Lets face it…if you live south of LAX there is probably a good chance that you paddled out at San-O at least once when you were learning how to surf. It might have been Old Man’s, it might have been Trails…but you know you were drawn to the slow forgiving surf, laid back atmosphere, and the almost mythical quality that the beach has earned over the nearly 90 years of surfing history.
The official boundaries of San Onofre State Beach cover a very large area of the coastline, which includes a whole host of different surf spots. From a surfer’s perspective the San-O region is usually broken into 4 areas, which are Trestles, Church, Old Man’s, and Trails.
Generally when someone says they are surfing San Onofre they are referring to either Old Man’s or Trails, which make up the two southern areas in San Onofre State Park. (This Surf Break Map will cover both of those areas…Click Here if you are looking for information on Trestles). San Onofre is located to the south of the City of San Clemente, (just south of San Mateo Point), and north of the Camp Pendleton Marine Base.
The two surf areas, Old Man’s and Trails, actually bracket the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (yes I am talking about the giant boobs that you can see from the freeway). Old Man’s is located on the north side (and sort of in front of) of the power plant. Trails is located to the south of the station.
Getting to San-O is pretty easy. You either drive north on the 5 from San Diego…or south on the 5 freeway from everywhere else. From there you exit on Basilone Road and head toward the water…the road hooks around and becomes Old Pacific Coast Highway. You can either follow that road straight and it will take you all the way down to the Trails entrance and campground, or you can jump off at the lovely hairpin exit that is just before the power station and head down to Old Mans. (There are signs all over the place so it is pretty hard to get lost).
All of the parking spots at both Old Man’s and Trails are inside of the State Park…so you will either need to have a State Parks Annual Day Use Pass, paid for an overnight camping spot, or you will have to pony up the 10-bucks to buy a daily parking pass. (Personally I think that, if you are committed to surfing, you should save up a little cash and buy the annual pass…yeah they are a little pricey but if you go and surf or park in any California State Park more and 12-13 times in the year then they have paid for themselves, anything after that is just gravy!).
The parking lot in both of the surf areas can get pretty crowded…on big swells, hot summer days, and on weekends don’t be surprised if you can’t find a spot. Sometimes on weekends, particularly holiday weekends, there can be a giant line to get into Old Man’s before the park even opens.
There is no camping down at Old Man’s but Trails has quite a few designated campsites for both tent/car camping and motorhomes. To get a campsite in the summer you should probably make a reservation online through the California State Parks. During the winter you can probably just drive up and pay for one at the gate.
Surfing Close to a Nuclear Generator (or good ways to have your ‘nads fall off)
There are some pretty passionate politics, both pro and con, that go into the idea of nuclear power. Personally my opinion is that if they can keep it safe, dispose of the waste in a responsible manner that protects the environment (and the people living in the environment), then sure go ahead and generate some power. On the other hand I do always try and keep in mind that I am surfing next to a nuclear reactor that circulates its non-radiated (so I hope) coolant water back into the ocean. Lets just say that I wouldn’t be super surprised to see Blinky the three-eyed fish swimming in the line-up someday. UPDATE The power plant is being decommissioned…in fact it hasn’t been running since at least the last part of 2011…and it looks like it make not ever be brought back online.
Sometimes the problem with a surf break that people have been surfing for close to 90 years is that it has like a hundred names. Each generation and clique of surfers has a different name for each spot and sometimes each section of the reef. As you can imagine it gets pretty confusing.
Generally the surf area north of the power plant, where you can actually drive up and park close to the sand, is known as Old Man’s.
Old Man’s is a pretty large stretch of water with several different peaks that set up and break throughout the line-up. Each of these peaks/areas have their own name. The northernmost peak is known as The Point, the middle area is called Old Man’s, and the southern peak is Dog Patch. There is actually another semi-sort of surf area that is further south than Dog Patch…I have heard it referred to by a bunch of different names but it is usually called Horseshoes.
The peaks are actually formed by a rocky cobblestone reef that extends a ways off the beach, which is probably leftover from some historic beachside bluff erosion of the Arroyo San Onofre waaaaay back in the day. The reef is generally flat with smooth rocks covered in a mix of sand and sea grass. The individual peaks are formed by the irregularity of the reefs outer edge…there are fingers of rocks that extend a little further out than the other areas…each one of those fingers forms one of the surf peaks.
The reef itself sits on a bit of a sea-shelf which acts as a buffer for some of the stronger wave energy. Essentially this shelf starts the shoaling process much further out to sea than where the waves actually break…as the waves start to feel the sea floor they begin to lose energy and eventually break with slow and soft lines as they move up the gradual sea-slope and on to the reef.
All three of the main waves at Old Man’s have generally the same properties. They are slow, soft, and generally forgiving. The shoulders are on the mushy side and you almost never see the wave form any sort of a barrel except under very extreme conditions. When you get down to the nitty-gritty Old Man’s is one of the best waves for beginners and casual surfers. The inside sections and whitewash are slow and steady letting first-timers and little kids get use to their boards and how the ocean is going to push them around. The outside peaks offer up a little more of a challenge (relative to the inside) with slightly steeper takeoffs and an actual wave face to work with.
Getting the Best Surf
Old Man’s (the spot not the peak) has a relatively open swell window with good exposure to the S, SW, W and even a bit of WNW. It will work on pretty much any combination of those swells…but depending on what peak you want to surf, it really likes the medium sized SW swells (with medium to long swell-periods) and the SW/WNW combo swells.
On the pure SW swells you will get a long slow left that sets up off The Point…Old Man’s and Dog Patch will have some longer left sections as well but will throw an occasional sectiony right-hander back up against the grain of the swell.
On combo swells all three peaks get uh…peakier (damn public schools)…The Point will still have better lefts but you will have some longer rights setting up off the Old Man’s and Dog Patch peaks.
Like most of Southern California the perfect combination of wind and waves is the mix of a good SW swell, or combo swell, with light/moderate Santa Ana winds and the low-to-high tide push.
It is important to understand the Old Man’s attitude. Most of the people that consistently surf Old Man’s do it because they love the spot…they like having friends in the line-up and they dig the extremely laid back attitude of the place. It is a great beginner-friendly wave because many of the people in the line-up are so welcoming and tolerant. If you aren’t a total jerk they will forgive mistakes, share waves, and probably talk story to you in the parking lot until your ear falls off. If you approach surfing Old Man’s with the same attitude you will generally have a good time…if you are planning on being a spaz then you should probably surf somewhere else.
Best swell direction: SW swell (185-220) or a SW/W combo
Best Wind: NE-E, light-moderate Santa Ana winds are the best.
Sea Floor: Rock reef, sand, and sea-grass
Best Season: Year round…any old SW swell will do.
Crowds: Yep lots of people, lots of longboards, lots of parking issues. Mostly manageable during the week…but hectic on the weekends (double so when the weather and the surf are good).
If you are looking for a little solitude while you surf in the San Onofre State Park area then Trails is your place. While it isn’t always completely empty it does have plenty of room to spread out thanks to the miles of beach break that stretch from the campground’s entrance to the start of the Camp Pendleton Marine Base.
Trails is the southern section of the San Onofre area…and it is pretty easy to find. If you follow Basilone Road (old coast highway) past the power plant you will run right into the park’s entrance gate.
Trails gets its name from the way the campground is positioned. The campground is actually built along the Old Coast Highway that sits up on the bluffs that tower over the beach. Since you don’t park right next to the beach, and much of plant life in the park is protected, the State Park Service built a series of trails, hence the name, that lead down to the beach from the parking/camping area.
There are six official trails that are actually named Trail 1 through Trail 6, (apparently the California State Park system has trouble coming up with original names for things too). There are a few slight differences in the surf that you find along the beaches that sit in front of each trailhead. Trail 1 actually has some pockets of cobblestones that make for some more defined peaks. Trails 2 through 6 have almost exclusively sand bottoms and the shape and the quality of waves depends on how the sand bars are formed and what sort of swell mix is in the water.
It is quite a long walk down the trails to the beach and you can expect a couple of steep inclines. It isn’t all that much if you are just hiking the trail but when you add a big surfboard, your surf gear, and probably a backpack full of food and water then the distance and elevation start to add up. While the surf is just a gentle as Old Man’s the walk can be a bit of a struggle if you don’t have a ton of upper body strength (or some sort of good sling to carry your longboard).
Trail 7 (you got sunburned where?)
I mentioned that there were 6 official trails…well there is one unofficial trail at the very end of the park past where the official ones end. Out of all the trails it is probably the most famous (or infamous if you look at it that way) since it is known as “clothing optional” once you make it down to the sand. The State Park Service has been directed to start busting (no pun intended) people for going nude…I believe that they are already starting to issue citations…so if you plan on shedding your clothes you might want to keep an eye out for the Rangers. In the past the Park, while not really tolerating the nudity, sort of left it alone, which I am sure led to a lot of interesting sunburns for surfers and beachgoers alike (not to mention getting some wax stuck is some really uncomfortable places).
The waves at Trails are very similar to Old Man’s except since the majority of the beach is wide-open beach break it doesn’t have many peaks that stay in place very long. On most average swells the waves are soft, slow, and sort of roll towards the beach as they start to break. It generally likes the lower tides…the high tide pushes most of the surf up on the beach as shorebreak. On bigger swells, particularly when there is only one swell in the water, the waves have a tendency to wall up and get all sectiony…it is usually better to surf other spots when you have a single large swell pushing through.
The best surf
Trails is best when you have a mix of swells in the water. The best mix is usually a medium sized SW swell crossing up with a small-medium W swell. Like most SoCal spots if you can time the tides right and get lucky with some light/moderate offshore winds then you can have a pretty darn good time. Even when it gets good it never really is that short-boardable, you can do it if you have the right board (like a fishy shape) or have the right body type (skinny and light), but most of the time it is better to bust out the longboard or a really thick funboard.
Best swell direction: SW swell (185-220) or a SW/W combo.
Best Wind: NE-E, light-moderate Santa Ana winds are the best.
Sea Floor: Sand, with some cobblestone piles up around Trail 1
Best Season: Year round but best in the late summer and fall.
Crowds: It can have a few guys on it on busy summer weekends but it never really gets crowded.
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