Steamer Lane, just below the Santa Cruz lighthouse, is where surfing was first introduced to the mainland by Hawaiian royalty. Here the waves break year round and local surf legends rip it up while crowds look on from the relative safety of the cliffs above. When a good winter swell comes in, a wave can crest 12ft and higher, and the surfers drop down the face like cannon balls.
And the waves get bigger. Just up the coast in the quiet town of Half Moon Bay, lies Mavericks. When it is going off, the waves here are truly monsters. With 50ft faces, Mavericks has some of the biggest waves in the world. Every year big wave surfers come here to try and catch the ride of their life.
If you are visiting Santa Cruz, you can get in on the action, and don’t worry there is no need to put your life into the jaws of Mavericks. Cowells Beach, at the Santa Cruz boardwalk, is the ideal place to learn to surf. With a sandy bottom, smooth waves, and a friendly crowd, hundreds of people ride their first wave at Cowells.
All you need is a surfboard and a wet suit. You’ll want the wet suit, because the water is typically 50 deg. or colder, even in the summer. In fact the wet suit was invented by local surf icon Jack O’Neill, presumably because he just got tired of being so cold out there. You can rent a board and suit in many of the local surf shops, and it will only run you ~20$ a day.
A great place to pick up your gear is Cowells Surf Shop, across the street from Cowells beach. You can park at the shop, carry your board across the street and head right in the water. They even have surf lessons in the summer.
If you are not sure you’re ready to get wet, you can still get in on the fun. On any day when the waves are up, walk out to the light house, on West Cliff Drive. On the way you will pass by the famous bronze surf statue, a great spot to take a picture. When you get to the light house, drop inside to see the surf museum dedicated to local surf greats. Finally, step back out, look over the cliffs, and you will get to see some of the best surfers in the world tear it up in the waves of Steamer Lane.