The Best Surfing Spots in the USA

I’ve surfed tons of waves off of even more beaches all over the globe. I’d say 50+ sounds about right but I’ve kinda lost count along the way: New York, California, Maine, South Carolina, Maui, Costa Rica, Morocco, and Australia — just to name a few.

Each coast of the US has something unique to offer diehard surfers with a board and a willingness to travel. Some folks will say one coast is better than the other, but in my opinion, a good wave is a good wave, and I’ll happily catch one anywhere I can. It’s hard to play favorites but if I really have to, here is a list of my favorite surfing locations in USA.

Hawaii

1. North Shore of Oahu

Best Surfing in America
Can’t get better than this
Legendary surfing spots (and people)
Unmatched waves
Locals respect and take care of the ocean and the environment (Hawaii banned sunscreen that’s toxic for coral reef)
This is the pro’s arena. Be sure you have the necessary skills and knowledge of the local surfing etiquette before you enter.

Oahu’s North Shore surfing is the stuff of legend. It is the home of the Triple Crown of Surfing competitions and the birthplace of many world-famous surfers. Alternately known as the “Seven Mile Miracle,” it has some of the most consistent surf  due to its deep water position at the western end of one of the most remote archipelagos in the world. 

There is every kind of surf break here, from reefs to points to beach break and everything in between. Some of these breaks have become legendary names in the lexicon of surf history: Sunset Beach, Velzeyland, Gas Chambers, Rocky Point, Waimea Bay, Chun’s Reef, Haleiwa, and the notorious  Banzai Pipeline, which is regarded as one of the best, if not the best wave in the world. When it’s on, typically in the winter swell season between October and April, it’s nearly flawless, with its super hollow shape and clear blue water, barreling consistently over a shallow, razor sharp reef. It’s no accident that this area, and Pipeline in particular, is the finale stop every year on the professional surfing circuit.

Big wave season lasts from October to April and in the peak season waves swell 30 feet easily, so be realistic regarding your skill level and whether North Shore is the place for you. Oahu has rich surfing history that locals take very seriously and you should too. Be humble, know the appropriate etiquette and ask for help beforehand.

If you are lucky with the traffic, North Shore is approximately an hour drive from Waikiki, but you can find closer accommodation. For an authentic local experience, check out Haleiwa. It’s a small, vibrant surfing town with lots of surfing shops and a great place to enjoy local hospitality and food.

North Shore of Oahu - Good to Know

Skill level:

Mostly for pros, beginners and intermediates can find good surfing schools in the area

Best season:

October to April (but you can find waves all year round)

Closest airport:

Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL)

Restaurants:

Grab a breakfast in Cafe Haleiwa

Other activities:

Go on 3-hour panoramic zipline tour

Don’t miss:

Waimea Valley

Surf shops:

Tropical Rush

Surf schools:

North Shore Oahu Surf

Hawaii

2. The islands of Maui and Kauai

Most Scenic Surf
Amazing surf all year-round
Second best is still epic
Postcard like nature and scenery
Tiger sharks

If the North Shore of Oahu didn’t exist, these two islands would hold the title of “Best Surf in America.” Kauai is an unobstructed year round surf destination and both pros and first-timers can find their perfect wave on Maui.

These islands are incredibly scenic and surrounded on almost all sides by wave-friendly coral reef. There is a continental shelf here to slow long period (powerful) waves generated by far-off Pacific storms, and the water is deep — very deep. Tunnels and Hanalei Bay are famous high-performance spots on Kauai, as are Honolua Bay and Jaws on Maui. Jaws is known as one of the biggest waves in the world. Watch out for feisty locals and tiger sharks. 

Dubbed the “Garden Isle,” Kauai is described by visitors as one of the most laid back places for a surfing vacation, and both islands are praised for their surfing schools, camps and clinics. You’ll also find plenty of options for accommodations, including luxury resorts, Airbnbs and condo rentals.

The islands of Maui and Kauai - Good to Know

Skill level:

Most beaches are reserved for pros but there’s something for everybody if you mind your surfing etiquette and are patient!

Best season:

Year round

Closest airport:

Kahului Airport (OGG) / Lihue Airport (LIH)

Restaurants:

Aloha Mixed Plate and Mark’s Place

Other activities:

Outrigger Canoe Tour / Hike the Koke’e State Park

Don’t miss:

Drive up the Road To Hana / Kauai’s farmers markets

Surf shops:

Hi-Tech Surf Sports / Deja Vu Surf 

Surf schools:

Maui Waveriders / Kauai Surf School

California

3. San Diego County

Most consistent surf
Year round surf and consistent conditions
Best place to hang ten
Surfing culture dominates the whole region
Can be very crowded

Surfing has shaped San Diego, or it was the other way around? It’s inevitable that you’ll embrace surfing when you visit, even if it wasn’t your intention. San Diego’s 70 miles of coastline vary in both conditions and waves so it’ll take more than one trip to experience it all.

The area is crowded but it also has super consistent surf. Encinitas, Cardiff, Blacks, Lower Trestles (bordering SD and Orange counties) are world famous surf breaks, with big reefs and big surf.

Take in Encinitas’ 1960s ambiance and surf a favorite local spot like Swami’s Beach. Other than riding waves, take some time to chill with the locals, meditate and do some yoga! Its retro charm and cool vibe can make Encinitas a perfect base from which you can explore other surrounding beaches. 

Cardiff is generally considered to be the epitome of San Diego surf: there’s long stretches of sandy beaches, great waves and a family-friendly campground. If you’re looking for a more upscale accommodation, check out the Cardiff-by-the-Sea lodge.

With more difficult access, the surf at Black’s Beach is more unpredictable, making it best suited for strong intermediate and advanced surfers. Part of the famed La Jolla coastline, it’s famous for magnificent views, waves, cliffs and golden sand. Also, it’s a nude beach, so maybe leave the kids at home.

San Diego County - Good to Know

Skill level:

Intermediate to advanced mostly but with plenty offerings for novice

Best season:

August to November but the season is always on and there are lifeguards year-round

Closest airport:

San Diego International Airport (SAN)

Restaurants:

OB Surf Lodge

Other activities:

Paragliding in Torrey Pines

Don’t miss:

Balboa park

Surf shops:

Bird’s Surf Shed

Surf schools:

San Diego Surf Lessons

California

4. Orange County

Top Choice For All Skill Levels
Variety of locations for every skill level
Surf culture is very significant (Surf City USA aka Huntington Beach)
Good swells also in the summer
Crowds
Pollution

Orange County’s reputation precedes it, making it a huge draw for both locals and tourists. While it’s not as renowned a surfing destination as the beaches in San Diego, the surf and waves here can be very, very good under the right conditions. Spots like Newport Beach, The Wedge, Huntington Pier, San Clemente, and Laguna Beach make OC worth a trip. 

San Clemente is home to world-famous surf breaks like Trestles and San Onofre. San Onofre is a trip back in time — on any given day you’ll find VWs lining the beach and classic loggers riding the friendly waves. Lower Trestles is often regarded as the jewel of Southern California and as such, the reef/point break was a prominent stop on the CT for years.

Laguna Beach is more scenic than any other beach in the area; there’s beautiful protected coves, beach parks and undulating hills that rise up behind its namesake town. Further north and south, are miles of beach break, with a huge local population of surfers, but there’s also lots of development and traffic, which can sometimes get in the way of your surfing mojo. 

Huntington Beach should also be on your radar. While no one can say it’s the best surf in the US, its conditions are consistent and the whole town is dedicated to the sport. The combination of shops, museums, statues, and history all justifies Huntington Beach’s nickname: Surf City USA. 

Orange County - Good to Know

Skill level:

You can find a beach for every skill level

Best season:

Winter has the biggest swells but OC has gets good waves in the summer (better than the neighbors like Ventura and San Diego)

Closest airport:

John Wayne Airport (SNA)

Restaurants:

Sandy’s Beach Shack

Other activities:

Go hiking in Crystal Cove State Park

Don’t miss:

International Surfing Museum

Surf shops:

Jack’s surf shop

Surf schools:

Corky Carroll’s Surf School

California

5. Malibu and Ventura County

The Best For Longboarding
On the right day it can rival Hawaii
California surf at it’s finest
The Beach Boys wrote songs about it
Pollution and crowds

Malibu is the epitome of the upmarket surf culture over the past 20 years. What was once a backwater pilgrimage for the original California surf community of the 1950s, it’s now too crowded and polluted to be a travel destination for more than one day. When the going is good, the right hand point is still one of California’s best breaks, and one good ride can be worth all the trouble trying to get there.

Up the coast in Ventura County are some of the best and most scenic waves in California. Ventura Point supports a classic right hand wave that can rival Hawaii’s Sunset Beach on the right swell (typically a strong NW winter swell, since the Channel Islands just offshore block most summer swells). 

Further north is home to possibly the best wave in California and, by extension, one of the best in the world: the cobblestone right hand point break Rincon — only on a NW swell in winter. Beyond Rincon, the beautifully situated beaches of Santa Barbara (Al Merrick territory) are bound by the same seasonal swell direction but can offer up some super sweet sets when it comes in right. Here, you have some forgiving cobblestone points, traditional reef breaks and sometimes heaving sandbars.

If accommodation prices are overwhelming, try Faria Beach Park campground.

Malibu and Ventura County - Good to Know

Skill level:

Aforementioned is for skilled surfers but locals are friendly and they’ll point you in the direction of more beginner friendly spots

Best season:

Winter

Closest airport:

Santa Barbara Airport (SBA)

Restaurants:

Baja Bay Surf N’ Taco

Other activities:

Hike Arroyo Verde Park

Don’t miss:

Solstice Canyon

Surf shops:

Malibu Surf Shack

Surf schools:

Malibu Surf Coach

California

6. San Francisco and Santa Cruz

Heaviest Surf
Big wave surfing
Consistent conditions
Adrenaline inducing swells
Sharks (the Great White kind)
Cold water
Pollution

This area is the epitome of cold water surfing — big, powerful waves and strong currents are the rule here. 

Ocean Beach in San Francisco is one of the most consistent (and scariest) places to surf in the world. It’s always on here, especially in the winter. Due to its orientation and lack of natural channels (reef), it can be extremely difficult just to paddle out on the big swells. In rare circumstances, when the surf is huge and refracts around the point, one can surf a sweet lefthander underneath the Golden Gate Bridge at Fort Point. However tempting this may sound, beginners should only go as spectators.

Further to the south is one of the most powerful waves on earth: Mavericks. It’s home to big wave surf contests and expert only surfing. 

Beyond Mavericks is the more manageable breaks at Santa Cruz, a scenic college town with lots of surf history. Steamer Lane and Pleasure Point are world famous points below a rocky shoreline, where the raw power of the northern Pacific ocean is mitigated somewhat by the forests of sea kelp offshore. But beware, when it gets big here, the kelp offers no quarter; watch out for Great Whites.

If you’re not staying in San Francisco, there are more laid back options near the beach, like Dream Inn in Santa Cruz.

San Francisco and Santa Cruz - Good to Know

Skill level:

Advanced to Daredevilish

Best season:

September and October (winter and spring are also ok)

Closest airport:

Mineta San Jose International Airport (SJC)

Restaurants:

Jack O’Neill

Other activities:

Check out MTB trails in the area

Don’t miss:

Food trucks

Surf shops:

Freeline Surf

Surf schools:

Richard Schmidt Surf School

New York

7. Montauk, Long Island

Good for Families
Vacant and quiet during the winter
Refreshing break from monotonous East coast geography
Packed during the summer months

The entire east coast of the United States, from the tip of the Florida Keys and everything to the north, is virtually one huge and unbroken sandy beach. This changes is at the eastern tip of Long Island, oriented west to east, it’s a huge terminal moraine formed by ancient glaciers. The sediment left behind these glaciers includes a decent number of rocks, which is unusual for the eastern seaboard. This is why the eastern end of Long Island — Montauk in particular — has some of the best surfing on the East Coast. 

Montauk is among the handful of spots that I found to have legitimate reef breaks and faces due south. These catch most of the autumnal long period tropical swells and many of the powerful Northeasters that come in from the west during winter. The wind doesn’t always cooperate either, but when it lines up, Montauk is the only place worth surfing on the East Coast, especially if you’re a regular-footer. 

The area also happens to be very scenic since much of the coastline is protected, as are the dunes, which separate the homes of some of the wealthiest families in the U.S. from the beach. While you’re there, you can check out the wild and crazy Surf Lodge.

Montauk, Long Island - Good to Know

Skill level:

All skill levels can find a place

Best season:

Fall and Winter months are the best

Closest airport:

Long Island MacArthur Airport (ISP)

Restaurants:

Naturally Good Cafe

Other activities:

Find your peace of mind in Camp Hero State Park

Don’t miss:

Montauk Point Lighthouse

Surf shops:

Plaza Surf & Sports

Surf schools:

CoreysWave

Rhode Island

8. Narragansett

Best Storm Swell
Great fall and winter surf
Best waves and views in New England
Rocky Point Judith
Cold water
Can get crowded

Similar to Montauk, but blocked partially by the hundred mile mass of Long Island during the tropical season, Narragansett has a variety of points and rocky reef breaks, and can be very good in the winter as well (if you can handle the low temperatures).

In theory, Narragansett can be surfed year-round but conditions are far from consistent. Locals are protective of the best surfing spots because they want to take advantage of every good wave they can, so everyone else has to get in line and mind their manners.

A one-stop surf shop and school that you should check out in Narragansett is Warm Winds. Cool beach accommodations can be found in The Break Hotel

Narragansett - Good to Know

Skill level:

Summer is good for beginners but the conditions in the Fall and Winter are for more skiller surfers

Best season:

Locals prefer winter months regardless of the cold

Closest airport:

Theodore Francis Green Memorial State Airport (PVD)

Restaurants:

Maharaja

Other activities:

Hike the Black Point trail

Don’t miss:

Sunsets at Point Judith Light

Surf shops:

Narragansett Surf and Skate

Surf schools:

Warm Winds

Florida

9. Cocoa Beach and San Sebastian Inlet

Recommended For Warm Water Waves
Easy ridin’ and laid back atmosphere
It’s the Sunshine state
Crowds and sharks can ruin the day

This is where the world’s best living surfer, Kelly Slater, cut his teeth. While this stretch of the Florida coast is blocked somewhat by The Bahamas, it can still pick up some nice swells under the right conditions. 

Cocoa Beach is almost all shifty (inconsistent) sandbar breaks. San Sebastian, just down the coast, has a nice jetty that forms good right handers in tropical swells. The downside is that the  area can be crowded and you need to watch out for those pesky warm water sharks!

The season here lasts from early August to mid-April and Florida surf is generally friendly for beginners.

Cocoa Beach and San Sebastian Inlet - Good to Know

Skill level:

For all skill levels

Best season:

November to March

Closest airport:

Orlando International Airport (MCO)

Restaurants:

Shark Pit Grill

Other activities:

Bioluminescent Kayaking Tour

Don’t miss:

Manatee Sanctuary Park

Surf shops:

Ron Jon Surf Shop

Surf schools:

Neilson Surf School

North Carolina

10. Outer Banks

Best Surf On The East Coast
Great beach breaks
The island is a great backdrop for your surfing
Cold water, cold winters
Shark may think you're their meal

The Outer Banks has the same shark warning as Cocoa Beach; waters tend to be murky and muddy and sharks often confuse surfers and swimmers for bait. There’s excellent and powerful beach breaks in the tropical swells of fall — these waves can get hollow and shapely, testing even the best surfers around.

Cape Hatteras is what most people are familiar with and it’ll be worth your while to check it out. The cape picks up most of the swells and its wide beach breaks will give you a satisfying, laid back experience. This isn’t the only thing Outer Banks has to offer. If you decide to make the trip to North Carolina, drive around and explore the many low-key surfing spots. The locals are generally helpful, too. While you’re in the area, be sure to check out Nags Head and S-Curves..

Yes, the Outer Banks might be out of the way, but it’s an established surfing spot on the East Coast that attracts a diverse crowd of all ages and walks of life.

Outer Banks - Good to Know

Skill level:

Everyone can have fun

Best season:

Winter is for more seasoned surfer and Spring and Fall give more mellow conditions

Closest airport:

Norfolk International Airport (ORF)

Restaurants:

Miller’s Waterfront

Other activities:

Go on a back country safari tour

Don’t miss:

Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

Surf shops:

Hatteras Island Boardsports

Surf schools:

Kitty Hawk

New Jersey

11. The Shore

Good Choice For Fall Surfing
One of the best beach breaks East Coast has to offer
Summer crowds
Pollution

New Jersey is beach break central. Though very inconsistent, fall and winter can produce very good (barreling) waves, some of the best on the East Coast. Even Montauk can’t produce like Jersey can, since there’s rocky bottom to most of the shoreline on the east end, which tends to fatten up waves for easy entry and thicker walls of water.

The surf season is year-round but there are insane crowds in the summer and finding a place to stay can be almost impossible. If fall or winter are viable surfing months for you, it’s likely your best time to go. 

The Shore - Good to Know

Skill level:

Beginner to intermediate

Best season:

Fall months can be perfect

Closest airport:

Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR)

Restaurants:

Surf Bbq

Other activities:

Try parasailing

Don’t miss:

Cape May

Surf shops:

Gordon’s Surf Shop

Surf schools:

Coastline Adventures

About the author

David Hewett

David Hewett

Surfer, mountaineer, and skier. He also makes a great martini

A bartender by trade, David’s adventures and interests would never indicate he has a job! His extensive backlog of outdoor activity includes surfing choice breaks all over the world, mountaineering expeditions in the Tetons, and backcountry skiing in the Alps. He reviews gear too. If you catch him behind the bar, you can ask him where he’s going next!

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