The Five Best San Diego Surf Spots
Catch a Wave and You're Sitting on Top of the World
San Diego is one of the best places to surf. Whether you’re a die-hard surfer coming to San Diego for the first time, someone who wants to stare at people riding the waves in awe, or a San Diego surf veteran who constantly stalks the web looking for all things beachy, this list should do the trick. Check out our pick for the top surf spots in San Diego!
Black’s is a beach break in a pseudo-secret location at the foot of imposing La Jolla cliffs. Park at the Torrey Pines Gliderport turnoff and find the trail at the end of the dirt road; it’s a long hike down. Alternatively, the up-above La Jolla Farms neighborhood has quick access to Black’s by way of a locked gate. Only residents and UCSD swim team members have the key. A “key connection” for Black's Beach is a very coveted thing.
Once you’re on that impeccable, shockingly picturesque beach, you’ll see some of San Diego's most seasoned surfers baring it all, since it’s a clothing-optional beach - modest surfers, beware! You might also see powerful 12-foot waves, thanks to the submarine trench. The trench is a sudden drop about a mile offshore that plunges thousands of feet deep, exposing the surf to the full power of Pacific Ocean swells. This also makes for some sneaker sets that smash pretty much everyone. You’ll get pounded no matter what, and it’s terrifying for newbie surfers, so we recommend Black's Beach for experienced surfers only.
Best swell directions: W, NW, SW
The Beach Boys referenced Swami’s in “Surfin’ USA. Need I say more? Swami’s is a postcard-worthy escape just down the hill from Encinitas’s golden-domed Self Realization Fellowship (founded by a swami, which is where the beach gets its name). This place has long history, and people have been surfing here since the ‘40s. Park on Vulcan, and walk under the bridge and across the crosswalk made especially for people headed to the beach. This is a surf town to its bones; the overhead street sign even says “Swami’s Ped Xing.”
The waves are reliable, but you’ll have to earn them, since they break 100 yards out. It’s a right reef point, generating magical waves that peel in nice, organized lines, especially in the winter. The waves are good at a small or medium swell, but when the swell is big, it holds, and a lot of people drive in from far, far away.
Best swell directions: W, NW
Swami’s may have the Beach Boys on its side, but Windansea has a surf club boasting two Endless Summer stars as past members. It’s also the subject of a classic Tom Wolfe essay called “The Pump House Gang.” As for the actual beach itself: smooth, jutting sandstone rock makes up the bottom at Windansea, and it creates barrels of raw power. The reef-bottomed take-off zone is far, far out and only about 20 feet wide, so you’ll be competing shoulder-to-shoulder for a wave. At its best (i.e. in the summer and winter), the main peak turns out ferocious eight-footers.
There’s also a strong shore break that can vary from one to six feet. Tourists are regularly thrashed in these savage and hollow waves; they lose glasses, hats, and even their clothes, which provides constant entertainment for the locals. Most locals body surf this shore pound, sneaking into the barrel before being slammed onto the sand, or maybe a couple inches of water. This ritual is appropriately called “womping,” and should not be taken lightly.
Best swell directions: NW, WNW, SW, SSW. San Clemente Island blocks straight W.
Garbage Beach, Sunset Cliffs
Sunset Cliffs is a rugged coast running along the tip of Point Loma. There’s hardly any beach; rather, it ends with a couple of rocks and a row of blunt cliffs. There are a few places to surf here, like New Break and some spots you can only get to with a boat. But the best Point Loma surf spot is Garbage, so named because there was once a landfill nearby. Make your way down the metal staircase on Ladera Street and wade along the rocks until you get to the actual beach (which is nonexistent in the high tide). Alternately, you could read complex online directions to find the steep route that goes right to the tiny sandbar. The latter section of this route involves a rope tied to a rock, so you can shimmy down the cliff and pretend you’re Indiana Jones, or something. It seems like a lot of work, though, so we recommend the Ladera Street entrance.
Thick kelp beds keep Garbage’s face even and glassy when the other beaches are blown to pieces. There are a lot of different peaks to choose from; the Northern end typically has average rights with sharp lefts, and the South has quality rights and slow lefts.
Best swell directions: W, NW
Trestles Beach is actually in San Diego county, despite the drive through Camp Pendleton required for access. Park at the trailhead on Cristianitos Road and hike the serene trail for about a mile. You’ll pass under the interstate and under the bridge (or trestle)), and a stunning beach will open up in front of you. There are five sections of Trestles to explore. The cobblestone-floored Lower Trestles is undoubtedly the best performing (and most popular) of the five. The lefts are quick and hollow, the rights roll slowly, and it’s going off just about every day.
Note that the Transportation Corridor Agency has been threatening to build a toll road through the lagoon for about a decade. Various government agencies have shot down the proposition twice, but you may as well enjoy virgin Trestles now in case the TCA makes a third pass.
Best swell directions for Lowers: S, SW, May-October
A Final Note:
No matter the beach, you’ll run into locals - likely the same 10 to 15 people - in the lineup every day. This often means some crotchety men on longboards who have been surfing for 50 years. The personality varies from beach to beach, but usually the locals are territorial people who know the break very, very well. So remember to tread lightly.
Each of these beaches will be packed, and you’ll fight for your waves. There’s no secret empty surf spot in San Diego County—if it’s a good wave, it’s crowded.