Don’t let the chill vibes around town fool you, San Clemente can be a highly competitive surfing arena, where world titles have been won, and dreams crushed.
Over the last 30 years, San Clemente has produced a stack of pro surfers who have cut their teeth at the high-performance, super-rippable waves of Lower Trestles.
Termed “Lowers” by locals, this rocky peak has been a mainstay of the world tour for decades and is where the Rip Curl WSL Finals are currently held.
Lower Trestles aside, San Clemente has a bunch of other waves that, on their day, can spar with the best of them.
Out of the surf, the town is an innovative melting pot of surfboard design, with some of the most iconic surfboard builders of our time shaping out of San Clemente’s Shaper’s Alley.
Including Matt “Mayhem” Biolos who still supplies most of his worldwide surfboard market from right here in San Clemente. Even when the surf’s flat, there’s still plenty to see and do in San Clemente.
You can sense a real excitement for life down in this slice of Californian paradise, and it’s time for you to come and feel it for yourself.
Where Is San Clemente
San Clemente epitomizes everything that is so desirable about Southern California.
To the north is the city of angels “Los Angeles”, and to the south is San Diego, and both are about an hour’s drive from San Clemente, depending on traffic.
One of the cool things about San Clemente is it’s located on the edge of the Los Angeles metropolitan sprawl.
The 8,000 acre Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park is just out behind San Clemente, and there’s a tonne of wild open spaces to the south of San Onofre.
This proximity to nature, coupled with its stunning beaches, is what makes San Clemente such a desirable place to live.
Head north along the coast, and lined up, one after the other, are the iconic Orange County towns of Dana Point, Laguna Beach, Newport, and Huntington Beach to play spot the celebrity in.
Getting To/ Around San Clemente
By road, getting to San Clemente is super easy, with Interstate 10 feeding in from the north and Interstate 8 to the south.
There’s also Interstate 5 which connects the north to the south of California, and that runs right through San Clemente. Basically, if you’re driving into town, San Clemente is very easy to find.
If you’re coming in from further afield, Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is only an hour’s drive, depending on traffic, everything is dependent on traffic in this part of America.
Getting around San Clemente is all about owning or, if you’re a tourist, renting an E-bike. In the last few years the E-bike market has exploded in San Clemente, and every local not just wants one, but needs it.
Trestles is located at the end of a 1-mile trail that, because of a Marine Corps base, can’t be accessed by car.
And gone are the days that good old-fashioned pedal power got you to Trestles, E-bikes reign supreme, for better or worse, along the road to trestles now.
There’s also a bus service that runs through San Clemente and will take you along the coast road into LA, passing every exclusive oceanside town as you go.
When To Surf In San Clemente
San Clemente is one of the lucky ones.
Geographically positioned to pick up south swells in the summer and north swells in the winter, although it doesn’t get massive in San Clemente very often, there tends to always be a wave.
Its unique location also means that by the time a swell makes its way into San Clemente, it is typically well-groomed, and lined up because of how far it has traveled.
In general, though, summer is the optimal time for scoring waves in San Clemente. Lowers works best on south swells, and let’s face it, if you’re coming to San Clemente, you’re coming to score Lowers.
Summer (April – October)
Of course, we know April to October isn’t classed as summer in terms of the calendar year, but we’re talking about surf seasons here, and that’s different.
April to October is when south swells make their way up from the South Pacific, kiss Mexico first, and then wrap their delightful selves into the dreamy set-ups of So-Cal (Southern California).
The beauty in coming to So-Cal in the summer to chase waves is exactly that, you’re in So-Cal in the summer baby.
The weather is warm, usually sitting pretty between 77°F and 83°F most days. Which, we’re going to go ahead and say, is the perfect climate.
We’re not the only ones who think so either, as the city brands itself as having “the world’s best climate”, and with 300 days of sunshine each year, can you really blame them?
The water is still pretty fresh in the summer though, reaching its peak at 67°F in July. This means a 2/3mm full steamer wetsuit is the wetsuit of choice for most surfers in the San Clemente summer.
Winter (November – March)
Winter in San Clemente is a far cry from what’s going on up in Northen Californian, but there is still waves. For instance, because of the way it’s positioned, Upper Trestles actually works better on a north swell and can produce 150-yard rides on its day.
The water temp will drop in the winter to reach 59°F at its coldest, which is still a good few degrees warmer than places like San Francisco and Santa Cruz.
Wetsuit-wise, and depending on your susceptibility to the cold, most surfers will be adorned in 3/4mm of rubber, with about half of them sporting 3mm surf boots.
The weather is pleasantly mild in the San Clemente winter, and rarely will it get below 48°F. And remember how we said San Clemente has 300 days of sunshine each year?
Surfing on a sunny day in the middle of winter with the air temp a balmy 60°F, and the water pretty much the same. It’s days like this that will make you realize why San Clemente is a solid choice for a surf trip at any time of the year.
Where To Surf In San Clemente
Considering San Clemente has just under 5 miles of coastline to its name, it sure does pack a lot of quality surf into it.
Depending on your ability, you can find some of the most rippable walls in all of California, or some fun beach breaks to learn on.
Some of the best surfers to ever come out of California have called this 5-mile stretch home, and still do.
It’s been producing talented surfers since as early as the 50s, which is about all you need to know on the subject, except for one thing, where to surf!
As you were probably already aware, Lowers is kind of a big deal in the surfing world.
Named the crown jewel of So-Cal surfing. Its consistency coupled with just how rip-able it is, has, without question, helped to shape the world of surf.
The beauty of Lower Trestles is that it sits in a perfect balance between playful and powerful. The right is the better wave of the two, and, from the take-off, it can offer 200 yards of ruler-edged perfection from 2ft to 6ft+.
The left may not be quite so long, but, depending on the day, it can still create a series of steep sections that lend themselves to high-performance surfing.
This rocky point/ reef break is So-Cal surf at its very finest, so expect hefty crowds every time it’s breaking.
If crowds aren’t your thing, or you’re not used to them, paddling out at Lowers may be one of the most frustrating things you’ll ever do.
This is why many surfers haven’t got the time of day or patience to surf it.
T-Street is one of the most consistent spots in all of California. T-Street is the kind of place that, when everywhere else is flat, is likely still producing something fun, for someone to enjoy.
The crying shame of T-Street is that it has been “blackballed” for surfers in the summer months to make way for bathers.
We know, pretty whack right? Luckily it’s only between the hours of 11 am and 6 pm on weekdays, and 10 am and 6 pm on weekends.
But, seeing a perfect south swell light up the left at T-Street with no one to surf it is a crime against surfing.
Thankfully either side of summer and its open season for surfers at T-Street. The T-Street strip can be divided into three defined breaks, which each work best on varying swells and tide.
The reef is what T-Street is famous for, helping to breed some of San Clemente’s finest over the years. Surfers like Chris Ward, Matt Archbold, The Fletcher brothers, Mike Losness, all these high-flying surfers grew up surfing T-Street reef.
Cropley’s and Beach House are the other two waves that can both produce wedgy lefts and rights on their days.
All in all, T-Street is a great spot to get waves all year round, and at all times of the tide. Just make sure to get their early morning in the summer to avoid the cruel hand of the law.
Where Trestles and T-Street are designed for high-performance surfing, Cottons, for the most part, is about taking it nice and easy.
Perfect for longboarders, retro fishes, mid-lengths, anything that can be considered “alt-craft” will get by just fine at Cottons.
It is a long lefthander with flat-faced waves that can give beginner and intermediate surfers plenty of chances to practice their cutbacks.
However, when a large, long-period south swell meets an especially low tide, Cottons suddenly turns into a super rippable wave that can mix it with the best of them.
A succession of steep sections will offer experienced surfers plenty of top to bottom surfing, and even the occasional barrel.
It can be found at the northern end of the Trestles beach, right in front of the famed La Casa Pacifica mansion, which President Nixon occupied while in office.
Located just outside of the San Clemente lines heading south, San Onofre State Beach has been a paradise for longboarders for over 50 years.
Legends like Don Okey, Bob Simmons, and Lorrin “Whitey” Harrison used to frequent this stretch of coast with their balsa wood surfboards. San Onofre is all about cruisy waves, weekend beach hangs and has a noticeable lack of ego as a result.
Don’t go bringing the Lower Trestles vibe down to San Onofre, because it isn’t welcome.
This laid-back mentality is a direct result of just how gentle the waves are at San Onofre. Beginner surfers from all over Orange County flock to San O’ with high-volume boards to practice their take-offs.
San O’ features three defined breaks, all of which work best on a strong south swell.
The Point, Old Man’s, and Dogpatch can all be surfed quite convincingly by beginner and intermediate surfers unless there’s a particularly big swell running.
Dig around for your biggest board, ditch the competitiveness, and cruise on down to San Onofre and you’ll see what this weird and wonderful surfing thing is really all about.
Where To Stay In San Clemente
Staying in San Clemente ain’t cheap, but thankfully there are still a few low-key hostels and hotels around town that cater to surfers.
One way to get around paying So-Cal accommodation prices is to stay at one of the city’s campgrounds, which have year-round motorhome, campervan, and tent pitches for reasonable prices.
There’s also always the option of hunting down an apartment on Airbnb, but even they can end up costing quite a bit. However, the San Clemente juice is always worth the squeeze to your back pocket.
Especially when there’s a south swell running and the waves are cooking, there’s no place like it!
Best Surf Schools In San Clemente
Unless you’re a bona fide wave shredding machine, most surfers can use a few tips in the water. And, although surf camps aren’t really a thing in this part of the world, surf schools most definitely are.
Whether you’re interested in taking it one lesson at a time or booking in for a week-long, tailor-made program that’s all about progression, there is a surf school in San Clemente to guide you there.
We’ve listed a few of the most recognized schools in the area that will help you focus on improving, by taking care of the rest.
Each school has highly qualified instructors with decades of experience that want nothing more than to see their students stoke out on the wave of their life. Do your surfing a favor while in town, and book yourself in for a few surf lessons.
It will help you to make the most of your time spent in this beautiful, wave-rich part of the world.
Other Things To Do In San Clemente
As fun as the waves can be in and around San Clemente, sometimes, it’s nice to peel yourself away from the surf and see what else is going on.
We’ve listed a few of our favorite things to do around town that will fuel your burning desire of wanting to pack up and move to San Clemente.
It’s ok, you won’t be the first or last surfer to do so.
Check Out The Architecture
You may be thinking, how is a surf town’s architecture any different from the next? And, although that is not a silly question, in the case of San Clemente, it really does stand out from the next.
The city’s slogan is “Spanish Village by the Sea”, and this slogan can be attributed to the city’s architecture.
The Spanish colonial-style architecture around town will have you conjuring up dreams of warm Mexican days sipping margaritas by the beach.
From the Casa Romantica behind San Clemente Pier to La Casa Pacifica down in front of Cottons, and the town’s boutique-style Casas with bountiful yellow trim, San Clemente looks, feels, and tastes like Mexico.
Hike The Trails Behind San Clemente
As is often the case with a place, getting some perspective means finding the highest peak and climbing it. And as we already mentioned, San Clemente is perfectly positioned on the outskirts of the Los Angeles greater metropolitan, with some killer hiking trails just behind it.
Trails like the Ridgeline Trail-Camino, the Rancho San Clemente, and the San Clemente beach trail are all well worth your time. None of them are super challenging, and there’s nothing too extreme in terms of distance.
Just remember to wear a hat and pack a water bottle, as the trails can feel especially hot, and the sea breeze can seem a little too far away.
Shop The San Clemente Outlets
If shopping is your game, and sniffing out deals is the aim, then a trip to San Clemente simply wouldn’t be complete without stopping Outlets. This open-air shopping mall is stacked with chic designers and big-name brands.
After you’ve worked up a hunger perusing this season’s latest threads, you will be treated to a wide variety of high-quality restaurants that stay open all afternoon long.
We’re sure you’d rather be surfing, but doing the right thing by your other half is bound to win you brownie points that can be used at a later date for surfing purposes, or not.
San Clemente is a wave-rich city that has had a helping hand in shaping the world of surf. From the pioneers of Californian longboarding to the innovative shapers and the pro surfers who are at the forefront of progression, San Clemente has that extra special thing going for it.
Booking a surf trip to San Clemente is never going to be a bad idea. Even if the waves aren’t fully pumping while you’re in town, there is enough going on, that you will feel satisfied either way.
However, if you do time it right and there’s a tasty south swell in the water. The kind of swell that this stretch is known for, well, in our humble opinion, there’s no place like it.