Steamer Lane

by Garrett Wheeler

The Santa Cruz surfing experience distilled down to a single break, Steamer Lane holds undisputed title as the quintessential Nor-Cal wave: a cold water right-hand point break containing several distinct wave zones, each offering incredible consistency thanks to optimum swell exposure and excellent protection from the dominant northwest wind.

The Lane can be heavy at times, playful at others, and is invariably very, very crowded. So intertwined with California surfing is Steamer Lane that the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum sits mere feet away on the bluff, which functions as an impromptu grandstand for spectators during any good swell. If that doesn't convince you of the break's preeminence, the Lane is also home to the annual Cold Water Classic surf contest.

The three main waves at the Lane are the Slot, Middle Peak and Indicators. On an overhead winter swell out of the northwest or the rare big south, it's not uncommon for all three waves to be breaking, turning the ocean into a surfing playground with zippy rights off the Slot, slopey lefts and rights at Middle Peak, and a long, right wall at Indicators all churning out waves simultaneously.

The Slot is a right-hand point that hugs the rocky bluff, breaking literally inches from the imposing cliff face. Takeoffs can be dicey for any non-expert surfer; add the effect of being watched by a peanut gallery over your head, and you've got yourself an intimidating surfing experience best left to the local crew of rippers. And you can bet that when the Slot is shoulder high to a few feet overhead on a mid to low tide, the crew will be there, and in all likelihood you will not.

Middle Peak breaks farther out from the Slot and is best when the the waves get overhead or bigger. The right is longer and fatter, while the left can be a really steep drop into an oncoming bowl section that goofy-footers will salivate over. On swells in the double-overhead range, Middle Peak becomes a huge A-frame 200 yards offshore with giant, shifty peaks offering huge drops for surfers with big wave guns and big wave cojones.

Indicators breaks inside Middle Peak when swells reach the head-high to double-overhead range, offering a long right wall that can reel for almost 200 yards before fattening out at the top of Cowells. Because it only works on larger swells, southbound currents constantly work against surfers trying to stay on the peak. For those in good paddling shape, though, the long right walls are well worth the extra cardio.

Access and Parking:

There are two main parking lots on West Cliff Drive right in front of the break, with bathrooms and outdoor shower facilities. On crowded days, find parking in nearby residential areas. Main access is via a staircase down to the rocks in front of the main parking lot, though you'll see some locals skipping the paddle out by jumping off the bluffs near the Slot.

West Cliff Dr, Santa Cruz.