Waco Surf has become a surf destination hot spot, even for California surfers who trade ocean waves for the fresh-water pool.

Waco Surf has become a surf destination hot spot, even for California surfers who trade ocean waves for the fresh-water pool. (Laylan Connelly, Orange County Register/TNS)

The woman in the Austin airport gave us a perplexed look.

“What ya’ll got in those big bags?” she asked in her thick Southern accent.

Surfboards, of course.

Texas isn’t known as a surfing hotspot, though there are a few coastal towns that can get fun, yet fickle, waves. But my husband, Jon, and I weren’t headed to the beach — instead, we were taking a surf safari inland to Waco, a small town hours away from the ocean.

For many people, Waco is known for Magnolia Farms, a quaint-and-cute tourist destination for home-renovation enthusiasts enthralled with Chip and Joanna Gaines, who helped popularize rustic-yet-chic designs for their reality show “Fixer Upper.”

The other thing the town is known for: the Waco siege, a massacre 30 years ago following a 51-day standoff between law enforcement and a cult.

But now, Waco can add “surfing destination” to its identity.

Waco Surf, formally known as BSR Surf Ranch, has been creating a buzz among surfers as a must-go hotspot, where wave after wave pump out from a magical machine.

Even die-hard surfers from Southern California have been making the pilgrimage, swearing by its ability to mimic an ocean wave with one added perk — reliability.

I’ve been obsessed with wave pools for years, curious about how they work, how they feel to ride and interested in how technology might change surf culture as we know it, with more popping up around the world — and several planned for the desert region of Southern California — allowing people far away from the ocean the chance to feel the thrill of the ride.

Jon had also been eyeing Waco for a surf trip, marveling at clips showing the punchy, at times barreling, surf break. His 40th birthday was a perfect opportunity to sneak away from the kids for a quick 48-hour trip from Orange County.

After a morning stop by Magnolia Farms — because that’s something you just have to see when in town — we soaked in the natural landscape surrounding Waco Surf, tucked away from town next to farmland where the famous Texas longhorns munched on grass.

A must-see stop in Waco, Texas is Magnolia Farms, created by Chip and Joanna Gaines, who popularized home renovation television with the show “Fixer Upper.”

A must-see stop in Waco, Texas is Magnolia Farms, created by Chip and Joanna Gaines, who popularized home renovation television with the show “Fixer Upper.” (Laylan Connelly, Orange County Register/TNS)

The marveled look on our faces must have been a giveaway that we were newbies as we checked in for our “heats,” hourlong surf sessions with a group of about a dozen other surfers.

A man named Pops looked out the window with us to explain how it works, pointing to a wall where one group of surfers lined up waiting for waves while the other surfers patiently waited their turn for the next set to roll in.

It seemed so … civilized. So much different from the ocean, where surfers jockey for waves in paddle battles or drop in on each other in crowded lineups.

“They are taking off at an angle; don’t take off straight,” he warned.

The first wave of the set is the “magic wave,” the one that suddenly shows up out of nowhere. The next waves come just seconds later, so those surfers must be ready to paddle as soon as that first wave passes.

We walked down to the beach and suited up for our “intermediate” session, a punchy wave that first breaks right for half an hour, then peels left. We paired up in four groups of three, all politely asking one another who wanted to go first.

A surf coach was out in the water with us, sort of like a referee who keeps order in the line and gives tips when surfers miss their wave — which apparently, I needed.

The wave wasn’t huge, but the way it broke was tricky. Timing had to be just right and paddling into the wave is odd — opposite than you would while catching an ocean wave, toward where it was breaking, rather than away on the shoulder.

As I was sitting in the second spot, the wave popped up within seconds of the rider in front of me taking his wave. The first wave I paddled for slipped under me as I got hung up on top. The second wave crashed over me, my timing still off.

“Almost had it,” the guide assured me.

Jon, a much more experienced surfer than I, had no trouble figuring out how it worked, coming back from each wave with a huge smile of satisfaction across his face as he beamed about how fun the wave was to ride.

It was on my fourth attempt that it clicked and I popped up just as the wave pushed my board and body forward. As I rode across the wave, it felt familiar yet challenging, floating on the watery surface and trying to keep my board from slipping out from under my feet.

At the end of the wave, my arms shot up to the air with glee.

Wow, that was fun. I want more.

Lucky for me, there was much more to be had. The left-peeling waves, strangely enough since I’m regular footed, seemed easier to ride. Just as I felt like I was getting my groove, my hourlong season was over.

Thankfully, we both had more sessions on the books. We watched the next group in the “beginner” session getting tips on pop-ups and paddle technique, riding soft top boards as the mellow, Waikiki-like wave rolled in.

It was so gentle I wondered if our two young children might join us next time, eying the lazy river that meandered through the property and four massive slides that could chuck them into the air.

Waco Surf isn’t just about riding waves — there’s everything from a lazy river to swim-up bars around the grounds, with plenty to keep people busy between surf sessions.

Waco Surf isn’t just about riding waves — there’s everything from a lazy river to swim-up bars around the grounds, with plenty to keep people busy between surf sessions. (Laylan Connelly, Orange County Register/TNS)

Jon’s session was up next, this time an “advanced” setting. The wave was slightly bigger and faster, just enough punch to make it a challenge. He came out of the water exhausted, arms and legs tired after riding wave after wave.

My second session was the same as the first, a few misses and some fun rides, but enough to feel satisfied as we wrapped up our day in the hot tub with the other surfers.

While the waves were the draw, one of the best parts of the trip was the stoke among all the others who had traveled from near and far to ride this wild, wacky wave.

There was Bob, a 64-year-old originally from the South Bay who surfed for his college team in Santa Barbara as a youngster. He moved to Austin some 20 years ago and forgot about surfing, until the wave pool popped up to let him surf once again.

Then there were the two college soccer players, one from Brazil and the other Australia, who grew up surfing but never thought, living in Austin, they’d have access to waves.

The professional motorcycle racer and avid wakeboarder in town for a convention figured he’d give surfing a shot, quickly realizing it was harder than he thought.

Then, there were the mix of surfers, surprisingly, from wave-rich Southern California. Why, if you can surf for free at the beach, would you travel to Waco and pay for waves? I asked.

The answer was always the same — you’re guaranteed waves.

Sky Stone, of Newport Beach, has been out of the water for a year due to a shoulder injury. He and a few friends opted for private sessions so they could have the pool to themselves.

“I think this is the best place to come to get your reps in and shake the rust off,” he said.

For a surf trip you might drop big bucks on, there’s always a chance you may get skunked, he noted.

“It’s only going to be good waves,” he said of Waco’s man-made surf.

Surfer Adam Price, 45, lives about a mile from the beach in Santa Cruz and decided to take friends’ advice to take a surf trip to Waco.

“I love it,” Price said after his first session. “I’m still trying to wrap my head around it.”

The takeoff was tricky, he also found. Then, there was the odd feeling of surfing toward a wall, the wave pushing in a way so that you never actually collide with it.

Price’s favorite part is the wave count, he said, but also how civilized and orderly the lineup was.

“I’m going to come back with buddies, or even my family,” he said, noting he has a 10- and 13-year-old who would like to surf in an environment that doesn’t share water with sharks.

The Waco wave was originally the “Barefoot Ski Ranch,” before it transformed into BSR wave pool in 2017. It was during the pandemic, when international surf travel was limited, that surfers flocked to the area and word spread about how fun the wave was to ride.

New owners took over in 2021 and rebranded it Waco Surf this year, putting in a lot of new upgrades, like streamlining the check-in process and revamping the on-site 13-room hotel. I was glad we splurged for the pool-view room, allowing us to watch surfers through the evening after our sessions while we sipped on beers.

The Lazy River is one of the longest in the world, taking 45 minutes just to do one lap, and then there’s the Wedge water slide that launches people people into the air and into the pool.

To our disappointment, both were closed during our off-season visit but will be up and running by summer.

There’s also a cable park where people can take “Wake Academy” wakeboarding sessions, three food areas and five bars on site.

Amy Hunt, director of sales and marketing, said there are two types of clientele who come to Waco Surf. There are the surfers who fly in almost daily from California, Hawaii and Florida and even some from as far as Australia and Brazil.

Then, there are also the local day-use guests who are within a three-hour drive.

They are currently working on a “know before you go” video to help guests figure out what to pack. One of the things I would have liked to know before our trip was the amount of decent boards they have on hand. It would have been great to not deal with our huge surfboard bags or get hit with the $150 fee by Southwest Airlines.

Upon our return home, we couldn’t help but buzz about how fun the Waco waves were, watching videos we took and dreaming about taking the kids or getting a group of friends together for a future trip.

The next day, I packed up my longboard and headed for San Onofre, my favorite surf spot at home. The crowds, as always, were thick. The swell was small and the water was brown and chilly.

The ocean and the wave pool were much different surfing experiences, but with one thing in common — the thrill of the ride to make me smile.

If you go

Cost to surf: Surf sessions range from beginner ($89 including soft-top board) to advanced surf session ($109). Pro sessions that last 90 minutes are about $300.

Where to stay: Hotel rooms range from $250 for wave-view hotel rooms to $950 for larger suites. Cabins range from $229 to $550 a night.


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