There is no such thing as a secret spot in San Diego. A million surfers have gone looking for waves in this county over the last 30 years, and probably every spot that can be surfed has been surfed. I mention this early because I do not want to risk annihilation at the hands of militant locals who are already probably skimming this article to see if I’ve busted their one and only secret spot.
There are favorite spots and popular spots and spots where no one else surfs, which might make you think, if you surf there, that they’re secret. There must be 10,000 San Diego surfers guarding the secret of Horseshoe Reef, even though most of them, wisely, don’t surf there (those who do are escaping desperate overcrowding at the usual spots and must brave a mostly unmakeable left line which breaks into a foot of water). If your spot is uncrowded, it’s because you manage to hit it at the right moment or because nobody else wants to surf there, not because nobody knows about it.
If there were any secret spots left after the surfing explosion of the 60s, Bank Wright gave them away in 1973 when he published his Guide to California Surfing. Complete with maps and photos, the guide is available from Manana Publishing in Redondo Beach. Go let the air out of his tires, not mine.
Finally, anyone who goes to your secret spot because they saw it in this article will probably go just once. Because they’ll hit it when the tide or swell is wrong, and they’ll think I lied about the spot. Or maybe they’ll hit it at the right time and see that it’s a so-called secret spot because it’s too big, too dangerous, and eats boards like Needle’s Eye.
There are small secrets about San Diego spots, though; and some surfers are less interested in crowds than they are in easy freeway and bipedal access, proximity to restaurants, bars, and other entertainments, and predictable water movements.
San Diego surf spots, from north to south, begin with Trestles and end with the Tijuana sloughs. Trestles is on the northern end of Camp Pendleton, and the big secret is not how great the wave is— common knowledge, a superb summer wall peeling fight over a rock ledge toward a clean sandy beach-but how all those other surfers got their cars down there on the beach right next to the trestle. It all depends on who’s at the Pendleton north gate when you cruise up with your surfboards. You can also park north of the military reservation, in San Clemente, and walk in below Nixon’s estate.
Between Trestles and Tamarack there are several miles of beach, reef, and jetty breaks including San Onofre (good, uncrowded, long-board surf, but most people who drive that far usually go the extra mile on Freeway 5 for that Trestles thrill), the dependable Oceanside pier and jetties, and Carlsbad’s typical beach surf. The advantage beach locals have over all kooks and other extraterrestrials is that they know what those sand-bars are doing under any conditions. They live there and it’s their secret.
Tamarack. This spot, at the foot of Tamarack Avenue in Carlsbad; has only one secret. It’s what you’d expect from a sand bottom—it closes out at six to eight feet. Like most of the North County beach breaks, it is best in summer on a medium-size south swell. A medium tide is favored. Two small jetties south of Tamarack add spice to the area. Just about any kind of board will work here; long boards are nice. The one secret about Tamarack? A friend of mine who often drives up to Carlsbad usually claims at least three-feet-taller waves than what I get on the same day in Mexico. Maybe it’ll work for you, too.
Terramar. Otherwise known as the Encina power plant, just south of Tamarack. At the outfall from the power plant, water circulated through the steam turbines is pumped into the ocean. So the secret here is that the waters of Terra-mar are usually a few degrees warmer than anywhere else. There is no swell size or direction which will ever give. Terramar any special distinction other than the warm water. There aren’t even any locals per se, just the typical eclectic state beach blend. So the main point of interest is not the people, but the power plant. It blots out the sun. Don’t look at it.
Between Terramar and Swami’s, the well-known point break to the south side of Encinitas, there are several miles of beach peaks including Ponto (look for the housing development sign along old 101), Grandview, Beacons, and Stone Steps, all located along the cliffs below Leucadia. There is parking and public access for all these spots.
Swami’s. Not a secret spot. This is one of the best and most famous winter rites in California and is named after the Self-Realization Fellowship temple on the cliffs above. On a big swell, the secret is Boneyard, the outside northern peak. Boneyard is visible from the cliffs to the north, but paddling out is often impossible on this side. From the beach to the south of Swami’s, Boneyard is barely visible unless you know what you’re looking for. There is a channel on the south side. Paddle around Swami’s and surf Boneyard—it’s usually less crowded. Don’t forget that it’s called Boneyard, not Sleepy Lagoon. Most surf spots are named after either landmarks or experiences.
Between Swami’s and Jacuzzis there are several miles of beach breaks and hidden reefs including Pipes and Seaside Reef. You can park along the highway or in parking lots between Cardiff and Solana Beach and walk to most of these areas.
Jacuzzis. The cliffs along Solana Beach are rimmed with condominium developments. Public access is provided via wooden stairs and sidewalks between condos. It’s a break beach, best on a medium-size south swell, with occasional long hollow walls. The summer crowd is a mixture of locals, racquet club denizens, and tourists. Wintertime, the beach is deserted. The secret about Jacuzzis is that each of those developments has a king-size whirlpool and minimum security from beachside. You can park your car anywhere along Sierra Street, surf, and then enjoy a hot dip afterwards. Jacuzzis. Gracious living in Solana Beach.
Between Jacuzzis and Black’s Beach there are several miles of relatively uncrowded beach peaks, including Del Mar beach, which winter currents turn into a near-reef beach with many of the mechanical qualities to match. Access is from the foot of nearly any east-west street, at the north end of town by the old railway depot, or at the south end by the concrete highway bridge. Always a good place to check the swell, regardless of where you’re coming from.
Black’s Beach. San Diego’s worst-kept secret spot. There are naked people there. There is also one of the most powerful beach breaks in California. Black’s is at the tip of the Scripps’ submarine canyon, a mile-deep trench where where ocean swells develop unobstructed by the continental shelf. The whole of Black’s Beach, not just the primary peak at the cliff outcropping, works thick and fast on nearly any swell, any tide. Access to Black’s is simple if you use the black-top road maintained by the University of California. (You have to walk down from La Jolla Farms Road.) However, the many cliff rescues by city lifeguards attests to the adventure of it all; so, if sheer verticals excite you, enter Black’s via the cliff trails that start at parking areas near the glider strip and at the north loop of La Jolla Farms Road. Otherwise, you can walk in from Torrey Pines state beach to the north.
Between Black’s and Windansea are several miles of beach and reef breaks, including La Jolla Shores and La Jolla Cove. The Cove has been board surfed up to 20 feet. There are photos to prove it. One La Jolla lifeguard who nearly drowned there in 1973 calls it a “psycho” wave. Also in this stretch is Horseshoe, mentioned earlier. La Jolla is peppered with tempermental reef peaks that literally work only for locals. Some of these spots break once every two or three years, Hogan’s and Windamere, for example.
Windansea. Windansea is actually a complex of rock ledges which work on diffrent swells and tides. The spots include Rockpile, Turtle, Sea Lane, Simon’s (tubes!), and hot spots Kolmar and Little Point, in addition to Windansea proper. The only secret is which wave is going to work when. But they just keep getting waves at Windansea. The popular board right now is the Caster winger pin-tail; that’s what Chris O’Rourke, the current Windansea star, rides. Windansea locals are legend. Maybe they’re not worthy of a book anymore, but they’re still some of the brassiest locals around. Windansea is a total surfing environment. It is as big a cliche in La Jolla as Nixon is in San Clemente.
Between Windansea and Ocean Beach are at least half of the regular surfing spots in the city. These include Big Rock, a left over shallow rocks about two blocks south of Windansea; North and South Bird Rock, south swell breaks off Archer Street; and Hermoz, otherwise known as PB Point, a big mushy peak which has a way of just pushing you to the beach if you get caught inside. From Tourmaline through the PB pier and south to the South Mission jetty, there are innumerable “secret” peaks, the shifting sand bars of Mission Beach. If you live in Mission Beach you’re probably used to seeing half-a-dozen surfers hit the water whenever you get three good waves in a row. There are almost always a hundred hungry surfers strung out along the sea wall between World Famous and Hamel’s Bike Shop, just waiting to see a wave with possibilities. Any waves you get on Mission Beach are public domain. Secret: they say the reason the wave breaks harder in front of the Surfer Motel is because of a rock bottom there. Take out a face plate and see for yourself. Secret: the “jetty crew” at South Mission has been known to confiscate the boards of nonlocals who had the audacity to collide with a local. Lesson: the jetty is the nonpareil reflected-wave, or “wedge,” break in San Diego, and worth working for. Take a friend.
Ocean Beach. On given days, either the jetty or the OB Pier may have the best waves in San Diego. Yet a lot of surfers will not go out because they are considered no-class surf spots. The north part of Ocean Beach—near the Flood Control Channel—is a good place for beginners because of the sandy bottom and small, regular swell. The OB Pier is one of the most consistent breaks in San Diego. It will pick up just about any swell except a steep south, which is why all those ten-footers promised by Channel 39 never materialize. The best wave is the left off the pier in summer, the right along the pier in winter. The right has been ridden from the north arm of the pier all the way into the beach, over 300 yards. There are parking lots at the foot of Voltaire, Brighton, Santa Monica, and Newport Streets, and OB is definitely a “people’s” beach. Bolsheviks, win os, and swabbies mix with Point Loma teenie-boppers, traditional and counter-culture American families on a beach that is usually wall-to-wall trash by the end of a busy day. The secret here is that there are more women surfers than anywhere else in the county. At least a hundred regulars, and that’s a lot. All you women who learned to surf out at UCSD or State. I know it's not easy to paddle out into the crowd of men by yourself. But there are almost always two or three females in the water out of a crowd of 30 by the pier. You’ve got to start someplace.
Between Ocean Beach and Needle's Eye, there are numerous reef peaks, including Pescadero, at the foot of Pescadero Street on Point Loma, one of the few surf spots to have its own little clubhouse. It’s not that great, but it’s fun. Also included is Bird Shit rock, which is the accepted local name for this little reef peak and the single profanity that city lifeguards are allowed to transmit over the radio. Access is from the parking lot at the foot of Osprey Street, then paddle south.
Needle’s Eye. The secret about Needle’s Eye is why more surfers don’t get their lunch there. Located directly below Sunset Cliffs Boulevard on the north side of Luscomb’s Point and breaking into No Surf Cove, it is completely visible to everyone who walks, drives, or skateboards by. Yet there are rarely more than two or three surfers out. Why? Because the wave sucks off a rock ledge that can do terminal damage to your fin, tail block, or cranium if you project too far onto the flat. A quick tuck-and-run left, it is unsurfable on low tide because of exposed rocks and is one of the genuinely dangerous inside reef breaks in San Diego. Park on the street above Luscomb’s and enter the water off the extreme end of the point, if you insist. Don’t take your favorite board.
Between Needle’s Eye and Ralph’s, there are numerous reef breaks, including all the spots that Valley surfers usually mean when they say they are going to “the Cliffs.” These are, from north to south, Rockslides, Lizards, North Garbage (at the foot of the stairs on Ladera Street), South Garbage, Sub, Ab, Outer Middles (also called South Ab), New Break (the one really stylish wave at the Cliffs), Chasm, and 33's. The only secrets about these areas are (1) I low do you get down the cliff at high tide with a heavy surge? Very touchy. (2) How do you get around the rock outcroppings on the beach on the way to Chasm and 33’s at high tide with a heavy surge? Decisions, decisions. (3) Who do you call for help when you come in after dark at Chasm, you still have a half-mile walk to the cliff steps before you catch a glass-strevyn path to the parking lot, and you discover that your clothes have been washed away and the beach completely covered by high tide and heavy surge? Unless it’s a very large swell, the Cliffs don’t break on high tide anyway. Kelp beds at the Cliffs help keep the chop down. Lost boards are often eaten by the rocks and sometimes stolen when they wash into the beach — it's a long swim to shore. Leashes are popular at Sunset Cliffs.
Ralph's. Everybody knows about Ralph’s. Ralph’s is that place where it’s always breaking at six feet with exhilarating velocity when every place else is fiat; the trick is that you have to have a boat to get there. Ralph’s is located on the extreme tip of Point Loma. below the o*ld lighthouse, and it is verboten by the U.S. Navy to park your car and walk in. They give expensive tickets and generally make the surfer feel like mop slop caught in the act. They can’t stop you from anchoring your boat, though, and that’s how you get to surf Ralph’s or neighboring Pill Box. This makes Ralph’s even more exclusive than Windansea, because no amount of skill will make you a star at Ralph’s until you know someone who can afford a boat. This bourgeois downer a-side, and if you can ignore the sharks that feed at the mouth of the harbor, Ralph’s is a handsome surf spot with a view to Coronado and a satisfying machine-like right. South swells only.
Between Ralph’s and the Tijuana sloughs are numerous uncrowded beach peaks including those at North Island Naval Air Station (sneak around the fence at the north end of Coronado beach), Coronado and Silver Strand state park. Coronado picks up the small to medium south swells of summer better than any beach up to San Clemente. Don’t forget to bring a pocketful of change for the toll bridge.
Tijuana Sloughs. This is it, San Diego. This is your “secret spot.” In Imperial Beach, right on the Mexican border. This one is more bad-ass than Black’s. Everyone might as well know, because it’s not likely to pick up any more customers. The different positions in the surfing lineup are named after architectural features on the Tijuana bullring. “First notch” is what you surf up to about eight, feet. Then an outer peak, “second notch,” takes over up to around 15 feet. From 15 on up, it’s “third notch,” which Bank Wright describes as “complete insanity.” Some of my peers once roundly hooted me for stating in another article that a 20 foot wave closed out the Mission Bay channel. Well, more lucid minds than my own have committed to memory 40-foot waves at the Tijuana sloughs—you may adjust that figure any way you like. Bank Wright cites the “heavy rip currents, frequent sharks, blinding fogs, and massive clean-up sets...for some reason it’s never crowded. The lefts are faster and better shaped. But there is no return channel. If you’re inside when a set rolls through, forget it and head for the beach.” One seasoned Imperial Beach lifeguard emphasizes the “high penalty for losing your board,” always a big mistake at the sloughs: the swim to the beach is one of the longest on the coast, nearly a half-mile when the outer peaks are working. With inside peaks working at over eight feet, getting into the beach through those walls of turbulence can be more challenging, more frightening, than paddling out. Once you are on the beach, you may never find your board, lost in a parallel current. It is not unusual for coastal currents to carry a surfer across the Mexican border before he can reach shore. The sloughs works best on a centered west or north-west winter swell with a long wave interval—16 or more seconds. It will hold any size wave and regulars claim it is the roomiest around. The Tijuana sloughs and La Jolla Cove are the only areas in San Diego with substantiated shark attacks to their credit.