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How to Surf Trestles: Lowers, Middles, Uppers & Old Man's

When speaking about Trestles, surfers typically refer to Lowers Trestles, known to locals and surfers simply as Lowers.

Lowers is the location of the World Surf League Final. It is situated in the area of San Onofre State Beach, just north of the nuclear power plant, as are all of the breaks that are considered part of Trestles.

The name "trestles" comes from the wooden bridge and railroad that passes along the shoreline of San Onofre Beach.

Trestles Surf Guide

Waves in Trestles 

Trestles is one of the most recognized waves in Southern California, if not on the entire West Coast of the United States.

What makes the breaks so special, particularly Lowers, is that they sit on a cobblestone reef, and the coastline makes it extremely susceptible to S/SW swells.

Starting from the southernmost area of Trestles just north of the San Onofre Power Plant is Old Man’s, then heading north are Cottons, Middles, Lowers, and Uppers. Waves vary along the various peaks from peaky crumbling A-frames to mushy shoulders suitable for beginners and longboarders.

Surf Culture at Trestles 

In 1942, the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base opened, restricting access to the world-class breaks. However, this did not stop surfers from sneaking through to surf Trestles; those who were caught were arrested.

First found by Lorrin Whitney Harrison in 1933, and subsequently in 1948, Duke Kahanamoku paid a visit to Harrison and surfed the famous break.

In 1971, President Richard Nixon signed a 50-year lease deal with the Marines, designating the land as a state beach, making it accessible to the public once again. In 2012, the wooden trestle bridge was replaced with a concrete bridge.

Check out the film "Andy Irons and the Radicals," which depicts the culture and evolution of modern surfing.


Gear Needed to Surf In Trestles 

If you are surfing Lowers or Uppers, high-performance shortboards are necessary as Lowers is extremely crowded and localized, and maneuverability is ideal for navigating the crowded lineup after catching a wave... if you are lucky enough to get one.

Trestles can be the most crowded spot in all of Southern California besides Rincon; on some days, you will find upwards of 100 people scattered along the peak.

If you are surfing Cottons, Middles, or Old Man’s, longboards can be used, but Old Man’s is the most ideal for longboarders as the wave is slow and mushy, making it easy for beginners and longboarders alike.

Either trunks, a 3/2 mm, or a 4/3 mm wetsuit is needed depending on the time of year and water temperature.

Consider using booties in the winter as they make it easier to get out to the break due to the cobblestone shoreline.

The Best Waves in Trestles 

Spot 1: Lowers

Located just south of Uppers, to reach Lowers, walk or bike up the hill that leads south across the initial bridge, veering away from the main path to Uppers.

Once you reach close to the top of the hill, you will see a trail that leads down to the train tracks.

Walk down the trail. Once you reach the tracks, walk along the tracks south until you see a second trail leading to the beach.

Once you are there, you can either walk north to Lowers or go south to the other breaks.

This is a high-performance A-frame wave that can have a lot of power on big days. It is a surfer’s canvas where you can paint away turn after turn.

Lowers catches the S/SW swells best during the summer months with offshore wind from E/NE. The best tide is medium to low and medium to high.

Spot 2: Uppers

Slightly practically in front of the lifeguard tower near the Trestles bridge sits Upper Trestles, commonly known as Uppers. It is similar to Lowers as it can be a peaky A-frame but tends to catch fewer of the S/SW swells.

It has some lefts, but they are not as open and rippable as the rights.

The best swell direction is W/WNW, but it also works on S/SW swells.

The ideal wind direction is from E/NE, and it performs well on both medium-to-low and medium-to-high tides.

Spot 3: Middles 

Typically, arrive the same way as you get to Lowers. Middles sits in the middle of all the breaks at Trestles, hence the name.

It needs more size as it can be smaller than Lowers and Uppers due to having less of a cobblestone reef.

The best swell direction is S/SW and W/WNW, with wind blowing from the east. It can work on most tides, but the wave tends to be shaped depending on the swell direction, period, and kilojoules (wave energy).

Spot 4: Cottons

Cottons breaks all year round, catching everything from SSE/S/SW/WNW/W swells.

It has both lefts and rights and can have the occasional tube section on the inside reef.

Usually, it's not too crowded, but it does get packed when big swells roll through.

The best wind direction is east. On smaller days, taking out an egg, longboard, or twin-fin will make the session worthwhile.

Spot 5: Old Man’s 

Old Man's is a longboarder's paradise, as you will find that the locals who regularly surf this spot are stylish log lords.

Old Man’s sits just north of the parking lot near San Onofre State Beach. It works best with S/SW and W/WNW swells, with wind blowing from the east.

What To Do In Trestles When the Waves Are Flat

If you are not surfing or want a rest day, there are plenty of family and individual activities to do in the San Clemente area. 

Besides the various surf outlets and general outlets that are in the area, there is a Surfing Heritage and Cultural Center, a farmers' market that takes place on Sunday, plenty of beachside hikes, and local breweries/distilleries.

The Bottom Line: Surfing Trestles 

If you are surfing any of the Trestles breaks, especially Lowers and Uppers, beware of the locals, lineup, and surf etiquette in the water.

As always, be respectful and wait your turn, or you will get chewed out.


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