California Love

| posted on March 07, 2013

Golden peaks kissed by offshore winds; what's not to love? Photo: Gilley

Rob Gilley

Previously in denial about his photographic past, Rob Gilley now rummages through his trove of mediocrity.

I know this European surfer who wanted to take a trip in January. He didn’t care if it was a warm or cool water destination, he just wanted to get away from home, surf, and have fun. He had already been to the Caribbean and Morocco, and was looking for somewhere new.

As it turned out, he ended up sitting on his ass for the entire duration of his trip. This is because he chose the North Shore of Oahu as his destination, and he arrived just in time for one of those massive, rainy, trade-wind-ridden surf patterns—just full-on diarrhea at sea.

I knew from the get-go that he had made a bad decision, and not because of the weather. It was because I knew how this guy surfed, and realized that even if the conditions were better, he wouldn’t have enjoyed himself. When it comes to most surfers’ abilities, macking Hawaii and fun sessions are mutually exclusive.

While he sat indoors on Oahu, the place I had suggested he go—California—was going off. The same giant, blown-out swells that he was enduring on the Islands were being met by perfect conditions up and down the West Coast. Day after day we saw clean, roping surf at every point, reef, and beachbreak.

When it comes to epic surf trips, California is not even on the world’s radar. Despite offering 700 miles of surf possibilities and a veritable abundance of amazing side-trips, people from other countries don’t even consider it.

Without much doubt, this is due to how California, particularly Southern California, is portrayed by the surf media. More often than not, it’s shown as this ultra-crowded, localized Mecca of fast food and freeways. A place where your chances of having a good surf trip are similar to a snowball’s in hell.

Personally, I find this impression a bit ironic because I think it’s nearly the opposite—from December through March, California is one of the best places you could travel. If you know what you’re doing, you will not only find clean, relatively uncrowded surf, but you can find waves that match your ability.

Nevertheless, it seems that California’s surf reputation has been cemented, and maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe being overlooked by the rest of the world has made our home a more worthwhile—and stealthy—place to live and surf.

So in tribute to the oft-overlooked quality of the Golden State, may I present a four-part gallery of California surf images.

Photo: Gilley

Photo: Gilley

Photo: Gilley

Photo: Gilley

Photo: Gilley

  • realitycheck

    The reputation of being “this ultra-crowded, localized Mecca of fast food and freeways.” is pretty accurate from someone who has been living and surfing here for 7+ years. SoCal can have its moments, but it’s NOT a surf destination unless you’re from Milwaukee.

  • stinkbug

    Every dog has it’s day, even the East Coast.
    Do those photos really show “normal” California surf conditions? The kind you can “expect” to find on a trip there?
    California is now “stealthy”??? Wha…
    Not really getting this article at all.
    California doesn’t need to defend itself—it’s been bashing other coasts for many years. Be happy with what you got- do you really need MORE attention??
    Are you feeling slighted that people don’t go to California for epic surf trips?

  • dash

    Good thing that SoCal is only a small, urbanized, swell-blocked part of our amazing state. I remember living on Oahu and missing the glassy pointbreaks at home so bad after weeks of 30 mph sideshore tradewinds.

  • rck2

    good luck finding a uncrowded surf break in socal

    you also forgot the wetsuit factor. no one plans their surf trips around places where they have to wear a wetsuit.

  • Dan

    postin pics of the canyon i see

  • kyle

    I would agree for the average surfer, california is as good as hawaii for a surf trip. But I would not travel from australia or europe to go to California, simply based on the crowds and the amount of local knowledge needs to score the good spots.

  • Justin

    Thanks for the perspective Rob. It’s funny how when going on trips I always think about how I would be stoked on warm water versions of what I have back home in San Diego. It also makes me think of all the options that are in such a close distance where I can surf uncrowded waves if I feel like it. WIth that being said I am I always excited to travel and experience new waves, cultures and food (not that we are lacking in the food department if you know where to look).

  • Jobseeker

    I get what you are saying Rob, I live in Ireland and would love a healthy dose of vitamin d. I would love a trip to California, and by that I don’t mean soCal. However what is putting me off is the distance – from europe – and the whole getting fingerprinted upon arrival in the USA. Not a very warm welcome. I understand why it happens, but I am not sure Americans understand how offputting it is as a tourist to be treated like a criminal suspect. I don’t understand the guy who says that nobody travels where they have to wear a wetsuit, did he never hear of travelling to such places as South Africa, West Oz, New Zealand, Victoria, Chile, etc etc. if pulling on a wetsuit puts you off travelling well….

  • Smithers

    It’s all good from Diego to the Bay, Gilley’s puttin it down for Californ-i-a

  • jdubbs

    I’ve had a lot of fun surfing up and down the CA Coast, and Socal has good weather and fun waves for all abilities. Sure it’s crowded, but you can always get waves if you’ve got the time and are willing to put in a little work. Honestly, I like Socal better than Norcal, Here in SF the waves are huge with super long paddle outs, freezing water, and the spots down the coast from here are sharky as hell. So Don’t Come Here!

  • so cal

    i love mushy waves 95% of the time…

  • kevo

    Most of these comments are from people that have been stuck on SoCal their whole lives and don’t realize how good they have it. The chance to surf everyday of the year in relatively warm water and the best burritos anywhere. Live on the east coast or even the northwest… Then you might be able to appreciate what you have.

  • Luc11

    be glad to wear wetsuit and surf great waves for all levels and organized crowd. In Brazil you wear shorts but on a shit beach break with hundreds out there. and there is no parking lots, terrible roads and unbelievable traffic….

  • Jonny3Leggz

    I agree with Gilley. As a San Francisco native, I know dozens of spots that are literally EMPTY during any given swell when OB is crowded. DOZENS! And that’s just between the Golden Gate Bridge and Lindamar. If you don’t know, you don’t get to go. If you know where those spots are and are not afraid to surf alone, you will literally surf standup barrells all by yourself with nobody watching. Been there, done that. You gotta love California! Go get ’em!!!

  • Jeff

    High expectations can work against enjoying yourself on surf trips. Gilly is right on with the article IMO.
    As a place to live, work, raise a family and surf, Socal is incredible.
    For a visitor in the know of where to go and boards for small waves and well overhead waves, visit here in December for a couple weeks you will score fun to good surf most of your trip. Plenty other things to do on a down days.

  • mark

    Why bother when you have Mexico. Except: San Francisco can be a destination, but good luck getting decent surf there if you have a limited amount of time.

  • Robin Poz

    Gilley called it spot-on and all those fears I harbored in years gone past of complete and total idiocy in crowding-out of our beloved surf zones has been for naught. Paradise is in each and every wave caught. And the early bird gets the worm.

    Peace & love

  • heather

    Even in Socal surfers wear wet suits, at least when I was there in February a few years ago. To me all of California is beautiful, I prefer northern California because it is more wild, less crowded. I’d be in Socal in a minute if it wasn’t so damn built up! That said, coming from another country, even Canada can be daunting border wise. Most beautiful place I’ve ever been, so appreciate it.
    As for secret spots, i understand to keep secret spots private, but living in the west coast of British Columbia, there are not too many accessible places to surf, and in some places people are downright nasty to ‘outsiders’.

  • cabe

    nobody know loma local,guerrero mx

  • Urban

    Being from SoCal and living on the east coast now for 20 years its still hard not missing the surf in SoCal. I travel there 2 to 3 times a year to see family and get my fix of surf. It rarely lets me down, like the east coast does all the time. Trips up to the Outter Banks helps ease the pain. SoCal is a great place like the article says, if you know where to look.

  • AT

    I’m from the UK, but my Mum lives in North CA. I come over every year for family Christmas then do a west coast road trip for 2-3weeks. Personally never had any border problems, need to choose your airline carefully to get boards over (but so many options to buy a board there, and much cheaper than Europe).
    Water and air temp is relatively warm compared to UK, food, gas and car hire is loads cheaper than home and always get good waves. This year I had decent Blacks and Rincon quite quiet…Rob is right CA is a great destination for a surf trip fro the international surfer, but for some reason quite overlooked.

  • Bob

    Weekday mornings all over SoCal uncrowded

  • Surf destination

    I’m from California (a good part) and have been living around australia and new Zealand for a bit over a year. They have a different type of crowd in the water over here; all Europeans including Germans, swiss, French, Spanish, moroccan, Italian ect can be found surfing any spot at any day. The towns here start to change and cater to ‘surf backpackers’ . I don’t know about you but I’m pretty thankful California isn’t like this . Of course there is still parts of aus/nz that are under the backpacker radar. Keep Ca underground!

  • Nuno

    I’m a Portuguese surfer and paddleboarder, and I’ve been on surf trips all over the world: France, Spain, Brazil, Costa Rica, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
    I went did a trip with my wife in the States. We started in Vegas and drove to Dana Point. From there we drove all the way to San Francisco along the Pacific Highway, and then flew to NY.
    I have to say that I loved the trip. It wasn’t an hardcore surf trip, but I did enjoy a lot of time in the water and found that are some misconceptions about crowds and hassling in California. I saw tons of breaks with few people in the water and when I was surfing on more crowded spots I saw a lot of respect in the water, something that is missing in my home country, where there’s hassling even on less crowded spots. Of course, I didn’t surfed ultracrowded spots like Trestles and Malibu, but there was always good waves around the corner. And there were a lot of people interested in knowing more about us: where we’d came from, if we were enjoying it, how’s the surf in Portugal, etc.

  • NoSh*t

    The guy above has it dead on! It is ultra crowded and most of the time waist high and glassy! Those big days in the pics only happen a few days a year and California is a lot more expensive than central or South America that has year round pumping waves and warm water.

  • larkstan

    nearly every shoreline on earth has its days of good surf. i’ve never had glass anywhere like Cali’s.

  • Notthewavesyourelookingfor

    It’s very expensive in CA. I’ve been surfing here for almost 30 years now and there are most definitely big crowds on all the good days at every single good spot. Usually the crowds are comprised of locals who wait all year for the few good days a year a particular spot breaks. When it does they are on it and they have it wired. Hard to get waves when a pack of local boys is sitting hungrily right at the perfect and only take off spot. You will get more wave time per dollar spent in Tamarindo Costa Rica.

  • Mathieu

    I’m going to Los Angeles in May (17th to 21st, 2013) will I have good waves? It has been a dream of mine to surf in California my whole life. I have surfed (bodyboarding) in El Salvador, Spain and France. Will I be able to find good spots in May?

  • BVB

    California used to be a dream but that was 30 years ago when there were 5 million less surfers. I can name the “go -to” spots ( he already photographed them and that’s enough) when and where — but I’d be opening myself up to major beefs. Go somewhere else, seriously.

  • Big Undy

    I attended Swamis from 76-90 rather than San Dieguito. Black wetsuit, no leash, white stick, RESPECT. You EARNED your spot in the line up. DA, Brolaski, Dobson, GT were the guys we looked up too and learned from. Now its long board hell, every goofy donkey in the world surfs and not enough get punched out for snaking someone. I’m now in OC and surf Brooks, Thalia, Sleepy Hollow and Lagunitas and I regulate the old school way.

    • Emm

      Much love to the Brooks Street crew. Wishing some south swell to the boys from up north.

  • Chromedome

    I used to surf Turtles, Cardiff Reef , Stonesteps, Terramar, etc in San Diego from 1974 through 2001. The setting was perfect..good waves, a few people out, a great time. Now you need a whip and a chair to get a wave. The fun is over. I started surfing Malibu in 1961..the hay days of surfing. Those days are long gone. A shame.

    • gcm

      u r correct

  • http://thcxah vc

    if its worth surfing, its always crowded beyond capacity in socal now

  • marco melendez

    And you can go to Baja California to.

  • Sean Carter

    gorgeous waves! I saw some really great waves during my last all inclusive surf resort vacation. It really was a great year for me this year! I cant wait to start it all up again next season

  • Paul Erna

    Those are great looking waves. Good pics too. The last time I went my good friend was able to borrow his friends Hummer and we drove right onto the beach. That made surfing even nice without the long walk Now I am thing of buying one. A Hummer makes a good used car for sale but they cost a lot and the fuel burn is high so I may go another route

  • SoCalSurfer

    AweSome Fotos! Rob is The Master of catching the moments of olas!! Although all of these moments are captured in 55-60F wetsuit conditions…SF to HB to SB to LA/LJ?? to SD

    SoCal has some of the best year round intermediate level surfing conditions in the world. From slower reef/point breaks (campus/county/carillo/daBu/sunset/sanO’s/terramar /PB/cliffs) to faster beach (oxnard/porto/RAT/HB/NB/OSide/ponto/Dst/DM/MB/PB/IB) and reef/point breaks (ranch/rincon/county/daBu/topanga/PV/LB/S.OC/swamis/cardiff/DM/ LJ/cliffs) there is usually something to ride from the Ranch to TJ! HB has some of the best year round rideable A frame beach breaks anywhere!! enJoy!!!