Surfing San Francisco: A Guide to The Best Bay Area Surf Spots

Surfing San Francisco: A Guide to The Best Bay Area Surf Spots

By Rachael Medina September 26, 2019

Given the San Francisco Bay Area’s famous fog, city lights, and urban adventures, surfing may be the last thing that comes to mind when you think about the region—but it won’t be for long. Ideal surfing destinations dot the peninsula and beyond, offering something for surfers of every skill level. Of course, the cold waters might be a deterrent, but with a wetsuit (thanks for inventing them, California!) and a warm cup of joe from one of Oakland’s top coffee shops, you’ll have everything you need to make the most of the Bay Area’s unique surfing conditions. 

Many Bay Area surf spots are reserved for advanced surfers due to the significant challenges and dangers, though there are some hidden gems scattered throughout the region waiting to serve as training grounds for novices. Regardless of your skill level, we’ve found a surfing destination for you, so get ready to add surfing in the San Francisco Bay Area to your to-do list. 

Experienced surfers looking for a challenge should head to the famed Mavericks Beach in Half Moon Bay, where the waves can reach heights of 16 feet or more. 

Mavericks Beach, half Moon Bay

Famous for being the site of the big-wave competition—waves here typically reach 16 feet or higher—Mavericks Beach is the pinnacle of intense surfing and is only intended for professional surfers. (The winter conditions have been so unfavorable in recent years that the Mavericks Half Moon Bay surf competition has been cancelled for the foreseeable future.)

Rocky floors and coral reefs lie beneath the picturesque giant swells, making the surf incredibly rough and presenting dangerous conditions, even for very experienced surfers. Should you belong in the tiny percentage of surfers who are qualified to take on these large, frigid waves, you’ll be rewarded with wide-open waters. But it’s recommended to bring a friend with you, just in case the waves prove to be more than you can comfortably handle. 

Princeton Jetty, Half Moon Bay

Though Princeton Jetty is just across the water from Mavericks Beach, the waves here are suitable for both beginners and more experienced surfers. And thanks to a side strip of rideable waves, surfers aren’t crowded together like they are at many of the other surf spots throughout the state. 

While the trek from the dirt parking lot to these Half Moon Bay waves isn’t easy, the effort is undoubtedly worth it. With shallow waters that allow most surfers to touch the sand up to 15 or 20 feet away from the shore, getting used to the motions of surfing is easy as can be at the southern end of the beach. Of course, it’s another story when the waves start to roll in, so make sure you’re prepared to put your skills to the test. 

More experienced surfers can find thrills at the northern edge of the beach, where the waves are more exciting and the rocky edges make the ride even more challenging. 

Bordered by undulating mountains, the charming town of Bolinas is a Marin County hot spot for surfers, who come to take in the scenery while riding the fairly tranquil waves. 

Bolinas 

Tucked between the Bolinas Lagoon and the Gulf of the Farallones in Bolinas Bay, about an hour and fifteen minutes north of San Francisco, Bolinas is well-known for its gentle surf, making it an ideal destination for beginners. 

Upon arriving at the beach parking lot, those with longboards in tow should walk to the right to surf at “The Patch”, a section characterized by slow, long rides that can sometimes be too mellow for shortboards. Otherwise, hook a left from the boat ramp instead, and you’ll soon find yourself at “The Channel”, where the lagoon meets the ocean. 

Stinson Beach

Just around the Bolinas Lagoon lies Stinson Beach, one of the most popular surf spots in the Bay Area. Though close-outs are incredibly common here, there are also sandbars that form legendary swells in certain sections. The largest waves can be found near the lifeguard stand on the public beach, giving more advanced surfers something to work with. Less experienced surfers, meanwhile, can stick to the plethora of smaller waves found in the other areas. 

Following a surf session at Sausalito's Fort Cronkhite, a former military outpost, hike around the surrounding Marin Headlands to get a different perspective of the coast. 

Fort Cronkhite, Sausalito

Situated roughly 30 minutes north of San Francisco, Fort Cronkhite is ideal for intermediate and advanced surfers. This location is best on south swells and is surfable at mid and high tides, but due to the windy and rough conditions, rides tend to be short and fast. If you’re not quite ready to head home after your surf session, consider hiking the Marin Headlands, stand-up paddleboarding in Richardson Bay, or walking along the Sausalito waterfront.

Fort Point National Historic Site, San Francisco

Thanks to its picturesque perch right beside the Golden Gate Bridge, Fort Point is one of the most scenic and unusual San Francisco surf spots, providing unparalleled views and left breaks right beneath the bridge. This Presidio destination also draws intermediate and advanced surfers with its fairly dependable swells, which typically reach heights of four to six feet.  

But the waves can prove unsurfable in the winter, as the current moves at speeds up to seven knots, making the protruding rocks around the break even more difficult to navigate. Once you have some experience under your belt, however, you should absolutely come here to ride the waves. After all, where else can you surf underneath such an iconic landmark?

Tucked away in San Francisco's Presidio neighborhood, Fort Point National Historic Site is a surfer's paradise, offering rad waves and unparalleled views of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. 

Ocean Beach, san Francisco

Nestled along the western edge of the San Francisco Peninsula, just past Golden Gate Park, Ocean Beach boasts a five-mile stretch of renowned breaks that call to the city’s more experienced surfers. Though San Francisco is generally known for its rip currents, this specific surf spot is particularly famous for them. 

The conditions at Ocean Beach can become questionable quite quickly, so it’s suggested that beginners wait to try these waters until they’ve been surfing infrequently for several years or been surfing weekly for a year or more. 

While you’re there, keep a close eye on the rip currents, which move unpredictably from just off the shore. Also note that there is very little on-site parking and enough wind to fly a kite (not to mention frequent fog), so you might want to consider taking the beautiful drive down Highway 1 to Pacifica instead. If you insist on putting your skills to the test, stop by San Francisco’s Mollusk Surf Shopone of the top surf shops in Californiaon your way to Ocean Beach to grab a warmer wetsuit and the right board. 

Rockaway Beach, Pacifica

Bordering the coast between Daly City and Half Moon Bay, about 30 minutes south of downtown San Francisco, Pacifica’s Rockaway Beach is a paradise for intermediate surfers. With four-foot waves and reef breaks to complement the ominous cold and fog surrounding the shore, this destination is never boring. Watch out for the riptides though; while they offer an easy paddle out, they can also sweep out surfers to the southern edge, where there are bigger waves and jagged cliffs. 

Thanks to its picturesque perch inside a wide cove, Linda Mar in Pacifica provides perfect waves for novice and intermediate surfers alike. 

Linda Mar, Pacifica

Linda Mar, also known as Pacifica State Beach, offers excellent surf. Located about two miles south of Rockaway Beach, this surfing destination is especially ideal for beginners due to its location in a wide cove, where most swells remain under five-feet tall.  

The best surf—and many other surfers—can be found right off the popular public beach. Make sure to wear water shoes, as the rocky shores can prove painful without them. Also note that migrating jellyfish are common during the warmest days of the year, so regardless of the weather, you’ll want to wear a wetsuit to protect against stings. 

Should your surfing adventures continue south, check out the best surf spots along the Central Coast, the ultimate swells throughout L.A., and the San Diego surf destinations you can’t miss.

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