From gentle rollers anyone could ride to one of the most frightening waves in the world, San Francisco and its nearby beaches have a wave for every type of surfer.
From north to south, we’ve listed them here:
This is the place for beginners near San Francisco. If you can’t learn to surf at The Patch in Bolinas Beach, you either don’t have a warm enough wetsuit, or you should throw in the towel, literally, and stick to dry-land sports.
Surfing The Patch is like surfing Waikiki, only with water that’s 25 degrees colder. Bolinas’s large reef tempers swells before they get to shore, creating gentle rollers that, just like in Waikiki, take a good long while to curl and “break,” or become an actual wave with a whitewater edge. That gives you plenty of time to catch the wave without it suddenly getting steep and jacking up the tail end of your board.
The Patch’s leisurely breakers also mean beginners have more time to actually stand up and ride the wave. Have someone bring a GoPro for that special moment. At least make sure there’s a witness who can vouch for you.
The Patch is a few minutes’ walk to the right at the end of the Brighton Avenue boat jetty. In high tide, you’ll have to walk along the top of the retaining wall, so be careful to not ding your surfboard.
Although The Patch is great for beginners, it does have a few large rocks by the shore. As at any surf spot, watch what other surfers are doing and ask around about hazards. The Patch is best for beginners in summer and spring’s smaller waves. On bigger days, skilled longboarders love how the waves here hold up seemingly forever, giving them lots of time to carve turns.
The Groin and Malibo
Two other chill spots in Bolinas are the Groin and MaliBo, which lie on either side of a breakwater marked by a signpost that really does say “Groin.” You’ll see them just to the left of the boat launch. Their location at Bolinas’s main beach makes these breaks popular with kids and families.
Not much happens on small days at the Groin, located on the breakwater’s beachside, although on big days there’s an excellent left that shortboarders carve up.
MaliBo is a soft, or “mushy,” wave that heads right into the channel of the Bolinas Lagoon. Although it’s packed on sunny weekends, it’s a great place for learners. The waves hold up best on incoming tide, but because so much water is rushing into the Lagoon, incoming tide can be exhausting to paddle back out in. After a ride, you might be better off getting out, walking to the other side of the groin, and paddling back in. In late spring, this spot can be windy, so go out early in the morning. It’ll be less crowded then, too.
Who: Beginners and Intermediates. More advanced surfers in bigger swells.
Gear: 2 Mile Surf Shop. Boards, wetsuits to rent or buy.
Lessons: 2 Mile Surf Shop
Food: Organic snacks, freshly made soup, and tamales can be found at the Bolinas People’s Store.
Surfing conditions on lengthy Stinson Beach vary. Some years, winter storms form ideal sandbars that, come spring, nudge swells into peaky, rideable waves. Peaky waves break gradually in one or two directions, giving surfers something to ride on. In contrast, waves that “close out” turn over and crash all at once, offering little to no open wave to ride on.
On bigger days, and in low tide, Stinson Beach waves are close-outs, so surfing in high tide and near a sandbar are key. When sandbars form, surfers are quick to find them, coalescing for months in front of a particular landmark. Last year, a house with a big blue beach umbrella marked the perfect take-off spot.
The biggest waves tend to be on Stinson’s public beach, near the lifeguard stand. The beach at Stinson’s far end is harder to access, as the only parking lot is within a private residential area. You could easily paddle over from Bolinas, but since conditions tend to be better in Bolinas, there’d be little reason to do so.
The channel between Bolinas and Stinson flows into the Bolinas Lagoon, a natural reserve that’s a resting place for multiple bird species and harbor seals. Unfortunately, the seals attract great white sharks, and Stinson is at the heart of the great white “Red Triangle.”
Yet, the last known shark attack in Stinson Beach was 15 years ago, and, if a shark is ever sighted, the beach gets closed. Also, a 2015 Stanford University study said surfers have only a 1 in 17 million chance of getting attacked by a shark. Skin cancer poses a bigger risk. So slather on the sunscreen and get out there!
Who: Beginners to intermediates. Advanced surfers on bigger swells.
Gear: Live Water Surf Shop. Boards, wetsuits to rent or buy.
Lessons: Marin Surf Camp, which meets at Live Water Surf Shop. Big Dog Surf Camp picks up kids at Proof Lab Surf Shop in Mill Valley.
Food: The Siren Canteen or the Parkside Café.
Protected from northerly winds, this short, fast, mainly right-hand break at Rodeo Beach is best at mid to high tide. Fort Cronkhite picks up all swells but is best on south swells. This is generally a shortboard spot.
Who: Intermediate to advanced surfers
Gear: Proof Lab in Mill Valley.
Lessons: You shouldn’t need lessons if you’re surfing this wave.
Food: Proof Lab Café. Good Earth Natural Foods for excellent tacos and other prepared foods.
No newcomer should attempt Fort Point National Historic Site, as alluring an idea as surfing under the Golden Gate Bridge may be. At the right moment, surfers paddling next to the former military installation at the foot of the bridge can ride all the way from outside the bridge to inside the bay. Given the photogenic location and slew of tourists watching the action, this is one showy wave.
However, getting in and out requires you to climb over large, slippery rocks with waves crashing over you. Once in the crowded line-up, you’ll encounter nasty locals who’ve been known to get into fistfights with newcomers. Fort Point also only works in one of the two hours around low tide, and the outgoing tide can pull you out to sea. Best to be a spectator here.
Dead Man’s Point
Like Fort Point, Deadman’s is for locals and experts only. The paddle-out here is about 20 minutes from China Beach, a cove just east of the Lands End Trail. In very low tides, it’s possible to walk part of the way there. In fact, the waves only break during low tide and larger swells. Like Fort Point, it’s generally protected from the wind.
The take-off spot is small, so there’s an aggressive pecking order of who gets a wave. The vibe here is worse than at Fort Point. You’ve also got to avoid a large rock halfway “down the line,” the path you surf along the breaking wave. Bottom line: best to view Dead Man’s from the Lands End Trail up above.
When the air temperature is hovering around 50 degrees, and the fog makes it hard to see other surfers, let alone the waves, it takes a special kind of commitment to paddle out into these waters.
Ocean Beach Fire Pits faces the open ocean, with nothing to slow down the swells barreling in from New Zealand and the South Pacific in the warmer months, or from Alaska and Japan in fall and winter. If there’s a swell somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, it will find its way here. OB is a beach break, meaning the waves form on the shifting sand below. There’s no reef to create a consistent wave or a channel you can use to paddle out on. When it’s bigger, layers and layers of whitewater lay between you and the waves you want to surf.
In those conditions, only experienced shortboarders can even expect to paddle out, duck diving their boards underneath the frothy, foamy mess. Once beyond the shore break, they’ve got their pick of waves so peaky and powerful that RipCurl actually hosted a world championship at OB in 2011.
Here are the top Ocean Beach spots:
At the north end, Kelly’s Cove is the easiest to paddle out to, as there is only one sandbar full of whitewater to get through. It’s best on south swells, which stack up against the jutting cliff and a big rock covered in seagull scat. Best during outgoing tide, Kelly’s Cove is very local — so be polite!
This spot is named for a restaurant inside the 1925 building across the street. Also best on outgoing tide, Beach Chalet sees some big, big waves. (Locals also call this place VFW; the Beach Chalet structure was a coastal defense barracks during World War II, and thereafter leased until 1979 by Veterans of Foreign Wars).
These are hard to get to, as you have to climb over the dunes or walk a long way around. No one surfs here…unless they’ve been pulled here by OB’s notoriously fierce currents.
This collection of spots runs from the alphabetically ordered streets between Noriega to Taraval (Noriega, Ortega, Pacheco, etc.) Here you’ll find the most consistent and longest rides, on both outgoing and incoming time. It’s also the hardest of all the hard spots to paddle out.
Sloat and south of Sloat
If you’ve haven’t surfed OB before, this is a good place to start. The waves aren’t necessarily more forgiving here, but there are easy parking and outdoor showers. The parking lot is also on a cliff, so you can watch from above and get a better sense of what you are getting yourself into.
Who: Advanced to expert
Gear: Wise Surfboards, at the north end of OB. Huge selection of boards and wetsuits only for buying, not renting. If you don’t own your own wetsuit yet, you aren’t ready for OB.
Lessons: If you need lessons, surf elsewhere.
Food: Java Beach Café
This cove just north of Linda Mar Beach is protected from south winds, can handle larger size, and doesn’t close out. The paddle-out at Rockaway Beach is easy as a channel by the rocks takes you right out. Be careful! In bigger conditions, it can take you too far out. It’s a fast right-hand wave best for mainly shortboarders. The best tide here is right in the middle; neither too low nor high.
Only twenty minutes from the south side of San Francisco, Linda Mar Beach is the place for beginners and intermediate surfers. More advanced surfers may choose Linda Mar on days when OB is too big or “blown out.” A cove with a big hill jutting out to sea on its south side, Linda Mar is more protected from wind and south swells than OB. (It’s also often clear here when it’s foggy elsewhere).
Linda Mar is where beginners learn to surf on the south end and experienced shortboarders rip it up on the north end. Intermediate surfers can take the middle. If you do surf the middle, use the bathroom/shower structure as your landmark. There’s usually a channel there to paddle out, and you can find a left or right, as rides are called, heading into it.
Linda Mar is better on incoming tide. In outgoing tide or when bigger sets come through, waves can be one close-out after another…just a straight, wide wall of water, with no shoulder to ride on. If that happens, opt for the smaller waves of the set or even wait for a tide change. Or paddle over to the more protected south end. Just don’t go all the way to the very southern edge by the hillside. Surfers there are very territorial. It’s not worth the aggro vibe.
Parking is convenient at the Linda Mar parking lot. You’ve got to pay for at least four hours ($5). If you leave after two hours, be a mensch and hand your parking sticker to someone who’s just pulling in.
Who: Beginners to intermediates. Advanced surfers on the north end.
Gear: NorCal Surf Shop. Boards, wetsuits to rent or buy.
Lessons: Surf Camp Pacifica
Food: Resist the Del Taco right next to the surf break. Drive up Highway 1 to Guerrero’s, which have some of the best fish tacos and carnitas burritos in the Bay Area.
Montara is a beautiful beach with coarse sand and great views. The wave is heavy like at Ocean Beach Fire Pits, but the ride is a little shorter. The paddle out is easier than at OB, with no layers of whitewater to get through. Never crowded, Montara can be a really fun place to surf. Just north of Montara is Grey Whale Cove State Beach; it’s a lovely spot better known as a gay clothing optional beach that also has some good waves.
Mavericks makes this list as a sightseeing curiosity. When conditions are right, usually in the months of December to February, an unusual underwater rock formation here produces some of the largest and most fearsome waves in the world. Unfortunately — or, rather, fortunately — these waves break far from shore, so binoculars are the best way to view them. The list of surfers equipped to ride these monsters is short. You and I are not among them.
Who: Mavericks pioneer Jeff Clark; Mavericks regular Grant Washburn; surf chronicler Matt Warshaw; Sarah Gerhardt, the first woman to surf Mavericks; Bianca Valentini; etc.
Half Moon Bay
A stone’s throw from Mavericks — and 45 minutes south of SF – this low-key beach break is great for beginners and intermediate surfers. More experienced locals also find wave faces to carve up. Half Moon Bay faces southwest, protected on the north side by the Mavericks Beach point, so it’s best on south swells or north swells large enough to wrap into it. Longboarders and shortboarders will both have fun here.
Who: All levels
Gear: Mavericks Surf Company. Don’t be scared by the shop’s name. You can see the Mavericks break from here, but you can also rent beginner boards, wetsuits, etc.
Lessons: Sea, Surf & Fun
Food: The Barn for burgers and beer.