Surfing San Diego: If in Doubt, Paddle Out to These Surfing Hot Spots

San Diego has 70 miles of open ocean coastline and as many distinct surf spots. Most of the shoreline consists of long beach breaks with primarily southwest exposure, and Point Loma and La Jolla are rocky points with a variety of reef breaks that work on north, west or south swells depending on their orientation.

There are also patches of reef between Del Mar and Encinitas, man-made jetties at the Oceanside and Mission Bay harbor entrances, and the famous river-mouth set up of Trestles at San Diego’s northernmost limits.

With no shortage of surf breaks in San Diego, there are lots of opportunities to match the perfect wave to any skill level. Here are some great areas for San Diego surfing:

NORTH COASTAL

TRESTLES

Trestles is a world-famous river-mouth point break at the border of San Diego and Orange Counties. You’ve got to earn your waves at Trestles, with a long hike in from the parking lot and fierce competition from 50+ other surfers in the lineup, many of them experts and even professionals. Trestles works best on a good south to southwest swell, and when it’s on, a session at Trestles can be epic. By comparison, the slow, easy rollers just down the coast at Old Man’s are perfect for learning virgins or longboarding veterans.

OCEANSIDE

Oceanside has miles of gentle beach break, but it’s best known for the jetties on either side of its harbor entrance. On the steepest of south swells that pass the rest of the coast by, Oceanside Harbor and Del Mar Beach (on the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base) can get big and hollow.

SWAMI’S

Swami’s, so named for the Indian-styled Self-Realization Fellowship complex on the bluff, is another San Diego special with a well-defined peak and a crowd beyond its capacity. Swami’s makes just enough of a bend in the coast to pick up a little extra swell energy so it’s always a bit bigger and better than its neighboring breaks.

CARDIFF BY THE SEA

Cardiff is a short cobblestone beach with reefs at either end. Tabletops to the south and Cardiff Reef to the north are both fun shouldery waves, best on southwest swells and ideal for cutbacks and action in the lip. In these nurturing conditions, pros like Rob Machado and Taylor Knox honed their trade.

DEL MAR

Del Mar is among the most reliable spots in San Diego with good exposure to all swell directions and a good mix of sand bottom beach break and patchy reefs. Even in the height of summer, the crowd spreads out from the river-mouth all the way to Torrey Pines State Beach, and it’s easy to find a wave to call your own.

LA JOLLA

BLACK’S BEACH

Black’s Beach is arguably San Diego’s best wave. It’s good year-round, always one of the biggest spots in town, and breaks in long, organized lines. A submarine trench offshore comes within a half mile of the coast and raw ocean swells come marching in fast and forceful before expending their energy in big hollow peaks. Black’s requires a long hike down the cliff, and a lot of extra paddling effort to get into the lineup. It can hold rideable surf well into the 10′-12′ realm, but at that size it’s nearly impossible to break through the inside whitewater.

LA JOLLA SHORES

La Jolla Shores is one of San Diego’s best and most popular beaches. Somewhat protected from the prevailing southwest wind, it’s a safe, gentle spot to learn or enjoy surfing. There are year-round lifeguard services, good facilities and decent parking. Most of the formal surf schools operate here for this reason, and a lot of local kids practice their basics at the Shores before graduating to bigger and better breaks. Surf Divas Surf School provides year-round private and group lessons for all ages.

WINDANSEA

There are numerous reef breaks around La Jolla, most of them lying dormant for the better part of the year only to awaken dramatically on the right combination of swell and tide. La Jolla Cove, for example, is a tranquil deep water snorkeling beach, but once or twice each winter, powerful north swell turns it into a big left point. Although far from secret, the lesser known breaks around La Jolla and Bird Rock are difficult to find, challenging to surf and better left to serious surfers to discover on their own. Windansea bears mentioning because it’s probably San Diego’s most consistent, most surfable break. Of course, it’s also one of the most crowded and localized. Marine Street Beach is a notorious shorebreak ideal for bodyboarding and the special brand of bodysurfing known as womping.

MISSION BAY AND BEACHES

The long, sandy shore comprising PacificMission and Ocean beaches offers mediocre surf, but because of its close proximity and easy access for the majority of San Diego’s population, surfers manage to make the most of it. Like all the other popular beaches in town, lifeguards divide swimmers from surfers in the busy summer months, and it’s important to make sure you’re where you belong. What the surf itself lacks, the beach scene more than makes up for, and the P.B. – M.B. boardwalk is always bustling with activity. For something totally out of the ordinary, check out the Wave House at Belmont Park, an artificial wave that allows you to ride perpetually without setting foot off the shore.

POINT LOMA PENINSULA

SUNSET CLIFFS

Point Loma is fringed by rock reefs and groomed by offshore kelp. Sunset Cliffs comprises a series of point breaks that can work at varying degrees of quality under various degrees of swell size and direction. Surfing Sunset Cliffs means scrambling up and down the bluffs and paddling in and out from the rocks, but out at the tip, at a spot called Dolphin Tanks, swimmers are forbidden to enter the water, so ambitious surfers access the lineup by boat.

SOUTH BAY

CORONADO

The best break on Coronado is Outlet, a punchy shorebreak by the North Island Naval Air Base that faces due south and picks up the summer hurricane swells from Baja that tend to miss the rest of the coast.

IMPERIAL BEACH

Beyond Outlet, Coronado and the rest of the coast southward to Imperial Beach is all gently sloping beach break with fun and forgiving surf, the exception being the unsurfable offshore sand bars at the mouth of the Tijuana River.

FOR SPECTATORS

To experience competitive surfing at its best, plan your visit to coincide with one of the World Surfing League contests at Trestles (usually in May and September) or August’s World Bodysurfing Championships in Oceanside. Pro surfers Rob Machado, Brad Gerlach and Taylor Knox hail from San Diego. Whether you’re out in the water or watching from shore, with all the professional and amateur talent in town, there’s a good chance of witnessing some truly mind-blowing action anywhere at any time—but especially at spots like Trestles, Black’s and Windansea. Even on the stormiest of days, you can find kitesurfers putting on their air show north of the Crystal Pier in Pacific Beach or, on the calmest, longboarders out in force, making the most of it.

Families always enjoy the Imperial Beach Surf Dog Competition, which generally happens in July. Here you’ll see fearless surFUR dogs show off their wave riding skills. This event raises funds for the San Diego Humane Society and is always great fun.

The world’s top professional female surfers compete in Oceanside for the annual Supergirl Surf Pro, a three-day event each July. The weekend is jam-packed with world-class surf competition and a festival village loaded with female-inspired vendors, activities and entertainment.

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