Surfing lends itself to travel, even more than it does gear or people. Sure, it’s fun to gawk at boards or study the skills of the pros, but when it comes down to it, it’s the places where the actual surfing takes place that are the most awe inspiring.
Whether they be in obscure, remote locations untouched by civilization, or bordering some of the coolest and most hospitable cities and towns on the coast, finding the best waves in the world is always an adventure and people have dedicated enormous amounts of their lives to finding surfing heaven. Often, it’s a long, arduous and expensive process to find the best waves. This guide makes it a touch simpler, although we’ll admit, picking the nation’s best surfing spots can be tricky. Some spots are bound to be overlooked, and those that are included — while otherwise consistently good — can sometimes be found flat, blown-out or excessively crowded. But the spots are meant to embody the things we all look for in a great surfing spot: ride-ability, swell size and consistency, good legacy in surf and a great geographical location.
Montauk Point, NY
Escape from New York: Rockaway Beach is a fine place to surf if the subway is your only way out of NYC, but if you’re trekking out further into Long Island, go all the way to the tip at Montauk Point. Waves are consistent and there’s a variety of breaks in the area; sandbar, reef and point breaks can all be found and suit many surfing styles.
Ocean City, NJ
The Garden State’s Surf Mecca: Ocean City, NJ is probably the most established surf town of the Northeast and has produced pros — like Dean Randazzo, Matt Keenan and Rob Kelly — and young enthusiasts alike. Waves are consistent thanks to the jetties and the locale is south of New Jersey’s central coast, where bigger waves and less crowded beaches can be found.
Ruggles in Newport, RI
Notoriously Big East Coast Waves: Few East Coast beaches can hold 20-foot waves. While others have been discovered, the reef break off of the absurdly posh Ruggles Avenue in Newport has been the de facto East Coast destination for big waves for decades. If you’ve got the skills (and the balls), go around hurricane season for the serious stuff.
Hampton Beach, NH
Surf Spot on New Hampshire’s Tiny Coast: New Hampshire only has about 13 miles of coastline, but there is some good surfing to be found. Hampton Beach is one spot that gets consistent waves and protection from northeast winds. This spot is also fairly uncrowded, as most surfers will be at “The Wall” north of Hampton Beach, which — if you can stand the crowds — is another consistently ridable New Hampshire spot, even when the waves are small.
Long Sands in York, ME
A New England Spot for Newbies: Long Sands in York, Maine gets wind protection from Cape Neddeck in the north. The result is generally consistent waves that are manageable, and fortunately Long Sand’s isn’t a particularly crowded beach. Swells don’t get very big here, but that’s fine by many; the spot is ideal for longboarders and beginners.
Laid-Back East Coast Surfing
Virginia Beach, VA
Birthplace of East Coast Surfing: The waves here are highly average, but also highly consistent. That means if you’re relatively new to the sport, this is a good place to get some experience. Virginia Beach is also home to the East Coast Surfing Championships, so it’s also a great place to admire the pros. As a result, there are crowds, but this is one of the best places to surf in the lower Mid-Atlantic States.
Assateague Island, VA
Waves and Wild Horses: A more serene alternative to Virginia beach is Assateague Island, a National Park off the coast of Virginia and Maryland. Surf at the south end of the island and you’ll be treated to beautiful wildlife as well as consistent waves and a beach that’s rarely crowded. Nearby Chincoteague Island is your waypoint to the wildlife refuge and a great place to hang your hat when you aren’t in the water.
Kitty Hawk, NC
The Wright Bros. Probably Surfed Here: Kitty Hawk is a small town in North Carolina’s Outer Banks islands where the Wright Brothers made their first successful flight. Though it can become crowded, the pier is where you’ll find the best breaks. It catches good swells (at least for the East Coast) producing hollow and powerful waves.
New Smyrna Beach, FL
Consistent Breaks on Florida’s Coastline: Ponce Inlet at New Smyrna Beach is considered the home of some of the most consistent waves on Florida’s coast. While they’re moderately sized, they are incredibly ridable and appropriate for groms as well as more experienced surfers. Only caveat: lots of sharks inhabit the area.
South Padre Island, TX
The Best Surf in the Lone Star State: Most people don’t associate Texas and surfing, and admittedly, surfing isn’t too common in the Gulf. But South Padre Island is the one standout spot in the region. South Padre is considered Texas’s most consistent spot, bringing in swells from the North, South and East. Generally Texas waves are flat in the summer but better the rest of the year. Catch swells during hurricane season and you’ll be rewarded for your patience and bravery.
Serene and Secluded Surfing
Alaska’s Surf Capital: If you want to avoid crowds at any cost, you’ll find nothing but deserted beaches around Yakutat. The town is small (less than 1,000 people) and is only accessible by boat or plane. What’s more, the water temperature is usually in the 50s, so surfing in anything other than a thick wetsuit is an absurd proposition. Waves aren’t necessarily big, but they’re long and glassy. It may seem like a tough sell, but the solitude and adventure is worth the trek.
Surfing for Seattleites: Westport is one of the few reliably consistent spots along Washington’s coastline and is thus one of the few places you’ll encounter a crowd (most likely city-escapees from Olympia and Seattle). The long jetty at the north end of Westport, near the entrance to Grays Harbor is where you’ll find the best waves, especially on the south side of the jetty.
La Push, WA
Surfing in Washington’s Wilderness: La Push is a tiny, unincorporated town at the very northernmost point of Washington’s coastline. This cove is home to some moderately sized beach break waves that peak consistently. Ignore the fact that part of Twilight takes place here, and focus on the good surf.
Smuggler Cove, OR
A Surfing Treasure: A secluded cove in Oswald West State Park, Smugglers Cove is home to modest waves that range from quick hollow tubes to mushy slow rollers. In either case, it’s a forgiving place for newbies. Access takes a little effort: to get to it you have to hike along a scenic trail, a staple of the Northwest Surfing Experience.
Cape Lookout, OR
An Essential Oregon Surf Spot: Cape Lookout is a notorious Oregon surf spot that — much like Smuggler’s Cove — is located in a state park. The beach breaks peak fast and can get pretty big. Because the surf spot hosts some of the best waves in the state, there are alleged problems with localism, so be forewarned you may encounter some hostility.
Iconic Beaches and Breaks
Trestles, San Clemente
Perfect Waves for All Riders: Trestles isn’t so much one spot as it is several. Located in San Onofre Beach State Park outside of San Clemente, Trestles is broken up into three regions along the beach: the Uppers, Lowers and Middles. Lowers is perhaps the best known, where picturesque hollow lefts and long steep rights abound. In Uppers the waves are more sloping and a better choice for longboarders. The waves in Middles are similar but less intense, so if you’re a grom that’s the place to go. Getting to these spots requires a short hike, but it’s always worth it.
Secret Spots Galore: So named due to settlers leaving the region in the 30s and a lack of development due to the challenges of the landscape, the Lost Coast is about as secluded as it gets on the California coast. Like most surf spots in NorCal, the locals keep the best spots hush-hush, so use this as an opportunity to find your own favorite secret break. One well-known, yet illusive spot is “Ghost Point”, supposedly a several-mile hike north of Shelter Cove (another great spot itself) in the King Range National Conservation Area.
Serious SoCal Surf Culture: Okay, so the beaches here attract serious crowds but for two good reasons: the breaks are consistent and it’s the heart of SoCal surfing. The waves are generally mild by the pier and other spots along the beach, but they can get good with the right swell. If you’re looking for more thrills, head south to “The Wedge” in adjacent Newport.
Sunset Cliffs, San Diego
Cliffside Swells: Sunset Cliffs is an area of San Diego in the Point Loma peninsula, and the swells come from the west and northwest, can reach overhead and are best in the fall, winter and spring. While the cliffs are beautiful they can become a hazard — surfers can be battered against the cliffs if they don’t get out of the water in time, and the trek to the beach itself requires walking along the cliff trails — and (fair warning) the risk of taking the short way down can be very real.
Rincon Point, Santa Barbara
Queen of the Coast: Much like Huntington Beach, Rincon Point is an iconic SoCal surf spot. Waves are consistent and good at all tides, but if you’re looking for hollow waves low tide is the time to go, especially in the winter. Rincon is a point break that, on the right day, offers up long, steep right-handers.
Maalaea Bay, Maui
The World’s Fastest Wave: Maalaea Bay, a south-facing spot on Maui’s west coast, is home to a right-hand break known as “Freight Trains”, widely considered to be the fastest ridable wave in the world. However, Freight Trains is only ridable on large southerly swells and is located near the harbor. If you go and Freight Trains is too frightening, head down the coast where you’ll find more waves that are suitable for more “reasonable” surfers.
Punalau Beach, Maui
Professional-Grade Waves: Located at the very northernmost point of Maui, Punalau Beach, or “Windmills”, is home to a reef break that, when conditions are right, produces huge barreling lefts. The surf is biggest in the winter and draws professional surfers from around the world. It’s a difficult spot to surf, so don’t attempt it unless you have some serious experience under your belt. But, if you are pro grade, you get some perks: due to the advanced nature of the waves and the rocky beaches, this spot doesn’t get particularly crowded.
Hanalei Bay, Kauai
Consistent Hawaiian Surf: On the north shore, Hanalei Bay is the darling of Kauai surfing. It’s consistent and fun and — unfortunately — is often crowded as a result. The waves are great year round, but if you’re more experienced and looking to ride larger waves, the winter is the time to go, while the smaller, less intense summer waves are better for newbies.
Log Cabins, Oahu
Underrated North Shore Surf: Oahu’s north shore is notorious for having some of the world’s biggest and best waves, with Pipeline being the most legendary spot in the region. But the north shore has a number of less-widely-known spots as well, one of the more underrated of them being Log Cabins, a right reef break with consistent waves during the winter often exceeding 30 feet. But just because it’s not as notorious as the Pipeline doesn’t make it any less dangerous. The currents are strong and the reef can be brutal, so only attempt if you’re of an advanced skill set.
Makaha Point, Oahu
Variety in Hawaii: While experts ride out the big waves on the North Shore, Makaha Point on the west side of Oahu is home to a variety of waves that appeal to riders of varying levels of expertise. Waves can get big (and tricky), but there’s options for smaller waves. Since there are several distinct breaks there is a large variety of waves, from short and fast for the shredders to larger, slower rollers for longboarders.