Best Surf Towns: No. 1 Santa Cruz, CA

Best Places in the U.S. to Eat, Sleep, Work, and Shred

| posted on April 05, 2009

One of Santa Cruz's many gems. Photo: Trefz

Santa Cruz is the dividing line between rugged, non-pretentious NorCal and suburban, image-concerned SoCal, and that dichotomy is tangible. In this college town palms grow next to pines and pros live next door to reclusive soul surfers. Huntington Beach may have won the right to the name “Surf City, USA” in the California courts, but any surfer who’s ever paddled out at Steamer Lane knows the judge got it wrong. The first waves surfed in the Continental United States were ridden in Santa Cruz by brothers Jonah, David, and Edward Kawananakoa in 1885, and the town has had a thriving surf scene since. Don’t be fooled by the chilly temps, the organizing principal in the lives of most Santa Cruzians is surf, and with numerous legendary breaks dotting the coast, it’s no wonder this sleepy gem has become the de facto capital of cold-water surfing.

The old saying goes, “If a butterfly flaps its wings over the Pacific, Santa Cruz gets swell.” Well, actually there’s no saying like that, but there should be. Because the coast forms a sort of natural bight, the area’s myriad beachbreaks, points, and rocky reefs absorb swell from just about any direction—northwest to dead south—translating to rideable waves almost every day of the year. Big waves, secret spots, outer-reef bombies…even a world-class right-hand reef-point in Steamer Lane—Santa Cruz has them all. And if you’re itching to do something stupid, Mavericks is only an hour north in the sleepy seaside town of Half Moon Bay. Good luck with that.

Don’t let astronomical home prices and the existence of a major institution of learning fool you, Santa Cruz is still very much a blue-collar town with a largely home-grown surf community protective of its birthright, which explains the towns status as a sort of Walden for artists and craftsmen who wish to live a surf life far from the surf spotlight.

Quality of Life
If abundant surf, close proximity to the West Coast’s most metropolitan city (San Francisco is a 90-minute car ride away), a low-key but thriving art scene, great wine, and access to massive expanses of natural beauty are things you enjoy, Santa Cruz will inspire you. Yes, the water’s cold and there are some Buick-size sharks, but those are just Santa Cruz’s way of making you earn it.

Average Water Temp: 57 (But drops into the 40s in the winter)
Average Air Temp: 57
Median Income: $59,770
Median Home Price: $850,623
Most Common Industry: Educational Services
Population: 55,322
Nearest city with pop. 200,000+: San Jose, CA (25.3 miles, pop. 894,943)
Premier Surf Spots: Steamer Lane, Wadell Creek, Pleasure Point
Local Talent: Peter Mel, Richard Schmidt, Flea, Michel Junod, Skindog, Chris Gallagher, Barney, Adam Replogle, Ratboy, Nat Young, Jack O’Neill
Odd Fact: Santa Cruz County’s 40-mile stretch of coast is home to more than 70 noteworthy surf spots.

Back to No. 2

  • rex

    what happened to Pavones and Hermosa Costa Rica?

  • Chancho

    Great article! Super in depth and pretty knowledgeable. Obviously people are gonna disagree on ratings based on our own person preference but overall really good piece.

  • wladimir

    Costa Rica is not really in the US, dude…

  • steve “ace” drew

    Does not include surf city Huntington Beach ?Loses any credibility.

    • Jose Canseco

      huntington is the most overrated surf spot in the US. can’t believe they held the US Open there this year, waves were horrible. and i live in california, so i’m not just using that as my only sample.

    • Jayboy

      What Jose said, and the fact that Santa Cruz is the REAL “Surf City, USA”

      • marty schreiber

        Santa Cruz is the real deal…you can find a spot, play by the rules and become part of the culture…any place you like….East Side, Town, West Side..North Side…Beaches. Long board short board boogie…every body gets respect…that gives respect. Simple rules but a huge playground. Come on down to Rockview/Sewers in the morning…let’s ride a few.
        Marty Mechanic.

  • Ben

    Surf towns, US, with surf quality as a primary factor:

    1. Santa Cruz
    2. Haleiwa
    3. La Jolla
    4. Lahaina
    5. Encinitas
    6. San Clemente
    7. Ventura
    8. Santa Barbara
    9. Pine Trees
    10. One of the NC towns

    • jordan

      Outer Banks, NC

  • Zach

    How is Haleiwa/Oahu North Shore not #1?

    • Jose Canseco

      it’s an article about surf towns, not the best surf spots. santa cruz is second to none in this regard.

  • Jose Canseco

    just listen to the beach boys, they got it spot on already.

  • Michelle Nicely

    Would love to have you stay at Nicely’s Victorian Flat:

  • Janice Burdick


  • Sanchez

    Huntington Beach didn’t make it to the list?

  • Jimmy Johnson

    Thanks tranny

  • industry sucks a lot

    Leave us alone already, lame!!!

  • Bdawg831

    What’s up w not posting my comment? Truth hurts it’s a junkie town deemed unsafe earning the 2nd highest crime rate in Cali last year for a while. Needles in the water floating/ or on the beach regularly. The locals are the worst in the nation second to hawaii. Good luck w that good ole fashioned fun n friendly surf sesh if u r in Santa Cruz, unless u r one of the boys or at a beginner spot taking lessons. It’s cold as crud daily and the waves are A frames w NO BARRELS! My advise surf other more desire able destinations that are surf communities not homeless druggie catering eyesore known as Santa Cruz. Side note , the girls are stuck up and the bar scene is too sketchy to even have a decent time anymore….. I say hit up something warm and friendly down south

    • Daveseth

      Thanks dude. Needed the truth.

      • fatalreview

        I think the whole point of this article was to try and spin SC’s bad rep-but hype and marketing PR don’t change truth

    • Sc_loc

      I love living here in SC no there are definitely not needles floating in the water (maybe at cowells) don’t listen to all the bullshit rumors and sure guys can be dicks,but don’t let them stop you from having a sick surf sesh. P.S most of the trash you find on beaches is from valleys.

    • Jon P

      I’ve been visiting Santa Cruz off and on for 20 years. I’m originally from Venice, CA. (Dogtown) and I agree with you the town is run down but I’ve seen some nice sets, as recently as February but the water is ridiculously cold and it’s very hard to find parking. The women smile at strangers, so I disagree with the stuck up thing unless you mean San Francisco women visiting on the weekends, they are by far the worst women in the USA for friendless I’ve encountered; compared to Seattle, NYC, Washington D.C., Cocoa Beach Florida, Los Angeles or San Diego. But I agree that I don’t think Santa Cruz should be #1.

    • rystorm06

      Hawaii ain’t bad, the locals are friendly as long as you’re not an a-hole. If you go there thinking you own the place though, you’ll get laid out real quick.

      • Crystal Baker

        I’d love to Surf Hawaii

    • Trent

      “Homeless druggie catering eyesore”? I don’t think you’ve spent much time in Santa Cruz and if you have it has been under a rock. First off, ill give you the violence. That is true and its a shame, but needles in the water? I’ve lived in santa cruz for 17 years and i have never encountered a needle in the water. Secondly, the locals are nice in the water if you just keep to yourself. Look left, be polite, and your fine. Finally, no barrels? All i’ll say is google santa cruz waves. That should change your mind. or scroll up. anyways, next time you come to santa cruz, make sure you leave that rock. sounds horrible under there

      • johnfrombangor

        dude, that guy’s just trying to put people off from coming to his beach. it’s a fake comment.

    • Crystal Baker

      I’ve surfed Santa Cruz, it’s not bad. But I don’t know that I really agree with all the hype. I’m not going to knock the town that I live in Stockton now and that is the most violent disgusting filthy City in the fucking world. My favorite surf is Half Moon

    • Jenn

      Agree with everything except the stuck up girls and sketchy bars. That last part says more about you than the girls or bars. That said, you speak the truth about the crime. We need to let tourists know the truth. Not until the tourist dollars are affected will the city leaders take real action.

  • Lori T of 831

    Santa Cruz is THE TRUE Surf City!! Forever & always!!

  • rscruzin

    Now if you could just get rid of the aggressive panhandlers, the frequent gang shootings, and the liberal city council that has plagued Santa Cruz ever since the university was founded, then you would have paradise.

  • Alfonso Talavera
  • duane Mccauley

    Wave for wave best surf town in the world. Period. Don’t mind the locals. ..they are all bitter because they can’t be real men and get real jobs to make real money. So they are getting pushed out . Nobody owns anything. ..only the strong survive. But know your limits. ..don’t surf the slot if you can’t surf. Just be smart. Most locals are like beaners. Real tough when their buddies are around, get one alone and watch him shut the fuck up.

  • thatguy11

    hey California can you lower your prices so regular people can enjoy the coast…thanks douche bags

  • chris_linton

    Holy shit… How do you survive?

    Median Income: $59,770

    Median Home Price: $850,623

  • Jeffrey Dean Root

    When you grow up in Santa Cruz you don’t realize how cold the water is until you set foot in Hawaii. Still, that 6:30 am 50 degree water is better than coffee. Best way to start your day. You’ve already surfed by the time everyone else is getting out of bed.

  • fatalreview

    isn’t SC the south point of the red triangle?