Santa Cruz harbor mouth. Photo: Chachi
Santa Cruz harbor mouth. Photo: Chachi

Best Surf Towns In America 2017, No. 2: Santa Cruz, CA

The best places in the U.S. to eat, sleep, work, and shred

If, as Leo Tolstoy once wrote in Anna Karenina, "All happy families are alike...," then all happy surf towns are, too. Certainly, in every happy surf town there are the same old salty surf dawgs on giant longboards who'll cut off the groms and never look back. There are the underground legends who could've gone pro, but never left. There's a robust amateur comp circuit and a local shaper who seems to make every other guy's board. There's a particular breakfast spot where every surfer in town eventually eats after a dawn patrol, hair still dripping wet, with the menus promoting various combinations of eggs all named after local surf spots, as if the "T-Street" is any better than the "Riviera." Most importantly, in all happy surf towns, every real local believes the same unanimous lie that sometimes, just sometimes, their homebreak can get as good as the best break on the entire planet.

Indeed, there are many of these surf towns all over America, but what, precisely, makes one better than the other? Wave quality? Quaintness? Seclusion? Proximity to a city with culture? Price of a "T-Street" with a side of bacon?

We've compiled this list, primarily considering quality of life and quality of surf, but also taking into account other variables such as climate, consistency and variety of waves, cost of living, culture, and availability of work. After consulting, researching, and heavy debate, we narrowed the expansive list of towns down to 10--our ranking of the 10 best American surf towns.

No. 2: Santa Cruz, CA

The first waves ever surfed in the contiguous United States were ridden in Santa Cruz by brothers Jonah, David, and Edward Kawananakoa in 1885 (Mahalo for that, Hawaiians). Since then? The "surf" prefix was added to "town" and it's been that way ever since. Yes, chilly waters and foggy skies be damned, this woodsy, unpretentious college town has always been surf-obsessed with a rich history of inventors, innovators, pros, and underground legends to prove it. With far more, bigger, better waves in such a concentrated (and very liveable) coastline than the surf towns in SoCal, it's no wonder Santa Cruz takes one of the top spots.


Believe it or not, there are over 60 different surf breaks along Santa Cruz County's 45-mile coastline, from Año Nuevo in the north, to Steamer Lane on the Westside, to Pleasure Point on the Eastside, to Moss Landing in the south. 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. Then, of course, an hour north is Half-Moon Bay, if you wanna sack up and surf one of the best big waves on the planet.


Despite astronomical home prices and UC Santa Cruz scholars camped out in every coffee shop, Santa Cruz is still very much a blue-collar town with a largely homegrown surf community protective of its birthright. It's also that very community which attracts an eclectic population of artists, craftsmen, farmers, and writers 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 perks you enjoy, Santa Cruz will inspire you. Sure, there's some localism to break through as a newcomer, but life in Santa Cruz is earthier and more authentic than the surf towns south of Point Conception. Also, the water's cold, and there are some big-ass sharks, but those are just Santa Cruz's methods of making you earn it.

Average Water Temp: 57 (But drops into the 40s in the winter)
Average Air Temp: 57
Median Income: $65,139
Median Home Price: $850,623
Most Common Industry: Educational Services
Population: 63,364
Nearest Large City: San Jose, CA (25.3 miles, pop. 1.025 mil)
Premier Surf Spots: Steamer Lane, Waddell Creek, Pleasure Point
Local Talent: Peter Mel, Richard Schmidt, Flea, Ken “Skindog” Collins, Chris Gallagher, Adam Replogle, Jason “Ratboy” Collins, Nat Young

[Head back to tomorrow for our No.1 reveal]

Best Surf Towns 2017