Santa Barbara Surfing 101: Where to Find the Best Breaks

Santa Barbara’s world-class breaks attract surfers of all abilities.
Santa Barbara’s world-class breaks attract surfers of all abilities. Bryan Zavestoski
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Many people visit this elegant beach town to enjoy sparkling coastline, shopping, dining, and Spanish-infused culture—enough unique attractions to draw a crowd from just about anywhere. But while most tourists and residents are living it up on the shore, surfers soak it up in the sea. Santa Barbara’s famous surf has been foundational to the sport, as the home base of many of the world’s greatest athletes and board designers.

World-class waves break in a variety of forms on a relatively short stretch of coastline, making a mecca where old pros, young guns, and total newbies can all get their kicks. With so many options for breaks, you have to know where to go and when, in order to find the ride that is right for you. The best time to surf in Santa Barbara is winter, when strong west swells come in, but good waves can be had any time of year if you know where to go. So brush up on your surf etiquette, don your wetsuit, and hop in the lineup at one of these incredible Santa Barbara surf spots.

Refugio State Beach

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Difficulty: Beginner

Season: Winter

This is one of the best beaches in Santa Barbara County and an excellent spot for beginner surfers. The point-break waves are long and calm, but still carry enough power for a good ride straight into shore. It takes a big west swell to really work, so come in the winter for the best chance at catching it. Even if the waves aren’t great, it’s worth hanging out on the beach, spending the night at the campground, and hiking up to the cliffs for some phenomenal views.

Leadbetter Beach

Difficulty: Beginner/Intermediate

Season: All year

This is an all-around great beach for sampling the best of Santa Barbara. Anyone can find the perfect afternoon here, whether it’s on a shortboard, longboard, SUP, or just laying in the sand. This beautiful beach gets consistent wave action on its unique east-facing shore, even in the summer when other breaks get flat. The waves are usually low, straight, and long—perfect for beginners and those looking for a long ride on a long log. This is the perfect spot for a chill day, if the waves wear you out you can relax on the beach, stroll in Shoreline Park, or grab a bite at the harbor.

Campus Point

Difficulty: Beginner/advanced

Season: Winter, intermittent rest of year

Campus Point is the frankly named point break at UC Santa Barbara. Though it doesn’t have the most consistent swells, university students can conveniently hop on as soon as the whites start to show, and the typical slow break is good for learning to surf. This spot goes off with the right winter swells, however, and when it does, it’s one of the best breaks in the county, and the usual gaggle of beginner surfers get quickly crowded out of the lineup by opportunistic experts.

Rincon Point

Difficulty: Intermediate/expert

Season: Winter

The "Queen of the Coast" is nothing short of gorgeous when west swells pick up. Long waves reel around a gently angled point and run out into a crescent-shaped cove. Three distinct areas can produce different types of sets depending on conditions, with the long ride across all three as the coveted holy grail, possible only when conditions are epic. Even if the stars aren’t perfectly aligned, Rincon’s consistent winter swells attract surfers from all over, and sharing the lineup with pro surfers is not uncommon.

El Capitán State Beach

Difficulty: Expert

Season: Winter

"El Cap" is the wave that legends are made of. This right break can bring the finest barrel to be had anywhere in California, but only on the rare occasion when it turns on full blast. A big enough west swell can produce world-class sets and deliver the ride of a lifetime--if you can handle it. A narrow and difficult entry near sharp rocks makes this an expert-only break, but you can easily watch the show from the beach, which has a nice large parking lot and picnic area.

Jalama Beach

Difficulty: Intermediate/expert

Season: Summer

In the summer, Santa Barbara die-hards make the drive and pay the parking fee to get to Jalama, a reliable cluster of breaks that pick up swells from most any direction. This exposed coastline usually gets strong winds, however, and the tricky mix of beach and reef breaks require careful navigation, so you should be super solid on your skills before coming here, or go with a local who knows the way around.

Originally written for Visit Santa Barbara.

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