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South Orange County in my opinion is one of the best year-round spots in Southern California to get waves, hands down. Other than the world famous Huntington Beach and Newport spots up north (You probably heard about Newport Point going OFF in August with Hurricane Marie;) There are still tons of spots down the coast in South Orange County that aren’t in San Clemente that make for memorable sessions. I'm the kind of guy who will take the less-perfect wave if it means I'm paddling with twenty less people. Quantity over quality within reason.
Allow my years of exploring the Orange County scene with one of my late best friends help you with scoring one of the more underrated cities in the area, Dana Point. Although Dana Point is a small portion of the amazing Orange County coastline, it provides such a variety of types of waves that any type of surfer or waterman could easily get their fix while visiting. All while avoiding ridiculous crowds.
One of the more well-known surf spots in the area is Salt Creek. As you drive down the PCH from Laguna Beach, or drive up from Dana Point proper, you will see signs for the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel. The large parking lot (Yes, you have to pay to park) will lead you down to one of the better beach breaks in Dana Point. As you walk down the hill you will be beside a large grassy hill that usually fills up with picnic crowds quickly, but there is a large beach at the bottom. Salt Creek breaks on almost any swell, and packs lefts and rights with plenty of peaks to share. It gets hollow, but breaks cleaner on a medium tide, going to low. The main and most crowded peak will be “The Point” which breaks over on the left side of the beach if you're facing the ocean. Straight out from the hill you walk down from will be “Middles”, and you will see a healthy mix of surfers as well as body boarders. Down to the right is a spot called "Gravels" which breaks pretty fast and hollow right onto shallow sand. You can’t go wrong with either peak, but just be aware that one should know what they’re doing if they feel ready to surf the point. The locals are going to hoot at you no matter what, and probably will cut you off, so just be prepared to wait your turn. It could be a while.
Strands is the next beach just south of Salt Creek, and provides a little break from the crowds. It has free parking (Hard to come by in Orange County near the ocean), and has strong enough surf and wave pound to keep out the average swimmer. Take a turn on Selva from PCH and find yourself at one of the more uncrowded beaches in the city, including surfers in the lineup too. If it’s an average day or better, the crowd is definitely more packed at Salt Creek, but not so much at Strands. This is the spot for sure.
If you’re a fan of the Ultimate, the Ladle, or just overall cruising, Doheny State Beach is your go-to spot. On the smaller days it provides a nice peeling wave perfect for those looking to jam on a bigger board, but don’t get me wrong, its still packs some power when the swell rises. There is a nice left that you can sneak a few high performance turns in, but this wave for the most part is a cruiser. Head back up to Salt Creek or Strands if you have a smaller board looking for more punch and high performance, but if there is a strong South swell in the water, expect everywhere to be big.
If there aren’t quality waves while you cruise through Dana Point, another fun water activity to do is to head to Dana Point Harbor and grab yourself a Stand up paddleboard. Nice mellow water provides a fun day no matter if you are on a big SUP like our Cruise Ship or Triton. We even tested out and filmed our Yoga SUP at the Dana Point Harbor with David and Peggy Hall, of Yoga For Surfers. This is the perfect place to take younger kids who might not be ready for the shore break that the beach provides, as some of the beaches in Laguna Beach and Dana Point have heavy shore break.
Dana Point has all the food you need, but when I stop through, it’s usually for a surf session, so cheap Mexican food is the name of the game. Chronic Tacos has my business every time I head in that direction. This place has all of the classic Mexican favorites you know and love, but I strongly recommend the grilled shrimp burrito. NOT BATTERED. GRILLED. Add Cabbage, cilantro and “Baja Sauce” (get extra sauce on the side as well) with whatever else you want to add, and you will be good to go. Don’t over think on the food, if grilled shrimp doesn’t sound appetizing, I recommend a California Burrito, or Street Tacos.
If you aren’t in the mood for Mexican (which is nearly impossible down south), on Del Prado as you exit Dana Point towards the 5 lies The Shwack Grill. I didn’t learn about this place until after a couple years of strictly staying at Chronic Tacos, but this place is the real deal. Apparently the Fish Tacos are out of this world, but what I became a quick fan of was the Albacore Burger. It has this tangy tartar-like sauce that went really well with the fish. If you want to play it safe, I know they make a killer cheeseburger. If you don’t like cheeseburgers then I don’t think I can help you.
Bottom line however, is there is plenty of quality surf up and down the coastline beyond what Surfer magazine or Surfline will tell you. Huntington and Newport and San Clemente have their reputation for a reason, but I’m the kind of guy who prefers to ride a less known wave without the crowd. Exploring different beach cities and how they react to certain times of the year, or on different swell strengths is a fun part of being a surfer in California. The big name spots will always be there, but I always find some sort of satisfaction finding a quality wave with no one else on it, especially here in Southern California.