There are 840 miles of California coastline. Throw in a van, some surfboards, and your best friends, and you are bound for a radical adventure. From Crescent City to San Diego, we’ve got you covered with a list of the best Pacific Coast Highway stops for surfing, and some tips for planning your grand adventure.
If you are planning to hit a bunch of different breaks, bring a quiver of boards. No one wants to be driving on the winding Highway 1 with boards sloshing around in their car, or worry whether those foam noodles you duck taped to your bars three years ago will last the whole coastline.
If you plan to bring 2-3 boards, check out INNO’s board locker or board pads if you plan to use tie-down straps. Make sure to always check the tension of your boards at pit stops, as they can loosen up throughout the drive. It’s also smart to lay an old towel between your sticks so you don’t have to scrape the wax off the bottom of your boards later.
As most of these breaks are surf destinations, you will have no problem finding surf shops along the way at each Pacific Coast Highway stop. Pop into a shop before you head out to get some local tips from the employees. Chances are they just came in from their own early morning sesh and will have good details on surf conditions and the best spots to put in.
If you are planning on catching waves at numerous Pacific Coast Highway stops, make sure to bring the right wetsuits depending on the time of year. If this is a summer road trip, you won’t need anything more than a rashguard by the time you get to San Diego, but you will still want a 4/3 for anything above LA. Even in the summer time, surfers in northern California and the Pacific Northwest will almost always be sporting full wetsuits.
Also remember that many Californian surfers still have a “locals only” attitude. Make sure to practice good surf etiquette: don’t drop in on other people’s waves, wait your turn, but don’t be brought down by anyone’s aggressive vibes. Surfing new breaks can be jarring, too, so remember to take time to survey the waves, check for rocks, and know the tide schedule.
The Ultimate Pacific Coast Highway Surfing Itinerary
Crescent City – Point St. George
For your first Pacific Coast Highway stop, check out Point St. George. No matter what time of year, you will want a hooded 4/3 or 5/4 wetsuit as the water is chilly year round. This is an off the beaten path spot from common surf spots in Crescent City. But be aware, this surf is more advanced, as you’ll find swells in all directions. For less advanced surfer looking for a mellow longboard spot check out the beach by the pier. Check out Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park along the way.
Mendocino – Caspar State Beach
The rocky reef beneath the surf in Mendocino creates reliable waves and right breakers. Checkout Caspar Beach for a beginner to intermediate break or head over to Point Arena for a heavier break. The waves at this Pacific Coast Highway stops are fast and powerful, so make sure you are aware of your surfing level and plan accordingly. Check out the Mendocino Botanical Gardens and sea glass beach in Fort Bragg.
San Francisco – Pacifica
As you are heading out of the city, stop at Pacifica for a mellow beach break perfect for longboarding. Be aware the in winter, no matter where you go along this Pacific Coast Highway stop, the waves will be big. Very big. San Francisco and the surrounding area are known for big wave surfing, and as the home of Mavericks: one of the most infamous big wave surf breaks.
If you are interested in getting your toes wet with some larger waves, check out Ocean Beach. Just be aware of the tide schedule, as the riptides here are specifically gnarly. While there, grab a picnic and a windbreaker and hang out on the beach to catch some pros in action. Check out the dunes along the beach or walk around in Golden Gate State Park. Be sure to stop in Pescadero on your way down to get some freshly baked artichoke bread from the general store.
Santa Cruz – Pleasure Point
As the unofficial home of surfing, Santa Cruz is essential on our list of Pacific Coast Highway stops. Surfing began here in 1885 when a group of Hawaiians made surfboards out of the coastal redwoods found in this area. Now Santa Cruz is a surfed-obsessed beach town where it is commonplace to see people making their morning commute to the beach on a three-speed bike with a longboard tucked under their arm. Santa Cruz is the perfect smorgasbord of breaks for all levels.
Pleasure Point is a great spot for beginner to intermediate level surfers and you will be sure to see at least a few foamies in the lineup. People here are generally friendly unlike more advanced spots like Steamers Lane. If Pleasure Point feels crowded or you are looking for something a little larger, the 26th St. break is only a paddle away.
Carmel Beach – Monterey
This roomy beach break is a great Pacific Coast Highway stop for intermediate surfers. The waves break along a long stretch of the sand bar, giving people room to spread out and catch as many waves as possible. It breaks well year round and is best at high tide. This is also a dog-friendly beach so don’t be surprised if you are greeted by a four-legged friend while heading out of the water.
San Luis Obispo – Pismo Beach
Pismo beach is a classic long beach break along the San Luis Obispo pier. This Pacific Coast Highway stop has endless possibilities: if one area is too crowded or looking a little mushy, just grab your board and walk south to a more secluded area. Depending on the conditions, this break is best for intermediate to advanced surfers. Checkout Bubblegum Alley and the San Luis Obispo Farmers Market while in the area.
Morro Bay is a small coastal town home to Morro Rock, a volcanic formation and falcon refuge that also makes for a great surf spot. Waves can range from barrels to mushy and small depending on the condition. This is a great beginner to intermediate Pacific Coast Highway stop and appreciated by all for its epic scenery. This beach break is pretty mellow, but make sure you know where the rocks are. If you want cleaner waves, make sure to hit this sport in the morning and if you are looking for more power walk up to the northern point of the break.
Santa Barbara – Rincon Point
Mentioned in a Beach Boys song, home to the Rincon Classic Competition, and frequented by none other than Kelly Slater, this point break is infamous in surf culture. The inner cove is perfect for longboarders and the outer points can barrel on a good day usually around low tide.
Los Angeles – Malibu Beach
A drive west through the dusty hills around Los Angeles will bring you to one of the most iconic Pacific Coast Highway Stops since the 1920s, Malibu. Malibu is a great intermediate surf spot, and a fun beach hangout whether or not you’re hitting the breaks. The wave can change depending on where you paddle in: longboarders usually stay on the inner cove while short boarders cluster around the outer edge.
This beach break delivers year-round and is an ideal pacific coast stop while visiting LA. If you are heading back into the city you will definitely want to hit up “Best Fish Tacos in Ensenada”. The menu is limited, so order everything.
San Diego – Sunset Cliffs
The Surf community of Ocean Beach is infamous for their hippie happenings, acai bowls, surf bums, and late night farmers markets. If you keep walking down the cliffs, you will be greeted with beautiful sights and seemingly endless sets coming into golden cliffs. An infamous Socal Pacific Coast Highway stop, the sunset cliffs break is a walk down the stairs and paddle away. You will also see locals jumping off the cliffs with their boards for a more convenient shortcut to their favorite break.
This is a great spot for all levels and primarily a longboard spot although it can definitely get steep in the winter. It is called sunset cliffs for a reason and whether you are in the water or enjoying a post-surf beer and burrito, this is an amazing place to watch the sunset. Be sure to check out Birds Surf Shed to admire some locally shaped and vintage boards.
This guide is just a little taste of the many surf spots that make up the California coast. Make sure to download a surf report app so that you can search for spots and check conditions along the drive.
Written by Margaret Fisher and Emily Gallegos