Every stereotype you have heard about Orange County is true. Legions of blonde housewives carry their purse-sized dogs to yoga class. The bro vibe runs deep. You will drive everywhere and hate yourself for it. There are too many goddamn people.
But there’s a reason for the crowds: this strip of Southern California is known for its surfing and here you’ll find some of the best beach breaks in the country, including Lower Trestles–one of the best waves in California, if not the world. But beyond serving as the cultural capital of American surfing (and action sports as a whole), SoCal is packing some incredibly good mountain bike trails, amazing Mexican food, a growing brewery scene, and a ton of oceanside campgrounds for the passing dirtbag.
Given how far away it is from the, um, mountains, a surprising number of bike brands and pro riders are based in Orange County, particularly in the Laguna area. Riders like Richey Schley, Brian Lopes, Hans Rey, and the notorious, undercover old guy crew, the “Laguna Rads,” make their home in Orange County, and companies like Crank Brothers and Intense Cycles are based there, too.
Top of the World is the classic Laguna zone. Like a lot of the riding in the area it’s sandy, steep, and technical. It has a ton of options. The singletrack mixes in with fire roads and hiking trails, so beware of the stray walker or Laguna mom out to work on her fitness. Don’t worry, however, the areas twisty downhill trails is where you can really open it up. The Telonics downhill trail, in particular, is known for crushing people. Top of the World is part of the Aliso and Wood Canyons State Park, which has some mellower trails as well. You can also hit Moro Canyon in Crystal Cove State Park.
But beyond serving as the cultural capital of American surfing (and action sports as a whole), SoCal is packing some incredibly good mountain bike trails, amazing Mexican food, a growing brewery scene, and a ton of oceanside campgrounds for the passing dirtbag.
If road riding is more your flavor, the PCH gives your plenty of miles of road. It’s relatively flat—you can head out the Ortega Highway if you want some hills—but the views are unbeatable. Ride south through Camp Pendleton, the marine base, toward San Diego County for some solitude, and the occasional chance to see a military training mission–like a tank getting blown up!
One of Orange County's pristine surf breaks
If you’re down here, there’s a good chance you came for the surfing. The most marquee surf break is Trestles, in San Clemente, which has three distinct sections, Uppers, Lowers and Middles (in that order, heading south). Lowers, where events like the Lowers Pro are held, is a proving ground for pros and hard core locals. Don’t paddle out there unless you’re sure you can hang, because the lineup can be intense. You might be casually sitting next to some of the best surfers in the world. From the beach you can often get a show. Uppers can be sceney, too, but usually isn’t quite as cutthroat; Middles tends to be more mellow, but you can still get some of the energy.
To the north, Salt Creek, below the Laguna Ritz Carlton is a left point break that has a lot of variety. It can be pretty crowded.
If you want to feel bad, because high schoolers are cutting you off and catching way more waves than you, head to T Street, right by the San Clemente pier, for some Hollywood surfing.
If you want the opposite of that—mellow waves and a more laid back vibe, head south to San Onofre State Beach. There are two main breaks there, Old Mans, a classic longboard wave, and Trails, where you can hike down the cliffs to some more isolated beaches.
Mike Fanning at Trestles
Doheny State Beach, in Dana Point, gets a lot of hype, mainly because it’s easy to get to, but it was recently rated as one of the most polluted beaches in the country, and it gets really crowded, so if you’re going to skip one spot, this is probably it.
Pedro's Tacos. Photo Credit: travelfromcoasttocoast.blogspot.com
If you’re trying to keep it cheap, Mexican and burgers are your best options. The best-known option for tacos, Pedro’s Tacos, which has multiple locations in San Clemente, gets a lot of hype. It’s cheap and decent, especially if you get the fish, but there are better options. Taco Loco, in Laguna, has them beat for flavor and variety—they have a bunch of interesting vegetarian options. In San Clemente, The Riders Club also serves up really good burgers, and a solid beer selection. Make sure to get the beets. For snacks, hit the grocery store for locally made Have’a Chips.
San Diego has made a name for itself as a brewery town, but the whole bottom coast of California has really good beer. Surprisingly good, even. Left Coast Brewery, in San Clemente is new on the scene, but it’s already won a bunch of awards, including a gold medal at the Great American Beer Fest for their Ale Epeteios Imperial Stout. Local brewery/pizza dynasty Pizza Port makes really good beer as well, they have a few locations, but the one in San Clemente is the best.
The beers of Left Coast Brewery www.behance.net
The bar scene can be a bit brutal. On the southern end of the county it can be overrun with marines, and if you head north you enter ritzy real housewives territory. Luckily, there are a few decent bars for skid. On the PCH heading south out of Laguna Beach, hit the Sandpiper, aka the Dirty Bird, and in San Clemente, go to Knuckleheads, where the owner Brick (real name) will feed you cheap beers and hot dogs.
The perfect camping spot for the surfing vagabond
The nice thing about southern California, especially if you’re dirtbagging it, is that you can sleep outside all year round. There are bunch of state run campgrounds along the coast, so you have options, and you often get beachfront access to really great surf spots. The only downside is that they’re on the expensive side, for campgrounds, and a lot of them are lacking in ambiance—you’re basically pitching your tent in a parking lot.
That said, the surf proximity makes it worth it. The nicest ones in Orange County are Crystal Cove, to the north of Laguna Beach, and San Onofre, at the very southern end of the county. At San Onofre, you camp right on the edge of the popular Trails surf spot, and you’re close to Old Man’s, a classic longboard break. San Clemente State Beach is solid as well.
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