Best Surf Towns: No. 1 Santa Cruz, CA

Best Places in the U.S. to Eat, Sleep, Work, and Shred

One of Santa Cruz's many gems. Photo: Trefz

Santa Cruz is the dividing line between rugged, non-pretentious NorCal and suburban, image-concerned SoCal, and that dichotomy is tangible. In this college town palms grow next to pines and pros live next door to reclusive soul surfers. Huntington Beach may have won the right to the name "Surf City, USA" in the California courts, but any surfer who's ever paddled out at Steamer Lane knows the judge got it wrong. The first waves surfed in the Continental United States were ridden in Santa Cruz by brothers Jonah, David, and Edward Kawananakoa in 1885, and the town has had a thriving surf scene since. Don't be fooled by the chilly temps, the organizing principal in the lives of most Santa Cruzians is surf, and with numerous legendary breaks dotting the coast, it's no wonder this sleepy gem has become the de facto capital of cold-water surfing.

Waves
The old saying goes, "If a butterfly flaps its wings over the Pacific, Santa Cruz gets swell." Well, actually there's no saying like that, but there should be. Because the coast forms a sort of natural bight, the area's myriad beachbreaks, points, and rocky reefs absorb swell from just about any direction—northwest to dead south—translating to rideable waves almost every day of the year. Big waves, secret spots, outer-reef bombies…even a world-class right-hand reef-point in Steamer Lane—Santa Cruz has them all. And if you're itching to do something stupid, Mavericks is only an hour north in the sleepy seaside town of Half Moon Bay. Good luck with that.

Culture
Don't let astronomical home prices and the existence of a major institution of learning fool you, Santa Cruz is still very much a blue-collar town with a largely home-grown surf community protective of its birthright, which explains the towns status as a sort of Walden for artists and craftsmen who wish to live a surf life far from the surf spotlight.

Quality of Life
If abundant surf, close proximity to the West Coast's most metropolitan city (San Francisco is a 90-minute car ride away), a low-key but thriving art scene, great wine, and access to massive expanses of natural beauty are things you enjoy, Santa Cruz will inspire you. Yes, the water's cold and there are some Buick-size sharks, but those are just Santa Cruz's way of making you earn it.

Average Water Temp: 57 (But drops into the 40s in the winter)
Average Air Temp: 57
Median Income: $59,770
Median Home Price: $850,623
Most Common Industry: Educational Services
Population: 55,322
Nearest city with pop. 200,000+: San Jose, CA (25.3 miles, pop. 894,943)
Premier Surf Spots: Steamer Lane, Wadell Creek, Pleasure Point
Local Talent: Peter Mel, Richard Schmidt, Flea, Michel Junod, Skindog, Chris Gallagher, Barney, Adam Replogle, Ratboy, Nat Young, Jack O'Neill
Odd Fact: Santa Cruz County's 40-mile stretch of coast is home to more than 70 noteworthy surf spots.

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