And Winter
Fall is an excellent time to surf in Santa Cruz. It’s right between the summer and winter swell seasons and often has the cleanest conditions of the year due to the light northwest winds that blow at this time.
The winter months (from November to March) bring cooler weather and the largest, most consistent waves to Santa Cruz. At this time of year, solid northwest groundswells arrive from storms in the North Pacific and pummel the Santa Cruz coastline. The prevailing wind blows hard from the west or northwest in wintertime.
Spring And Summer
Springtime still catches some of the last northwest swells, so the waves regularly get overhead at the more exposed surf spots. However, the size of the waves starts to drop at this time of year, making it more suitable for novices and younger surfers.
The summer months (roughly between May and August) bring a new swell season to Santa Cruz. Southerly groundswells from storms in the South Pacific arrive in Santa Cruz. They provide solid, overhead waves consistently throughout the summer season. Prevailing winds at this time of year blow from the northeast.
The weather and water warm up considerably in summer, increasing the density of the crowds in the line-up.
The Best Surfing Spots In Santa Cruz
Now you know when to surf in Santa Cruz, let’s look at where you might find the waves best suited to your needs. We’ll start at the northern end of the Santa Cruz coastline.
Davenport Beach is a heavy surf spot on the isolated, beautiful, and rugged rocky north side of Santa Cruz. The beach is in a small cove with cliffs on each side. Davenport is one of the least crowded places to surf in Santa Cruz
The main surf spot is a heavy right-hand point-break that runs over rocks along the headland on the north side of the beach. The waves at the point-break get double-overhead in winter, but they work best between four and six-foot.
There is also a decent left-hand reef break near the rocky headland on the southern end of the beach. The beach itself has a heavy shore-break that is more suited to body-boarding than stand-up surfing.
Davenport Beach is not recommended for beginner surfers. It’s on an exposed stretch of coastline that gets a lot of swell and wind, so the surf gets wild here, and the currents are powerful.
The point-break prefers winter northwest swells, while the reef-break works well on south swells in summer. Fall is often a good time to surf Davenport because the wind tends to be mildest at this time of year.
Four Mile Beach is a short drive south along the Cabrillo Highway. The beach is nestled in a tiny cove, bounded by a rocky ledge to the south, and a short, vertical cliff to the north. Four Mile Beach is more protected than Davenport Beach, so the waves get cleaner and considerably more crowded.
The main surf break at Four Mile Beach is an excellent right-hand point that breaks over a rocky shelf. It’s a fast and rippable spot with hollow, make-able barrels on offshore days. The line-up is accessed from the rocks near the take-off zone.
The point break at Four Mile Beach is best between 3-foot and six-foot and prefers northwest swells, making winter the most consistent time for surfing this high-quality spot.
Roughly four miles southeast along the highway is Steamer Lane—the jewel of the Santa Cruz coastline and one of the most legendary surf spots in the whole of California. This classic right-hand point-break is at the top of the headland at Lighthouse Point, where the shoreline turns inward to Monterrey Bay.
Steamer Lane is well-protected from northwest winds, so it’s usually cleaner than the local surf spots to the north. The quality and consistency of the waves at Steamer Lane make this one of the most intensely crowded and competitive line-ups in California. Steamer Lane has four distinct sections.
The Point is the prime section of Steamer Lane. It breaks at the top of the Lighthouse Point and is a super-fast, high-performance wave with a heavily contested take-off zone. This section works best from three to six-foot. The Point prefers south to southwest swells, but it’s still ridiculously rippable on most swell directions.
Waves from The Point run down and connect to The Slot, which starts at the next headland cliff about 50 yards down the line. The take-off spot at The Slot is right next to the cliffside. The Slot is a smaller wave with more of a wedging, bowling shape than The Point. It’s fast and fun and has hollow barrels on the northwest swells
Indicators is further down the line from The Slot. The waves at Indicators are long, running for nearly 300 yards along the rocky shoreline. It’s a great wave, though it’s a slower mellower wave than the two previous sections of Steamer Lane. For this reason, Indicators is excellent for long-boarding.
The section of Steamer Lane called Middle Peak breaks over a series of deepwater reefs across the channel from The Slot. Middle Peak has rights and lefts that are slower and less hollow than The Point and the Slot, but the waves at Middle Peak can get larger because this spot is out beyond the channel.
Cowell Beach is a long-boarding favorite nestled in a small bay that starts at the end of Indicators. The beach beach is bordered by cliffs to the north and Santa Cruz Wharf to the south and is well-protected from big swells.
Cowell Beach is a mellow and beginner-friendly surf spot. It rarely gets bigger than two to three feet because of the protection of the bay and harbor. Cowell Beach also has a gentle gradient, so the waves and currents aren’t hazardously powerful here.
Cowell Beach works on northwest and south swells. The waves can be so pleasant that the line-up often gets super-crowded with longboarders.
Pleasure Point is another famous Santa Cruz surf break at the end of the next headland, about a mile east along the sandy shoreline from Cowell Beach. Pleasure Point is an excellent surf spot for beginner and advanced longboarders and gets very crowded when it’s cooking.
The main wave is a long, rock-bottomed right-hand point. It starts at the top of the headland in front of 33rd Street and runs through several different sections that break along the rocky shoreline. Pleasure Point ends with a mellow beach break in front of the small, rock-strewn beach by 38th Street.
The outside and middle sections of the point have fast walls and the occasional hollow barrel. This point-break works best from three to six-foot. The beach break has the smallest waves at Pleasure Point and is a very gentle and beginner-friendly surf spot.
Pleasure Point is fun with any swell direction and the waves get particularly good on south swells in summer and northwest swells in the winter months.
Capitola Beach appears unexpectedly between two sections of rocky shoreline about a mile to the northeast of Pleasure Point. The surf spot is well protected from large swells by the pier on the western end of the beach, making this one of the most beginner-friendly places to surf in Santa Cruz.
Capitola has waves for beginner surfers year-round and is surfable on northwest and south swells. The ease of surfing at Capitola Beach does, however, result in a densely crowded line-up, especially in summer.
Manresa Beach is about 10 miles east of Capitola Beach along the seemingly endless sandy coastline of Monterey Bay. Manresa is a stunningly beautiful beach. It has a wide swell window and is exposed to most swell that enters the bay. The result is that there are waves at Manresa Beach consistently throughout the year.
Manresa Beach has super-fun, peaking lefts and rights. In summer, the waves are generally mellow and beginner-friendly and don’t typically get bigger than two to foot-foot. Manresa Beach’s exposed position means it often gets powerful overhead waves on northwest swells during winter.
Manresa Beach can get crowded when the waves are firing, but the isolation and length of the beach mean there is space to find a solitary peak. Having said this, you might want to consider sticking close to the crowd because Manresa Beach is known to be particularly popular with Great White sharks.
Surfing In Santa Cruz: Travel Logistics And Practicalities
Santa Cruz has everything visiting surfers could need while traveling in the county.
It’s a relatively expensive place, with living costs for tourists averaging about $100 per day. Nonetheless, with proper research and planning, surfers can find accommodation and eateries that suit their budgets and preferences.
If you want the full experience of Santa Cruz’s legendary waves, then it’s highly recommended to hire a car to get to the right surf spots at the right time.
All the surf spots in Santa Cruz can be accessed directly or indirectly from State Route 1 (SR1), the iconic coastal highway running north-south along the Californian coast. The SR1 is also designated as the Cabrillo Highway where it traverses the northern coastline of Santa Cruz.
Wetsuits are essential for most of the year in Santa Cruz. Average water temperatures in winter are 61F, so a 4/3mm full suit and booties are necessary, with many surfers wearing hoodies at this time of year.
In summer, the average water temperature is 68F, which is warm enough for a 3/4mm full-suit or a spring suit. On the hottest, sunniest days in summer it’s even possible to surf in board shorts.
It’s worth repeating that the cool water and abundant marine life off the Santa Cruz coastline support a local population of Great Whites sharks, Caution and common sense are advisable whenever entering the water. Pay attention to news of shark sightings, and try to avoid surfing when the water is super-murky.
The county of Santa Cruz has a central place in surfing mythology. It has world-class point breaks and super-fun beach breaks throughout the year and is an embodiment of classic Californian beach culture. Though Santa Cruz has heavy crowds, it’s still possible to score more than a few memorable rides along this iconic stretch of Californian coastline.