Where to Surf in California for Beginners: Best Spots

California is internationally renowned as a surfer’s paradise, and it’s for a good reason. Between the laid back surfing culture and the beautiful beaches, it’s the perfect location for catching a wave.

However, many of the most famous spots are actually for more advanced surfers, with places like Malibu, Rincon and Trestles being well known for more advanced surfers. Although these are clearly good places to surf, they are not suited to beginners, so we wanted to help you find good spots up and down California’s Pacific coastline that suit your surfing level.

With that in mind, here are some tips on the best locations to surf in California and what to look for when searching for a good learner spot.

What to Look for in a Good Learner Spot

The ideal conditions when learning to surf are waist-high waves with a light wind. We don’t advise to go out if the winds are 25mph or more. When choosing the right spot, avoid areas with rocky foreshores.

Keep an eye out for discoloured water and unusually calm area of the water, this may indicate the presence of a rip current. Look for spots that are popular with longboarders because they chase the ideal waves for beginners.

Waves that are one to three feet high are the most ideal for beginners, with mushy waves being the best because they are soft but still offer a decent shoulder to ride.

Closed out waves will work if you’re a beginner but still want to work with white water.

We also recommend beaches where lifeguards work for peace of mind. 

female surfer in wetsuit sitting on red board in the sea
You can expect many magical moments learning to surf in California, be it waiting for the waves or just hunting down the best spot, it’s all good! Photo Credit: Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Beginner surf spots around Southern California

Stretching from Santa Barbara down to San Diego and the Mexican border, Southern California has the palm trees and all year round sunshine many of us think about when picturing California.

With sandy beaches and breath-taking reef breaks, Southern California has something for all skill levels.

Autumn, winter, and spring are the best seasons to surf in Southern California when northwest swells are commonplace, but you can also find some breaks that pick up some south swells during the summer months, especially for learning to surf.

Silver Strand State Beach

The waves at Silver Strand State Beach range from four to seven feet throughout the year, making it a perfect place for catching a wave, no matter your skill level. The respected Silver Strand Surf school offer five-day surf camps and private lessons for children and teens aged between eight and sixteen. This is popular with learners, so you won’t be alone!

San Onofre State Beach

As one of the top five most-visited state parks in California, San Onofre State Beach is ideal for inexperienced surfers. The average swell is a mellow three to four feet all year round.

With the respected San Onofre Surf Beach, this beach has an area dedicated to surfers which makes it a safe area for learners to practice without worrying about holidaymakers.

Just be prepared to queue for the parking lot in summer since it gets busy as it’s such a popular spot with local and visiting surfers.

Bolsa Chica State Beach

Located near Huntington Beach and nicknamed Surf City, USA, Bolca Chica State Beach has long been a favorite for surfers of all skill sets. The beach has something to cater to all ages and levels of experience.

Corky Carrol’s Surf School sits alongside Bolsa Chica State Beach and offers lessons and camps to kids ages six and above, which is obviously a nice addition if you are heading there with the little ones. 

 Doheny State Beach

Doheny State Beach is home to mild three to four foot high waves. This beach is recommended by many as the ideal location to catch your first wave.

There are plenty of fantastic shops in the area to stock up on kit. Girl in the Curl Surf Shop is famed for their fantastic surf camps and surf lessons that cater specifically to young women.

They also offer surf lessons for boys with their Boy in the Barrel Surf Camp. 

Beginner surf spots in Northern California

Northern California stretches from San Francisco up to the Oregon border. North California has a much more rural coastline, with many inaccessible beaches and lush forests. Generally, the surf is thought to be unruly and not as beginner-friendly than south coast surf spots.

Certain breaks in Northern California work year-round, but fall, winter, and spring are the most consistent. No matter when you go it’s likely to be cold in the sea so bring a good wetsuit!

From experience, I had a family vacation to Northern California back in 2001 and I can tell you that the water was cold, even in July. I was wearing a 5/4mm wetsuit with booties, which was a little surprising!

I also struggled catching waves as my brother and I paddled out at more advanced spots (he was far ahead in surfing terms than me and I followed his lead, but probably shouldn’t have!). As such, here are some of the better spots that you can learn to surf at, to avoid the same mistakes I made way back in 2001!

Salmon Creek

Salmon Creek in Sanoma County is not popular with experienced surfers, making it especially ideal for beginners. As it’s a rivermouth wave breaking over a sandbar, wipeouts will hurt less as the bottom is sandy. 

Mondos Beach

 Mondos Beach in Ventura provides steady waves, with the average wave ranging from two to five feet. Although it can be a little flat, when the surf picks up its great for honing your surf skills. The flatness means that the beaches will be emptier than others, making it great for beginners who are still finding their feet.

Moonlight Beaches

Moonlight Beach is located at the end of D Street, Encinitas, and is one of the state’s best kept secrets. Head north from the parking lot to hit the easiest waves. Because it’s so little known, it will be emptier and is the ideal place to learn, and make mistakes.

Linda Mar

Linda Mar, or Pacifica State Beach, is a long stretch of beach between Pedro Point and North Point. Most local surfers as children go to this beach to get their start with the gentle waves. It has been popular for longboarding since the 1940s and is now popular with beginner surfers. The waves depend on the sand, but on average it’s usually between three and six feet. 

Related Questions

How much do surfing lessons cost in California?

Typically, the price range of a surfing lesson would cost anywhere from $25 to $200. It will depend on the time of year you go, as the prices will likely be hiked during the summer months. Many surf schools will lower the price for groups of people, so it may work out more cost-effective to book in a group of four or more.

Is Malibu good for surfing for beginners? 

Whilst Malibu is popular for experienced surfers, we don’t recommend it for beginners. Malibu beaches are often very busy and offer a large amount of swell better suited to intermediates.

What is the best time to surf in California?

The mornings are generally quieter, making it the ideal time for beginners to surf. The trick to beating the crowds is to wake up before the sun rises and arrive at your location for first light. The winds will generally be lighter in the mornings and stronger in the afternoons.  

Can you surf without a wetsuit in California?

The ocean water in California can be surprisingly cold, so be prepared for a chill if you decide to surf without wearing a wetsuit. Wearing a wetsuit will allow you to stay longer in the water and feel more comfortable.

Do you need a wetsuit to surf in Southern California?

You will need a wetsuit for 8 months of the year in Southern California since the water temperature drops from late autumn through winter and into mid-later spring. Fortunately it gets warm again in summer, so you don’t need a wetsuit from June to the end of September.

That said, bring a wetsuit top as it can feel a bit chilly some days, although if you really feel the cold a 2mm short sleeve/leg wetsuit would also work.

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