Enjoying Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz

At the northernmost edge of Monterey Bay, buttressed by seal rock on the seaside and lighthouse field state beach on land, you’ll find one of the most iconic surf spots in Northern California. Steamer Lane. But this attraction isn’t just for those who love to surf. Steamer Lane has a lot to offer visitors from our Beachnest vacation homes, from spectating California’s most famous sport to reveling in the incredible vistas.

Located less than 10 minutes from Downtown Santa Cruz, this is the perfect getaway spot from the busy city hub. Here’s everything you need to plan your first visit to Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz.

About Steamer Lane

Photo Credit: David Seibold via Flickr CC2.0

Simply put, Steamer Lane is one of the most iconic surf spots in all of Northern California. It’s the home of cold water surf competitions like the USA Surfing Prime Series and the O’Neill Cold Water Classic. It is an excellent place to watch California’s best ride the waves. But for those not interested in surfing, Steamer Lane also offers unrivaled coastline views and access to the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, housed in a lighthouse above.

How Did Steamer Lane Get Its Name?

This particular spot has been headlining the California surf scene since the 1930s. Its namesake is a bit of a mystery, however. There are two prevailing theories, but both refer to steamships that used to cruise through here to avoid the large surf breaking in Monterey Bay.

The first is that Claude Horan and Wes Hammond hired a couple of steamships to drive back and forth past the bluff to create surfable waves for them and their friends. The second and slightly more believable namesake origin is that surfers started calling the spot Steamer Lane because of the big waves that broke out at Third Reef due to the already passing steamships.

Either way, a fun name for an exceptional surf spot was born.

Today, locals have embraced the nickname “The Lane” and hate when outsiders call the swell “Steamers.” 

Getting There

Photo Credit: Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious via Flickr C2.0

Situated within spitting distance of both San Jose and San Francisco, this big wave is located in the lovely seaside town of Santa Cruz. This Highway 1 adjacent town is one of the best tourist destinations along the California coastline for surfers and non-surfers alike. 

To reach Steamer Lane, head North up Monterey Bay past the Santa Cruz Wharf to the two parking lots on West Cliff Drive in front of the break. On weekends the parking lots will often be full. You can sometimes find additional parking in the nearby residential areas. Follow the staircase down to the water from the parking lot, or head toward the lighthouse to watch.

You’ll also find bathrooms and outdoor shower facilities for the family in the parking lot here.

The Best Time to Visit

Although Steamer Lane attracts surfers year-round, the best time to visit is during the winter, specifically in January. If you aren’t concerned about surfing, the best time of year to visit Santa Cruz due is during its lovely mild weather and many local festivals from September to November. So, unless you’re a surf fanatic hoping to join the action, you can visit Steamer Lane any time of year.

Surfing at Steamer Lane

Photo Credit: Michael Barajas

This is one of the most popular and renowned surf spots in No-Cal (North California), which is plain to see from the crowds both above and within the waves. The rolling waves from three distinct wave zones vary from novice to expert-level difficulty. But if you hope to join the surfers in the swell, there are a few things you need to know.

Tips for Newbie Surfers at Steamer Lane

1. Let the Locals Have the First Choice of Swell

Steamer Lane is notorious for more than just a near-constant stellar surf break. The locals in Santa Cruz are very protective of their favorite surf spot. Those who aren’t a member of the unofficial surfing club can sometimes find the surf community a little standoffish. If you don’t have much surf experience, it’s good practice to let the locals command the lineup on the waves.

2. Reading the Wave

For those with a little surf experience, here’s what you need to know about Steamer Lane. The reef breaks right and creates three distinct wave zones. The three waves are named Slot, Middle Peak, and Indicators. The best swell direction is from the southwest due to the northwest winds. The absolute best time to visit Steamer Lane is around mid-tide while the tide is on the rising cycle. Be sure to check the local surf forecast at Surfline before you head out to the water.

3. Ignore the Peanut Gallery

There are always dozens of spectators high above this Pacific Ocean surf spot. As a visitor to Santa Cruz, you’ll likely join them at one time or another. But for those on the water, this creates a high-pressure environment, especially at The Slot, which hugs the jagged bluff beneath the crowds. This is where you go to see professional-level performances.

Other Things to Do at Steamer Lane

Watch Some Incredible Local Surfers from Lighthouse Point

Photo Credit: anthony_goto via Flickr CC2.0

It’s far more popular to simply spectate the surf from the safety of west cliff drive. This point break perch lets you watch the best of the bay area don their wetsuits and grab a surfboard (or shortboard) to ride the swell. 

With incredible panoramic views of the California Monterey Bay coastline, this impressive steamer lane surf vantage point is also home to a stunning red brick lighthouse. It’s an iconic West Coast postcard-worthy scene. 

The Lighthouse also houses the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum. From this vantage point, you can also spot the locals skipping the paddle out and cliff-jumping off the point into “The Slot.”

Visit the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum

Photo Credit: Michael Vi

Located inside the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse above the legendary Steamer Lane, the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum was established in May 1986. You’ll find photographs, surfboards, and other interesting artifacts tracing over 100 years of surfing history in Santa Cruz.

Catch a Surf Competition

Photo Credit: Michael Barajas

Everything from the world-famous O’Neill Cold Water Classic (last hosted in 2022) to the Santa Cruz Warriors has been held in this natural amphitheater. With its steep vertical cliffs overlooking the waves below— “The Lane” is perhaps the best natural venue in the world to host a surf competition. 

Be sure to check out the Santa Cruz Tourism website for more information on local and international surf events.

Scope Out a Spot on Cowell Beach

Photo Credit: jshyun via Flickr CC2.0

From this high vantage point, you can check out one of the best beaches in the area from above and determine how much room there is on the sand. This is a great place to bring the family to enjoy the sea.

Come Visit Santa Cruz’s Steamer Lane

Santa Cruz is known for its temperate, Mediterranean-like climate, scenic drives, and the stereotypical laid-back California lifestyle. This means surfing and lots of it. Especially here at Steamer Lane. Few Northern California destinations boast excellent surfing and stunning coastline fit for a beach day even in the winter, but Santa Cruz is one of them. Check out Beachnest vacation homes just a quick (and scenic) car ride away from the rolling waves and start planning your next No-Cal getaway.