Steamer Lane and Some Surf History

Steamer Lane in January 2013.
Steamer Lane in January 2013. Photo: Julia Gaudinski/Mobile Ranger

In 2009, Surfer Magazine named Santa Cruz, California as the best surfing town and extolled Steamer Lane as a “world class right-hand reef-point.” But do not call it “Steamer’s Lane,” because locals will get all huffy (although “Steamer’s” is acceptable).

The name apparently originates from early surfers who watched for huge waves in the lane that steamships used to come in to the wharf. These days, unless it is extremely stormy, you’ll probably see at least a few surfers in the water at Steamer’s, but the ships are long gone.

Some good surf at steamers, January 2013.
Good surf at Steamer’s, January 2013. Photo: Julia Gaudinski/Mobile Ranger

Surf Zones

Steamer Lane is divided into four zones: Indicators, Middle Peak, The Slot, and The Point. Total beginners should not surf here at all. They should go to Cowell Beach, instead. Difficulty increases from Indicators out to The Point, where you’d better be pretty good. Only experts surf out past the lane at Third Reef.

The surf zones at Steamer Lane.
The surf zones at Steamer Lane. Image: Julia Gaudinski/Mobile Ranger with thanks to inspiration from map at

Local Surfing Legend

It was here in the 1950s and ’60s that Jack O’Neill developed the modern surfing wetsuit, which helped make surfing in cold-water locations possible around the world. In those days, his surf shop was at Cowell Beach where the Dream Inn now stands. Jack’s son Pat has followed in his father’s footsteps. In the 1970s, frustrated with having his board trashed on the rocks, he experimented with surfboard straps that led to the modern-day “leashes.”

In 2011, the O’Neill Coldwater Classic, a huge event held here annually in some form since the 1980s, was upgraded to an Association of Surfing Professionals World Title event. It is usually held in early November.

A surfer jumping into the waves from "The Point." Photo: Julia Gaudinski
A surfer jumping into the waves from “The Point.” Photo: Julia Gaudinski/Mobile Ranger

A fraction of a second later. Photo: Julia Gaudinski
A fraction of a second later. Photo: Julia Gaudinski/Mobile Ranger

A World Surfing Reserve

In February 2011, the nonprofit Save the Waves Coalition named Santa Cruz, from Natural Bridges to Opal Cliffs east of Pleasure Point, as one of only four surfing reserves worldwide. This designation is not only to help the community understand the value of the area as a great surf spot but also to recognize it as an important coastal ecosystem that merits protection. The other three spots are Ericeira (Portugal), Manly Beach (Australia), and Malibu (California).

Dead Surfer Memorial

The Dead Surfer Memorial at Steamer Lane.
The Dead Surfer Memorial at Steamer Lane. Photo: Julia Gaudinski/Mobile Ranger

Honoring those who have died while enjoying the ocean surf is a theme in the Lighthouse Point area. At the top of the staircase that goes down to Steamer Lane is the Dead Surfer’s Memorial. You will see hand-carved wooden tributes, flowers, and other trinkets placed there to commemorate loved ones lost.

The Arch at Steamer Lane

In the late 1800s, there was a large natural bridge here. It was made of sandstone from the Purisima Formation and was often used by tourists of the day for photographs. It collapsed during a storm in 1888, leaving behind a sea stack (the vertical remnants of a bridge or arch). A small chunk of it remains today. Can you find it in the previous photos?

The arch at Steamer Lane circa 1887. Photo: Courtesy of Frank Perry
The arch at Steamer Lane circa 1887. Photo: Courtesy of Frank Perry

Take the Self-Guided Mobile Tour

This piece is part of the West Cliff Drive Tour. Download the free app with many tours of the Santa Cruz area and beyond.


Go to Mobile Ranger Guides in the Apple App Store
Go to Mobile Ranger Guides in the Google Play Store
  1. Sources Used

    • Lighthouse Point: Illuminating Santa Cruz, by Frank A. Perry. Topics in Monterey Bay History series. Santa Cruz, California: Otter B Books, 2002.
    • Best Surf Towns. No. 1: Santa Cruz, CA. Surfer. Surfer Magazine online, April 5, 2009.
    • "Save the Waves: Santa Cruz honored as one of four surfing reserves worldwide," Shanna McCord. Santa Cruz Sentinel, April 28, 2012.
    • Steamer Lane. Wikipedia, February 2016.
    • Steamer Lane History, by Ben Marcus. website.

About The Author

I really enjoy field trips. I love being in a cool place and having someone tell me about it. The problem is, you can’t always find a professor or park ranger-type to tell you all they know about the local rocks, plants, and history. So I decided to combine my love of things natural with mobile technology.

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  1. Barbara Waldemar

    The Streamer Lane Memorial Stairs were wooden stairs built and used for about 30 years until the City deemed them a possible reason for West Side Drive road deterioration and becoming unsafe due to age.
    This is Real stairs meant in anything with Memorial Stairs see face book site I put up. These stairs were built by all local surfers. They were built of wood and removed in large piece by crane in Spring. 2003
    They gave surfers another set of stairs to exit as enter the Lane safety. This is where all the initial placks were and made by my now deceased brother, Robert Wally Waldemar, Thanks


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