You don’t have to shimmy into a wetsuit to enjoy surfing in Santa Cruz County. Many local surf breaks offer viewing areas to relish the action without ever leaving the shore. As the birthplace of mainland surfing, Santa Cruz is home to amazing talent and legends, and you can watch them “shred the gnar” at the following spots.
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Known by locals simply as The Lane, this West Cliff surf break is arguably the most iconic in the county. Thanks to adjacent coastal bluffs, it’s also one of the best places to watch the pros do their thing. Each day, folks gather along a waterfront railing overlooking the rolling swells below. Given the sizable waves-reaching up to 18 feet-you’ll often catch some of Santa Cruz’s surf royalty including Darryl “Flea” Virostko, a three time champ of the Mavericks big wave surf competition, and Sarah Gerhardt, the first woman to surf Mavericks. Steamer Lane is also the site of numerous surf competitions including the Santa Cruz Longboard Surf Contest and the O’Neill Coldwater Classic, the longest running surf contest in North America. And it was here that the late surf pioneer Jack O’Neill tinkered with his prototype wetsuits in the 1950s. Brush up on your local surf history at the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum housed in a memorial lighthouse located just steps away. Afterward, stroll dazzling West Cliff Drive where you can pay your respects at the surfer memorial, nab a selfie with a bronze surfer statue, and chow down on fish tacos from Steamer Lane Supply.
There’s a reason Jack O’Neill made his home in Pleasure Point. The laid-back, seaside neighborhood teems with popular surf breaks such as The Hook, an expansive surf spot located at 41st Avenue at East Cliff Drive. Perched high above the bay, a blufftop viewing area lined with picnic tables and benches allows spectators to watch surfers catching air and slicing through the Hook’s steep, barrelling waves. To further explore Pleasure Point’s surf culture, wander up 41st Avenue and browse a village of surf-themed shops and eateries including O’Neill Surf Shop and Freeline Surf Shop.
PLEASURE POINT PARK
Situated on seaside cliffs at 33rd and East Cliff Drive, diminutive Pleasure Point Park is a perfect family-friendly gathering spot to delight in the neighborhood’s vibrant surf scene. Stepped seating and a broad staircase that stretches down to the water both offer primo views of shortboarders carving first peak-the wave break closest to shore-and longboarders doing graceful slides on the set of waves further out. For a quintessential Santa Cruz experience, grab a breakfast burrito from adjacent Point Market, a bustling neighborhood landmark, and dig in while you enjoy the stream of wetsuit-clad surfers with colorful boards whizzing by.
MANRESA STATE BEACH
Thanks to a gorgeous, wide stretch of sand, this lesser-known surf spot is a lovely destination to hang out and watch surfers. The best vantage point is from the blufftop parking area which features sweeping views of the shore and Monterey Bay. A scattering of picnic tables offer an especially scenic spot for lunch. Down on the beach, a seemingly endless expanse of sand ensures that Manresa never feels crowded. Find your spot, spread out a beach towel, and enjoy the many surfers riding rolling sets of waves into shore. After the surfers have gone home, linger around a warming bonfire at one of the many fire pits that dot the beach. (Bonfire pits may be currently removed due to current COVID restrictions).
Driving along Highway 1, you’re likely to spy the colorful kites of windsurfers long before you reach the windblown surf of Waddell Beach, the scenic, coastal perimeter of Big Basin Redwood State Park. Consistently breezy conditions have made it a mecca for windsurfers and kiteboarders whose aerial tricks dazzle shorebound bystanders. On less windy days, you’re likely to catch surfers doing frontside snaps on Waddell’s steep curls. You’ll want to bring a jacket, but if it’s too blustery, you can still enjoy the show from the comfort of your car.
Inspired to go toes to the nose? Santa Cruz County is a great and memorable destination to learn to how to surf. Find lessons from local pros such as Club Ed, Surf School Santa Cruz, Richard Schmidt Surf School, Capitola Beach Company, and others at our site. And remember: whether you’re looking to carve some waves or just looking, check Surfline.com for surf conditions before you head out!
Updated February 2021