Surfing and Santa Cruz are entwined in history and legend. It was in Santa Cruz that surfing was first believed to be introduced to cultures outside its historical home of the pacific islands.
On July 19th, 1885, the locals in Santa Cruz were mesmerized by the display of surfing that three Hawaiian princes put on. They were all students at a military school in San Mateo, enjoying their downtime by engaging in their beloved and spiritual sport, riding the waves and breaks, and piquing the interest of all who were fortunate enough to see this historical moment.
From this day onwards, surfing grew and grew in popularity and notoriety, as the locals embraced this fascinating new sport. As the legend grew, people came from further afield to see for themselves, if they, too, could learn to ride the waves in a similarly majestic fashion.
With stunning beaches, a booming local culture, and challenging waves, caused by the strong winds from the Pacific, Santa Cruz, or ‘Surf City’ as it is affectionately and widely known, retains its position as perhaps the most iconic place on earth to surf outside the pacific islands.
With this in mind, there may not be anywhere better suited to taking your first steps onto a board and diving headfirst into the thrilling sport of surfing. Read on for an insight into the best places to surf in Santa Cruz, whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned rider.
1. Richard Schmidt Surf School
Richard Schmidt has over thirty years of experience teaching surfing in Santa Cruz, with his school first launching in 1978. The school’s pioneering teaching techniques with a hands-on approach guarantee even first-time surfers will be standing on the board and riding a wave in their first lesson.
The area has some of the best waves in the world for beginners, and their focused tuition will help you feel calm and confident. You will be coached in ‘Surfology’, a surfing methodology taught to cover all aspects of being in the surf and staying safe whilst you make rapid progress. The school offers lessons to all ages, levels, and cognitive abilities, with specialized classes for school groups and children available.
- Variety – Surfing, paddle boarding, marine tours, and weeklong camps in Costa Rica
- Experience – Over thirty years experience in teaching in Santa Cruz
- Educational – Visit the California Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to learn about the environment and its inhabitants
2. Centered Surfing
Founder Barry Green has over thirty-five years of surfing experience, whilst he has been teaching others how to surf for over twenty years. His mission statement is simple, “Better surfing = better living”, as he believes surfing can teach you about living in the moment, living a positive and fulfilling life.
With specialized and personalized coaching for each customer, the school aims to take you to the next level by building your techniques and confidence on the water. Offering surfing lessons, surfing clinics, and surfing travel, the choice is yours. If you’re already a confident surfer, the team here will elevate your level and refine your skills.
- Experience – Over thirty-five years on the water with twenty years of teaching
- Wellbeing – Learn techniques on the board and how to live in the moment
- Personalized – Specialized coaching for each customer
3. Surf School Santa Cruz
Founded in 2010 by famed surfer Bud Freitas, the school has built a sterling reputation over the last decade. Bud grew up surfing the local waves and has over twenty years of experience and vast local knowledge.
Their local instructors focus on the fundamentals of surfing technique and safety, whilst ensuring an engaging and fun experience for all. Offering classes on an individual and group basis, as well as accommodating corporate events, surfing classes are open to all from beginner to advanced level. It’s even possible to learn one-to-one with Bud himself and gain his insights into surfing and the local area.
- Bud Freitas – Learn first-hand from a surfing legend
- Local Instructors – Their coaches are all local with a deep knowledge of the surf and surrounding areas
- Options – With classes at Pleasure Point and Cowell’s Beach, two iconic locations
4. Club Ed
Ed Guzman has been surfing since 1969 when he was twelve years old and surfing in Santa Cruz since 1986. He has long competed in worldwide competitions across the various disciplines of surfing, from longboarding to tube riding.
The school offers group classes and private tuition to those of all levels and ages, from beginner to expert, in both short and longboarding. You can even take a class with Ed himself to tap into his understanding and respect for the sport and environment. All of their instructors are incredibly well-trained, being lifeguard, CPR, and first aid certified.
The area is home to a fascinating ecosystem, with surfers able to see and surf with dolphins, seals, and sea otters. If you have the luxury of an extended break, then you can attend one of their famed Summer Surf Camps for an intensive introduction and personalized instruction.
- Safety First – Instructors are qualified lifeguards with CPR and First aid training
- Experience – A lifetime of experience shows in their carefully thought-out approaches to teaching
- Wildlife – See dolphins, seals, and sea otters out in the water
5. Santa Cruz Surf Lessons
With over twenty years’ experience surfing around the world, founder and Santa Cruz native Eric Imsland and his team place an emphasis on safety and performance. He established the school in 2014 and prides himself on providing lessons customized to each surfers’ skills, with coaching designed to be accessible to all who wish to participate.
For beginners, they will take you to suitable areas with calmer waters and smaller waves, and for the more advanced surfers, they will lead you to the best spots in the area. Lessons are offered to all, with one-to-one, children’s, camps, and group sessions available.
The classes will cover all aspects of surfing including surfing etiquette, board control, understanding waves, technique alongside safety and awareness. They will ensure that you are confident and able to ride your first wave
- First-steps – They aim to simplify surfing and provide a strong foundation to progress
- Experience – Having surfed worldwide, and taught for over ten years, Eric and his team have a wealth of knowledge
- Connections – The team train with established international surfing competitors
6. Adventure Out
Adventure Out has been the one-stop shop for all things outdoors and adventure in California since 2004. Founder Cliff Hodges is an experienced surfer and outdoor guide, having traveled the world to learn more about all aspects of outdoor life and activities.
The NSSIA (National Surf School and Instructors Association) accredited school offers a huge range of specialized surfing classes, focused coaching for children under twelves, stand-up paddle lessons and, many surf camps and tours.
On top of this, they lead expeditions out into the surrounding areas, in which you can enjoy the varied and stunning environment of the California coastline.
Their licensed instructors are trained in first-aid and are qualified lifeguards to ensure your safety and wellbeing. As well as surfing, the company offers classes and tours in a wide range of outdoor activities including rock climbing, mountain biking, and outdoor survival.
- Professionalism – NSSIA accredited school with highly trained instructors
- Depth – An extensive choice of classes, camps, and trips
- Variety – Huge range of other activities is also available
7. Capitola Beach Company
Santa Cruz native and founder Matt has been surfing the waves in California since he was eleven years old. Now with over thirty-four years of experience in the local surf and area, he and his team offer extensive local knowledge and instruction. Matt’s experience as a lifeguard shows in their safety-focused lessons, helping you feel confident and at ease when out on the water.
Group sessions and private tuition are available, so if you’re wanting to learn with friends or experience a more personalized class, they have you covered.
Stand-up paddleboarding is also taught here, which allows you to get up close and personal with some of the majestic wildlife that inhabits the area. The shop is well stocked with surfing gear, a variety of other lifestyle products and gifts.
- History – Over thirty-four years of surfing the California waves
- Safety – Years of experience as a lifeguard drives Matt’s focus on safety and awareness
- Wildlife – Paddle amongst the local wildlife such as dolphins and sea otters
8. The Mavericks Experience
Tim West established the school in 2016, fueled by his desire to share his knowledge of the waters, culture, environment, and history of the local area. The Maverick is a notorious wave that has lured spectators and surfers alike, from all corners of the globe, to travel to the area to see for themselves. Though, don’t let this scare you off! Their classes are taught at a beginner-friendly beach, with calmer waters and smaller breaks.
All of their instructors are locals who know the waters and area like the back of their hand, they are also trained in CPR and first aid to ensure everyone’s safety. All the lessons are intimate, with a maximum group size of four people, to ensure an attentive and focused coaching style. Take a guided walk along the trail to learn about the famous Mavericks wave, the local marine life, and the history of the area.
- Legendary – Learn all about the infamous Mavericks wave and see it for yourself
- Personal – Small group sizes to ensure safety and focused lessons
- Educational – Learn about the area’s history and the local marine life
9. Capitola Surf And Paddle
Founder Jason Alaniz’s deep passion and respect for the water and local environment led to him establishing the school in 2012. Jason’s history as a fire serviceman and EMT paramedic, as well as his training in CPR, first aid, and water rescue, means you can enjoy your class feeling comfortable and safe.
Alongside teaching you surfing techniques, the team will focus on teaching you about the safety and etiquette of being on the water. The waters offer good surf on calm waters, perfect for your first surfing experience. With private and small group sessions available, in both surfing and stand-up paddleboarding, the instructors will provide a detailed and personal learning experience.
- Experience – Jason’s specialized training and past work experience ensure a safe environment
- Beginners – Calm waters to help you build your confidence and technique
- Personal – One-to-one or small group lessons ensure focused instruction
10. Sun and Salt Collective Women’s Surf Retreat
This women-only retreat offers escapism as you learn to surf whilst staying at the beautiful Om Oasis Retreat. Company founder and Santa Cruz native, Cassandra, has been surfing the area for over twenty years.
Building a collective of like-minded women, envisioning experience and empowerment for others, the retreat combines surfing with numerous relaxing activities in a safe, fun environment. Embrace the spiritual nature of surfing through waves, meditation, and group discussion.
Treat your body like a temple whilst enjoying delicious and nutritional vegetarian meals, prepared by Jessica, the in-house chef. After your days’ surf, you can relax in the saltwater hot tub, use the sauna and take part in the daily yoga sessions.
- Community – Enjoy exhilarating surf and relaxing downtime in a relaxing, safe environment
- Food – All food is vegetarian and prepared in house
- Experience – Founder Cassandra has surfed the local waves for over twenty years
Buyers Guide/ FAQ
What Time Of Year Can I Surf In Santa Cruz?
There is year-round surf in Santa Cruz, with strong winds from the Pacific bringing waves and breaking through the seasons to the stunning California coastline. The winter months bring the biggest waves and most challenging surfing conditions.
Where Should I Surf In The Area?
The whole coastline is infamous for incredible surfing spots, from Cowell Beach to Pleasure Point, to Natural Bridges and Capitola. The waves and breaks vary greatly, so ensure you listen to your instructor’s guidance on where is most suitable for your level. Everywhere you go along the coastline, you will find a community deeply rooted in the surfing culture.
Is Santa Cruz Suitable For Beginners?
Absolutely! As one of the most famous locations to surf in the world, many come here for their first taste of aquatic adventure. With many locations and beaches that are perfect, with calmer waters, smaller waves, and less volatile breaks.