A San Francisco Surf Guide

San Francisco.  The name conjures up images of trolley cars, steep hills, hippies, a certain famous rock, technology entrepreneurs and an iconic bridge.  San Francisco is the second densest city in the United States, behind only New York City, and has vibrant tourist, night life and outdoor sports scenes making any trip to the Bay Area a full itinerary.  

It is also a decent place to catch a wave.

Where To Surf:

There are numerous surf breaks in and around the San Francisco area and the locals all have their favorites.  As you drive around, it will be quite common to see long and short boards ornamenting the roofs of cars and all you need to do is head west to the ocean and you will encounter countless breaks up and down the coast.    In the surf world, San Francisco is probably best known for Mavericks, a big wave break about 35 minutes southwest from the heart of the city.  With 20 foot + waves, Mavericks only truly breaks a handful of times each year when the swell is just right – usually from January through March.  Even then, only the hard core and well trained surfer will want to test its epic rides.

For the rest of us, there are plenty of other opportunities to ride year round.  This author has lived in the bay area now for 3 years and even while surfing consistently 3-4 days per week, he can count on one hand the number of times he went out and wasn’t able to find a wave to ride.  The surf is consistent and the nooks and crannies of the Northern California coast create an environment where, with a little bit of planning, you can usually find a decent break given the current conditions.

Bolinas.

For beginners and longboarders.  A 40 minute drive north up the scenic and winding Route 1 from San Francisco will lead you to the little hamlet of Bolinas, California.  Located on the North End of Stinson Beach where the Stinson Lagoon empties into the Pacific, this town was populated by hippies back in the late 60s/early 70s and you will get this vibe immediately upon entry with a sign welcoming you to “This Socially Acknowledged Town” followed by another sign on the beach announcing “Naked Surfing Area”.  Don’t worry; the water is too cold for the naked surfers to survive long in the water.

The sign welcoming you to "The Channel" surf break.

The sign welcoming you to “The Channel” surf break.

Bolinas has 2 primary breaks.  From the beach parking lot down the boat ramp if you head to the right and up the beach you will encounter “The Patch” which, when working, is a longboarder paradise with long, mellow rides.  Beware of the rocks near shore which are just barely submerged at high tide and are completely exposed at low.  To the left of the boat ramp will be “The Channel” which is a break that runs off the end of the concrete groin where the lagoon empties into the ocean.

When you arrive, you can see both spots from the boat ramp and can make a call based on your equipment and where the other surfers have congregated.  Bolinas is a south facing beach and works best on south swells (usually April – September) and also big swells from the north and west (September – March) which, if the surf is too big elsewhere, will be mellowed out by the long curve into Bolinas.  It’s more difficult to break a short board out at Bolinas as the wave is super mellow and often times will be too slow for solid shortboard rides.  However, when the south swell is on or there is an epic north/west swell, you may find shortboarders out there taking advantage.  On those days, the entire bay is a bowl with rideable waves wrapping all around the beach.  When the wind is blowing strong from the west to north and other beaches are blown out – try Bolinas as it is well sheltered.

It should be pointed out that Bolinas is basically the northern part of Stinson Beach, a 2 mile strip of sand broken up by the Lagoon channel.  Stinson itself is normally closed out, but if Bolinas is too small for your satisfaction, head down the beach and you may find some bigger, ride-able surf.  Unfortunately, access to Bolinas is difficult from Stinson as the north end of Stinson is a private neighborhood – so, yes, you have to drive around the lagoon.  Check out 2 Mile Surf Shop for rental equipment, lessons and the most creative surf forecast you have ever read.   There is a bathroom in the parking lot, but no showers.  Plenty of food opportunities exist, particularly in Stinson Beach.

Linda Mar, Pacifica

For beginners, longboards and shortboarders.  A quick 20 minute drive south of San Francisco on Route 1 will lead you

Beginners exiting the water at Linda Mar.

Beginners exiting the water at Linda Mar.

to Linda Mar Beach in Pacifica, CA.  This beach is also pretty consistently firing on most days of the year but will also get quite crowded, particularly during the summer weekends.  If there is a strong northwest wind, it may be blown out, but otherwise it is pretty well protected by points to the north and south.

Just a little under 1 mile in total length, Pacifica often will have opportunities for surfers of all levels with smaller waves on the south end increasing in power and size as you head north.  You will often find shortboarders clustered on the far north end, avoiding the longboards and surf classes found south of the Taco Bell.  (Pacifica has the world’s best located Taco Bell, the only standing building right in the middle of the beach… and often used as a marker for surfers beyond the break).

Linda Mar is usually working all year long and the conditions can become quite large particularly during the big north and west swells of October – March.  It is pretty rare when there is nothing to ride at Linda Mar, although keep an eye on the wind forecast as a strong NW wind will blow it out.  Depending on the angle of the swell it will also, like anywhere, close out from time to time.

There is a surf shop immediately to the south of the beach where you can rent equipment.  If you are looking for lessons, numerous outfits serve Linda Mar beach.  Just search “Linda Mar Surf Lessons” and they will pop up.  There are bathrooms and showers on the beach and plenty of locations to eat and sleep nearby.

Ocean Beach, San Francisco

Expert longboarders and shortboarders.  The Western side of the City of San Francisco is bordered by Ocean Beach – a 5 mile long beach that stretches as far as the eye can see in both directions. This can be one gnarly break with big waves, strong currents and killer rip tides.  The beach is completely exposed to the Pacific Ocean and the paddle out can be tough.  If you are a beginner, we would recommend avoiding Ocean Beach unless you are planning to just ride the white water.

Looking down on Ocean Beach, San Francisco. Golden Gate Park is the big green space.

For more advanced surfers, Ocean Beach can be anything from one of the best rides you have ever had to a blown out washing machine.  It is a long beach with plenty of parking, so feel free to head up and down looking for a spot that may work for you.  Facilities are limited with bathrooms difficult to find, no showers and the surf shops a bit of a walk from the beach.

One trick is to hit Ocean Beach first and if it is not working for you, Linda Mar (see above) is just a 15 minute drive down the coast.

Beyond those 3, ask the locals for other breaks.  There is a nice right at Fort Cronkite/Rodeo Beach for more advanced surfers.  This is across the Golden Gate bridge in the picturesque Marin Headlands – a 20 minute drive from the City.  This is also sheltered from north winds.  There is Grey Whale Cove and Montara State Beach – both a few minutes south from Linda Mar where the crowds thin out and the waves tend to be a little larger.  There is even a break that fires occasionally directly under the Golden Gate Bridge – although the locals can be a little protective of this one, so be considerate.  Otherwise, grab a surfmobile, strap on the boards and explore. You will find numerous little spots from Half Moon Bay North to Point Reyes.

Climate & Weather:

Most visions of California include palm trees, white sand and warm breezes – it should be stated emphatically that this is NOT San Francisco.  Due to the cold ocean current and the hot inland temperatures, San Francisco is often covered in a layer of wet, cold fog.  This is especially pronounced in the Linda Mar areas north into the city itself from July through September. It can clear up a bit as you get north into Marin County. But if you are traveling to San Francisco in the summer months expect cold, wet fog and assume that day time temperatures will not rise above 15 Celsius/60 Fahrenheit.  If it’s nicer, you nailed it.

The water typically is… cold.  Northern California is fed by a current coming down from Alaska which feeds spectacular wildlife – seals, birds, whales & sharks – but also results in freezing water.  Expect water temperatures to be in the mid-50s all year.  We have seen it as low as 47 degrees during upwells and you may occasionally see it rise into the 60s.  But generally speaking, it is cold.

Surf is plentiful year round with the most consistent surf from October – March when the north and west swells are consistently hammering the Coast.  From March – September the south swells will turn on with cyclone season in the South Pacific.  The worst time of year is probably July & August when the surf is less consistent; the fog is thick, wet and cold; and the breaks are full with surf classes.

Equipment:

Because of the water temperature, a 4/3 wetsuit is typically required year round and it is pretty rare when that is too thick for the conditions.  Boots are also typically a necessity except for some rare instances from June – September when the water may warm up or if you are a particularly hardy soul.  Hats and gloves will be seen in the winter months.

Where To Stay:

San Francisco is a major tourist destination, so you will not have any issues finding a place to stay.  The hotels in City center, however, will get full during tourist season and be quite pricey.  The City itself is built away from the cold, dark fog of the beach so, ironically, the hotels out on the ocean will typically decline in quality and price.  You can also check out room rentals on sites such as www.airbnb.com for other options.

Getting There And Around:

San Francisco is an easy 1.5 hour drive from the surf mecca of Santa Cruz (although if you are looking for better surf, I would stay in Santa Cruz) and a 6 hour drive from Los Angeles. It is well served by major airports in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose as well as train service up and down the coast.

Once you are in San Francisco, the easiest thing to do is to rent a car.  With a little advance planning, you can find some “cheap” deals at the airports or in the city.  The local transportation is generally good with good commuter trains and bus service but recognize that the center of the transportation hub is the urban area away from the beaches so getting from beach to beach using public transportation will be tedious and time consuming.

Conclusion:

If you find yourself in the San Francisco bay area, surf is never far away and will be good to great most days of the year.  If the surf is lousy or the weather stinks, there are numerous things to keep you occupied while you are waiting for the next swell.

 

 

 

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Christian is a former software executive turned bum surfer. Following a decade in the high paced high-tech industry as a founder, executive and attorney he eventually settled in California where you can find him surfing the breaks from Los Angeles to Marin County. Christian has traveled to over 30 countries, studies eastern philosophy and, in addition to riding short and long boards, is also a blue water sailor.

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