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  • Writer's pictureDavid Hilts

Palm Springs Surf Club marks new chapter for Southern California wave riding

Surfers have been waiting for years to catch waves at the Palm Springs Surf Club – a man-made pool that opened Monday, Jan. 1, hours from the Pacific Ocean.

Kieran Reale, 16 of San Clemente, was one of the first to test out the waves at the new Palm Springs Surf Club, which officially opened to the public on Jan. 1, 2024. (Photo courtesy of Harald Vaagan)

The opening marks a milestone for Southern California surfing and the evolution of artificial wave parks, also adding to the list of entertainment offered in the Coachella Valley. It is the first of three planned wave pools in the region, with DSRT Surf in nearby Palm Desert getting ready to break ground in a few weeks and the Thermal Beach Club, in a 22-acre lagoon, also in the works.

“Seeing this wave pool being built, this is really the next chapter in the history of surfing,” said David Hilts, who started surfing in Huntington Beach in 1965 and has been watching the build out of the abandoned Wet & Wild waterpark for the past three years. “It’s really exciting. Never in a million years would I have ever thought, living in Palm Desert, that I would ever see a wave pool. And we’re going to get three of them.”

The new-wave developments are creating a buzz and curiosity in the surf world. Within hours last month of reservations opening to the public for spots in January, all the available hour-long sessions were scooped up by wave riders wanting to test out the intermediate, right- and left-split peak, and the expert-level barreling waves. The beginner wave is expected to launch in spring.

The Palm Springs Surf Club’s tagline: “Surfing for Everyone.”

Hilts was one of the first in the door Monday, buying a $20 entry ticket to watch surfers catch waves, getting pumped up for his first crack at the wave pool on Jan. 7, with three more surf sessions booked through the month.

The wave looked fun, though the advanced option has a tricky take off, he said.

“A lot of guys eating it,” he said, noting the intermediate wave looked like it will be “no problem.”

Though the official opening date to the public was Monday, some surfers had the opportunity to make the pilgrimage to the desert to get an early, soft-opening taste of the freshwater waves.

Jay Reale, a San Clemente pro bodyboarder who has been taking groups for years to Waco Surf in Texas and a few weeks ago to the Surf Ranch in Fresno, organized a private session in late December with a group of 12 who got to enjoy the new waves together for two sessions, two hours each.

“We’ve been waiting for it,” said Reale, his 16-year-old son, Kieran, and wife, Vicki, joining the adventure.

His biggest takeaway was how accessible and convenient the surf club is just a few hours drive from the coast, and also how luxurious the property felt, with cabanas and couches, TVs and big screens lining the pool.

Hot tubs are a warm relief from the chilly water, currently about mid 50s, he said. Restaurants on site offer a range of bites, from breakfast burritos and burgers, to poke bowls and pizzas, and craft cocktails.

“The look of the pool is really dramatic and beautiful, with the mountains right behind the wave pool,” Reale said.

At about 70- to 80-yards long, the pool is not quite as large as Waco and the waves are shorter, he noted. “It’s a short ride, but there’s a lot of variety of waves they can run.”

Sets come in threes and surfers wait about two minutes between sets for the machine to recalibrate. The surf can pump out with different settings; Reale’s favorite was the “clean, easy tube,” a punchy barrel with an end section.

“That’s a really fun wave,” he said.

Reale, who owns, has seen first-hand the demand from riders who want a wave-pool experience as a quick surf trip option.

“There’s people who have such limited time, or they can’t afford to go on a surf trip,” he said. “Now, with the crowds (in the ocean), they are tired of having to battle for waves. The wave pool eliminates that. Everyone gets a turn and the same quality of waves.”

There will be naysayers who shun the new waves, he acknowledges.

“There’s always haters when you talk about wave pools, that it takes out the mystique of being in the ocean, the salt water and variability,” he said. “Yes, it does take it out of it. But the real reason we ride waves is it’s a kick, it’s fun. We’re just focusing on that.”

That’s what Hilts is most excited about, he said, the consistency of getting many waves in a short period of time.

He’s especially stoked to be able to surf just a few miles from his home in Palm Desert and has been a leader in trying to get others in the Coachella Valley ready for the incoming wave of surf culture.

He created the Coachella Valley Surf Club three years ago as plans for the surf parks started forming. It’s a nonprofit that gives back to low-incoming families in the community, with the hope that funds will help with pool fees.

“We just want to help any kid, regardless of their social or economic condition,” he said. “If they want to go surfing, we can help them as much as possible.”

Hilts still saltwater surfs regularly, making the trek to Oceanside, Huntington Beach and sometimes further north to Santa Cruz. In the Coalition of Surf Clubs’ surf contests, he’s the lone competitor representing the Coachella Valley.

With the ocean, you never know what conditions you may get, he added, too small, too big, too crowded in the morning, too blown out in the afternoon — but in the wave pool, the surf is always good, he said.

The 70-year-old remembers back when he moved to Huntington in the 60s and watched the longboard era evolve to shorter boards and the explosion of the sport into the mainstream. The new wave pools popping up marks another milestone for the surf culture.

“I’m surfing the next chapter of surf history,” he said. “It’s pretty special for me, personally.”

The Palm Springs Surf Club will not just be a place for surfers, but also for families who want to enjoy some of the old waterslides still left from the Wet & Wild park and for people who want to just hang out and watch the surfers while eating or hear live music, said Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce CEO Nona Watson, who took a tour of the property before its opening.

“There’s really something out here for everyone,” she said. “They’ve really done a great job in hitting all the different aspects of what anybody would want.”

The addition will lure a new crop of desert-going visitors looking for fun.

“I think it will bring that new demographic here,” she said. “This is going to give something to make it even more attractive and bring even more people to our valley.”

By LAYLAN CONNELLY | | Orange County Register

PUBLISHED: January 2, 2024 at 12:46 p.m. | UPDATED: January 3, 2024 at 8:04 p.m.


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