If you’re a fan of the outdoors in general and dislike crowds, Alaska might be your go-to place to surf. But with the various hazards and difficulties getting there, it can be a somewhat tedious trip. In this comprehensive guide, you’ll learn all about the wonders and potential dangers of surfing in Alaska.
With its abundance of wildlife, natural sceneries, and a general lack of people, Alaska (particularly Cannon Beach and Fossil Beach) can be a desirable option for certain surfers. But with its somewhat desolate locations and icy cold waters, you’ll need to be well prepared before your trip.
Before we dive into detail on the best places and times to surf in Alaska, let’s first take a look at why you might want to consider Alaska to surf in the first place.
Why Surf in Alaska?
While it can certainly be a bit difficult catching that perfect wave in Alaska, there are nonetheless several reasons why you may wish to consider visiting the Last Frontier. Some common reasons why people might choose Alaska include its pristine and extensive wildlife, the calmness of the environment, and the decent waves that can be encountered if you know where and when to go.
What’re the Waves Like?
If you don’t mind the cold temperatures of the water (this usually averages about 52 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year), you can find some decent waves near the river mouth point breaks that often contain some sandy or cobblestone bottom. The reef breaks, on the other hand, are rather small due to the often frigid waters. The chances of surfing virgin waves are still quite high if you know where to go (more on this later).
Another thing to note is that, due to the low salt content of the water, you won’t have as much buoyancy out over the water. Therefore, you should remember to pack in a board with more volume to stay afloat.
How’s the Surf Culture?
One of the greatest advantages (if you’re an introvert or beginner, perhaps) of surfing in Alaska is the lack of crowds; it can be rare to find even one other person in some areas.
Despite this, certain groups of surfers will take visitors out to specific islands and other areas along the Alaskan shorelines via boat or bush plane (in some guide shops, day-long helicopter rides are offered so that you can get some nice scenic views along the way).
Surfing Season in Alaska
Because of the usually frigid temperatures in Alaska, you should visit the state only during its optimal seasons. The best times to go are typically during Spring or Fall.
Best Times to Surf
As mentioned, it's best to visit Alaska during the Spring or Fall seasons, as the winters are extremely cold (with water temperatures easily dipping into the 30s), and the daylight cycles can be unpredictable. Summer is also not optimal for surfing since the waves can be quite flat and are often inconsistent.
5 Best Surf Spots in Alaska
While Alaska as a whole might not have the best waves suitable for surfing, there are certain places with the right conditions that make them attractive to both locals and visiting surfers. Of course, this also depends on when you’re visiting.
1. Cannon Beach
Cannon Beach, located in Yakutat (a city/borough in Alaska), is one of the most popular choices among all surfers. Yakutat, in general, has more surfers than other areas in the state, but Cannon Beach, in particular, is popular due to the offshore wind in the Summer.
The beach itself is quite mushy and can only be reached by boat or plane. However, because it's still considered part of the mainland, there’s not as much island hopping needed.
Although relatively popular, Cannon Beach still hosts few surfers due to its accessibility. Hence, it shouldn’t be too difficult for you to find a breaking peak to surf.
2. Fossil Beach
Fossil Beach, located on Kodiak Island, is another top choice for surfers.
Similar to Cannon Beach, Fossil Beach also requires access using either a boat or plane, as it is part of an island off of the mainland. An airport is present on the island, making traveling by plane a potentially more attractive choice.
Although it can be difficult to reach, Fossil Beach has some of the most consistent waves on this list due to the presence of a cobblestone bottom at its break.
The overall amount of surf breaks found on Kodiak Island makes it, as a whole, quite attractive to surfers in general.
3. Shoals Reef/Wall
Located in the small fishing town of Sitka sits a shoal wall that can sometimes have rather large swells, occasionally rising to over 15 feet high. A south swell can be particularly high.
Reaching the wall requires a roughly 30-minute boat ride from Sitka’s shoreline. Due to this, don’t expect many surfers here despite the swells.
4. Sea Lion Cove
Another popular surf spot, also located in Sitka, is Sea Lion Cove, which you can reach by taking a roughly hour or so walk by the Sea Lion Trial, which will guide you straight to the surf.
This particular cove has two sides, with the north side having swells that can occasionally reach up to 20 feet high, while the south side is usually more tame and beginner-friendly.
The north side of the cove is more of a reef, while the south is primarily a beach break.
5. Sandy Beach
Finally, if you’re looking for somewhere more road accessible, you may wish to consider Sandy Beach, also located in Sitka.
With its sandbar and mushy waves, don’t expect to find huge swells here, though the waves can be pretty consistent.
The biggest advantage of this site is the fact that it's one of the few road-accessible areas in Alaska in general, meaning you’re more likely to find others with you, unlike the previously mentioned locations in Sitka.
Best Area to Learn to Surf
A few of the best places for beginner surfers specifically include the previously mentioned Sea Lion Cove and the relatively newer discovered Turnagain Arm.
Although it can take a while to reach Sea Lion Cove, its south side can often provide beginners plenty of chances to ride the mellow waves. And with its north side offering more intense swells, beginners can get the chance to test their skills at the same location.
The reason why Turnagain Arm has gained traction recently as a spot for beginner surfers is due to the presence of bore tides, which are two moments during the day when the water level rises and allow the formation of waves capable of reaching 12 feet in height.
These tides, the result of a converging of outgoing water from a river and incoming tidal water from the ocean, can only be seen during high tide in the mornings and nights. Since these waves are much scarcer than those in the ocean, it's less dangerous for beginner surfers who aren’t looking to paddle out too far to find the next wave (you only get 2 shots each day).
What type of equipment should you bring?
Cold water gear is essential when looking to surf in Alaska.
A thick, hooded wetsuit (preferably a 5/4), boots, and gloves are crucial to avoid the cold waters on your skin.
When considering Turnagain Arm in the summer, some surfers prefer just going in their typical swimwear when the water temperatures reach 50 degrees Fahrenheit, but ultimately, that decision will be up to each person’s preference.
What can you do when the waves are flat?
With the immense biodiversity present in Alaska, there’s no limit to your options when it comes to exploring the outdoors.
Hiking, for example, can be a great way of seeing the wilderness around the state. National parks, such as Denali National Park and Glacier Bay, are decent options if you’re looking to stay on land.
If you’d prefer to go out in the water while the waves are flat, you can consider going on a boat tour or kayaking on your own across a river or lake.
Finally, something that’s rarely seen elsewhere in the world is the Northern Lights. If you’re ever in the mood, there are plenty of tour guides who will take you to see the natural phenomenon.
Although Alaska may not be your first choice when it comes to surfing, several areas can provide you with an experience similar to what you’ll find in the more popular states. Along with the expansive wilderness and overall sparse visitors, the Last Frontier just may be an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise.