Originally written by RootsRated for Discover Los Angeles.
It’s a quintessential part of Southern California geography and culture: the world-class beaches and surf breaks in Los Angeles County. Whether you’re a seasoned salty surfer or a relatively dry rookie, you’re sure to find a spot suited for you. But with 75 miles of coastline and so many beaches, where do you go—especially if you’re a visitor to the area?
For some insight into the local surf scene, we spoke to Jefferson “Jay” Wagner - former Malibu mayor and owner of Zuma Jay Surfboards, the oldest surf shop in Malibu - and Daniel Fleek, former surf instructor for O’Neill and sponsored surfer at California Polytechnic State University. Read on for insider tips from these experts on the top 10 surf spots in L.A. County, from the Beach Cities of the South Bay and north to Malibu.
El Porto is exactly what you picture when you think “Southern California beach” - white sands, volleyball courts, and lots of sun-loving types on hot days. It’s a great spot to surf, especially in the fall and winter when bigger and more consistent swells roll in from the northwest. Summer, meanwhile, is good for beginners. There is a large parking lot, but it tends to fill up quickly so arrive early to snag a spot and hit the waves. According to Wagner, “Because it is so close to the airport, it’s a great place to go to catch a quick wave if you have an overnight flight with an L.A. layover, since it’s close by.”
These charming coastal communities brim with the essence of SoCal beach culture, from laid-back bars to cozy coffee shops and scores of surfers (and those just trying to look the part) chilling along the waterfront promenade known as The Strand, the 22-mile path that runs along the coast. The surfing is almost secondary to the buzzing beach vibe here, but there are still several noteworthy breaks worth a visit, especially for first-time visitors.
Located at the end of Main Street in Santa Monica, this beach was once called Pacific Ocean Park as a nod to the nautical-themed amusement park at the end of the pier; nowadays, some refer to it as Ocean Park. The park closed in 1967, but back in the '60s and '70s, it was the second biggest draw after Disneyland in Los Angeles. These days, the surfing scene is the main attraction: “It’s a fun beach break with a point and very surfable,” says Wagner. But it’s often crowded, so come out early if you want to catch some waves solo.
Venice Beach is a fun and quirky spot to catch mostly mellow waves. “The surf here and at Pacific Ocean Park are pretty similar with easy access and good breaks,” says Wagner. The neighborhood is chock full of plenty of surf rental shops and instructors making it an ideal spot for beginners to test out the waters. And when you’ve had enough of the waves, linger a bit to soak up the scene - drum circles, roller skaters, hula hoopers, and a host of other colorful characters make this one of the most memorable beaches in Southern California.
Located at the end of Sunset Boulevard, which also marks the end of Route 66, Sunset Point Beach (aka Sunset Beach) is a great spot for beginners and stand-up paddleboarders, thanks to waves that break on the south and west rolls. Wagner calls it the “66 Spot” and says, “The waves here are like the ones in Waikiki - nice and slow, smooth and gentle.” Not surprisingly, longboarders, paddleboarders, and novices love it because it’s an ideal place to learn how to surf.
Topanga Beach has “sick waves on a south swell,” according to Fleek, “but the beach can be super crowded and difficult to catch a wave to yourself.” The beach has a point break and takes in waves from the west as well. “The waves here can reach a swell size over 10 feet, and are pretty consistent with a sandy bottom,” says Wagner. The popularity of this spot is a testament to the fun waves surfers can catch though, and depending on the surf report, it’s advisable to go out early and beat the crowd.
One of the most iconic breaks on the planet, this spot off Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) in Malibu was the filming location for many surfing flicks of the 1950s, '60s and '70s. These days, it’s popular with visitors and beginners. “There are three points that break along this beach,” says Wagner, “each point is suited for different levels of surfers.” Advanced longboarders can enjoy the breaks off of the first and second point, while the third is more beginner-friendly. And for the up-and-comers, there’s a section called the “kiddie bowl” where parents can drop off or watch their kids attend surf camps near the lagoon by the third point. And don’t miss a stop at the historic wooden pier, located east of the beach. It’s a must-do pit stop for bird-watching, picnicking, fishing, or simply an iconic SoCal photo opp.
Located on PCH north of Tower 9, Zuma Beach is a little further out than Ocean Park or Topanga. But it’s worth the trip to take advantage of fewer crowds, even breaks across the three-mile stretch, and a “sandy bottom beach break with great whitewater take-offs,” says Wagner. Fleek also appreciates its close-to-shore break and the fact that it can get “really fun, especially on hurricane swells.” (Indeed, with a good number of sandbar peaks, hurricane swells in Zuma have been recorded to hit 20 feet.) Another bonus for families? Zuma beach has a number of surf camps for kids.
About eight miles north of Zuma, Leo Carrillo is popular among novice surfers. Fleek recommends checking out the “super fun reef along the right that ends on a sandbar.” Wagner, meanwhile, likes the family-friendly vibe of the beach, which also has a state park and campsite nearby. Showers and fire rings are offered onsite, and when you’re taking a break from the waves, hit the great biking and hiking trails close to the beach.
As its name implies, this beach is located on the cusp of L.A. County and is a sure way to catch a great wave. There are point breaks on certain swell directions and “you can always find about 8 to 10 individual beach breaks with northwest swells,” Wagner says. With so many different swells and breaks, you’re sure to find a good wave to catch—making that drive up north well worth the journey.