San Diego’s Best Surf Spots: Pacific Beach

Imagine sitting cross-legged around a bonfire, staring up at the stars while you listen to the waves crashing into the shore in the distance. Perhaps you’d like a more eventful evening. You could get dressed up, catch a couple of drinks, then stumble along the boardwalk, laughing with your friends.

It should come as no surprise that there are places in San Diego where the party doesn’t stop, for better or for worse. Pacific Beach, or P.B., as the locals it, is one of those places. It’s not the bohemian, gauged ears and dreadlocks crowd. It’s the club kids, the ones that go shopping, stop for lunch, then throw on their best outfits to go dance out the night. They’re the 20-somethings on the prowl, the ladies in tight dresses, the men with spiked hair, and designer T’s.

They come out in droves, moving from one bar to the next, enjoying the lights and music. That’s Pacific Beach.

There’s another side to Pacific Beach as well. They say it’s where you can escape the urban, big-city ambiance of San Diego–rent a luxury suite, go fishing, or spend an afternoon gawking at indie couture.

The small neighborhood bordering the beach is filled with upper-middle class homes, respectable families, and professionals. They’re the antithesis to the youngsters that wreak havoc at night in search of a good time. Either way, just like the rest of San Diego, their lives are centered around the water.

Esri Story Maps Demo / Flickr

Tourmaline Canyon Surfing Park

The epicenter of Pacific Beach is a 3.5-mile strip of sand divided into separate sections. The division started back in the 60s when homeowners in the area wanted to get rid of hoodlum surfers. They were worried about vandalism and crime, but the surfers insisted that they were simply exercising their right to practice a legitimate sport. They made it clear that surfing in general wasn’t the problem. It was a small subsection of the community.

The 1960s homeowners weren’t about to listen. They proposed everything from time limits to outright bans, but none of it worked. Instead, the city established the first surfing-only park in the United States, now known as Tourmaline Canyon Surfing Park, in the northern section of P.B.

Tourmaline is special. Unlike most of San Diego’s surfing beaches, you don’t have to be a well-known local or a club member to get the best waves. They don’t slash outsiders’ tires, throw them off their boards, or get into fights. It’s a place for everyone, regardless of their skill, their reputation, or their hometown. You simply have to follow etiquette. Wait your turn. Don’t rush the break. That’s it.

The northern portion of the beach is bordered by 75-foot cliffs. Over the years the tide and erosion have damaged the rock, causing it to break away and fall into the water. This has created a constantly shifting environment. There are those who can still remember a completely different set of cliffs.

Tourmaline is said to have the perfect wave, not because it’s big or tumultuous. It’s slow-rolling, perfect for a nice ride, and safe enough that novices can get the practice they need to move on to larger breaks, like Black’s Beach.

Tourmaline is also one of the best places in the city for windsurfers and kitesurfers, who can make their way out any time the wind is high.

North Pacific Beach and the Boardwalk

South of Tourmaline Canyon Surfing Park is what is commonly called North Pacific Beach. This is where families come to hang out in the sand and spend a day in the water. There’s cordoned off areas for swimming, lifeguards on duty, and restrooms available. It’s actually possible to find a parking space, but it might be difficult depending upon the time of day and the season.

Most people prefer to stroll along the boardwalk, which runs parallel to the water and extends all the way to Mission Beach. You could spend days exploring all the sights. There’s walls of food vendors, restaurants, and shops selling everything from clothes to souvenirs.

Many of these businesses are right on the sand. If you’re staying in one of the nearby hotels or vacation rentals, you’re essentially getting the same experience you’d find at an island resort–good drinks, good food, and shopping, all a few steps away from the water. Enjoy.

The Neighborhood

The party doesn’t stop when you leave the beach. The real fun happens on Mission Boulevard and Garnet Avenue, both of which border the boardwalk. You can find thrift stores, juice bars, cafes, and everything from chicken and waffles to fresh Poke. The variety is overwhelming. Every type of cuisine, every modern convenience, it’s all within a few blocks, and there’s a huge emphasis on buying local. You will find large corporations, but they value small businesses more.

On Bayard Street between 2-7 PM, they hold the PB Tuesday Farmers’ Market, a bustling haven for farmers to sell their wares. There’s cheeses, breads, fresh fruit, and vegetables. They even have gourmet dining options and artisanal crafts, like soaps and candles. It’s another way to empower small business owners within the community.

Chad Mcdonald / Flickr

Crystal Pier

Built in 1927, the Crystal Pier brought new life to Pacific Beach. Today it’s become a recognizable icon, representing the neighborhood itself. It’s open during the day, mostly for fishing. It’s a great spot for surf-zone species, like leopard sharks, halibut, bat rays, and shovelnose guitarfish. There’s no need for a license or any type of special permit. Just bring the usual gear.

The pier is most well known for its white cottages with blue shutters, a part of Crystal Pier Hotel. These unique dwellings each have outdoor decks with amazing views of the azure waves and white sand They were built in 1961. Since then they’ve been the only pier in California that allows their guests to “sleep over the water,” which has become the company’s motto.

The Gem of Pacific Beach

Pacific Beach can get rowdy at night when the drinks are flowing and the bars are full. But during the day, it’s welcoming. North Pacific Beach is family-friendly, and Tourmaline itself couldn’t be more laid-back. It’s one of the few beaches where beginners can come and enjoy the waves without the territorial barbs of localism. That makes it the perfect place anyone looking to spend some time with a quality surf lesson.

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