The road trip has been an integral part of the surfing experience for as long as cars and boards have co-existed, and the coastline stretching from San Diego to Smith River has always been home to the quintessential road trip. Highway 101 stretches virtually the entire length of the state, from the northern border down to Los Angeles, and never strays more than an hour or so from the coast, making it the perfect base from which to explore. Then, running from LA south to San Diego, Highway 5 provides unfettered access to the hundreds of waves Southern California is known for. As if wave diversity, consistent swell, and the heart of the surf industry weren’t enough, the Golden State enjoys some of the best road access in the world, making it the perfect choice for some good old fashioned exploration.

A proper California road trip will pass through more than half a dozen distinct regions with a wide variety of wave types, backdrops, water temperatures and local characters. To better equip you for your next jaunt up the coast, we have compiled a list of must-surfs from each region.

  1. San Diego: The southernmost region in CA, and one of the most user-friendly (which is probably way it is also one of the most crowded), San Diego has a hoppin’ nightlife, warm water, and a fortuitous combination of beach breaks, reefs, and various other wave types. Highlights include Blacks Beach, the reefs in and around La Jolla, and Oceanside pier and harbor.
  2. San Clemente: A region unto itself, San Clemente is a small town with a huge reputation. Between San Onofre, Trestles, and T-Street, this has been the breeding ground for a surprising number of professional surfing families, including the Longs, Fletchers, Andinos, and Beschens. It is also ground zero for the US surf industry.
  3. Orange County: You can’t discount a town that was willing to battle for years for the title of Surf City, USA, even if the waves in Huntington Beach are somewhat less hollow than neighboring Newport Beach. Either way, you can expect to battle hundreds of top-level surfers for waves in front of dozens of cameras. Or you can man up during a long period south swell and charge the infamous Wedge.
  4. Los Angeles: Often overshadowed by the regions to its north and south, LA also has a number of great waves—the crown jewel of which must surely be Malibu, one of the best nose riding waves in the world.
  5. Santa Barbara/Ventura: The northernmost portion of “Southern California,” Santa Barbara is where the water starts getting cold and north swells begin to increase in value, with waves like Rincon and C-Street firing during winter. Still, the beach breaks of Ventura can pump in summer, making this a year-round region.
  6. Central California: Closely guarded by grumpy locals and hungry sharks, this region technically stretches all the way up to San Francisco, although most people tend to think of areas such as Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo and Monterey as being “central.” Santa Cruz—the other “Surf City”—is surely the most popular stretch of coast in the region, with regional classics such as Pleasure Point and Steamer Lane.
  7. The Bay Area: Located virtually in the exact center of the California coastline, San Francisco is an amazing city to visit, with bohemian artists and white-collared big wigs existing side by side. The surf isn’t too shabby either: aptly named Ocean Beach is one of the best big-wave beach breaks in the state (on the rare occasion that the wind goes good), and nearby Half Moon Bay plays host to what many call the heaviest wave in the world—Mavericks.
  8. Northern California: It seems almost an injustice to pigeon-hole half of the state’s coastline in one short category, but cold water, inhospitable winds, huge swells, and a small, tight-knit population of committed local surfers means that large stretches of this region go unsurfed on a daily basis—and those that are frequented by rubber-clad chargers are often closely guarded. A number of small surf scenes exist as you meander up the coast, including Bodega Bay, Mendocino, Arcata, and Crescent City. This is the real California, where your road trip really starts, so bring big boards, thick wetsuits, a well-used map and a tent, and you could spend the next five years of your life exploring Northern California’s potential.