The truth is that the number one spot probably hasn’t been found yet. No, really. It isn’t called the “frontier of surfing” for nothing!
Wild and rocky, with insane winds and more shark attacks on humans than anywhere else in the world, the Californian coastline from San Francisco county up to the Oregon border is a forsaken stretch; the alluring warmth and more favorable conditions of the southern beaches drawing all but the toughest (and ballsiest) surfers.
However, it would be a mistake to cross these shores off of your surf trip lists; some of the most amazing waves can kick up here when the right wind conditions meet powerful west/northwest swells in season.
If you’re properly experienced and up for an adventure, it’s possible you’ll find the ride of your life out here, on uncrowded waves, amid scenery to make your jaw drop. Pack your neoprene (at least 4mm, please), find your Zen place, and bone up on NorCal’s most unforgettable surf destinations.
Northern California’s surf spots are scattered northward along the coast, beginning at San Francisco/Marin counties, and continuing up through Sonoma, Medocino, Humboldt, and Del Norte. The largest stretch of coastline belongs to rugged and rural Humboldt county.
The region of the Pacific directly offshore from Marin and San Francisco comprises the heart of the “Red Triangle”, with famously great white shark-heavy waters owing to the abundant marine diversity found here. In fact, great whites are a common sight on all NorCal coasts, so take heed.
Let’s take a look at the best surf spots in each county.
While there are a couple of popular spots along the Bay Area’s coastal side, there’s none so iconic and challenging as Ocean Beach. Part of the suburbs of the city of San Francisco, this wide stretch attracts surfers keen to build their skills on the frequently large (8-15 feet is not unusual) and consistently excellent thumpers.
It’s a capable wave which handles lots of different swells, and delivers tantalisingly well-shaped tubes over a sandy bottom. On big days, Ocean Beach can deliver a wallop. On smaller days the surf is still good, so if crowded, head south along the coast until you find a quieter paddle out.
Summing up the overall quality and offering of surf in Sonoma County (read: so-so) is Salmon Creek, a rivermouth wave breaking over a sandbar, which on good days can be powerful and rewarding for experienced riders.
On average days the surf is nothing much to get excited over, but beginners can catch lefts or rights if it isn’t too mushy out, and wipeouts are made easier over the sandy bottom. Word is locals are chill, but it can still get crowded when conditions get good.
As the coast gets cliffier, the seafloor gets sharper. Point Arena owes its high quality wave (Mendocino is, like Sonoma, not a great place to find quality surf, bar rare exceptions) to the rocky reef underneath. Very steady delivery of fast and powerful right-handers; perhaps one of Mendocino’s only spots to count on for decent waves.
Paddle along the jetty to catch a few beasty rights and lefts. Consistent break with clean barrels, often big, in good conditions, making for a fun session. Sadly,
Some of the biggest, gnarliest waves off NorCal’s shores. Although sheltered, Patrick’s is no joke. Crushing lefts test your senses and pay off only for the most experienced (or lucky) surfers. Count on huge rocks and severe hold-downs in case of a wipeout.
Waves at this wide open spot can either deliver perfect, tasty, fun speed barrels, or cruisier longboard-worthy rights and lefts, depending on which way the wind and swell push the waves over the sandbar. In general, it’s a good vibe here, good for a wide range of different surf styles and skill levels, although don’t expect monsters at Moonstone.
NorCal lives up to its name as “The Home of Hardcore Surfing” at Klamath, where a solid right-hand barrel from the river mouth can be fun if your chops are up (and a lesson in pounding if they aren’t). The environment is more worrying here, as sharks get cozy come autumn, and the wind, cold, and dreariness really test your stoke.
Point St George
A lonesome spot up around the headland from the popular intermediate surf in Crescent City, here are waves where the true surf desperado can go to find meaty, zippy overhead barrels with barely a soul in sight (although some locals seem to like spreading a little misery). Good days here see swells from nearly all directions kicked up over the reef and wrangled in by the point, and if your left chops are up, it’s an exhilarating session.
Northern California’s coast is a bewitching, fully wild stretch of daunting and impressive sea conditions. There are as yet hundreds of miles of coastline (in Mendocino and Del Norte, particularly) which are currently difficult to get to or downright inaccessible.
The next great wave could well be offshore somewhere out here, undiscovered. Or, perhaps even more tauntingly, it’s already been discovered and is still a juicy secret – for now.
Either way, if the temptation to blaze new surf trails has you packing your hood and booties for northern California, ensure you are as adequately prepared as you can be. If you’re wise and tenacious, you might just find yourself a beautiful little slice of surf heaven in an otherwise brutal no-go area.
Discover the best surf spots in Southern California.