Santa Cruisin’: Surf & Skate Culture in Santa Cruz

The laid-back beach town of Santa Cruz, with its epic wave breaks and pavement playgrounds, is home to a deeply rooted, vibrant surf and skate culture. Hailed as the birthplace of mainland surfing and a longstanding hub for the skateboarding scene, Santa Cruz County’s influence on surf and skate culture has been monumental, setting the stage for each sport to become an international phenomenon in its own right. Legend has it that surfers have been riding these waves since 1885, when three Hawaiian princes brought the iconic sport to Santa Cruz’s shores. Skateboarding’s roots began in the 1940s when some California surfers were looking for a way to keep up practicing when the waves were flat (Read more about it here). Since then, this coastal city has carved a name for itself in the skateboarding sphere, with local riders and companies constantly searching for ways to innovate the thrilling pastime and its aesthetic. Over time, Santa Cruz has cultivated a reputation as the cultural heart of the surf and skate scene, which resonates far beyond its city limits.

The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum at Lighthouse Point / Steamer Lane


Catch sight of surfers riding the waves at world-renowned surf spot, Steamer Lane, along Santa Cruz’s iconic West Cliff Drive. Even if you’re not catching the waves yourself, take a moment to marvel at the skill it takes to conquer these massive surf breaks, whose legendary swells draw in surfers from all over the globe. While you’re there, take in some of the area’s surf history at the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, a hidden gem in plain sight, quaintly situated inside the cliffside red-brick lighthouse! Dedicated to preserving surf heritage, the exhibits inside chronicle over 100 years of surfing history in Santa Cruz. Get acquainted with local surf culture and history by perusing the historical artifacts, from photographs and original, locally-designed wetsuits to surfboards made of redwood from the Santa Cruz Mountains. 

It’s impossible to talk about Santa Cruz surf culture without acknowledging local icon, Jack O’Neill. An avid surfer himself, O’Neill pioneered one of surfing’s most essential inventions: the wetsuit. With the chill of the Santa Cruz waves as his inspiration, O’Neill designed a wetsuit that allowed boarders to extend their time in the water, transforming surfing as it was known. Jack’s influence on the surfing world earned him world recognition and high esteem within the Santa Cruz community; he even lends his name to local businesses, like O’Neill Yacht Charters and the Jack O’Neill Restaurant & Lounge at the Dream Inn. Take sail on his beloved Monterey Bay before settling in for a sunset meal with a beachfront view. Talk about a perfect beach day! 

Jack O’Neill’s House overlooking Pleasure Point

Roam Jack’s old stomping grounds in Pleasure Point, a surfer’s paradise: stroll along the cliffside promenade whose sweeping views of the wave break make this a prime spot to watch the wetsuit-clad surfers ride the swells. O’Neill did just that from the comfort of his waterfront home, an unassuming green abode nestled within the craggy bluffs of East Cliff Drive overlooking Monterey Bay. 

Santa Cruz’s surf history is still being made today at the O’Neill Coldwater Classic, North America’s longest-running surf contest: held each autumn at the challenging surf spot Steamer Lane, the competition embodies the very best of Santa Cruz surfing. In 2023, Santa Cruz native surfer Autumn Hays became a hometown hero with her spectacular performance, winning the 2023 O’Neill Coldwater Classic

Experience the surf for yourself! Head to one of the many surf shops lining 41st Avenue in Pleasure Point or on Santa Cruz’s West Side near West Cliff Drive. Cowell’s Beach is great for beginners, so shimmy into a wetsuit and hop on a board! 

NHS Skate Museum


If hitting wheels to the pavement is more your scene, look no further: Santa Cruz is home to a deeply rooted and innovative skateboarding community. This dynamic sport thrives under the creativity and rebellious spirit of local skaters, who have pushed boundaries to continuously improve the ride. With its legendary skate parks, top-tier local brands, and world-renowned skate art, the skating community here has made a lasting impact on Santa Cruz, becoming an integral part of the area’s history. 

The first Santa Cruz Skateboard, circa 1973

Dive into this history at the NHS Skate Museum: tucked into the Seabright neighborhood, this hidden treasure showcases the origins of world-famous skateboarding brands Santa Cruz Skateboards, Independent Truck Company, and Road Rider Wheels. NHS was founded in 1973 by Richard Novak, Doug Haut, and Jay Shuirman, who quickly made a name for themselves in the skating sphere with their groundbreaking designs, impeccable craftsmanship, and distinctive artwork. 

Screaming Hand Sculpture at NHS Skate Museum

The museum is the first of its kind, highlighting the company’s dynamic developments throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The exhibit’s walls are made of skate ramps and covered in rare artifacts, photographs, video footage, and memorabilia from the pinnacle timeframe of innovation in skateboarding. Trailblazing work by local graphic artist Jim Phillips, like the iconic Screaming Hand, adorn the walls alongside the first trucks, urethane wheels, and a timeline of Santa Cruz’s early skateboarding history. It’s well worth a visit for any skateboarding enthusiast! 

Some artifacts at the NHS Museum were provided by local skater Judi Oyama, who, at 64, is still riding to compete! The slalom-style boarder began competing in the 1970s at the age of 15, and her first race was in Capitola. She has been making her mark on the Santa Cruz skate scene ever since, and now, better than ever, she’s headed to the World Skate Games in Rome in Autumn 2024. You can read more about Oyama’s story here.    

A piece of skateboarding’s living history can be discovered on the Santa Cruz West Side: Derby Park, one of the oldest public skate parks in the world! Take in the sound of the wheels clattering against concrete and the palpable energy of skaters stoked to shred at this bucket list location. Its classic snake runs and bowls provide challenging terrain for skaters of all ages and experience levels to test their skill set. There are several other skate parks around Santa Cruz County, from the Jim Keefe Skate Park at Highland County Park in Ben Lomond all the way down to Ramsay Skate Park in Watsonville, and with so many options, there’s sure to be something for every skater’s style!  

The surf and skate scene in Santa Cruz County have become a permanent part of its legacy. From the spectacular swells at Steamer Lane to legendary skating terrain at Derby Park, immerse yourself in Santa Cruz’s surf and skate culture and celebrate the essence of what it means to get stoked!

Header and footer images by Ben Ingram; all other images by Caryn Hewlett