California’s has approximately 840 miles of coastline and too many surf breaks to list here. Described below are some of the surf spots favored by surf kayakers, where you will likely meet other paddle surfers and are unlikely to receive an unfriendly reception from board surfers.
Big River (Mendocino Coast)
The Mendocino Coast is one of the most visually stunning and interesting places to paddle on the California coast. Perhaps best known for the myriad of rock gardens, sea caves and arches, there are also some wonderfully empty surf breaks. Though many of them are for experienced surfers only because of rocks or other hazards, Big River is a good place to start your Mendocino surf safari. Big River has a variety of peaks depending on tide and swell. Can be perfect on slack or on a flood for beginners with little waves building as you get further to the outside. Beware strong currents on an ebb tide.
The best way to get to learn about the many opportunities that the Mendocino Coast has to offer would be to hook up with Jeff Laxier and Cate Hawthorne of Liquid Fusion Kayaking. They offer surf kayaking classes and multi day surfaris.
Bolinas (Bay Area)
Surfers of just about every persuasion can be found in the line ups at Bolinas. It is perhaps one of the friendliest places to surf a kayak both in terms of the vibe on the water and the mellow conditions that are typically found there.
Situated 19 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge on Highway 1, in Marin County, Bolinas remains a throwback to the hippy surf culture of the sixties and the longtime residents reluctantly embrace the hoards of visiting surfers that fill the town with cars on a sunny weekend with a south swell running.
Bolinas faces south and is protected from the dominant north westerly swell by Duxbury Reef so that even when every other surf break in the Bay Area is getting pounded during the winter months, it is normally possible to get outside and catch waves at Bolinas. And during summer, Bolinas will catch those elusive south swells and the long rides and stunning views make Bolinas worth the long drive to get there!
There are three main breaks at Bolinas:
- West of the Bolinas Lagoon entrance is an area known as the ‘Clam Patch’ is where all the beginners go because the waves jack up several hundred yards offshore and gently spill and peel their way across a rock and sandy bottom to eventually close out on the beach which disappears at high tide. Be ready to share your wave! Smile and have fun or pull off if it bothers you and paddle out further! Great for sea kayaks and longer surf kayaks.
- Bolinas Jetty is a fast left, ending in a closeout. It is often crowded with board surfers. Best on a flooding tide and south swell.
- Seadrift is the author’s favorite break at Bolinas. A fast right, it is less crowded than the jetty and the waves are steeper and more powerful than the Clam Patch. Best on a south swell and a flooding tide, this spot is rarely perfect but is a great place to practice high performance surfing.
You are likely to meet other kayak surfers at Bolinas most weekends with a good forecast. Please be respectful of the local residents who have to put up with their streets getting filled with surfer’s cars most weekends.
Dillon Beach (Bay Area)
Situated at the southern end of Bodega Bay in northern Marin County, 3 miles west of Highway 1, Dillon Beach is a favorite spot for paddle surfers due to the lack of crowds and relatively moderate conditions. The proximity of the mouth of Tomales Bay and the powerful currents that sweep in and out create ever shifting sandbars. Dillon Beach faces west and is protected from the south by Point Reyes and Tomales Point and Bodega Head to the north. It can be prone to wind in spring and summer and has a reputation for being ‘sharky’.
There are several breaks accessible from Dillon Beach with the main break right in front of the car park. The Shark Pit is favored by more experienced surfers and can be truly epic during the winter when long fast lefts peel until they eventually close out. It’s a long paddle out but very worthwhile. Be wary of strong currents especially during ebb tides. Tomales Point offers so some great rides on bigger swell days but it is a gnarly place to surf and you need to be sure to surf left as to go right would likely end in disaster among the rocks. In the entrance to Tomales Bay there is a deep water channel on the western side and a sandbar of the eastern side. Swells that have broken on the outer sandbanks of Shark Pit reform to produce spilling waves ideal for sea kayaks with really long rides possible if you can link waves together.
Dillon Beach requires commitment to get there but is usually well worth the drive, especially if you keep your options open and take a sea kayak as well as a surf kayak. If the surf isn’t want you were hoping for, paddle your sea kayak to Estero Americano to the north or Tomales Point and Bird Rock to the south – you will not be disappointed.
Mushroom Rock (Bay Area)
Mushroom Rock is another local paddle surfers favorite. You will be surfing the same reef system that produces Maverick’s – one of the biggest and meanest waves on the planet. Mushroom Rock catches just about any swell and the nature of the break changes dramatically with the angle and swell size. It is rarely (if ever) perfect and there is a more consistent break on the north side of Pillar Point (Ross Cove) which is why you tend not to find board surfers out at Mushroom Rock. But it can hold a large wave (in excess of 10 feet) and often a dry hair paddle out. If you surf right you surf into deep water. Surf left for a shorter, steeper, faster ride that quickly closes out but can be really fun. Sometimes you can link into the reformed waves that spill across a flat reef strewn with kelp and lush with marine life.
Beware of a strong current the forms from the western most tip of Pillar Point at a feature called ‘The Slot’ and swings south east towards the southern corner of the breakwater. On gig swell days the current is strong enough to make swimming to Mavericks Beach almost impossible in the event of a wet exit out at Mushroom Rock. The current is strongest at mid to high tide on big swell days with a west or northwest wind. Follow the golden rule and surf with a friend!
Rio del Mar State Beach (Santa Cruz)
The Santa Cruz Coast boasts several of California’s premier and most popular surf breaks. For those looking to escape the crowds and surf in peace, look no farther than Rio del Mar State Beach. This sandy beach break faces southwest and is protected from the dominant northwesterly swell by Santa Cruz and Soquel Point. Conditions are seldom ideal; however, there is a long soup zone and lots of open space for beginners looking to get comfortable in the surf. Wave shape is best with small to moderate west swell and wave height and intensity will increase as you progress south toward Manresa State Beach.