Although they share the same governor, Northern and Southern California might as well be two separate states—if not completely different countries. While water temps in So Cal are relatively warm and the waves mellow and user-friendly, up north its cold, rugged and sharky. And while seemingly every other surfer you meet down south has stickered-up boards and a semi-pro contract, Northern California is known for white boards and black wetsuits—preferably with brand logo inked out. Finally, while in So Cal expensive real estate fronts a bevy of lineups crowded to the point of congestion, large portions of the Northern California are completely undeveloped, and dozens of known breaks go unsurfed on any given day.

Surf Schools, Northern California. Photo thanks to Billabong’s Adventure Out Surf Camp
Surf Schools, Northern California. Photo thanks to Billabong’s Adventure Out Surf Camp

Nor Cal is the land of the surfer’s surfer, where the beards are thick and the wetsuits thicker. It is a place where secrets are hoarded with miser-like ferocity and loose lips are bloodied without mercy. Frigid cold and inclement weather keep crowds to a minimum, but consistent, consequential swell and mythical, unnamed jewels keep the loyal coming back, session after session, year after year, gloves, hoods and all.

(Note: It is a common misconception that everything north of Santa Barbara constitutes Northern California. In fact, San Francisco is the approximate center of the California coast, and as such could technically be considered part of Central California (a region that is even more closely guarded than Northern California, if such a thing is possible). For the sake of this guide, however, “Northern California” will refer to the coastline stretching from the Oregon border south to Santa Cruz.)

(Note: It is a common misconception that everything north of Santa Barbara constitutes Northern California. In fact, San Francisco is the approximate center of the California coast, and as such could technically be considered part of Central California (a region that is even more closely guarded than Northern California, if such a thing is possible). For the sake of this guide, however, “Northern California” will refer to the coastline stretching from the Oregon border south to Santa Cruz.)

Five Waves Worth Surfing:

  1. Ocean Beach: A 3.5-mile stretch of ever-changing sandbars that can handle frighteningly large swell.
  2. Steamer Lane: A famous (and often crowded) righthand point in Santa Cruz.
  3. Pleasure Point: Yet another righthand point in Santa Cruz.
  4. Mavericks: This deep-water reef peak is considered by many to be the heaviest big wave spot in the world.
  5. Fort Point: A highly localized but picturesque lefthander breaking under the Golden Gate Bridge.

The Water: Cold and dark is the nature of the beast up here, although the water is surprisingly clean, at least as far as pollutants go. Temps hover around 50 F (10 C), so a 4/3 wetsuit is the minimum, and many opt for a 5/4/3 with booties, gloves and a hood.

The Season: September through November is typically best for winds, although the real meat of the winter swells come between December and March. April through August typically features small, short interval storm swell and brutal onshore winds.

The Vibe: With the exception of Santa Cruz, crowds are typically at a minimum—and the locals like it that way. Show up alone, keep your mouth shut and don’t pull back—if you can manage to do this, you’ll get both waves and respect. On the other hand, if you bring a posse, a photographer and an attitude, you can expect trouble.

Things To Do: For food, culture and the arts, it’s pretty hard to beat the City by the Bay. To get away from it all, head north to Sequoia National Park, or pack a tent and some climbing gear into Yosemite.

Where To Stay: If you are in San Francisco, you’ll be surfing OB, and staying within walking distance will save on pricey parking fees. In Santa Cruz, where you stay depends on where you intend to surf, but moderately priced hotels abound. Everywhere else, you’ll be staying with a local host or camping.

What To Bring: A big wave gun if you are coming for Mavs or OB. Otherwise, add a bit of extra thickness to your standard shortboard to compensate for the weight of your wetsuit. Speaking of suits, don’t skimp on the rubber. A 4/3 is the minimum, and booties, gloves and a hood will greatly extend your water time. It’s cold outside of the water too, so pack fleece, wool, down and a good rain jacket—especially if you intend to do any camping.

Getting There: San Francisco is a major international airport, and as such is widely accessible from any number of locations. The drive from LA is around 350 miles and will take you between six and seven hours. US visa regulations apply for foreign travelers. Airport code: SFO.

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