San Diego is arguably one of the best places to surf in the continental United States. We’ve all seen the waves, curling, rushing through the water, crashing into the beach. There’s a reason people from all across the nation–and even the world–come to get a taste of the legendary coastline.
San Diego’s love affair with surfing began in the early days of the sport, with Duke Kahanamoku and George Freeth, who would give massive demonstrations drawing large crowds in the early 1900s. They challenged the reigning sentiment that the ocean was dirty and dangerous, unfit for swimming and aquatic sports.
Duke Paoa Kahanamoku with his surfboard.
Later in the 1930s, Woody Brown–one of the first big wave surfing legends–came to the city and adapted the standard board designs. Ever since then, San Diego has been the hub of a beach culture defined by surfing.
Today, children in San Diego are born with boards in hand. They’re taught from an early age to balance themselves, pop-up, and read the waves. It’s what people in San Diego do.
This was all possible because of San Diego’s legendary surfing beaches, many of which have become monuments to the surfers who have gone before them, spreading good cheer and aloha.
Understanding these slices of aquatic paradise is part of what it means to be a surfer. It’s about conserving the land and the water, honoring the fragile ecosystems that exist there, as well as preserving it for future generations. Residents consider those beaches a second home. They care deeply about ensuring that they stay protected. We also need to read the waves, study the ocean floor, the kelp beds, and the coral. That’s very important if you want to stay safe out in the water.
So here’s to San Diego’s surfing beaches, the home of the party, the places we all go to relax. May they forever stay pristine and beautiful, and may the waves we love always flow.
Sunset at La Jolla Beach. Courtesy of Chad McDonald / Flickr
La Jolla is an aquatic playground, known for its underwater park, where you’ll find visions of marine life, word-class scuba diving, and snorkeling. There’s an underwater canyon, sand flats, and an underwater forest filled with sea turtles, where the kelp can reach up to 100-feet high. It is unlike anywhere else in San Diego. There’s kayaking, sea caves, and seals.
La Jolla is also home to some of the best surfing in San Diego. It caters to all ages and skill levels, offering both the city’s largest waves and also the easiest, depending upon where you choose to paddle out.
La Jolla Shores
La Jolla shores is San Diego’s beginner beach, where surf instructors take out their students, showing them how to ride the foam. There’s no shame in that game. It can be quite fun, and it’s the perfect place to train for the big leagues. If you can learn to surf there, you can move on to greater things. The waves typically average around four feet, but during large swells, they can get higher.
La Jolla Cove
Nestled beneath a ring of sea bluffs, La Jolla Cove is a paradise for snorkeling and scuba diving. From above, the water has a distinct pattern of dark and bright contrasting shades, reminiscent of the coves in Hawaii or other desert islands. Children’s Pool Beach to the south is a massive structure built to be a safe haven for children to play. It has since been invaded by sea lions. To the north, you’ll find La Jollas 7 sea caves, all but one of which can only be accessed by kayak. Tours are available.
Surfing at La Jolla Cove is sporadic, dependent upon the season and the swells, but when the waves reach the proper height, watch out. It can get wild. There are rocks close to shore and other barriers. This is definitely an advanced spot, but it’s a fun one.
Chad McDonald / Flickr
Windansea is a surfers beach, plain and simple. You’re not likely to see kids playing in the waves or people strolling along the sand. This beach has one main purpose. It was named after an old hotel that burned down in the 1940s, and that’s what it’s been called ever since.
In 1947, a group of surf legends gathered a bunch of eucalyptus and palm fronds to build what is known as the Tiki Hut, also called the Windansea Shack. They wanted a place for their families and a shady spot to rest their boards where the wax wouldn’t melt. It’s been torn down many times by storms over the years, but the locals love it so much that they keep rebuilding it over and over again.
This is a locals only beach, dominated by territorial surfers who consider it a privilege and a right to surf where legends roam. That shouldn’t matter to most, though. Windansea is off-limits to all but the best. The waves can reach up to eight-feet high, and the rocks and reef make it too dangerous for those who don’t know the lay of the land.
Black’s Beach is San Diego’s hidden beach, dwarfed by unstable cliffs as high as 350-feet tall. It’s mostly accessible through a series of eroded trails covered in warning signs.
On any given day, the wave break is a foot taller than anywhere else. But the water is riddled with riptides and a rough seafloor. This is definitely where you’ll find the largest waves in San Diego. The surf is wild, but it’s not a place for beginners. What’s worse is the beach is considered a place for locals only–though that often includes the university crowd. You can go there, but you probably won’t get a chance to take your turn.
MIssion Beach is known for its two-mile boardwalk, filled with boutiques, clothing stores, restaurants and watering holes. The surf isn’t necessarily consistent there. The waves aren’t high, but that’s what makes it so great. Everyone wants to ride the big guys. They don’t think about what that means and the years of practice surfers put into learning how to conquer those titans. It’s better to conquer the foam first, and that can be just as fun. All you need is a good instructor. Mission Beach is a great place to get started.