Wavelength Guide to World Surfing Reserves: #2 Santa Cruz

Protect, Steward. Defend… And the perfect place for your next surf trip. 

Santa Cruz local Ken “Skindog” Collins barreled in front of the Natural Bridges. Photo World Surfing Reserve

In January 2022, 20 miles of the North Devon coastline became the 12th World Surfing Reserve. The WSR mission is simple; to protect surf ecosystems across the globe. The vision is a world where surf ecosystems are valued and protected and where surfing provides a vehicle for long-term coastal conservation. The end goal is to protect 1,000 surf ecosystems by 2030. 

In this series, we are looking at the current World Surfing Reserve locations to see how they provide a template so that surfing conservation can make a difference. Having looked at Noosa last week, we swap the East Coast of Oz for the West Coast of America. Trunks give way for steamers as we take a cold water deep-dive into the surf capital of Santa Cruz

The Start Of Surfin’ USA

Santa Cruz is a city of 65,000 tucked into the northern part of Monterey Bay, just 70 miles south of San Francisco. Known for its sandy beaches, redwood-covered mountains, left-leaning laid-back vibes, organic farms, and burgeoning beer and wine scene, it also has an incredible amount of world-class waves. 

Culturally and historically, Santa Cruz is a fundamental pillar of mainland USA surfing. It was here in the summer of 1885 that the Hawaiian princes David Kawananakoa, Edward Keli’iahonui, and Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana’ole introduced surfing to the world beyond Hawaii. Riding crafted surfboards from local redwood lumber at Cowells Beach, the never-been-seen before sport made headlines and sowed the seed for Santa Cruz to become the spiritual home for surfing.  

Capitola Beach, Santa Cruz. Photo Santa Cruz Tourism

In the 1930s the Santa Cruz Surf Club was established, and 20 years later a young Jack O’Neill moved to the area, set up a surf shop, and invented the wetsuit as a means to spend more time in the incredible waves. Since then, Santa Cruz has produced an endless stream of incredible surfers, the highpoint being the 1990s when a group of surfers including Adam Replogle, Chris Gallagher, Jason “Ratboy” Collins, Shawn “Barney” Barron, Pete Mel, and Flea Vristoski, dubbed the “The Rat Pack”, dominated both the big wave and progressive surfing ranks. In 2011 Santa Cruz became just the fourth World Surfing Reserve.

The Breaks

The city’s production line of well-rounded, extremely grounded surfers is a direct function of the waves. The World Reserve stretches approximately seven miles from Natural Bridges State Park on the west end of Santa Cruz, eastward along the city and county coast to the Opal Cliffs, just east of Pleasure Point. In that stretch, there are 23 consistent surf spots including the world-class breaks of Steamer Lane and Pleasure Point. 

Steamer Lane, tucked inside Lighthouse Point, points almost directly south, meaning the west and northwest swells that ravage the coast north of Santa Cruz are evened out and groomed as they bend into Monterey Bay. The four individual surf breaks are protected from the northwest winds, keeping the waves clean and glassy, when the rest of the coast is often blown apart at the seams. It is perhaps The Lane, more than any other surf break, that best illustrates the pervasive and deep-rooted surf culture, and its thriving but fragile cold water habitat of Santa Cruz. 

The Lane from above. The Slot breaking next to the rocks, with Middles in the centre of the bay. Photo World Surfing Reserves

Elsewhere Capitola is the most beginner-friendly beachbreak, whilst The Hook is a much-loved right-hand point break that comes off the southerly rocks of Cliff Beach. A solid crowd usually gathers here to hoover up the west swells that wrap into the bay and create long, fun, and often glassy rights that are perfect for the loggers.

Lastly, Pleasure Point has four point break peaks between the main point at 30th Street and the end of The Cove beach. It collects any west and northwest swells that come in from September to March, and with the added blessing of the NW offshore winds in the fall, it’s got some added consistency.

Now, Santa Cruz isn’t all rainbows, big wave Dave’s, chai lattes, and right points. Fog, sharks, and thick kelp beds are three relatively common variables that should be taken into consideration if you plan a surf trip there. During the prime winter months the water temperature can drop down to a frigid 8 °C and only heat up to a modest 18°C in summer. Yet, with waves this good and a city vibe built on fun, these slight barriers to entry only further burnish the rewards of one of the world’s great surf towns. 

Fun Facts

The perfect day: An eight-foot southwest swell is met by a light, offshore northeast wind that has cleared the fog. Under sunny skies and a mid-tide almost all of Santa Cruz’s two-dozen breaks roar into life.

Getting there: Fly into San Francisco International Airport and drive the hour south to Santa Cruz. 

Boards: With waves ranging from two-foot runners, high-performance reefs, and 15-foot bombies, you need everything from logs, to shortboards to big wave guns, depending on your addictions.

Essentials: A very good wetsuit, patience with crowds, and plenty of paddling power.  

Accommodation: Choose between the bustle of Downtown, the buzzing Boardwalk, Midtown/Seabright for after dark, Capitola for west coast cool, and Aptos for the beaches and outdoor vibes. 

Other waves: Just 40 miles north at Half Moon Bay is Mavericks, the mainland’s best big wave, and the ultimate proving ground for Santa Cruz’s best big wave surfers.