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Up The Road: Surf City USA

Troy Williams
Sara Wakita, National Scholastic Surfing Championships, Huntington Beach.

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.

Joel Kramer
Huntington Beach statue of Duke Kahanamoku, who introduced surfing to the US mainland.

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:

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Kim Weir is the founder of Up the Road, a nonprofit public-interest journalism project. She researches, writes, and hosts Up the Road, a radio show and mini-podcast about California co-produced by North State Public Radio. Kim got her start as a travel journalist in 1990 with the publication of the first and original Moon Handbooks Northern California, a surprise best-seller. Six other Moon books on California soon followed. She is a member, by invitation, of the venerable Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). Kim earned a BA in environmental studies and analysis, with an emphasis on botany and ecology, and also holds an MFA in creative writing. She lives in Paradise.
Matt Fidler is a producer and sound designer with over 15 years’ experience producing nationally distributed public radio programs. He has worked for shows such as Freakonomics Radio, Selected Shorts, Studio 360, The New Yorker Radio Hour and The Takeaway. In 2017, Matt launched the language podcast Very Bad Words, hitting the #28 spot in the iTunes podcast charts.