Up The Road: Surf City USA
At some point you need to visit Surf City, a name—title, really—inspired by Jan and Dean’s version of Brian Wilson’s Surf City. Which was inspired by Orange County’s Huntington Beach and surf culture. It’s now official. After skirmishes with Santa Cruz, that scrappy surf city up north, Huntington Beach landed the Surf City trademark.
Surfing has been part of local culture since the early 20th century, when famed Hawaiian freestyle swimmer Duke Kahanamoku and his friend George Freeth surfed local beaches—introducing the sport to California, albeit with massive and heavy wooden surfboards. The Duke continued on to three different Olympics, medaling five times.
In traditional Hawaiian culture, surfing is a spiritual practice more than sport. But surfing didn’t become a sport even in Huntington Beach until the 1960s, when Bruce Brown of nearby Dana Point was knighted the “Fellini of foam” for Endless Summer, his classic surfing film. And Dick Dale, “King of the Surf Guitar,” rode the same wave to the top of the pop music charts with Miserlou. (A song rebooted in popular culture by Pulp Fiction, and much later, by the Black-Eyed Peas.) Even Dale’s sound was an Orange County phenom, since his guitar—a Fender Stratocaster—was made by Leo Fender of Fullerton. Then came the Beach Boys, who translated surf culture for the world’s imagination.
Millions and millions of people do Huntington Beach every year, most just day-tripping. Long gone are the scurfy surf-rat bar scenes and seedy low-rent storefronts—replaced in the 1980s and ’90s by a strategically redeveloped tourism district and crisp California-Mediterranean style.
As for the beach scene here—come early to stake out beach-towel and volleyball territory—Main Beach starts in the north at Goldenwest, continues past the Huntington Beach Pier, a seaward extension of Main Street, and then meanders south to merge with two-mile Huntington State Beach.
The pier area is Huntington’s most famous and challenging surfing zone, but the state beach is the stuff of surf-culture movies. Waves come straight in from the south, onto one of the widest, whitest expanses of sand you’ll see this side of the Colorado Desert. Bolsa Chica State Beach, north of Surf City, is better for beginners. Surfing lessons are offered by local surf shops and Corky Carroll’s Surf School, the town’s first.
Mandatory for local surfing history is a visit to the International Surfing Museum at 411 Olive Avenue. Among the oldies but goodies collected inside are vintage surfboards, of course, including Batman’s board from the original movie.
To appreciate natural history, head north. Remnants of once vast coastal wetlands, spongy salt-grass marshes, support endangered migratory birds and other threatened wildlife. See for yourself at both Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge at the naval weapons station, and at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve just south.
Until next time, when we visit Southern California’s premier yacht harbor, this is Kim Weir for Up the Road.
Up the Road Encourages Responsible, Safe Travel
Here are previous Up the Road episodes that explore why we should travel, how to do it responsibly, and how to travel responsibly now, in the shadow of COVID-19. Not everyone should be traveling now, of course. But everyone who does travel needs to do so responsibly, to prevent viral spread. Take a listen:
- Up the Road: Why Travel?
- Up the Road: Why Travel in Northern California
- Up the Road: How to Travel
- Up the Road: Why Local Travel Matters
- Up the Road: Travel That’s Not About You
- Up the Road: Heading Up the Road Again—Responsibly
- Up the Road: 2020 Travel Strategy
- Up the Road: More on Responsible Travel 2020