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  • Andrew Cowell


Updated: Sep 28, 2020

On the western edge of California, where land gives way to the sea’s aggression, the country shifts to beaches, and headlands; a meeting ground fringed with relentless surf. Yet there are outposts here. Secluded havens where one can still find a wave to ride and smile to the crowded world beyond.

I started surfing San O at the age of 18, in the time of Nixon. This is ironic considering my first surf of Trestles occurred at eleven; from sixteen on my buddies and I surfed both Uppers and Lowers religiously; a time before leashes. Uppers always had a crowd, Lowers not so much. Unlike today, in that era you couldn’t just pull up at the top of the trail and unload, and there weren’t any electric bikes. You had to walk if you wanted those waves. Uppers was far enough, but the walk along the beach to Lowers on a hot September day was punishment, made bearable only because of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. We used to walk the train trestle, but one close call with a southbound freighter and I swore off that route. But these are stories for another time. I wanna talk San Onofre.

We surfers weren’t the first to comprehend and relish the Acadia that is San Onofre. Long before the Spanish and Catholic Missionaries, for eight millennium the Acjachemen people — the present day Juaneno Band of Mission Indians — occupied the region from Las Pulgas Creek to the south, east into Camp Pendleton’s San Joaquin Hills, and north along Orange County’s central coasts; from the Pacific to the Santa Anna Mountains.

The San Mateo Creek drainage, which encompasses San Mateo State Park, and supports the wave-rich, cobblestone points of Upper and Lower Trestles, contains the spiritual and ceremonial village site of the Acjachemen, Panhe. Panhe, whose meaning is “place by the water,” is believed by archeologists to have been in continuous use by “the people” for 8,000 years. Many of today’s Juaneno trace their family linage back to Panhe. With a little imagination one can see the paradise the Acjachemen lived in. The amiable Mediterranean climate, the abundant food resources of the inter-tidal zone, coastal plain, foothills and mountains made for a good life. But, as the Eagles sang in their song, The Last Resort, “... you call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye.” Therefore, it is up to all of us, Native Americans, surfers, beachcombers, and surf fisherman to be stewards of this special place. To peacefully assemble and speak out against any unharmonious actions that come this way.


“The Cross of Gold: Before the Marine base, Eric and Bell Hogestrom were caretakers of the old church at San Onofre. Eric was a Swede who had sailed around the world. He used to babysit me and tell stories about his old days on the old sailing ships. One day at low tide, after a big storm had washed all the sand away, Eric spotted a huge golden cross in the rocks. It was so large and heavy he couldn’t move it himself, so he marked the spot and came back the next day with my father, Lorrin Harrison, to help him drag it to shore. But when he returned, the sand had moved back in and the cross was nowhere to be found. For years they would search for it on low tides trying to uncover the spot where they thought it might be. They never found it again.” — Marian Tompkins

The two rugged miles of undeveloped coastline, with the exception of the now defunct twin domes of the nuclear power plant, was first surfed in the the early 1930s, after surfer Bob Sides, who was driving through what was then Rancho Santa Margarita, happened to notice breaking waves below the silt and sandstone cliffs on which the San Onofre train station was built. At this time there was a train station — courtesy of the Santa Fe Railroad — a small, well stocked village and church on the inland plain. Excitedly, Sides told good friend Loren “Whitey” Harrison to take a look, and the rest, as they say, is history with the beach and waves of San Onofre becoming a welcome home to generations of surfers and their families.

“But what,” tells Matt Warshaw, in The History of Surfing, “made San Onofre unique had as much to do with what happened on the beach as what took place in the water. Before and after wave-riding events, twenty-five or so ‘Sano’ regulars and another fifty to seventy-five fellow travelers — assorted friends, siblings, and girlfriends — came together informally into a kind of self-contained cooperative. There were no outside influences. No lifeguards. No performing on behalf of tourists or reporters. No carnival schedules to plan around or club rules to obey. For the first time in its modern era, [surfing] had a space in which it could develop on its own. Over the course of three or four hundred Depression era weekends at San Onofre, surfing socialized itself,” a communal high point.

Profoundly inspired by Hawaiian aloha, the blossoming San O culture became surfing’s culture, and as one longtime inhabitant conveyed, “Hawaii to us was like heaven is for religious people.” At days end, rows of surfboards lay upon the beach just beyond the reach of high tide. The seas bounty, clams, halibut, bass, and abalone were prepared in one large cooking pot, and served up steaming hot by the bowlful, to those welcome souls, huddling shoulder to shoulder around the fire pit. Out of the San Onofre encampment came a roughen canon upon which the future of surf culture would be built. Travel and self-reliance were paramount. Dancing around established cultural morays; one shouldn’t blatantly be defiant or unruly, and as San O regular, Whitey Harrison said, “You’ve got to stay away from things you don’t like. I just live to ride waves and enjoy myself.” The San Onofre gang might have been the first to cultivate pride in being a surfer, with the knowledge of surfing as a “secret” society within the confines of a discriminatory world.

The coming of World War II changed San Onofre forever. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor came the the closure of Rancho Margarita y Flores (now Camp Pendleton) of which San O was part of. Civilians were barred from the beaches as the threat of a mainland invasion loomed. 

At wars end, returning servicemen found respite from the horrors of war in the warm sands and hospitality of the San O surfing community. And yet all was not right in the world. The San Onofre beach and surrounding lands had been turned over to the United States Marine Corps. Beach access was in doubt. A beach access gate was installed. The impending possibility of the surfing grounds being closed to surfers mounted. With immense gratitude, generations of future San O surfers have Dr. Barney Wilkes and other like-minded leaders to thank as they entered into negotiations with military brass, seeking admittance into the area.

In 1952, as a result of surfer diplomacy, the San Onofre Surfing Club was formed, giving members access to the beach and the offshore reefs. San O was saved and open, but there was a bitter taste in the mouths of many California surfers. If you were a member you were in, if not, well, the list for membership was long, and there wasn’t much interest in expanding the membership roles.

By 1968 the handwriting was on the wall. San Onofre, its beach and waves would soon become part of the public domain. The encroaching San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station plant opened and with it a measure of the areas once proud wilderness appeal was lost. In 1973, the San Onofre beach, along with the bluffs and beaches to the south, and the Trestles complex (Church, Middles, Lowers and Uppers) to the north, became part of the California State Parks system.

Today San Onofre is still a haven; the Waikiki of California. A paradise of genital breaking waves and sandy beaches where ego and attitude are best left at home. Access begins at the state’s entrance kiosk. Here the attendant clicks the counter denoting the number of cars allowed to the beach. Once the predetermined quota has been achieved a one in, one out rule takes precedence. A line forms bluff-top, along a rutted loop road. Here all fashion of mechanized conveyance can be seen. Everyone from millionaires in their land-yachts to surf-rats in rusted out vans waits in a holding pattern, waiting for someone to leave the beach. Having surfed this place since the age of eighteen, I’ve spent time in line. I’ve pondered, why does anyone want to leave? The beach, the waves, the people, it’s all here. Even on the worst wind-torn, or flat days. Everything we surf for is here: community.

Descending the short-lived convince of pavement, lined with Coastal Sage Shrub, Cholla, and Bladder Pod, one encounters an eroded dirt track, the portal to the wonderland of San O. As the lane rounds a headland, swinging left, that for which you came appears: the Pacific Ocean. Find a place to park, you’re home.

There are three main breaks, the Point, Old Man’s, and Dog Patch. The northern most is the Point, my favorite. Here on a good swell and right tide, relatively steep, zippy waves break right and left. Old Man’s offers thick, two-way peaks 300 yards offshore, and furthest south, at roads end is Dog Patch offering both rights and lefts. All three breaks work year-round.

San Onofre is a noteworthy stretch of California coast, where, since the 1930s surfers — men and women, children and dogs — from San Diego to Los Angeles have gathered to ride waves, test new designs, and lounge in the aloha of Hawaiian surf culture. Over the ensuing years San O has become increasingly crowded, but as Surfline founder, Sean Collins observed, “San O is there to remind us that in this crowded world, there’s still a spot where we can all ride together with smiles on our faces,” where the common ground, no matter your age or social status, is the surf, camaraderie, and friendship. Surf’s up.

Photograph - LeRoy "Granny" Grannis

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