Each spring the California coast experiences a shift in weather patterns that results in a steady afternoon sea breeze flowing in a northwesterly direction along the shore. These daily winds are working to replace warm inland air that has heated up through the day and risen skyward. Local bends in the coastline and unique topography, such as valleys and mountains, interact with the wind in differernt ways, and in some places they create stronger funneling local winds. Such is the case at Waddell Beach in northern Santa Cruz County, where daily northwest afternoon winds blow primarily sideshore.
Kitesurfers from around the region flock to Waddell Beach each spring and summer to take advantage of the consistent wind and the waves that roll in from local windswell and sometimes larger ground swell. The swell and resulting breaking waves are what makes Waddell Beach a unique spot for kiteboarding when compared with other well-known windy local areas such as the San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento River delta. The wind and surf conditions at Waddell Beach allow kiters to combine the energy harnessed from the wind with the energy of the waves for a surf-inspired form of kiting.
The catch? Waddell Beach really isn't a beginner-friendly kiteboarding spot. Waves, sometimes head-high and larger, add a level of complexity to an already challenging wind-sport. This is also not a great place to be body dragging offshore for long, as the rich marine ecosystem is also a home to apex predators. But for those with adequate experience, Waddell Beach is one of the best places to kitesurf on the west coast. Add to that the beautiful scenery of Año Neuvo State Park to the north and the Rancho Del Oso Valley and the coastal bluffs and forests of Big Basin Redwoods State Park immediately behind the beach, and you have a beautiful backdrop for kiting.
Winds typically pick up between noon and 1 p.m., and they keep blowing strong until 5 p.m. or so, with the best window often falling between 2 and 4 p.m. Winds are often in the 25-knot range, particularly in the spring and early summer when many kiters are out on 6- to 10-meter kites; late summer into ealy fall can see lighter wind days in the 15- to 20-knot range, when kiters choose larger kite sizes. Most kiters set up their kites right in front of the parking lot, so it's best for spectators to avoid this area when the wind is up (although the raised parking gravel lot is a great place to watch). You'll notice kites being launched and landed with the help of other experienced kiters using hand signals. Please do not try to launch/land a kite for someone if you are not a kiter because the equipment can become dangerous if it is mishandled due to the great forces applied.
If you're driving Highway 1 north of Santa Cruz any sunny spring/summer afternoon, you're likely to see multiple kites tacking back and forth and looping around the surf zone at Waddell Beach. This can be a beautiful site, albeit a windy one. More sheltered hiking and scenery awaits across the highway at Racho Del Oso in Big Basin Redwoods State Park.
Thanks to local kiteboarder Jenny Campbell for allowing us to photograph her and her kiting skills at Waddell Beach. Jenny and her eco-friendly swimsuit line can be found at tulabikinis.com.