These first days of summer plunge us into yet another iteration of the East versus West debate: Which coast boasts the best beaches? Sure, the Eastern Seaboard, from Cape Cod to Miami, promises white sands and long, sunny days. But there are beaches, and then there are California beaches. To truly appreciate the West, you’ve got to understand the beauty of windswept, overcast sandy shores.
In the summer, ocean air coming off the Pacific turns whole cities gray and cold (hence the often misattributed quote: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco”). The Pacific coast has higher waves and stronger winds than the Atlantic. Ocean temperatures here are far colder, too: cold currents stream down from the North Pacific Drift. Meanwhile, back East, the Gulf Stream rolls up from the south to warm things up. In practice, this means that the waters of Miami reach a balmy 86 degrees, while those in San Diego average just 67 degrees during their hottest months. Yet there’s a certain mythological quality to the California seashore—the Beach Boys weren’t singing about Cape Cod in “Surfin’ USA.” In that song alone, they name five places in San Diego to catch waves, and at least seven others along the Golden State’s coastline.
One of the spots where “you’d catch ’em surfin’” is Santa Cruz. I lived there last summer, just a block from the Pacific Ocean, an idyllic setting with a frightening backdrop: the pandemic, still full of unknowns at that point, kept the beaches either closed or overcrowded, and in August, wildfires turned the skies gray and rained ash as we packed our valuables and prepared to be evacuated. Most mornings, though, my roommate and I would wake up before our barista and bartending shifts, wrap ourselves in sweatshirts and beach towels, and brave the misty air to jump in the ocean. We’d hesitate on the water’s edge, feeling it nip at our toes (water temperatures peak at around 60 degrees). We’d run into the surf until our feet couldn’t touch the bottom and dive under the swell. Then we’d come up for air, gasping, and laugh at the absurdity of what felt like an ice bath in the middle of summer.
So, yes, the beaches of California can be cold and rough. You might need a wetsuit. But for those of us who know and love the West, summer is synonymous with big waves, fog, and blue, chilly waters. And there’s no greater part of a beach day than when the fog first burns off and the sun heats up the sand, making a swim in the Pacific a perfect escape.
Now that we’ve determined the superiority of West Coast beaches, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know your favorite stretch of sand and surf.•
This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.