Skip to main content

A rare, dangerous wave is hitting Northern California. Here’s how to see it

Two surfers ride big wave
The surfing spot Mavericks in Half Moon Bay is famous around the world for its big waves. | Source: Michael Macor/SF Chronicle/Getty Images

One of the most dangerous, awe-inspiring waves in the world is starting to come to life just a 30-minute drive from San Francisco.

A typhoon originating off the coast of Japan is creating a major swell in Northern California on Thursday, marking the second major Northern swell in what’s likely to be a tumultuous winter for the region’s frigid waters. 

There are very few places better to witness the phenomenon than Mavericks, a world-famous surf spot located off Half Moon Bay’s Pillar Point Harbor. 

The wave at Mavericks sometimes tops 60 feet and regularly draws the most talented surfers from across the world.

RELATED: See Photos of Rare, Dangerous Waves Hitting San Francisco

Many people have dedicated their lives to surfing the reef, which has claimed the lives of two prodigious surfers. But for the average person, finding a spot to view the wave from a nearby cliff is likely enough of a thrill.

Here’s how you can get close to the action without putting yourself at risk. 

surfer rides big wave
A surfer dives off his board on a wave at Mavericks. | Source: MediaNews Group/East Bay Times via Getty Images

When To Go

The surf forecasting platforms Surfline and Stormsurf will tell you what days to visit the spot. Mavericks typically produces surfable waves if the models predict a swell of 15 feet or higher. 

The actual height of the waves may be much larger than forecasted, as rogue “sneaker waves” sometimes stand out from the rest. Surfline is currently predicting Thursday’s waves to stand up between 10 and 15 feet at Mavericks, but veteran surfer Grant Washburn told The Standard it could get much larger than what’s forecasted. 

"In these first season swells, like we're going to get this week, it really is like a lake and then all of a sudden here comes 20-foot waves," Washburn said. "A lot of times people are getting washed off of beaches that don't usually get big waves."

How To Get There

Park in the lot at the end of West Point Avenue, or in the surrounding neighborhood if the lot is full, and walk about a half mile down the beach along the Pillar Point West Shoreline Trail. Once you reach the jetty, to your right is what’s called Mavericks Beach. One of the beach's original watermen named the spot after his roommate's dog Maverick, who would swim around the beach while he surfed. 

The wave is visible from the beach, though it can be hard to see from sea level beyond the jagged rocks. If you plan to watch the wave from the sand, be aware of rising tides and “sneaker waves.” Keep your children and pets close to you at all times. 

Large swells make the beach area near Mavericks unpredictably dangerous. | Source: The Washington Post

Scaling the Cliffs

At the jetty, look for a trail leading up the cliff. On a busy day, dozens of people will cram on the cliffside to get a view of the waves. Locals advise using extreme caution, as the cliff has been slowly eroding in recent years. 

Fans gather to watch big wave surfers during the Mavericks Surf Contest in 2010. | Source: MediaNews Group/Bay Area News via Getty Images

The wave is also visible using binoculars from Pillar Point Bluff or Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, which is a 10-minute drive north from the parking lot and a nice spot for a picnic. You can access the Pillar Point Bluff from the trailhead on Airport Street. 

Spectators line a cliffside as they watch surfers ride waves at Mavericks. | Source: MediaNews Group/East Bay Times via Getty Images

Who To Look For

Mavericks attracts surfing talent from around the world to the small, foggy coastal town of Half Moon Bay, but many of the spot’s best surfers hail from less than 50 miles away. 

Santa Cruz local Peter Mel caught what some have called the greatest big wave ever surfed at the spot in January 2021. 

Peter Mel, Santa Cruz surfer, give his favorite board a kiss after a day surfing Mavericks. | Source: San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images

It’s hard to miss San Francisco local Bianca Valenti, who rides bright pink boards and is taking women’s big wave surfing to a new level. 

Bianca Valenti loads her surfboard in the parking lot near Mavericks. | Source: San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images

It’s also easy to spot Half Moon Bay rising star Luca Padua, who often goes in the opposite direction of most on the wave.

Luca Padua, right, and Bianca Valenti, third to the left, catch a wave at Mavericks. | Source: San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images

Want To Get on the Water? 

In recent years, several people who used to offer boat tours have stopped amid concerns about liability. 

Locals strongly advise against taking your own watercraft out to the spot, for obvious reasons. If you’re absolutely itching to get closer to the action, try trawling the harbor’s docks to find an experienced captain who may take you for a price. 

If you’re contemplating surfing the wave, the likely answer is that you probably shouldn’t. Washburn recommended anyone thinking about taking such a leap to try their hand at Ocean Beach in San Francisco first. 

"I would definitely not have anyone go out there unless they really know what they're doing," Washburn said.

David Sjostedt can be reached at

Filed Under