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The Best Surf Spots For Every Skill Level in North America

The Best Surf Spots For Every Skill Level in North America

Bryn Wied

With two oceans, several gulfs, numerous harbors and millions of miles of coastline, North America boasts some of the best surf spots in the world. From the over 100 foot waves and tropical coastline of Hawaii and the rugged forested cliffs and chilly waters of British Colombia to the gentle warm breaks of Costa Rica, there’s plenty of breaks to catch for any skill level or destination voyager.

Ready to catch some new waves? Whether you’re in the mood for lush rainforests or glacier capped mountain backdrops, there’s plenty of breaks where you can eat, sleep and breathe surf culture.

For the Beginner….

1. Frank Island, Tofino, British Columbia

While the northern waters means chilly surf conditions year round, the temperatures alone shouldn’t deter newbie surfers from taking on the waves off of Chesterman Beach’s south shore. Tofino is Canada’s surf capital, and the town has plenty of surf guides that can give you instruction on riding the chilly waters. The best and most shallow, beginner friendly breaks are consistent here, thanks to the stretch of land that connects the island to Vancouver, and make you feel like a pro from your first day on a board.

Surf's up @Chesterman Beach!

2. Oceanside Beach, San Diego, California

San Diego is a mecca of surf culture, and offers plenty of beaches and breaks for all abilities. Some are snotty and not for novices, but Oceanside’s beach in San Diego’s North County has plenty of good, consistent breaks off of the pier and the sand bars offshore. The beach has lots of designated surf areas, and novices can surf alongside the pros without getting any flack. The beach has two great surf shops which offer lessons, where surf guides will help you learn the basics on land before continuing the lesson out in the waves.

Oceanside Beach Pier

3. Rincon, Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico’s west shore is lined with potential for endless days of gorgeous surfing and nearly perfect waves. There’s plenty of variety in shoreline and surf conditions, so as you get better you can constantly challenge yourself to quicker breaks and bigger waves. If you aren’t fluent in Spanish, there are plenty of bilingual Puerto Rican tour guides that can help you navigate it’s surf towns, as well as dozens of surf shops and surf retreat centers to introduce the concepts of surfing or help improve your technique.

Rincon, Puerto Rico Surfer

For the Experienced...

1. Ocean Beach, San Francisco, California

It’s not one singular factor that makes Ocean Beach one of the most dangerous places to surf in North America; put together dangerous rip tides, unpredictable surfing conditions, sharks and underwater channels, and you’ve got the odds stacked against you. The same breaks that cause plenty of great, long waves are often the result of intense rip tides that can pull surfers far out to sea, and hence the beach puts up many warning signs. 

But despite the dangers, many still enjoy surfing Ocean Beach, and the place has gained increasing popularity as a guide

surf destination. The beach is lined with a handful of surf outfitting shops that act as surf guides for the area, and can help point out the safer breaks to catch along the coastline.

Ocean Beach, San Francisco, California

2. Playa Hermosa, Costa Rica

Located just south of Jaco on the Pacific Ocean, Playa Hermosa has a consistent swell year round, but it’s the quick and choppy breaks that make it more suitable for the advanced surfer rather than the beginner. The biggest waves occur later in the summer and into fall, when waves can reach some serious heights. Albeit a bit off the beaten path surfing here will find your amongst friends as the spot is famous for attracting professional surfers from across the globe.

Playa Hermosa, Costa Rica

3. Ho’okipa Beach, Maui, Hawaii

Ho’okipa Beach on Maui’s North Shore is beautiful, with stretches of beautiful white sand and perfect breaks. The gorgeous waters are often rough, and when they are, they hide the fact that the beach is lined with a rocky bottom, hence making it dangerous for beginners and even intermediate surfers. It’s a great place for pros though, and one of the world’s best locations for windsurfing.

Maui’s island is surrounded by surf culture; surfing schools can be found on just about every beach, so finding a rental place for boards or details on great local breaks is very easy.

Ho’okipa Beach, Maui, Hawaii

For the Insane…

1. Banzai Pipeline, Oahu, Hawaii

Hawaii’s famous “pipe” may be the stuff surf legends are built from, but surfer’s should be wary of jumping right into its waters; over 5 surfers have died surfing the pipes at Banzai Beach in the last decade. The shallow reef that runs parallel to the beach makes for a perfect break, but the waves quickly turn into staggering pipes that even the pros have problems conquering.

Banzai Pipeline, Oahu, Hawaii

To this end, hiring a Hawaiian surf guide from Pupukea or other North Shore area surfing outfitters is advisable, as they can help you to navigate the waves and find the best breaks for potential pipes along the shore.

2. Ghost Tree, Pebble Beach, California

Take cold water and great white sharks, mix in rocky bottoms and massive boulders on the shoreline, and you’ve got the recipe for some of the most insane surfing in the world. Ghost Tree’s breaks can reach just under 80 feet, and are very inconsistent; one minute you’re sitting on your board just off shore with gently swelling water, and two minutes later that swell has turned into some of the nastiest and most dangerous surfing conditions imaginable. You have been warned.

Ghost Tree, Pebble Beach, California

3. New Smyrna Beach, Florida

As most surfers know, when you think of craziest spots or best breaks, you usually wouldn’t think of Florida as making the top ten list. Despite plenty of white sandy beaches, the state isn’t known for great, consistent breaks that are the key to any great surf spot. Nonetheless, there are a few beaches where one can still catch plenty of waves, and even a couple that have pretty consistent breaks off jetties or sand bars.

New Smyrna Beach, Florida

New Smyrna appears to be just that, an above average Florida surf beach. But its insane factor is notched up by the sharks that frequent the waters just off shore, in fact right in the middle of the best surf spots. With shark attacks year round, New Smyrna has earned itself the nickname of “Shark Capital of the World,” and infamously boasts up to 20 shark attacks each year alone.

Nevertheless, if you’re in town and feel up to the challenge, head downtown to Flagler Avenue, which is lined with surf shops and outfitters. Local Florida surf guides are happy to show you the best spots and help you find the right areas to surf, as crossing into the wrong waters can land you a hefty fine and get you booted off the beach.

Bryn Wied is a full time travel writer/blogger from Lake Tahoe, California. She's authored several travel articles and her work has been featured on many travel websites and publications. When she's not writing, she's usually on the road traveling across the world with her hubby, Matt and their daughter, Jamison.

Image Details and Licenses: (Elijah van der Giesse, CC BY-NC 2.0), (brutalSoCal, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), (cisc1970, CC BY-NC 2.0), (Franco Folini, CC BY-SA 2.0), (anji barton, CC BY-NC 2.0), (Richard "Dick" Morgan, CC BY-ND 2.0), (Craig, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), (Neversay Chen, CC BY-SA 2.0), (Steve Harwood, CC BY-NC 2.0)  (Gord Iversen CC by 2.0)

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