Swim the California Coastline: 9 Open Water Swims You'll Adore
California's beaches bring billions of dollars in tourism to the state each year. Seaside shopping, outdoor recreation, and serene, sandy strips of land just begging for a beach chair and a beverage. But what your average tourist often misses out on are the opportunities to see the coast from the ocean. No, we aren't talking about chartering a boat, parasailing, or jet skiing. This one is for those with adventure in their hearts. Trilife Fitness has swam the California coastline for you in order to highlight our Top 9 Favorite Open Water Swims.
1. TOWER 26
Santa Monica, CA
When you have had your fill browsing stores on the 3rd Street Promenade, riding the Santa Monica Pier Ferris wheel, and dodging bikes (and BIRDS) on the ocean bike path, take a trip on down to Santa Monica's most beloved swim spot: Tower 26. Named for...well, the exact tower you swim away from. Tower 26 is the ideal swim location due to its moderate water temperatures year round, easy access to some of California's finest lifeguards, forgiving currents, and a buoy hooked up about 200m out past the surf. This is where swimmers can get a great workout in AND catch some waves. Between the months of May and October, local tri and swim clubs can be seen doing their group workouts in the early AM. Get out to the buoy by 6:30AM if you are looking for some company.
Annual water temps: 54-70F
Features we love: scenic swim between Santa Monica and Venice Beach piers
Look out for: stingrays, holes in the sand before the surf breaks, colder winter water temps might warrant long sleeve wetsuits and neoprene gloves/booties
2. SCRIPPS PIER
La Jolla, CA
Next stop on the California Coastline swim tour is Scripps Pier in La Jolla, CA. Host of the annual 'Pier to Cove' open water swim competition, this area is rife, RIFE with ocean activities for ocean lovers. The San Diego area's temperate climate keeps the ocean an even, swimmable water temperature most of the year. While most tourists will be making their way to the very popular La Jolla Shores beach area, Scripps Pier is often a much quieter option for surfers and open water swimmers looking to commune with mother ocean instead of boogie boards and beach balls to the head. Swim out past the surf and either head right for a 1-2 mile stretch of mostly unobstructed ocean or swim out farther to left shoulder the pier. If you are one of those people we mentioned with adventure in their hearts, you can keep going around the tip of the pier and make a shot for the La Jolla Cove (about a 1.8 mile swim one-way). Beware the kelp monsters (just kidding, the kelp actually looks pretty cool).
- Annual water temps: 57-68F
- Features we love: stoic ocean cliffs, feeling small beside Scripps Pier, water visibility EXCELLENT on a clear day
- Look out for: stingrays, the kelp forrest near the cove (if thick, spooky kelp isn't your thing), multiple breaks to duck dive under
3. RUSSIAN GULCH
Variety is the spice of life, and Mendocino could not be more different from the Southern California destinations we have discussed so far. A rare gem nestled high up in Northern California, this area is known for its rugged coastline, iconic ocean views, and oceanscapes that have been painted AT LEAST twice (ok, way more than twice). Locals are big on abalone diving, sea kayaking, and boating. But we've come for that sweet neoprene skin to salt water contact. Russian Gulch State Park (located just off Hwy 1) is a great place to picnic, day-hike, and camp. Follow the road down to the beach access point, you will find yourself at the mouth of a large protected bay surrounded by forrest and giant sea cliffs. It is recommended to stay within the bay while swimming. The further out you go, the more "chaotic" the ocean gets. Take a moment to look up and appreciate the majesty around you (and make sure you can still feel your face). Heads up, this swim is a cold one and best attempted during peak summer temperatures. Bring neoprene booties, gloves, and/or caps for added warmth.
- Annual water temps: 49-54F
- Features we love: calm bay entry, wilderness wonderland views
- Look out for: cold water, occasional boats/sea kayaks, kelp forrest
4. CABRILLO BEACH
San Pedro, CA
Ay bay bay, ay bay bay HEY! Good things come in pairs. So here is a second bay swim for your medium-adventurous hearts. The city at the end of the 110 freeway is one of the most charming, friendly, ocean-inspired places in all of the greater Los Angeles area. San Pedro's primary industry has traditionally been ship-centric (a portion of the Port of Los Angeles is located there). After your ocean swim, a must-see stop is Brouwerij West (pronounced Brewery West), San Pedro's very own craft beer brewery complete with extensive outdoor/indoor seating and local food trucks. Much like the entry to Russian Gulch, Cabrillo Beach is a protected bay with sea cliffs/kelp forrest to the right and a rather large jetty to the left. A buoy is hooked up year-round just on the edge of the kelp forrest. From that point, you can swim left towards the jetty (sighting carefully to stay just beyond it). This swim can really be what you make of it. You can swim long or short lengths, create circuits or do distance work. Mind current changes as you progress farther out into open ocean.
- Annual water temps: 54-70F
- Features we love: calm bay entry, minimal beach/ocean crowding, easy geographic features for sighting
- Look out for: occasional kayaks/boats/SUP, no lifeguards so swim with friends, caution near the kelp forrest/sea cliff rocks
5. Santa Cruz WHARF
Santa Cruz, CA
You've probably heard of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (and if you grew up anywhere near there, the sickeningly catchy Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk radio jingle will live on in your head for eternity). This spot gives you a pleasant mix of NorCal/SoCal amenities: foggy mornings, sunny days, bright beaches, and really fun tourist attractions amidst the misty bluffs of an otherwise sleepy beach town. If you have ever considered racing Ironman Santa Cruz 70.3 (originally the Big Kahuna Triathlon), this swim will be one to log for practice. Beginning on the south side of the Wharf Pier, swim out to the very tip (this is a long one, about a half mile into the ocean). Beware of overzealous seals that make their homes near the columns of the pier. ALSO take note that this pier is not one straight line. At about 4/5ths of the length out, the pier juts out to the right at an angle. Once you have rounded the corner, begin to sight off the beach where the Dream Inn Hotel can be seen (look for bright orange beach umbrellas and an outdoor pool). This swim can be cut short by turning back early or made longer by sweeping out away from the pier a little farther. Plan on at least a 1.2 mile workout if you trace the perimeter exactly.
- Annual water temps: 50-63F
- Features we love: swimming around the pier makes you feel small (in a good way), local to the bustle for before/after swim fun
- Look out for: cold water, great whites have been sighted in this area fairly often (but actual attacks have been insignificant), surf conditions vary
6. ZUMA BEACH
Did anyone ever tell you that Malibu is actually really spread out? Well...it is. And towards its northern-most borders you will find the illustrious Zuma Beach. Take the even more illustrious Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) to your final destination (as there is no other road that leads there). Zuma Beach is less of the glitz & glamour of downtown Malibu (where you can pay $10 to valet park your car at Nobu and wait on the reservation list for three months to sit outside on the oceanview terrace) and more of a real-beach-locals-only kind of feel. Surfers fondly (or not so fondly) call this beach the "neck break" because of its steep waves that close out quickly on a sloping sandbar. Luckily for us swimmers, it is much easier to get in and out of the waves without a board. Because the beach is relatively long and straight, you can choose to enter the water from a plethora of towers. If you'd like a point of reference, the Malibu Triathlon starts down closer to Towers 9/10/11. There are also a few buoys hooked up about 100-150m out just beyond some of the towers. Swim out past the break and have fun! Lateral swims parallel to the beach can be made short/long and swam in either direction. Make sure to catch a wave in, brah.
- Annual water temps: 55-70F
- Features we love: amazing weather, sparkly clear water on a bright day, almost always a perfect wave to bodysurf in
- Look out for: challenging surf and rips (check with the lifeguards if you are unsure), boats/jet skis
7. EAST BEACH
Santa Barbara, CA
Now this is a popular swim spot. Unfortunately due to the massive fires that Ventura and Santa Barbara counties had to endure this past year, the well-loved Santa Barbara Triathlon will be canceled for 2018 (both sprint and long course swims happen at this beach). Like most of Santa Barbara's beaches, East Beach is both clean AND mouthwateringly, sunset bedazzlingly beautiful. This spot in particular boasts "mellow waves," making it a great option for swimmers still testing out their water-wings or those who just don't feel like playing a game of rumble-tumble with the ocean. The four mile stretch of East Beach has direct access to parks, picnic areas, volleyball courts, and Stern's Wharf. Park where you can (if the parking gods allow) and make your way down to the sand for a SUPER straightforward swim. Swim out, take a left or right, and enjoy. To make a small plug for an additional Santa Barbara beach, check out Santa Claus beach in the nearby city of Carpinteria. White sands with a nice, straight shore break, no lifeguards, less tourists, and more surfers.
- Annual water temps: 54-66F
- Features we love: the sunsets are out of this world, clean beaches, nice straight coastline
- Look out for: colder water, occasionally bigger surf at Santa Claus, big crowds at East Beach
8. OCEANSIDE PIER
Not all beaches are created equal. And in this article alone we have highlighted coves, rugged coastline, as well as beach breaks. And that is exactly what Oceanside, CA has to offer. A beach break beside a glorious pier and ample opportunities to duck dive. Unlike Zuma Beach, Oceanside's beach break yields a fair amount of breaking waves to swim through before you can relax out in open water. Even on a big surf day, this swim is an exhilarating but reasonable obstacle course for an experienced swimmer. Test this swim out with 1-2ft surf to practice duck diving skills or take it up a notch and grab sand on the 4-5ft days. IRONMAN Oceanside 70.3 squashed the OW swim idea this year (2018), but the new course will take swimmers out to the beach and finish in the protected Oceanside Harbor. If you are looking for a long swim, track the Tiki Swim 2.4 mile course (hosted each year in September). Start on the south side of Oceanside Pier and head out perpendicular to the beach. Once safely past the tip of the pier, head north parallel to the beach until you reach the edge of the harbor (look for giant rocks, you can't miss it). Pause here. You aren't allowed into the harbor unless you are participating in either of the races mentioned earlier. Turned around and head back to the pier or swim in at a safe distance from the breaking waves on the jetty. Use caution as the waves down by the harbor can get rockin' and.......you know the rest.
- Annual water temps: 55-72F
- Features we love: warmer water, gorgeous beach, multiple options for your swim route
- Look out for: larger surf, stay well away from the pier, surfers trying to catch the waves you don't
9. MANHATTAN BEACH PIER
Manhattan Beach, CA
Manhattan Beach is one half of the two-for-one special on this swim. Just south of Venice Beach (which gets an honorable mention for its annual Penguin Swim on New Years Day, no wetsuits and very cold water), there lies the handsome sands of Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach. Labeled one of the most famous ocean swims in the United States, the Dwight Crum Pier-to-Pier Swim is a 2 mile course starting in Hermosa Beach and finishing on the north end of the Manhattan Beach Pier. Over 1000 swimmers take on this feat each August, a large majority opting out of wetsuits. Although the course is extremely straightforward (pun intended), the variability of currents can make this swim a rip roaring PR or a "dig deep" experience. Not planning on visiting SoCal in August? No problem. The swathes of beach and ocean surrounding these piers are frequented by surfers, swimmers, and lifeguards in training year-round. An added bonus of swimming in this area is the easy access to the Marvin Braude Bike "Trail", more commonly referred to as The Strand. This 22-mile stretch of paved swervy-twervy goes from Will Rogers State Beach in the Pacific Palisades and ends in southern Los Angles's city of Torrance. So once you have finished your swim, hop on a rental bike and enjoy a gorgeous day in the part of the world where Jimmy Kimmel defines winter as a time to wear two tank tops instead of one.
- Annual water temps: 55-70F
- Features we love: lots of swim/surf "buddies" nearby for support, easy sighting off of the piers
- Look out for: variable currents, an occasional shark sighting near the piers (all caused by fishing)