Surf’s up! 10 of the best beaches for beginners to catch waves
By Marla Cimini
Starting to get stoked for surfing has never been easier – as long as you know which U.S. beaches are best for catching your first ride. Many coastal areas across the country offer fantastic surfing and welcome beginners with laid-back waves, as well as surf schools with experienced instructors.
Most likely, you won’t be the only novice surfer on the beach. The sport is becoming more popular than ever, as for the first time in history, surfing will be included in the 2020 Summer Olympics.
Ready to catch some waves? You’ll need some practice before you can get barreled, do aerial tricks or perform cutbacks. Check out these great surfing spots across America that are ideal for beginners (also called “groms” in the surfing world).
These scenic coastal destinations feature beautiful beaches, friendly crowds and an overall fun wave-catching experience.
Waikiki Beach, Oahu, Hawaii
Waikiki Beach, Oahu — Photo courtesy of Marla Cimini
With a backdrop of majestic Diamond Head State Monument, Waikiki Beach is a legendary surfer’s paradise with mellow waves, fascinating surf culture and plenty of aloha spirit.
Tammy Moniz is with Moniz Family Surf, an Oahu surf school that she runs with her husband and adult children – all professional surfers.
She explains, “We treasure our history here and we enjoy sharing our Hawaiian culture and love of surfing with visitors every day. Waikiki is one of the best places to learn how to surf and most importantly, to progress, because it offers long, rolling waves, as well as time and space on the wave to learn how to cross-step and actually think.”
She added, “We have lifeguards, and warm water and air temperatures throughout the year. Plus, there are always waves here, even if they are small. It’s truly a playground for surfers, whether you’re just starting out or advanced.”
Newport Beach, Calif.
Vanessa Yeager surfing in Newport Beach — Photo courtesy of Dino Caderao
Vanessa Yeager, a surf instructor from Newport Beach, has been teaching for 18 years in Southern California. She points out that Blackies beach break (situated between the Newport Beach Pier and the 28th Street Jetty) is ideal for beginners, because the waves are usually on the smaller side, measuring about one-to-three feet.
Yeager says, “This west-facing beach is consistent in the winter and smaller in the summer (as the south swells pass by on their way to Huntington Beach). Early in the morning, the water is usually glassy. Blackies is a beach break, which means it has a shallow, sandy bottom. It’s great for beginners because they can walk out to where the waves are breaking. The paddle out is short and easy, and the locals are very accepting of newcomers and tourists. There are lifeguards here, great surf schools (such as Endless Sun) and private surf coaches readily available year-round.”
Jacksonville Beach — Photo courtesy of Adam King photo
With picturesque beaches and a seemingly endless coastline, the state of Florida offers a number of surf spots for beginners. Jacksonville is one of the most popular.
Josh McDade, a surf instructor in Waikiki and former lifeguard in Jacksonville, recommends the beaches at 6th Avenue North and 13th Avenue South for newbies.
He said, “These spots are pretty mellow and less crowded than the piers. If you walk straight down from those access points, there are sand bars that create gentle waves. Even so, be sure to be aware of rip tides. Lucky for us, both of these spots are watched over by the ARC VLSC (American Red Cross Volunteer Life Saving Corps) lifeguards and they do a great job of keeping their eye out for people in distress.”
The best time of year for waves is in the winter and there are several surf shops close to these beaches that rent boards.
New Jersey Shore
Margate Beach — Photo courtesy of Marla Cimini
“Today, there are more surf camps and surfing lessons available in New Jersey than ever before,” explains Alfred Raciti, owner of Sunrise Surf and Skateboard Shop in Cherry Hill, N.J. He says, “Nearly every beach town along the shore has excellent opportunities for beginners.”
Raciti surfs in a number of New Jersey beach towns and has been in business since 1993. For lessons and board rentals in Ocean City, he recommends FCA Surf (run by the Matera family) as well as Ocean City Surf School.
Nearby, the city of Margate is also known as a beginner-friendly spot. Stacey’s Surf and Paddle, founded by Stacey Marchel, is in its 12th year, offering lessons for children and adults on the beach at Pembroke Avenue. In 2019, her school is also offering coaching with pro surfer Cassidy McClain.
Marchel says, “It’s a really low-key break. The beach is beautiful, clean and residential so parents enjoy hanging out. Pembroke is a friendly, non-aggressive crowd and fun wave. Not only that, but the lifeguards are able to keep an eye on the surfers at all times and help out if ever needed.”
York Beach, Maine
Liz Smith in York Beach, Maine — Photo courtesy of Liz Smith
Although Maine may not be top of mind when you think of a surfing vacation, Long Sands at York Beach offers consistent longboard waves throughout the summer. Usually gentle enough for beginners, the waves are ideal for standing up on your board for the first time. Beach-goers should look for the designated surfing area (marked by buoys).
Originally from Maine, Liz Smith, Surf School Manager at Maui Surfer Girls in Hawaii, says, “Surfing on Maui is amazing, but every summer I return to York Beach, Maine to visit family, and the first thing we do is head out surfing! My parents think I’m nuts, but the water is cool and refreshing, and the sandy bottom makes it a completely different experience from the reef breaks that I’m used to surfing in Hawaii. I love being able to go out for a surf then come in and run across the street for a lobster roll and ice cream, then head back out for another session!”
She added, “If you need a board, lesson or wetsuit, the nearby Liquid Dreams Surf Shop has everything you need.”
La Jolla Shores, Calif.
La Jolla Shores — Photo courtesy of Surf Diva
In Southern California, La Jolla Shores offers year-round surfing, with ocean temperatures reaching 80 degrees in the summer. The waves break far from shore (during mid-to-high tide), allowing beginners to surf long rides to the beach.
Waikiki-based surf instructor Izah Blue grew up catching waves in Southern California and says, “La Jolla Shores is a classic family beach with a great gentle wave to learn, grow and develop your skills. Most local surfers as children go to this beach to get their start at water sports. Bodyboarding as a ‘grom’’and then graduating into a surfer is the common routine there.”
Competitive surfer Izzy Tihanyi founded Surf Diva Surf School with her twin sister, Coco Tihanyi in 1996. Izzy explained, “On our beach, the waves are smaller on the south end, and they get larger as you paddle north, so we can work with baby waves or bigger waves, depending on the goals and ability of the student. We teach all skill levels, ages five and up, including adaptive surfing, which has included surfers with disabilities.”
La Jolla Shores’ beach has a parking lot and adjacent parks with a playground (with numerous fitness classes being offered daily). Bathrooms, showers and changing rooms are on site as well.
Surfside Beach, Texas
School of Surf — Photo courtesy of Margarey Valdez
In the town of Surfside Beach, Margarey Valdez is the co-owner of School of Surf (with partner Austin Campbell) that’s based in Ocean Village beach. She says, “Ocean Village beach is an all-sand bottom beach break that doesn’t have any obstacles or debris that can cause a beginner to get injured. This destination is really cool because this beach is wide open. You can drive your car onto the beach and park wherever you want to surf.”
Valdez added, “We are passionate about sharing and spreading the love of surfing with everyone in our area. We offer surf lessons and day camps and encourage conservation efforts. And once you learn the basics, you can drive down to other beaches nearby and brave paddling out into a line-up.”
This break is located in front of a hotel, The Seahorse, that features a bar and grill. Surfers often sit up on the deck and watch the waves before paddling out, or enjoy a snack after surfing.
Topsail Island, N.C.
Topsail Island surfing — Photo courtesy of Heather Lautenbach
Located south of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, Topsail Island features 26 miles of coastline, small crowds and fun waves for every level of surfer.
Heather Lautenbach teaches yoga for surfers. She explained, “On Topsail island, Surf City is the main surf spot, just over the bridge near the pier. On the south end of the island, Topsail Beach is less crowded, family-friendly and has a few surf spots. The whole island is beginner-friendly with smooth sandy beaches and friendly locals.”
She continued, “The waves are usually small and depending on the sand bars, you can surf the white water to help build confidence, then paddle out for some larger waves, usually knee to waist-deep, depending on the swells. The ocean has a flat sandy bottom, so it’s easy on the feet.”
Rockaway Beach, N.Y.
Sierra Surf School Rockaway — Photo courtesy of Sierra Surf School
About an hour’s subway ride from Manhattan is Rockaway Beach in Queens, a bustling destination that has become a favorite spot for surfers of all levels. This peaky beach break requires a short, relatively easy paddle and serves up beginner-friendly waves in the summer (about two-three feet).
Iwona Kapcia says, “I started taking surfing lessons in Rockaway back in 2014. I fell in love with this area and moved there two years later, mostly so I can surf more often. Rockaway Beach has surfing-designated areas and quite a few great surf schools. Lessons are an excellent way to get introduced to surfing and the local surf community. You’ll learn the basics of the board anatomy, mechanics of different pop-up techniques, pre-surf warm ups, safety tips and surf etiquette.”
Kapcia recommends New York Surf School (the longest running school in town) and Sierra Surf School (full disclosure: her partner is David Sierra, who founded the school in 2015). There are also several surf shops within walking distance from the beach where you can rent a board and gear.
Huntington Beach, Calif.
International Surfing Museum / Surfboard — Photo courtesy of Christopher Grova
There’s a reason Huntington Beach is known as “Surf City USA,” as this destination is home to year-round surf conditions making it an ideal place for newcomers who wish to learn how to shred, or at least stand up, on their board.
There are seven surf breaks with beginner-friendly waves to choose from – all can be found within the area’s ten miles of coastline. Huntington Beach’s multiple schools offer lessons for all ages. A few of these include: Toes on the Nose Adventure, HB Surf School and Banzai Surf School.
Jennifer Tong, Huntington Beach’s Director of Communications, says, “Over 50 surf competitions are held here, including the U.S. Open of Surfing. Here you can find the Duke Kahanamoku statue, the Surfing Walk of Fame, our Surfers’ Hall of Fame and the latest surf retail trends. Just steps away is the International Surfing Museum that houses collections of memorabilia and culture, including some of surfing history’s most significant artifacts such as Duke Kahanamoku’s surfboard and the world’s largest surfboard.”
Bonus 11th beach: Maui, Hawaii
Maui Surfer Girls — Photo courtesy of Maui Surfer Girls
On the Hawaiian island of Maui, Dustin Tester is the founder and director of Maui Surfer Girls, a co-ed surf school for children and adults. Tester has been teaching beginners to surf for 21 years. The school offers classes at Ukumehame Beach Park, an area with picnic benches and bathroom facilities.
Tester says, “In my opinion, Ukumehame Beach Park is the most beautiful beginner wave on the planet. There’s warm water with gentle waves year-round and surfers can catch up to 100-yard rides. You have west Maui mountain views, whales breaching nearby in the winter, turtles in the line-up…how could you go wrong? And it’s a fun, cruisy longboarding beginner break.”
She added, “This spot does not have lifeguards (besides our instructors) but there’s a new rescue ring with GPS tracker on it. Wind can be an issue, so mornings are best. If it’s too windy we have an alternate location near Puamana Beach Park, another ideal beginner spot.”