Arizona’s Big Surf is one of those projects that belong to the era of post-war boosterism and the unassailable self-confidence of an Arcadian dream. However, four years prior to its opening in 1969 it was just an idea — plus a 30x40 foot wave tank built by construction engineer Phil Dexter. Today we take artificial wave beaches more or less for granted, but at the time Dexter’s Big Surf ranked along with the best of the arid land utopias conjured out of a barren wilderness: Taliesin, Biltmore, Arcosanti. Under the wide aegis of the city of Phoenix, Big Surf adds its own form of Waikiki picturesque into the alchemy of surf culture, water engineering, and the notion of a truly endless summer.
When Big Surf first opened it boasted a five-foot wave every minute, but over the years the waves have become smaller and less regular, perhaps synonymous with its diminishing status among many of today’s grander artificial wave systems. Of course, surfers can still appreciate its magnitude; the system’s pumps draw 50,000 gallons of water into giant cisterns within the wall, and when the wave comes it is triggered in booming flush as gates opens and the wave forms over a concrete baffle below the water line.