K.C. was a featured writer for Yahoo! Travel before joining trips to discover in 2013. She is the author of Best Travel Guide for First Time Visitors to Ireland, an Amazon bestseller every year between 2013 and 2016. She has been a featured expert on Newsweek, Travel + Leisure, Travelocity, among others.
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If you like to surf, you’ll find no shortage of places to ride the waves in the U.S. With 95,471 miles of coastline and a strong surfing culture in many towns, there are plenty of destinations for beginners and seasoned surfers alike. From the famous shores of Hawaii to California’s countless top spots and some east coast gems, heading to any one of these surfing destinations are sure to deliver some memorable rides.
Oahu’s North Shore is what surfing legends are made of as the home of the Triple Crown of Surfing competitions and the birthplace of many internationally known surfers. Also referred to as the “Seven Mile Miracle,” this is where you’ll find the world-famous Pipeline surfing break. Winter swells roll in and push up onto a very shallow reef that creates some of the most incredible waves, forming spectacular rideable barrels that pro surfers dream about. The big waves last from October through April, often bringing 30-foot swells. If you aren’t experienced, you’ll want to watch rather than ride, but beginning waves can be found at Chun’s Reef and Haleiwa Beach Park. Haleiwa is an ideal place to stay while surfing in Hawaii, as it’s home to many surf schools and surf shops as a vibrant surfing town known for providing a more authentic local experience.
Santa Cruz is world renowned as one of the top surfing towns, offering everything from gentle waves to massive and dangerous crashing swells. Steamer Lane and Pleasure Point are the most popular spots, with the latter a favorite for its variety, ideal for both first-timers and the pros. Steamer Lane hosts the Cold Water Classic Surf Contest and attracts onlookers year-round as one of the most beloved places to surf on the planet. If you’re a beginner, Pleasure Point is your better option. Either way, you’ll also be able to take advantage of the area’s many other attractions, like the rides and games at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and delicious eats on the pier, enjoyed with a stunning ocean view.
A mecca for wave lovers in Southern California, Huntington Beach ranks high when it comes to surfing towns. In fact, it’s even known as Surf City USA. It was the stomping ground of surf pioneer George Freeth over a century ago and Duke Kahanamoku, the Big Kahuna, who chose it as his base in later decades. You’ll find surf schools, surf camps, and surf shops in the town center while popular places to ride the waves include the Huntington Beach Pier, which holds the US Open of Surfing. Huntington Dog Beach even hosts its own dog surfing competition every year in late September, so you can bring your skilled four-legged best friend to get in on the fun.
This Florida beach town hosts the annual NKF Rich Salick Pro/Am Surf Fest every Columbus Day Weekend and is the hometown of 11-time world surfing champion Kelly Slater. It also offers calm, consistent waves that are ideal for beginners. The Cocoa Beach pier is a longboard haven, attracting a regular crew looking for a fun time out on the surf. It also provides a viewpoint 800 feet over the Atlantic that can be enjoyed at one of the many restaurants and bars serving fresh seafood. If you’re in town for Christmas, don’t miss seeing hundreds of Santas trade their sleigh for a surfboard on Christmas Eve during the annual Surfing Santas event.
Half Moon Bay’s biggest surf break, Mavericks is located just outside Pillar Point Harbor and attracts surfers from across the globe. While there hasn’t been a big-wave contest here for more than two decades, surfers always show up to ride the big swells. They arrive between November and March when the storm swell pushes the surf into some of the world’s most massive waves. While it was originally named for a dog that was the companion of a local surfer, it’s best known for Half Moon Bay native Jeff Clark who’s surfed it for over 40 years, and the 2012 film “Chasing Mavericks” focused on the life of surfer Jay Moriarity who was determined to conquer it. The best break for beginning and intermediate surfers is the Half Moon Bay Jetty.
Just a short drive from L.A., the Malibu coast offers beautiful white beaches, a chill vibe, and some of the hottest surf spots around with something for everyone whether a novice or pro. When swells are good, the right hand point is one of the best breaks in the state. Malibu Lagoon State Beach, often referred to as ‘Surfrider’ beach, has been immortalized in many classic surfing scenes in film and TV, like “Beach Blanket Bingo,” while Zuma Beach at the north end is a great pick for surfers of all abilities. Locals often head here to avoid the crowds.
San Diego offers 70 miles of coastline providing a variety of waves and conditions. You’ll find some of the warmest water and best surfing breaks in California here, with the stretch from Imperial Beach to the pier in Oceanside delivering diverse breaks that can be surfed year-round. Cardiff is generally considered to be the epitome of the surfing scene here with long stretches of sandy beach and outstanding waves just north of the city in the community of Encinitas. The Reef has been a popular spot since the 1950s, with smooth and consistent waves thanks to a flat rock reef that extends 50 yards from shore.
While the entire East Coast is filled with sandy beaches from the tip of the Florida Keys north, it changes at the eastern tip of Long Island, which is a huge terminal moraine formed by ancient glaciers. The sediment that was left behind includes multiple rocks, unusual for the eastern seaboard, which contributes to some of the best surfing in the region. There are some great reef breaks that catch autumnal long period tropical swells and many of the Northeasters in the winter. Ditch Plains is often ranked the best with long peeling waves, although it often intimidates beginners. The less experienced surfers might want to try Gin Beach with its relatively calm water.
The Outer Banks experience some powerful beach breaks in the tropical swells of fall that can get shapely and hollow, challenging some of the best surfers around. Wrightsville Beach, made up of two islands that are easily accessible from the mainland, is especially popular with surfers and in the summer, there’s no need for a wetsuit either. In fact, Wrightsville was named one of the best surf towns in the world by National Geographic. If you want to learn how to ride the waves, some of the world’s best pro instructors can be found here too, with WB Surf Camp providing instruction tailored for beginners. They even offer a family surf camp. In town, there are some great surf shops, open-air villages, and boutiques.
Oregon’s northern coast is home to some of the best breaks in the Pacific Northwest along with expansive sandy beaches that stretch for miles. Seaside is one of the most popular places to learn to surf in particular with two schools offering a wide range of lesson options, most of which are held at “The Cove” on the south end of Seaside Beach. Just be aware that Seaside is the place to be in the summer, with many other attractions that draw lots of tourists. If it gets too crowded, nearby Gearhart is a great alternative with plenty of room and you can even drive your vehicle right onto the sand.
There are multiple options for surfers in Pacific City. The flat-bottomed, user-friendly beach break at Cape Kiwanda offers a fantastic offshore monolith in the backdrop and produces good right-hand waves off the southern end. There’s a much larger beach break called Gas Chambers further to the south, while beginners will do well at the fun and easy break right in front of the parking lot. After riding the waves, surfers in Pacific City can take advantage of some outstanding post-surfing brews with Pelican Brewing Company located right next to the beach.
Sebastian Inlet is one of the best surf spots on the East Coast — the place where the Hobgood twins, Lopez brothers, and Kelly Slater all learned to ride powerful waves. The swells that reflect off the jetty are amplified on the north side, where surfers tend to flock to the waves that rise higher over the shallow sandbars. The inexperienced will want to head farther north up the beach where it’s possible to avoid the crowds and the heaviest waves.
Surfside Beach is not surprisingly one of the best places to surf in Texas. While the biggest swells arrive with a storm, it’s still possible to ride solid waves even if there isn’t one imminent. It’s ideal for short and long boards, and you’ll find rentals readily available too. The best surf tends to be about a half-mile north of the jetty and the best waves come when winds blow east or northeast.
South Padre Island attracts plenty of surfers, particularly at its south end which offers the best surf for riding the jetties. Waves here aren’t what you’d usually find in the shallow Gulf of Mexico waters and are fairly consistent. Travelers on a budget will find great camping at Isla Blanca State Park, which also provides easy access to the waves, although there are plenty of other accommodation options for those who don’t want to rough it.