Set of easy-to-ride, high-performance, cobblestone-lined pointbreaks, located on the border between San Diego County and Orange County, about 75 miles south of Los Angeles; the longstanding epicenter of California high-performance surfing.
From north to south, the major surf spots at Trestles are: Cotton's Point, a shifty, peaky, mostly left-breaking wave; Upper Trestles, an upbeat right; Lower Trestles, the premier break in the area, a long and even-paced right matched with a shorter, quicker left; and Church, a tapering point divided into three separate breaks. San Onofre, a popular longboarding and beginners break, is located just to the south of Church.
Cotton's and Lowers break best during south or southwest swells (May to October); Uppers favors a west or northwest swell (November through March); the upper two takeoff areas at Church require southerly swells, while the inside break takes a northerly. Trestles—named after a pair of wooden train trestles located at either end of the area—is sometimes described as America's most consistent wave zone, often coming up with small surf when the rest of the coast is waveless, and bearing up well under the prevailing afternoon west winds. Rarely do any of the breaks here hit eight foot or bigger.
Located at the northwest corner of the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base, a virtually undeveloped 125,000-acre tract of land used primarily as a military training ground, Trestles has long been an oasis in the middle of Southern California's otherwise insanely overdeveloped coastline. Estuaries and marshes are located just behind the beach at Church, Lowers, and Uppers; deer, bobcat, beavers, coyotes, mountain lions, and eagles live in the nearby foothills.
While a few Orange County surfers rode Trestles as far back as the late 1930s (Peanuts Larson of Laguna is sometimes mentioned as the first), Mickey Dora and Phil Edwards, in their pre-surf-icon teenage years, put the break on the map in the summer of 1951, walking one mile north from San Onofre to Lowers and riding by themselves day after day.
By the end of the 1950s, Trestles was thought of as Orange County's answer to Malibu—except that while Malibu was the most public of surf breaks, the Marine-patrolled Trestles was technically off-limits to all beachgoers, surfers included. Until 1971, when public access was allowed, the Trestles surfing experience was in large part a strategic and tactical engagement with the U.S. Marines. Entry and exit routes through the marshland reeds were plotted, surfboards were often hidden by their owners (and sometimes confiscated by the Marines), and ammunition on occasion was fired over the heads of trespassing surfers. At one point, two platoons and a Coast Guard cutter positioned themselves on either side of the lineup at Lowers, just to remove two kneeboarders. "But Trestles," San Diego surfer Chuck Hasley once noted, "was the one beachhead the Marines could never hold."
Trestles has been home break to dozens of top California riders over the decades, including Bill Hamilton, Herbie and Christian Fletcher, Jericho Poppler, Matt Archbold, Chris Ward, Shane Beschen, and Kolohe Andino. Overcrowding has been a problem since the early '70s, and during a midsummer swell it's common to see as many as 100 surfers in the water at a time at Lowers.
The first annual All-Military Surfing Championships, held at Church, took place in 1972; the first civilian event at Trestles was the $6,000 Sutherland Pro, held in 1977 and won by Hawaiian Michael Ho. Dozens of professional and amateur contests have been held at Trestles since the late 1980s. In 1990, world-champion-to-be Kelly Slater made his pro debut by winning the $100,000 Body Glove Surf Bout, held in perfect five-foot surf at Lowers.
The world pro tour added a Trestles event to its schedule in 2001, with the Billabong Pro (later renamed the Hurley Pro), held at Lowers, won by Andy Irons and Pauline Menczer. The National Scholastic Surfing Association has run its prestigious National Championships at Trestles since 1992.
Trestles has been featured in dozens of surf movies and videos over the decades, including Slippery When Wet (1958), Surfing Hollow Days (1962), Fluid Drive (1974), Ocean Fever (1983), Amazing Surf Stories (1986), Surfers: The Movie (1990), Momentum (1992), Bliss (1996), Surf 365 (2000), and This Way Up (2003). Orange County surf band the Rhythm Rockers had a local hit in 1963 with the misspelled "Breakfast at Tressels."
A ten-year battle to prevent a toll road project from spilling into the Trestles area was won, at least temporarily, in early 2008, when the California Coastal Commission voted 8 to 2 that the project was not in compliance with the California Coastal Act. In 2013, the nearby San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant, after a small radioactive leak, was shut down for good.