San Diego Surf Trip Guide
Helpful hints for surf spots, where to stay, dining, and other miscellaneous things.
Here at PB Surf Shop all our employees are devout surfers, and one thing surfers love to do is travel to score good waves! So this is going to be the first guide of a series aimed at helping other traveling surfers score throughout the world, and where better to start than right here at home in San Diego. We’re not going to go divulging any local secrets but we will compile readily available info and some local knowledge to help you out. In this guide we’ll give you a breakdown of surf spots, an overview of the various neighborhoods/regions of San Diego, some of our favorite local dining options, and other helpful hints to make your stay in SD as awesome as possible!
Fall: September-November, considered by many to be the best season for surf in Southern California. We often get early season west swells and late season south swells, resulting in combo swells that can make the beachbreaks turn from closeouts into rippable walls with the odd barrel section. The winds are often calm or offshore. Surf will often be in the waist to head high zone. Water temps have the greatest variability this time of year. It generally ranges from 60-70*F, 3/2 wetsuits are the norm when it’s 65* and under. Spring suits are common when it’s 66*+.
Winter: December-February, when we get our biggest swells. Mostly west, west-northwest, and north west swells. Can get windy, but often the surf will be chest to head high or bigger. My personal favorite time of year to surf! Water temps generally range from 56-60*F, people most commonly wear 4/3 wetsuits and it’s not uncommon to see people in boots and hoods but neither are a necessity.
Spring: March-May, usually considered the worst time of year to surf in socal. Often short period windswell with some left over winter groundswells peppered in here and there. April/May can see some early season south swells arrive. Can be blown out for weeks and/or waves are small. There are moments when the waves do get really fun though, it’s just not very consistent. Size generally ranges from knee high to chest high. Water temps are typically 58-65*F a 4/3 or high quality 3/2 is what most surfers will be wearing.
Summer: June-August, surf in SD is pretty hit or miss this time of year. During the summer the majority of the swells roll in from the south, but if the swell angle doesn’t have enough west in it the swell will bypass the majority of San Diego County until you get up to Oceanside. Up in Orange County the surf is much more consistent this time of year. Surf in SD will typically be ankle to waist high, unless we’re getting a good south swell. Water typically ranges from 65-70*+, 3/2’s and spring suits are the norm this time of year.
It would take far too long to list every spot here so we’re going to go over some of the most popular spots in the county, focusing mostly on south-central San Diego. It’ll be divided up by the ideal skill level of the breaks. If you haven’t already, check out our blog post about general surf etiquette before paddling out!
These are the most beginner friendly beaches in the area. Be warned, many of these spots will be crowded but the vast majority of the people out there will also be beginners so the vibe in the water will generally be relaxed. Mistakes are forgiven and people are generally stoked for each other. Etiquette may not fully be there, so advanced surfers be weary and leave your ego on the sand. Accidental drop-ins are abundant and spacial-awareness isn’t entirely on point. These beaches generally have gentler, smaller waves. Perfect for learning to pop-up, working on trimming down the line, and learning to do basic turns.
- Tourmaline – Two way peaks, breaks year round except on the smallest days of the year. Generally soft and rolling waves that break over a mix of rock-reef and sand. Favorable for longboards and people learning. Usually likes a medium tide. Can be surfed year round.
- North PB (Law St.) – Shifty beach break peaks, breaking over sand. Slower and softer than the peaks further south of the pier. Optimal tide changes all the time as the sandbars are constantly shifting. Generally a medium tide is preferred. Can be surfed year round.
- La Jolla Shores – Beach break peaks directly in front of the parking lot. As you move farther south towards La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club the waves usually get smaller and mellower. It can get really, really good when the elements align. Medium tide is usually preferred. Can go from mellow beginner break to top-to-bottom tubes when the swell is really cookin’. Usually better in the winter but waves can be found nearly year round. Steeper south swells are completely blocked by La Jolla Cove.
- Torrey Pines – Usually empty beach break peaks. Good place for beginners to go due to lack of people and loads of waves. When the waves are big this is no longer a good option for beginners and will be powerful thumping closeouts. Can get really good on occasion but usually nothing noteworthy.
- Moonlight Beach – In Encinitas, beach break peaks with wide, soft shoulders can be found here. Usually best in the summer, but waves break year round. Best with a medium low tide.
These are the spots for people who have their pop-up dialed in, can go down the line with some confidence, and are working on improving their turns. They may not be nailing maneuvers every time but they know basic etiquette and have a solid understanding of what’s going on in the line-up. Many of these spots are good for intermediates on most days, but as with almost any surf spot, when the conditions align there will be rippers all over them.
- PB Drive – Typical beach break peaks. Breaks 350+ days a year, there’s almost always something to surf! Right out front of our shop there’s rights and lefts. It’s usually slightly bigger, steeper, and faster than the peaks found north of the pier. Maxes out around a little over head high (7’-8’ wave faces).
- PB Point – Right hand point break at the north end of PB, short lefts off the peak too. Generally slower and softer wave but you can cruise for a long time. On good days you can take one from the outside at the point all the way through old mans at tourmaline. Gets very crowded when there’s good waves. Prefers winter west swells and medium-high tides but breaks year round on all tides depending on the swell size/direction. Can handle swells up to around double overhead.
- Crystal Pier – Located right in the center of Pacific Beach. Surfing is only allowed on the north side of the pier, but if you go early enough you may be able to get a few on the south side before the lifeguards kick you out. Off the northside there’s bowly lefts and shorter rights breaking towards the pier. Sandbars build off the pier pilings giving the waves a bit more consistency in shape. Can get competitive at the peak right next to the pier. The crowds get more spread out the further north you go until you get around law street. Maxes out at slightly overhead waves (6’-8’ faces).
- Mission Beach – Typical shifty beach break peaks for 2 miles, from just south of PB Drive down to the south mission jetty. Works on any swell direction and usually prefers a medium to high tide, but as with all beach breaks it changes day to day. Often similar to PB Drive, steeper and more powerful than north of Crystal Pier. Often less crowded than elsewhere due to lack of parking in Mission Beach. Take a walk and pick your peak, most likely you’ll be surfing nearly alone. Maxes out around a little overhead (7’-8’ faces).
Can get crowded at Santa Clara Ct. and around Belmont Park. Beware: South Mission Jetty is an experts only wave, one of the most localized spots in SD County. Aggressive locals and fist fights aren’t uncommon.
- OB Pier – Beach break peaks north of the pier. A steep right breaks into the pier while a softer left peels away from it. Further north is more typical beach break. Often a foot or two bigger than PB/Mission Beach, but usually a bit mushier. Can get closed out on big swells. South of the pier is a softer, mushier left hand reef break. Needs a medium to high tide to avoid rocks/reef. Cool tides pools on extreme low tides on the south side of the pier.
- Scripps – The southside of Scripps pier down to La Jolla Shores is a series of quality sandbars. Gets crowded near the pier and crowds spread until you get closer to the La Jolla Shores parking lot. Works on all swells and tides but prefers winter west swells and medium tides. Can handle more size than most other beach breaks in the area. Maxes out around a little under double overhead (9’-10’ faces).
- Blacks (North Peak) – This is the northernmost peak at Blacks. It’s a beachbreak peak that offers up lefts and rights, with the rights usually being better. Steep and powerful, good for performance surfing and the occasional barrel. Quickest access is via the glider port parking lot. This peak is generally less crowded than middle or south peak and is often slightly smaller than the other two. It can still get really good and on big days will deliver serious beatings. Knowledge of etiquette is expected here, more so than the other spots listed in the intermediate section here. Breaks on all swells and at all tides. Holds up to double overhead before closing out. Best on a medium tide.
- Del Mar – Surf can be found at the end of any of the numbered streets, starting around 4th street. 9th St. and 15th St. are popular breaks. Breaks on a mix of sand and patchy reefs. You can find your own peak away from the crowds if you walk a little bit up or down the beach. Works on all swells and all but extreme high and low tides. Note: Climbing down the cliffs can be a little sketchy, plan your route accordingly.
- San Elijo Reefs – There’s numerous reef breaks off the San Elijo campgrounds that can get really fun on winter west swells. Mostly prefers medium tides and can handle swells from waist high to well overhead (8’-10’ faces). Generally not too crowded but etiquette is expected.
Advanced to Expert+ Breaks:
These breaks are for people who know what they’re doing and are confident in nearly any and all conditions. For people who know how to do a variety of maneuvers with consistency and know how to act in a lineup. Etiquette is expected to be followed at every spot on this list. We’re not going to get too in depth with this section as we don’t want to land ourselves in hot water with other locals. With that said let’s get to it…
- Blacks (South & Middle Peaks) – Beach break peaks. South peak is generally a winter wave but breaks year round. Top to bottom barrels are common. Handles swell up to around double overhead. Middle peak breaks on all swells and tides, and is the biggest peak at Blacks. The La Jolla canyon funnels swell directly into this section of beach, causing it to be much larger than anywhere else in the county. It never really maxes out. Massive barrels can be found on big swells, more often than not though, Middle peak is a rippable, high performance wave. Great for doing turns, carves, airs, and all out ripping.
Thick crowds when it’s on, it’s not uncommon to see multiple tour level pro’s and ex-pro’s in the water. Vibe is competitive but not usually too aggressive (unless you burn someone or other major breaches of etiquette).
- Windansea – One of the most famous waves in the region. Surfing here dates back to the 1950’s. Thick, powerful, wedging a-frame peak, that breaks over a rock-reef. Works on most swells and most tides. High tide can make exits very sketchy due to rocks lining the shore. One of the least friendly crowds in the area. Locals know when it’s good and will be all over it. Show respect, don’t paddle straight to the peak, stay out of the way and you’ll be able to pick off a few fun ones. Vibe is generally competitive and often aggressive towards outsiders.
- La Jolla Reefs – Various somewhat fickle reefs that work on different swells and tides. Ranging from just north of PB Point all the way to La Jolla Cove. Each spot has its preferred swell direction, size, and optimal tide. Take a drive and see what looks fun, waves range from mushy cruisy spots to top-to-bottom barreling slabs. Similar to Windansea, respect is big here. Don’t come in groups, don’t burn people, don’t be aggro, follow proper etiquette and you’ll be able to find some fun waves. Make sure you have an exit and entry plan for these waves, there’s lots of sketchy rocks and small cliffs you can get banged up on… Vibe is similar to that of Windansea, and can be even more aggro at certain spots…
- Sunset Cliffs – Similar to the La Jolla Reefs, this is a series of rock-reefs that stretch for a few miles along the coast of Point Loma. Needs size to get proper (overhead+). Same general guidelines as La Jolla; show respect, don’t come in groups, don’t burn people, don’t be aggro, and follow proper etiquette. Drive along Sunset Cliffs Blvd. and you’ll see various spots. Again, have an entry/exit plan, some spots can be very sketchy as the trails down are on 20-50’ cliffs. During big swells it’s common to see the fire department using a crane to rescue stranded surfers and swimmers. Note: Localism can be bad at the more southern spots. Certain spots have “leash laws” where you will get heavily hassled by locals if wearing a leash.
- South Mission Jetty – As stated earlier this is one of the most localized spots in San Diego. Even if you rip, show respect, and follow etiquette perfectly the tight knit crew of locals will try their best to vibe you out of the water. Thick skin and confidence are key for getting waves here when it’s working. More often than not, it’s not even worth the hassle of dealing with these guys… That said, the jetty can produce a solid wedgy left on winter swells. Never maxes out.
- OB Jetty – Breaks to the south of the jetty at dog beach in OB. Produces a steep, fast, often barreling right. The peak is a tight, condensed takeoff. The crowd isn’t as outright aggressive as Mission jetty crew, but this local crew will simply paddle straight past you and work together to stop outsiders from getting set waves. The scraps can still be alright here though. Works year round and pretty much never maxes out.
- Seaside Reef – San Diego’s answer to Lower Trestles. The proving ground of all the rippers and groms in north county. Located on the border between Solana Beach and Cardiff, this is an a-frame peak breaking over a mix of sand and rock-reef. The left is often steeper and faster than the right. The inside peaks provide rippable sections and ramps for airs. It really shines in the winter but works year round. Maxes out around double overhead. Crowd is competitive but not overly aggressive, locals have it wired though and will be on all the best waves. Common to see pros like Rob Machado and Taylor Knox here on good days.
- Cardiff Reef – Just north of Seaside Reef sits Cardiff Reef. Mostly a long right, but shorter lefts can be found too. Best in the winter but can be fun in the summer too. Needs some size before it gets rippable but when it’s on it can get really fun. It also gets really crowded too, and as with all these spots, locals have it dialed and will be on most if not all of the best ones. There are fun scraps to be had though. Maxes out around double overhead.
- Swamis – The crown jewel of north county, found at the southern end of Encinitas. Swamis is a right pointbreak that never maxes out and can handle any swells the Pacific throws at it. Best in the winter, but has waves in the summer too. Gets absurdly crowded when it’s working well, and has the nickname “Swarmies” due to the crowds.
Where To Stay
- Pacific Beach – Central/South PB is close to all the bars and restaurants in town. Has a busier party atmosphere to it, but peace and quiet can be found as well. A good option for younger crowds and families. There’s plenty of hotels near the beach and lots of airbnb’s around as well. There’s a few hostels in the area too. Our shop is located here in South PB right on the boardwalk!
- Mission Beach – Similar to central/south PB, a busy touristy/party atmosphere to it. The bay side is usually quieter/mellower. Everything is located within a block of the beach or bay and boardwalk. There’s a few restaurants and bars around Santa Clara Ct. and multiple options around Belmont park, but for the most part it’s residential. There’s no hotels but loads of airbnb’s to stay at. Belmont Park is a small amusement park that’s great for kids.
- Ocean Beach – Has more of a hippy vibe to it. A bit grittier than other places on this list, but that gives it its distinct character. Worth a day trip if you don’t stay here. There’s loads of restaurants and bars on Newport Ave. in the center of OB. On Wednesdays they have a big farmer’s market that attracts large crowds. There’s a couple hotels in town, a hostel, and airbnb’s in the area. A good area for everyone, from people looking to party to families looking for a nice beach vacation.
- La Jolla – Much more ritzy than the other places previously listed. Has a more posh vibe to it. There’s hotels and airbnb’s near La Jolla cove, and airbnb’s in the Windansea area. Good for families and people looking to have a mellow beach vacation. There’s bars and restaurants all around the Cove and a few near Windansea. There’s also restaurants along La Jolla Blvd. in the Birdrock neighborhood. The rocky shoreline and hidden beaches make La Jolla quiet and picturesque. There’s also hotels and airbnb’s in the La Jolla Shores area, as well as restaurants and coffee shops.
- Del Mar – Similar to La Jolla, ritzy and expensive. Good dining options in the center of town on either side of highway 1. There’s not too many hotels around but air bnb’s can be found. Quiet and upscale, good for a mellow and relaxing family vacation.
- Encinitas – Sleepy surf town with a downtown area that is sometimes happening. There’s many bars and restaurants lining highway 1 through the center of town. Not too many hotels to be found but there are air bnb’s all around. Quieter than PB but more lively than the areas directly surrounding it (Del Mar to the south and Carlsbad to the north). A good spot for a mellow vacation with more dining/drinking options than elsewhere in north county.
Local Dining Favorites
There’s tons of great restaurants all throughout San Diego. I’m going to list a few of my favorites but there’s far more out there than what I’ve got listed here.
- Rocky’s Pub – Some of the best burgers in SD, Rocky’s is located right in the Crown Point neighborhood in PB. They’ve got limited seating so you may end up having to take it to go.
- Taco Stand – Located in La Jolla and Encinitas. Great Carne Asada and Adobada. Definitely worth a stop if you’re in the area.
- La Playa Taco Shop – Just down the street from our shop, located on Mission Blvd. They make great California burritos and the hot carrots are a favorite among our surf shop employees.
- Enoteca Adriano – Delicious Italian food right here in PB. Moderately priced, but my favorite Italian restaurant I’ve found in SD. Better than anywhere I’ve been to downtown in Little Italy!
- Ramen Ryoma – Located on Garnet in PB. They serve Japanese food with a focus on Ramen. Their Ramen bowls are large and delicious. Their sushi is pretty good too, I like the Volcano Roll. They have reasonably priced beers too.
- Phil’s BBQ – Located in the Midway area of Point Loma, Phil’s is an SD staple. Delicious tri-tip, brisket and pulled pork. The hot links are great as well!
- C Level – On Harbor Island Drive, offers great views of downtown across San Diego Bay. A great place for a date or to take the family. Food here is delicious. Fine dining at Island Prime is found below the C Level.
- George’s at The Cove – In La Jolla Cove, George’s is a multilevel restaurant with everything from fine dining to a casual rooftop bar.
- Henry’s Pub – In the Gaslamp Quarter downtown. Delicious American bar food. My personal favorite is the Cluck-Moo, a burger with a fried chicken paddy added on.
- Barleymash – Right next door to Henry’s downtown. Another bar that serves up delicious American bar food such as burgers and wings. Barleymash often wins awards for being top quality.
- South Beach Bar and Grill – Located in Ocean Beach right near the pier. They have a bunch of different fish tacos that are all excellent. On Tuesdays and Thursdays each taco is $4, about 3 and you’ll be full. Their happy hour 3-6pm has good specials on app and drinks as well.
- Bronx Pizza – Located in Normal Heights about 15-20 minutes from PB. Easily the best pizza in San Diego. Cash only, they have multiple different slices available. Know what slices you want to order when you get to the counter, they like to move quickly at Bronx!
Other stuff to do
Hiking- There’s many good hiking trails throughout San Diego. Check the alltrails app for more info. I’ll list out some of my favorites here though:
- Torrey Pines – Coastal trails that weave along the bluffs overlooking the ocean between La Jolla and Del Mar. Parking easily accessed off highway 1.
- Mt. Fortuna – In mission trails regional park, this is a 7 mile loop that offers views of pretty much all of south county. Gets hot in the summer and there’s no shade.
- Cowles Mountain – Shorter hike at around 3 miles round trip. Up a steep winding trail, near SDSU in La Mesa. Good for a quick afternoon hike, offers views from downtown to La Jolla.
- Sunset Cliffs – You can walk along paths atop the cliffs along Sunset Cliffs Blvd. If you walk from the first parking lot past the inn to the PLNU parking lot it’s about 2.5 miles. Great ocean views with hardly any elevation gain.
- Mt. Woodson (Potato Chip rock) – At the top of this trail is a rock that’s been the center of many photo ops. The hike itself is a winding 6.5ish mile round trip. Offers views of pretty much all of south county.
Mountain biking – There’s trails all over the place throughout the county. Some good spots are Mission Trails Regional Park, Tecolote Canyon, and Penasquitos Canyon.
Skate parks – Southern California has an abundance of skate parks. San Diego in particular has many great spots.
- Linda Vista is a big park that has a variety of bowls/tranny and street sections. Often crowded but definitely worth a look, especially on weekdays during the day.
- OB has a fun park with small to medium features. Mostly bowls and tranny with a few street options in the mix.
- Washington Street is a DIY park built by local skaters under the Washington Street bridge. This place is gnarly and seen in many edits and magazines. Steep transitions are abundant.
- Rancho Penasquitos has a park with lots of street features. The Skate Mafia crew hang out here often, so seeing pros ripping up close is a common occurrence here. Fun park but can get very crowded.
- There’s a pump track east of Del Mar that is popular with local skaters as well, just make sure to go during school hours otherwise it’s mobbed with children on scooters.
There’s plenty of other skate parks throughout the county too, if the waves are flat go explore for a day!
Golf – There’s an abundance of fun golf courses around the county. A few of my favorites are Mission Bay, Torrey Pines, Admiral Baker, Mission Trails, Tecolote Canyon, and Riverwalk.