Suburban Southern California beach town located 35 miles southeast of Los Angeles; longtime home to the United States Surfing Championships, as well as America's densest cluster of surf shops; often referred to as "Surf City USA."
Although ridable two-way beachbreak peaks are found along the entire length of Huntington's nine-mile coastline, Huntington Pier—California's longest municipal pier at nearly 1,900 feet—has always been the area's surfing focal point. Huntington is one of the world's most consistent breaks, receiving long-distance swells all year, from every available direction (northwest to southeast, with southern-based swells having poorer form), and even turning local wind swells into reasonably organized surf. Wave shape is better during west or northwest swells.
The densely-packed Huntington Pier crowds are notoriously aggressive; moving away from the pier, the number of surfers drops steadily. Huntington Cliffs, to the north, is a popular beginner break. Average wave height in Huntington is two to four feet; six-foot or bigger surf is not uncommon, but paddling out becomes a problem, and wave shape tends to deteriorate with size. On higher tides, the surf will often break, reform back into a swell, then break again just off the beach. Average daytime air temperatures range from the low 70s in summer to the upper 50s in winter; water temperatures range from the upper 60s to the mid 50s.
Huntington's beachfront environment has long been derided by visitors and even some residents. Oil derricks by the hundreds, built adjacent to a large tidal marsh, lined the shore in the early decades of the 20th century ("Oil City" was Huntington's nickname long before "Surf City"); decrepit brick buildings near the pier in the '60s helped give Huntington the tag "Surf Ghetto"; remodeling in the '80s and '90s turned much of the town into a series of strip malls, condos, and faux Mediterranean storefronts. "Huntington," surf journalist Ben Marcus wrote in 2002, "is a gray, sprawling wasteland built on an oil field built on a swamp."
Huntington Beach was likely first surfed by Hawaiian George Freeth, California's original beach lifeguard, who arrived in Los Angeles in 1907; Freeth gave a surfing demonstration during the opening ceremonies for the just-built Huntington Pier in 1914, and eight years later the pier waves were ridden by visiting Hawaiian surfer Duke Kahanamoku. Delbert Higgins and Gene Belshe, the first Huntington lifeguards, had by that time built their own boards and were teaching others how to ride, and by the late '30s it was common to see as many as 15 surfers out at the pier.
But the Huntington surf scene didn't begin booming until the mid-'50s: local surfer Gordon Duane opened Gordie Surfboards in 1956, the first shop of its kind in the area, and the debut West Coast Surfing Championships were held three years later. Six hundred surfers were counted in the water on a sunny weekend day in 1962, and it was understood that "Surf City," Jan and Dean's bouncy #1 hit from 1963—with the lyric, "They're either out surfing, or they got a party going"—was about Huntington. (City legislators won a long-fought battle with Santa Cruz in 2006 to have Huntington Beach recognized by the state of California as the official "Surf City")
The West Coast Surfing Championships were renamed the United States Surfing Championships in 1964, and the contest was held annually at Huntington Pier through 1972. The debut Katin Pro-Am Team Challenge in 1977 was Huntington's first international surfing event (with the exception of a four-year break in the early '90s, the Katin ran continuously through 1998), and helped set the stage for the inaugural Op Pro in 1982. The gaudiest and best-attended pro tour event throughout the '80s and most of the '90s, the Op over the years was won by a number of world champions, including Tom Curren, Mark Occhilupo, Kim Mearig, Frieda Zamba, Sunny Garcia, and Barton Lynch. The U.S. Open of Surfing debuted in 1994, and assumed the Op Pro's mantle as the grandaddy of mainland America's surf contest scene; U.S. Open winners include world champions Kelly Slater, Layne Beachley, Andy Irons, and CJ Hobgood.
Surfing associations founded in Huntington Beach include the American Surfing Association (1976), National Scholastic Surfing Association (1978), the Association of Surfing Professionals (1982), and Surfing America (1998); on any given weekend, areas on either side of the pier will be cordoned off for a surfing competition.
Top Huntington Beach surfers over the decades include, in roughly chronological order, Rocky Freeman, Jack and Mike Haley, Jackie Baxter, Corky Carroll, Herbie Fletcher, David Nuuhiwa, Bud Llamas, Kim Hamrock, Jeff Deffenbaugh, Joey Hawkins, Timmy Turner, Timmy Reyes, and Brett Simpson.
As of 2012, Huntington was home to more than a dozen surf shops, a smattering of surf-themed restaurants, the popular Surfline wave forecasting service, and a number of surf murals and surf statues. An estimated 11 million beachgoers visit Huntington each year, and more webcams are trained at the Huntington Beach surf than at any other break in the world. The Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame is located near the foot of the pier, adjacent to the Huntington Beach Surfing Hall of Fame and the 2,000-square-foot Huntington Beach International Surfing Museum. The pier was condemned in 1988, and rebuilt in 1993.
Huntington has been featured in dozens of surf movies over the decades, including Barefoot Adventure (1960), Cosmic Children (1970), Five Summer Stories (1972), Ocean Fever (1983), Bliss (1996), Longboard Fever (2003), Chasing the Dream (2007), and The Pursuit (2008). Huntington was also included in Great Waves, a 1998 cable TV documentary series produced by Opper Films, and is the setting for two surf novels: Tapping the Source (1984) and Reef Dance (2002).