Surfing Silicon Valley — tour the beaches that attract techies and locals alike

From Pacifica to Pescadero, this stretch of coastal California scratches Silicon Valley’s itch to surf more than just the web.

Photographs by John Baehr

Randy Schmidt grew up in Washington state and moved to San Mateo two years ago to work as a Production Artist at GoPro. Schmidt and his friends often surf Pacifica after work for the convenience, but on this night, they gave Montara a go. (Photographs by John Baehr)

People don’t move to Silicon Valley to surf. They come to attend Stanford or join Google or start their own company in the hopes of cashing in big. Having beaches nearby is a nice-to-have, but it’s rarely the deciding factor.

When people do think about surfing around Silicon Valley its usually the notoriously powerful stretch of Ocean Beach in San Francisco or the wavey wonderland that is Santa Cruz. Not too many are boasting about the places in-between where amble surfing opportunities lay waiting. But when a simple drive over Highway 92 is all that time allows, there are plenty of places along this cliffy coastline that will cleanse you of your typical 9–7 feelings.

We recently covered this stretch, driving south from Pacifica to Pescadero, looking for waves along the way. Each place we found had a unique vibe and atmosphere, its own parking lot culture and of course, a distinct break. Some were forgiving, others were not. Some secluded and others packed. One thread remained constant, though, from the surfers we met along the way: “It was just nice to get out there.”

Top: Friends and SurveyMonkey colleagues Matt Sulkis of San Francisco (left) and Riley Juliar of San Mateo (right) suit up. Sulkis jokes that he’ll paddle for at least 800 waves in a typical session in order to catch 10 of them. Juliar who’s originally from Austin, Texas moved to Silicon Valley to join SurveyMonkey, though the beach did play into his decision. “Surfing is one of the biggest reasons I enjoy life in the Bay Area and makes everything else, like the cost of living, bearable.” Left: Sun beats down on Linda Mar patrons and only those with tents have shade. Right: Speaking of shade, plenty of suspicious vehicles occupy the lots at Linda Mar. (Photographs by John Baehr)

Linda Mar

If someone says they are surfing at “Pacifica,” they most likely mean Linda Mar. It’s the busiest place to paddle out in Silicon Valley. A long stretch of mostly-sandy beach covers the cove, with waves working their way up in difficulty from the mellow south end to more technical north side. The middle of beach attracts the most surfers, many of whom have just learned to stand on their boards. A helmet in this section wouldn’t be the worst idea.

Keaton Lipson spots a wave worth the paddle out. (Photograph by John Baehr)

Surf camps start in front of the Taco Bell (yes, you can get a cheesy Gordita right on the sand). To avoid the clusters of classes, the decision is to walk south near the river mouth (if there’s enough swell to produce a smooth left) or north, where walls can sometimes become more like an A-frames and offer a shoulder to ride.

The parking lot at Linda Mar packs a similar amount of action. Anxious surfers suit up after escaping their officeplex early in the afternoon. Students from Skyline College drive sit in their cars and smoke weed. No one can ever seem to figure out the parking lot ticketing machine and a line forms. (There is a parking lot on the south end of Linda Mar by Grocery Outlet Bargain Market—queue the jingle—but it’s unclear whether or not vehicles are towed without making a purchase.)

All told, Linda Mar may not have the most shapely waves along this stretch but may be the place most likely to give you at least something to ride. And after a long day, that can mean a lot.

Gray Whale Cove can be fickle, but is not to be forgotten. The day we’re there a group of surfers were able to grab some fun ones. (Photographs by John Baer)
Drop your drawers on the north end of the beach, while Devil’s Slide looks down from above. (Photograph by John Baehr)

Gray Whale Cove

Heading south from Pacifica along Highway 1,through the mountain tunnel and just past the graffitied Devil’s Slide battery, you’ll happen upon Gray Whale Cove. If you see beach goers clustered together, waiting to run across the road, you’re in the right spot.

The view from above is breathtakingly blue. The small cove, which compares in beauty to McWay Cove in Big Sur (minus the waterfall), quietly sits at least a hundred feet below the highway. Making the commitment to walk down the long, wooden staircase is always the question.

Big swells thunder through the water headed for the shore, but only on certain days do they actualize into ridable waves. Gray Whale is finicky and can often be the biggest tease in the area. On the day we’re there, though, the waves are breaking and a group of about five seemed to be having fun. One surfer commented on the trickiness of the wave at Gray Whale and the drop being steeper than he anticipated.

Nudity is outlawed at state beaches throughout California but welcomed here for those who make it down to the sand. Head to the north end of the cove if you’re wanting to really let it hang.

Three surfers trek back up the hill after a successful session. Chris Cookie (left) said they had checked Ocean Beach in San Francisco but unimpressed with what they saw, they decided to head south. (Photograph by John Baehr)
Pelicans line up across the Montara sky. Nature’s wonders often are on full display here. (Photograph by John Baehr)

Montara State Beach

Perhaps no Silicon Valley beach is as exposed as Montara. The vast, open stretch picks up wind and swell, in addition to all sorts of wildlife. Sunset sessions can be lonely and leave one wondering what’s roaming beneath their toes. On some days, dolphins surf Montara just as much as humans.

The sinking sand on the way to the water foreshadow the difficult session that’s about to ensue. Montara is a workout and not to be taken lightly. One frequenter of the break says he’s continually reminded of the wave’s heaviness. It’s an undertow not too different from Ocean Beach.

Multiple people we talk to in the newly paved northern parking lot say a certain wind direction makes Montara their favorite place to surf in the region— though we’ll leave this direction a mystery out of respect for those who weathered the sessions to learn it themselves.

To not leave you totally hanging, we’ll offer you with a few other tips about Montara:

  1. The sunset is spectacular. Take someone you love and watch from the cliffs.
  2. We hear the ceviche at La Costanera is over-priced. Save yourself some dough and head to Dad’s. It’s the best burger (by far) in the area.
  3. There’s an outhouse at the south end that’s always open. If you’re driving on Highway 1 and nature calls, now you know where to go.
Top: Travis Porter of San Francisco says the wave at Montara can be deceptively heavy. He also says it’s not uncommon to be surfing alongside dolphins. Left: When the waves aren’t breaking, some take to the skimboard. Right: Mark Boyle of Pacifica takes a rest after his morning session. The green gas can is filled with warm water to wash his face and feet. (Photographs by John Baehr)
Endless summer afternoons at the Jetty. (Photographs by John Baehr)

Princeton Jetty

With Mavericks looming to the north, just behind the giant golf ball on the hill, the Princeton Jetty serves as Half Moon Bay’s playground.

Past the Sam’s Chowder House traffic jam, local kids congregate at the half pipe in the front of the dirt lot where most surfers park. They’re working on new tricks and talking endlessly into the summer afternoon. When we’re there, the topic is something serious — the recent death of 20-year-old Half Moon Bay local, Malcom Feix, who died while surfing at Pomponio State Beach near Pescadero.

“You never know what’s gonna happen,” one of the skaters says the youngest in the group. “You gotta treat everyday like it’s your last.”

Across the street another group forms, surfing the Jetty at it’s highest tide. Quick turns are needed to avoid the rocks on shore, but it’s no problem for the kids who seems to know the spot well.

One takes his foamy longboard fins first and does a “pop shove it” to get it back into proper position, gliding across the face of the wave. Another paddles quickly to the outside, hoping to catch the first of a rogue, shoulder-high set formed by the funky, ricocheting currents in the area.

The Jetty can often be a lake with nothing to ride. With some swell, it can be the best place for beginners outside of Linda Mar. But on certain days, especially nearest the actual jetty rocks, it can produce one of the most technical (and barreling) waves in the region. This, however, is rare.

Top: A group of groms getting it as good as they can at peak high tide. Left: Jackson Delaney, eleven years-old from Half Moon Bay, holding his own at the local half pipe. Delaney tells us he’ll never stop skating and seemed confused why we even need to encourage him to continue. “Why would I ever quit? Skating’s so fun,” he said. Right: The stretch of Highway 1 through Half Moon Bay is notoriously difficult for pedestrians to cross. (Photographs by John Baehr)
Martin’s Beach may be in the national news, but on a recent Saturday morning, it’s nothing but solitude. This surfer and a friend had this peak at Mackie’s (the break at the northern cove of Martin’s) all to themselves. (Photographs by John Baehr)

Martin’s Beach

Some things about Martin’s just don’t feel right.

The gate, that has been at the center of a high profile and drawn out land use controversy, is closed when we arrive. Legally, we’re allowed to enter but we feel unwelcome, like we’re being watched.

Down the road that leads to the beach, horses graze and one approaches the gate. We put out a greeting hand but as the horse nears, it steps on a branch, and gets spooked and runs off in the opposite direction.

We make it to the beach and see only one woman sitting on the sand facing the often-Instagramed shark fin rock, meditating. No one else. A wave on the south end looks rideable, but it’s difficult to tell with no one on it.

All was calm on the home front until this horse got spooked. We felt this strange, unwelcome feeling our entire time at Martin’s, even though there was no one there telling us to leave. (Photograph by John Baehr)

The next morning, the gate is open and we’re greeted by the parking lot attendant who enforces the ten-dollar-for-the-day policy. After an unsuccessful negotiation, we pay our fee and our conversation with him confirms our suspicious feelings. The other day, he said, when no one was around, a drone appeared right in front of him. Before he could grab his phone to snap a photo, though, the drone was gone. Who was it that was watching?

Martin’s feels like a forgotten Hollywood movie set. Beachside bungalows have “Private Property” stakes out in-front, but signs of their occupancy are unclear. A dilapidated burger shack signals a simple, California lifestyle that once was.

On the northern cove, two friends have a nice left break to themselves. A bit mushy, but rideable nonetheless. I’ve scored only once at Martin’s but it was enough to keep me coming back for more. The water, I remember, is much more inviting than what’s happening on land.

Left: Parking on the lower level is $10. Parking at the top (outside of the gate) is free. The attendant is kind enough to let you check out the surf for free, but longer than ten minutes, you have to pay. Left: Burger shack that doesn’t look like it’s been open for decades. This building, perhaps more than any other at Martin’s, makes you wonder how magical this place once was. (Photographs by John Baehr)

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More from The Six Fifty:

How two filmmakers with a camcorder and a jet ski made Mavericks world famous

Photos: Scenes from the World Dog Surfing Championships in Pacifica

Meet the youngest person to ever surf the Mavericks big wave break

Feral Photography: amazing animal imagery from Silicon Valley trail cams

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Nick Bastone

Editor of Is America Great?, Some things I learned at Square, and Cool Young Kids

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