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San Diego Surf Guide

Our guide to some of the better breaks in San Diego County, from Oceanside to Ocean Beach.


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Although in proximity to each other, surfers know there’s a big difference between Pacific Beach and Ocean Beach. In this spirit, this surf guide explores the quirks and nuances that distinguish San Diego’s array of reefs, jetties and beachbreaks. Each spot has its own history, local crew, appropriate level and preferable swell conditions. Play your cards right and there’s good surf to be had year-round — something many of our seasonal neighbors to the north can’t claim.

The surf breaks may be diverse, but there are a few universal factors surfers should take into account. Make sure to share waves, respect the local pecking order and take solace in the fact that you don’t live in a landlocked state.

OCEANSIDE

Like the military members who make up a large percentage of Oceanside’s population, the surf in this region is tough and works year-round. The consistency stems from the fact that Oceanside is geographically blessed in terms of swell exposure. As opposed to its neighbors Carlsbad and Orange County, the majority of these spots pick up both steep south and northwest swells.

The epicenter of surfing here is the Oceanside Pier. Rights and lefts reel off as a mix of tourists and locals gaze down from above. Caution is advised: The break is fairly heavy and currents sweep surfers underneath the pier faster than customers can slurp up a malt at nearby Ruby’s Diner.

The beauty of Oceanside is that there’s plenty of room to spread out: The array of beachbreaks to the south are usually less populated. The Oceanside Harbor also offers consistent wedges to smash. When there isn’t a pulse of swell to be found, worship the style masters who came before you by visiting Oceanside’s surfing museum. 760-721-6876, surfmuseum.org

Level: Advanced
Best Swell: Southwest
Best Season: Year-round
Parking: There’s metered parking by the pier, but farther south is free.

PONTO JETTY

As far as surfers are concerned, most attempts to meddle with Mother Nature have floundered. Overdevelopment and environmental disasters have wiped out hundreds of surf spots. Save a few examples, efforts to build artificial reefs have failed. But sometimes man unintentionally lends a helping hand.

South Carlsbad’s Ponto Jetty realized its potential courtesy of two jetties built by the Army Corps of Engineers. It marks the beginning of the south-swell express – a stretch that ends in Los Angeles where the coastline bends favorably to receive waves from the Southern Hemisphere. Accordingly, Ponto is at its best during the dog days of summer — but the wave isn’t always predictable because the sandbars frequently shift around depending on tidal patterns and outflow from the Batiquitos Lagoon. Not for beginners, the main peak is primarily a left that freight trains on the takeoff, leaving the inexperienced liable to be caught in its tracks.

Level: Advanced
Best Swell: Southwest
Best Season: Summer
Parking: There is a paid lot adjacent to the beach; otherwise, park along the Pacific Coast Highway.

STONE STEPS

At Stone Steps in Leucadia it takes more than a few factors to fall into place: the right tide, an ideal swell, good sandbars and possibly even mercury in retrograde. It’s rare, but a fun break occasionally takes center stage. Better suited to shortboards, the wave usually breaks in shallow water and the takeoff allows only a small margin of error. Get on it early as this break is vulnerable to rising onshore winds. And it could be a while — maybe the next solar eclipse — until the spot is good again.

Level: Generally OK for beginners, but advanced when any swell of consequence is in town.
Best Swell: Southwest
Best Season: Summer
Parking: Park on Neptune Avenue or the surrounding streets

D STREET

No need to watch the latest surfing flicks to catch a glimpse of the sport’s future. Just stake a beach chair into the sands below Encinitas’ D Street, where a talented crop of locals regularly put on a show. The beachbreak wave, which is fast, consistent and peaky, lends itself to airs and other progressive maneuvers (especially during combo swells). As such, shortboarders dominate here. Groms (young surfers), in particular, have the wave dialed in, outsurfing people twice their age with ease. Given the experience level, mind your manners and don’t drop in. D Street might not be the best spot in San Diego, but the moves executed by fellow surfers will replay in your head for days to come.

Level: Advanced
Best Swell: Combo swell, northwest and southwest
Best Season: Fall
Parking: Park along the end of D Street itself or trying the surrounding streets.

SWAMI'S

The gold spires of the Self-Realization Fellowship, a non-denominational meditation center, inspire many to pursue enlightenment. Some retreat to the compound’s flourishing gardens to reflect on the interconnectedness of life. With a surfboard in hand, others begin their journey to inner peace by navigating down the wooden stairs to the legendary right point break.

Swami’s stands among the best waves in California when it’s firing. Long, rippable walls stretch out with machine-like precision, allowing skilled riders the chance to unleash cutbacks, snaps, floaters, airs, even barrels (possibly all on the same wave if you’ve reached guru status). Small days can be surprisingly fun; only trace amounts of swell are required for it to be rideable. And due to the cliffs, Swami’s is protected from winds that ruin the surf at lesser breaks.

Because the wave is so good, Swami’s suffers from an abundance of fiberglass (particularly longboarders) in the water, sometimes making post-surf meditation sessions above the cliffs a necessity to cope with the crowd. But no one ever said transcendence was easy. Waiting patiently amid as many as 60 surfers yields the occasional wave that will elevate your consciousness.

Level: Advanced
Best Swell: West, holds any and all sizes
Best Season: Winter
Parking: Park in the lot next to the Self-Realization Fellowship or try the Pacific Coast Highway.

CARDIFF REEF

San Diegans typically embrace odd or “different” public art. Take the CowParade in La Jolla or the Urban Trees along San Diego Bay. Surfers, on the other hand, are a tough crowd. Just ask sculptor Matthew Antichevich, whose effeminate surfing statue on the corner of the Pacific Coast Highway and Manchester Avenue regularly receives makeovers, ranging from Halloween costumes to prom dresses – depending on the season. More than a bunch of playful pranks, lessons from the “Cardiff Kook” carry west into the lineup. Locals are generally easygoing, but don’t overstep your bounds, otherwise you might end up the beach wearing a strapless number yourself.

Cardiff Reef teems with experienced longboarders and stand-up paddleboarders looking to pick off right-hand waves that slowly unfold across the reef. However, on big northwest swells, the wave becomes hollow and the crowd thins out. Although longboarders dominate the lineup, those with a smaller board aren’t necessarily at a disadvantage. Suckouts, a shallow slab that should only be tackled with a shortboard, is a stone’s throw to the north. To the south, the beachbreak Restaurants offers up fun, yet short rides on the right swell. Overall, congested as this area may be (some circles refer to it as “Crowdiff”), there’s a reason local legends like Joel Tudor can be found trimming across the face of waves when the surf is pumping.

Level: Intermediate to advanced
Best Swell: Northwest
Best Season: Winter
Parking: A pay lot is near the break, but park along the Pacific Coast Highway for free.

DEL MAR

With horse racing, luxury cars and plenty of cougars on the prowl, an outsider might mistake Del Mar for a giant country club. Yet there’s no need for those without a Mercedes hood ornament on their car to feel intimidated. The area retains an old-school Southern California beach vibe thanks to the number of families and surfers.

Past some of the small, funky homes that parallel the southern end of the beach, surfers flock to Seagrove Park, where a well-manicured lawn above the beach is a popular hangout for families toting barbecues and footballs. From the grass, view 15th Street, an easygoing reef break that’s surfable year-round. There are a greater number of heads bobbing in the ocean when south swells kick up waves and warm water in the summer. Although 15th Street, mainly a left with a short right, is arguably better in the winter.

Surfers who feel claustrophobic should venture north, where there’s plenty of unclaimed beachbreak territory. Besides, it’s a great place to bring four-legged friends. The designated off-leash area at Dog Beach gives Fido the chance to run rampant without worries. With dog droppings on the beach and pollution from the nearby river mouth, it’s best to avoid surfing here after it rains.

Level: Beginner to intermediate
Best Swell: West
Best Season: Winter
Parking: Metered parking in front of Seagrove Park, but neighborhood parking to the north and south for free.

BLACK'S BEACH

A mountainous wave in the distance. Scratching to paddle past the impact zone before the liquid bomb detonates…

Anyone who has surfed Black’s Beach on a big day knows the feeling. Not for the faint of heart, the off-shore canyon at Black’s magnifies approaching swells, creating a powerful lefthander that’s a favorite of daring tube hunters. Needless to say, experts only.

Access is difficult. For most, the journey begins above the sandstone cliffs at the Torrey Pines Gliderport. The 20-minute hike, which does little to keep the crowds away, winds down a dirt path. Make sure to say hello to suntanned surfers and hikers walking in the opposite direction and enjoy the sights.

Scattered patches of flowerbeds are in bloom. The blue expanse of the ocean reveals itself in the distance.

Below, the trail spills into the beach and Black’s other claim to fame becomes apparent: nudists. But that’s another story, for surfers the peaks to the south are the main attraction.

Level: Expert
Best Swell: Northwest, handles any and all sizes
Best Season: Winter
Parking: For a guide, visit: blacksbeach.org/routes.html

SCRIPPS PIER

Waves break on both sides of the Scripps Pier in La Jolla. Closed to the public, the Scripps Institute of Oceanography uses the pier to gather information and conduct research. Local rippers carry out their own tests, tweaking and refining experimental maneuvers.

On the south side, short-period northwest and west swells supply ledgey peaks begging to be bashed by a shortboard. Contrary to the number of surfers here on a daily basis (the vibe is competitive), the waves can be fickle. Your best bet is to survey the coastline for a nice reef in the event of a big or long-period swell. The north side of the pier is tempting with fewer crowds, but the wave quality deteriorates.

Traveling south, the mellow waves at La Jolla Shores are a favorite of beginners. Just don’t expect many peaks to yourself as this spot is the final destination of the surf-starved masses. More than anything, La Jolla Shores is a place to turn off the critical part of your brain and enjoy a few set waves with friends.

Level: Intermediate to advanced at Scripps Pier, beginner at La Jolla Shores
Best Swell: Short period northwest or west
Best Season: Winter
Parking:
Take La Jolla Shores Drive to El Paseo Grande and pray for parking

WINDANSEA

Built in 1946 and reconstructed several times since, the iconic Windansea surf shack is the gateway to this La Jolla reef break. The wispy, palm covered-roof once provided temporary shelter for legends such as Skip Fyre and Miki Dora, who showcased their styles every south swell on Windansea’s A-frame peaks. This rocky slice of the coastline had a massive influence on surf culture.

Way more than just a footnote in surfing history, Windansea’s tight-knit community is still the home of trendsetters and skilled riders like Derek Dunfee and Tim Bessell. As such, a strong undercurrent of localism runs through the lineup. Expect to be called out or asked to leave if you don’t respect the local hierarchy.

Level: Advanced
Best Swell: Southwest, but breaks year-round
Best Season: Summer
Parking: Park along Neptune Street next to the beach

PACIFIC BEACH

In an area awash with beach cruisers, bikinis and booze, Pacific Beach accommodates surfers of all stripes. At the northern end, experienced longboarders congregate at PB Point. Just south, the gentler Tourmaline Surf Park is a favorite of beginners and longboarders. At the end of bar lined-Garnet Avenue, adjacent to boardwalk, stands the Crystal Pier. Here playful waves that break year-round can be ridden with anything that floats. Overall, these spots are fun, but can’t handle swells bigger than head high to overhead. But when it comes to scoring easy-going waves, PB can’t be beat.

Level: Beginner to intermediate
Best Swell: Combo swell, northwest and southwest
Best Season: Fall
Parking: The only parking lot is at Tourmaline Surf Park.

MISSION BEACH

Run, jump, skip – if it’s a verb, it probably describes some aspect of the frenzied Mission Beach boardwalk scene (talk about ample opportunity for people watching). Accordingly, the surf lineup can be just as much as busy at the northern end of the beach with tourists filing in and out of the water with foam boards. For beginners, Pacific Surf School (619-742-2267, pacificsurf.org) is popular. Bob’s Mission Surf Shop (858-483-8837, missionsurf.com) is favored among those just looking to rent a longboard or stand-up paddleboard. That’s not to say Mission Beach is strictly reserved for the inexperienced, locals certainly have their way here when any swell of consequence is in town. Not to mention, the South Mission Jetty is a favorite of photographers looking to capture radical airs.

Level: Beginner to intermediate
Best Swell: Combo swell, northwest and southwest
Best Season: Fall
Parking: Parking along residential streets is scarce; the best bet is the public lots at Belmont Park or South Mission Beach Park.

OCEAN BEACH

Progressive, regressive – whatever you want to call it, Ocean Beach is an insular community that’s a throwback to the ‘60s and '70s.

Though the lineup, replete with 21st-century equipment and modern crowds, very much exists in the present. The holy grail of OB surfing is the fickle north jetty. On the right northwest swell, a tubing right drapes its liquid curtain over experienced surfers. Being pounded into the sand may not rank as the greatest danger here. The San Diego River and waste from nearby Dog Beach flow nearly unabated into the water after recent rains. Avoid surfing for up to 72 hours.

To the south, fishermen sink their hooks into the water from the OB Pier. And surfers follow suit, burrowing the nose of their boards into waves that break off both sides of the pier. Both of these peaks are consistently fun and hold all types of swell. If you’re angling for acceptance, shooting the pier (surfing through the wooden slats) is dangerous - but always met with cheers from locals. Bisecting the two aforementioned breaks, Avalanche is the choice of most surfers on average days.

Level: Intermediate to advanced
Best Swell: West, northwest
Best Season: Winter
Parking: There are three public lots located at the end of Voltaire Street, Santa Monica Avenue and Newport Avenue.

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