The coastline of Santa Cruz has more than its share of great surf breaks. The water is cold, demanding full wetsuits year-round, and the shoreline is rough and rocky—nothing at all like the flat sandy beaches of SoCal. But that doesn’t deter the hordes of locals who ply the waves every day they can. The surfing culture pervades the town—if you walk the cliff, you’ll likely pass the To Honor Surfing sculpture. Santa Cruz loves this statue, and it’s often dressed up and always gets a costume for Halloween.

Because the Cowell’s break is acknowledged as the newbie spot, the often-sizeable crowd tends to be polite to newcomers and tourists.If you’re a beginner, the best place to start surfing Santa Cruz is Cowell’s (stairs at West Cliff and Cowell’s Beach). The waves rarely get huge here, and they typically provide long, mellow rides, perfect for surfers just getting their balance. Because the Cowell’s break is acknowledged as the newbie spot, the often-sizeable crowd tends to be polite to newcomers and tourists.

A young surfer in the water at Cowell's in Santa Cruz.

If you’re a beginner, the gentler waves at Cowell’s is the place to learn. Photo © anthony_goto, licensed Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike.

For more advanced surfers looking for smaller crowds in the water, Manresa State Beach (San Andreas Rd., Aptos, 831/761-1795) is a nice beach break south of Santa Cruz. Manresa is several minutes’ drive toward Aptos. During summer, it’s a great place to surf and then recline on the beach.

Visitors who know their surfing lore will want to surf the more famous spots along the Santa Cruz shore. Pleasure Point (between 32nd Ave. and 41st Ave.) encompasses a number of different breaks. You may have heard of The Hook (steps at 41st Ave.), a well-known experienced longboarder’s paradise. But don’t mistake The Hook for a beginner’s break; the locals feel protective of the waves here and aren’t always friendly towards inexperienced tourists. The break at 36th and East Cliff (steps at 36th Ave.) can be a better place to go on weekdays—on the weekends, the intense crowding makes catching your own wave a challenge. Up at 30th and East Cliff (steps at 36th Ave.), you’ll find shortboarders catching larger, long peeling sets if there is a swell in the water.

The most famous break in all of Santa Cruz can also be the most hostile to newcomers. Steamer Lane (West Cliff between Cowell’s and the Lighthouse) has a fiercely protective crew of locals. But if you’re experienced and there’s a swell coming in, Steamer Lane can have some of the best waves on the California coast.

Yes, you can learn to surf in Santa Cruz despite the distinct local flavor at some of the breaks. Check out either Club Ed (831/464- 0177) or the Richard Schmidt School Inc. (849 Almar Ave., 831/423-0928) to sign up for lessons. Who knows, maybe one day the locals will mistake you for one of their own!

Map of the greater Santa Cruz area in California

Greater Santa Cruz


Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Coastal California.