Learning to surf – best done with friends. Photo: Team Wavestorm//Ponto Troll Crew

The Inertia

When it comes to learning how to surf, not all waves are created the same. Finding the perfect wave that will provide a novice surfer with the optimal shape can be the difference between a fun surf session – and a lifetime of surfing – or a bad experience that leaves the beginner without the iconic sensation of stoke.

A lot of factors can make a wave a good beginner spot: The speed, the slope, the power, and ocean hazards all play a part. Also, good access to surf schools with qualified instructors and adequate equipment are a must.

As a beginner surfer, when you’re looking for the spot to learn and progress, it’s important you wisely select where you paddle out, both for your safety and the sake of your progression. We’ve compiled a list of the best places to learn the ropes of catching waves – but don’t forget to consult an expert if you’re having any doubts of the best lineup to enter.

The Best Beginner Surf Spots in the U.S.

Cowell’s Surf Shop is always a good option. Photo: Sohan Shingade//Unsplash

Cowell Beach, Santa Cruz, California

What better location to learn to surf than the city where surfing was first introduced to the mainland U.S.? Ever since three visiting Hawaiian princes surfed in Santa Cruz in 1885, the town has become an important hub of surf culture and history. The iconic Jack O’Neill called the town home where he started the brand “O’Neill” and first invented the wetsuit for surfing. Later, his son Pat, invented the first surfboard leash on the chilly waves of Santa Cruz.

Cowell Beach, or simply “Cowell’s,” as the locals call it, has been at the center of Santa Cruz surfing since the 1930s – and for good reason. The spot’s gentle, sloping waves that peel for hundreds of yards provide the perfect canvas to longboard and learn how to surf. Tucked away from the brunt of the strong North Pacific swells that hit Steamer Lane just around the corner, Cowell’s is always a more manageable size for those getting the hang of the sport and is ideally positioned with protection from the prevailing northwesterly winds.

When Cowell’s is breaking, the crowds can get thick with local surfers and surf schools, so it’s best to be cautious of your surroundings in the lineup. Depending on the year and season, Cowell’s can be either a rocky reef bottom, a soft sand bottom, or a mix of both.

Santa Cruz has several surf schools located on or adjacent to the beach to rent gear and take lessons. Plus, while you’re in town, it’s worth stopping by some of the long-time staple shops of Santa Cruz surf culture such as Pearson Arrow and Freeline. And while you’re at it, pay a visit to the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum at Steamer Lane to learn about the town’s rich surf history.

Dirt Road to San Onofre Washes Away, Closing Access to Iconic Surf Spot 'Indefinitely'

Place is iconic. Photo: Aubrey Lao

San Onofre, California

Lower Trestles is known as one of the best performance waves for advanced surfers in California, but just down the coast is also one of the best places for beginner surfers to hone their craft. San Onofre, often shortened to “SanO,” is one of California’s most iconic longboard waves featuring forgiving breakers across various takeoff zones. It can accommodate all levels of surfers.

San Onofre State Beach is a California state park, so you’ll have to pay a fee to park your car. The beach has amenities such as bathrooms and showers. Note that surf schools do not operate in the state park, so if you need to rent equipment, you’ll have to do it in one of the adjacent cities, San Clemente or Oceanside.

The waves really shine at SanO during the summertime south swells when the water’s warm and the sun is shining. You’ll want to get down to the beach early to avoid the line that forms to enter the state park and assure  a parking spot, since the lot tends to fill up on busy days.

Waikiki. The primordial soup of modern surfing. Photo: AussieActive//Unsplash

Waikiki, Oahu, Hawaii

The name Waikiki is as synonymous with learning how to surf as just about any wave in the world. Located on Oahu’s south shore, the Waikiki area features several surfing breaks which are iconically known as excellent waves to longboard and/or learn.

The south shore of Oahu provides the best surf during the summer months when southern hemisphere swells march north from the South Pacific. The various breaks spread across the coast of Waikiki cater to various skill levels. Beginner surfers will likely try their hand at Canoes or Sandbar, more mellow waves close to shore. While a surfer who’s ready to try more challenging, intermediate waves, can paddle out to Queens, Paradies, or Pop.

It’s only natural that one will want to learn to surf when visiting Hawaii, whose inhabitants have been practicing surfing for centuries and are responsible for the invention and popularization of modern day wave riding as we know it. Waikiki features a statue of the famed Hawaiian waterman and surfer, Duke Kahanamoku, who is credited as a key figure in spreading the stoke of surfing around the globe.

In the buzzing touristic zone of Waikiki, you’ll have no problem finding plenty of options to rent boards and take lessons.

The Best Beginner Surf Spots in the U.S.

The Cocoa Beach pier is a rather joyful spot to surf in the right conditions. Photo: Ginger Jordan//Unsplash

Cocoa Beach, Florida

Surfing culture runs deep in Cocoa Beach, located on Florida’s east coast. The sand-bottom breakers of Cocoa Beach produced none other than the greatest surfer of all time: Kelly Slater. It’s no wonder the town has earned its moniker as the capital of surfing on the East Coast.

Depending on the conditions, Cocoa Beach can offer waves for all levels, but it often provides ideal waves for beginners looking to ride manageable surf. Waves are typically best with a northeast swell, which is most common during the fall and winter months.

While visiting Cocoa Beach, there are plenty of surf attractions out of the water, too. You can check out the Kelly Slater statue that has been placed in the median of the main thoroughfare. You can also visit the Florida Surf Museum and Ron Jon Surf Shop, which at 52,000 square feet is the biggest surf shop in the world.

New York City’s Rockaways Are Gentrifying; Is That a Good Thing?

New York’s favorite beachbreak. Photo: Hayley Pfitzer//Unsplash

Rockaway Beach, New York, New York

People looking to learn to surf don’t usually associate the Big Apple with waves, but New York City’s Rockaway Beach is just a 30-minute train ride from Manhattan and features a strong, vibrant surfing culture. On the other hand, the proximity to the city means that crowds and busy lineups come with the territory.

With miles of beaches and ever-shifting sand bars, the quality and degree of difficulty of the surf is constantly changing depending on the conditions. That said, particularly in the summer, you can usually find some small, fun, sand-bottomed waves for beginners.

When an east swell is running, the surf is often centered around the jetty at 92nd street. On a good day it can provide steep, hollow waves that run fast past the jetty.

Rockaway features plenty of surf shops such as Rockaway Beach Surf Shop, Boarders, and Station RBNY, to name a few, that offer lessons and can point you in the direction of the best sand bar to ride waves for your skill level.

The Jersey Shore

New Jersey offers 130 miles of shoreline exposed to the swells of the Atlantic Ocean. Consisting of sand-bottom beachbreaks and many jetties that separate beaches, the best place to learn entirely depends on the current conditions. Swells, especially during the fall hurricane season and the winter, can get quite large and produce powerful waves suited only for advanced surfers. But in the summer months, the waves of New Jersey are often ideal for the novice.

From north to south there are plenty of surf schools that can get you in the water and take you to the best sand bar to match your style. A few places to keep in mind are Belmar, Manasquan Inlet, Asbury Park, and L-Jetty in Avon-by-the-Sea.

Weather and ocean temperatures are extreme from season to season in New Jersey, so if you want to brave a winter surf, be sure that you have an adequate amount of neoprene to make the session enjoyable.

The Best Beginner Surf Spots in the U.S.

Anyone an find a wave in La Jolla. Photo: William Zhang//Unsplash

La Jolla Shores, San Diego, California

La Jolla is globally renowned for its enchanting deep-blue waters and abundant sea life. Its sandy beaches are also well known for riding waves. La Jolla Shores, located just north of La Jolla Cove, is one of the town’s ideal locations for beginner surfers.

Especially in the summertime, the waves are typically the perfect size and strength for novice surfers. And there are several surf schools located within walking distance, like Surf Diva and Surf Education Academy, that make lessons and rentals extremely convenient.

A few things to keep in mind: don’t forget to learn the “stingray shuffle” as La Jolla’s beaches are often home to stingrays, which can be particularly pesky during the summer months. Also, during the winter, La Jolla Shores is more exposed to North Pacific swells and can put a beginner surfer out of their league really quickly.

Nick Melanson

Nick Melanson cruising at Doheny. Photo: Vimeo//NobodySurf

Doheny Beach, Dana Point, California

The construction of the Dana Point Harbor in 1966 was celebrated by local government and boat owners, but surfers were appalled. The new harbor breakwalls destroyed several waves along the coast, including the famous “Killer Dana” spot. The consolation prize of the harbor formation for surfers was the creation of a new wave at Doheny Beach.

Located on the south side of the harbor, Doheny offers slow lefts and rights that break over the patchy sand and cobblestones. It’s ideal for longboarding and on most days provides a great opportunity for beginners to surf.

Doheny Beach has all the amenities to make your visit easy. And it’s a state beach. There is a large parking lot adjacent to the beach, public restrooms, restaurants, tons of picnic benches, and a campsite just on the other side of the river mouth.

The Best Beginner Surf Spots in the U.S.

Summer in Wrightsville Beach is pretty classic. Photo: Johnathan Ciarrocca//Unsplash

Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina

For those looking for a laid-back surf destination on the East Coast, Wrightsville beach is a popular destination. With its fairly consistent, year round surf, a vibrant student population via the University of North Carolina at Wilmington just a few miles away, and several well-established surf shops, Wilmington Beach is undoubtedly the center of surf culture in Southern North Carolina.

The beginner to intermediate surfing is centered around Crystal Pier, while those looking for a bit more power in the wave head up the beach to C Street. While the surf generally suits beginners to intermediates, when a strong wintertime north swell or tropical south swell hits the area, Wrightsville Beach, as well as the stretches of coast to the north and south, are known to provide amazing conditions for veterans if you can find the right sandbar.

Wrightsville Beach’s surf culture is most famously known for its top surfing talent: Ben Bourgeois. The former Championship Tour competitor is the most accomplished surfer to come out of the area. The Bourgeois family owns and operates Sweetwater Surf Shop, in business since 1995.

Wrightsville Beach enjoys the warm weather and water that is typical of East Coast summers. While North Carolina’s winters are not as extreme as its northern neighbors, you’ll still want to pack some rubber for chilly sessions if you plan on coming in the winter.

The Best Beginner Surf Spots in the U.S.

There are few places more scenic than Otter Rock. Photo: Jeff Finley//Unsplash

Otter Rock Oregon

The frigid waters and blustery wind of the Oregon coast may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of surfing. But Oregon has plenty of nooks and crannies where surfers can get their fix. Located just over a hundred miles from Portland and dubbed as the “Waikiki of Oregon,” Otter Rock is perhaps the most popular spot for beginner surfers to take a dip in the chilly water.

With a headland that blocks the strong northwesterly winds of the Pacific Northwest, especially during the summer, Otter Rock provides long, mellow waves that are ideal for beginners. Conditions during the fall, winter, and spring can be nice as well, however the surf can get large in the winter as the North Pacific storm activity heats up, therefore less ideal for beginners.

There are several surf shops in the area – including Pura Vida Surf Shop located just steps from the surf spot – that can get you squared away with a board and wetsuit. Be prepared to wear a lot of neoprene, possibly a hood, booties, and gloves, to stay warm in the year round chilly water of Oregon.

For those looking for an affordable place to stay, there’s camping located a short distance down the coast at Beverly Beach State Park.

Andy McKay knows the Pismo Pier gets good.  Photo: Jonathon Reis//PismoBeachOpen.com

Pismo Beach, California

The Central Coast of California is typically outshined by the countless top surf destinations around the state, but Pismo Beach and the surrounding area have a strong surfing community and waves for all skill levels. Surfing in Pismo Beach is generally centered around the pier that can offer all types of conditions depending on the swell. If you are a beginner, look for a day where the swell is on the small side. Mellow, peeling waves will form around the pier and surrounding sand bars.

There are several surf schools right in town that will show you the ropes and/or rent gear. And if the swell is looking a bit too big at the pier, you can head a short drive north to the town of Avila Beach that offers more protection from North Pacific swells and some really fun, crumbling waves for beginners.

The Best Beginner Surf Spots in the U.S.

Easton’s Bach, Rhode Island. Looks fun, if not classic. Photo: Discover Newport

Easton’s Beach, Rhode Island

Rhode Island may be the smallest state in the U.S., but they’ve still got 40 miles of coastline that features beach breaks, reefs, and points that are regarded as some of the best surf in New England on their day. Easton’s Beach is located in the city of Newport. The beach is tucked away by two headlands on either side that reduce the swell size and power, generally making for conditions favorable for beginners.

You can rent boards and take lessons right on the beach at Rhody Surf, which is open during the warmer months from spring through fall. New England surfing is most bearable in the summer and fall when air and ocean temperatures are mild to warm. The brain-freezing, sub-zero temperatures of the winter make for unforgiving conditions that only the most dedicated surfers will put up with.

Leadbetter Beach, Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara’s coastline is full of spots that are conducive to learning how to surf, however, located smack in the middle of the city, Leadbetter Beach is one of the best. Just west of the town’s harbor and city college, Leadbetter provides consistent waves and long rides that suit beginner surfers to advanced surfers depending on the day.

If you’re looking to surf Leadbetter in the summer, check the conditions because Santa Barbara can be known to get as flat as a lake due to the Channel Islands blocking the summertime south swells. That said, even in the summertime you can usually find a wave there, but the consistency picks up from fall through spring when west-oriented swells fill in Santa Barbara.

Santa Barbara has plenty of surf shops that offer lessons and rentals, but, for those looking to surf Leadbetter Beach, Surf Santa Barbara is conveniently located adjacent to the sand.

Galveston Beach, Texas

Despite being hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean, the coastal town of Galveston, Texas provides ample opportunity for those who want to get into surfing. Just a short drive from Houston, Galveston is a barrier island with miles of beach broken up by piers and jetties that create nooks and crannies to find a spot to surf.

For most of the year, the waves of Galveston are weak, choppy, short period rollers produced by local winds in the Gulf of Mexico. However, when the stars align and a hurricane takes a track towards Texas, you can have windows of surprisingly good surf grace the shores of the Gulf.

Galveston has a strong and friendly surf community with several surf shops in the area. And if the crumbly wind swell of the beach isn’t cutting it for you, there are some surfers who ride the endless tanker waves of the ships passing through Galveston channel en route to the port of Houston. There are even surf charters that will take you to surf these fleeting waves.

Hanalei Bay, Kauai. Photo: Zane Persaud // Unsplash

Hanalei Bay, Kauai. Photo: Zane Persaud // Unsplash

Hanalei Bay, Kauai, Hawaii

Surfing on the north shore of Hawaii’s Garden Isle, Kauai, is focused around Hanalei Bay. The area provides lots of breaks on both sides of the bay that cater to all levels of surfers. The beach breaks within the bay, particularly near Hanalei Pier, offer the most consistent slow rolling waves that are ideal for beginner surfers.

It was at Hanalei Bay where the legendary brothers, Andy and Bruce Irons, cut their teeth as surfers.

Swell on the North Shore of Kauai can get large during the winter months, while during the summer the waves tend to be small. Thus, be aware of the season and surf conditions before making a decision to paddle out.

Hanalei Bay is located near the world-famous Na Pali Coast, known for its lush, dramatic mountains that tumble into the ocean below.

pacifica state beach unsplash

Often grey, small, and crumbly, nonetheless the stoke is often high at Pacifica. Photo: Nick Herasimenka//Unsplash.

Pacifica, California

For those living in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, Pacifica is the closest, most convenient wave to learn to surf. While heading south to Santa Cruz may provide the most ideal conditions, Pacifica is the most popular option for those who don’t have the time to make the drive.

The mile-long stretch of sand at Pacifica offers some protection from the swell and winds that often pound the nearby surf spots such as Ocean Beach. Thus, San Franciscans who are novice surfers flock to Pacifica to ride some relatively crumbly, manageable waves. As a result, the crowds can often get thick. During large winter swell events, beginners will want to steer clear of surfing at Pacifica as the beach is still fairly exposed to those large swells that arrive from November through March.

Perhaps more well known than the surf is the beach’s fancy Taco Bell. With a prime piece of beachfront real estate among the beach’s parking lot, the wood-paneled Taco Bell is known as one of the country’s most luxurious fast food joints. They even serve their own Taco Bell-inspired alcoholic drinks.


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