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