The atmospheric conditions that lead to strong offshore surface winds in Southern California, commonly referred to as Santa Ana winds, are investigated using the North American Regional Reanalysis and a 12-year, 6-km resolution regional climate simulation of Southern California. We first construct an index to characterize Santa Ana events based on offshore wind strength. This index is then used to identify the average synoptic conditions associated with Santa Ana events—a high pressure anomaly over the Great Basin. This pressure anomaly causes offshore geostrophic winds roughly perpendicular to the region’s mountain ranges, which in turn cause surface flow as the offshore momentum is transferred to the surface. We find, however, that there are large variations in the synoptic conditions during Santa Ana conditions, and that there are many days with strong offshore flow and weak synoptic forcing. This is due to local thermodynamic forcing that also causes strong offshore surface flow: a large temperature gradient between the cold desert surface and the warm ocean air at the same altitude creates an offshore pressure gradient at that altitude, in turn causing katabatic-like offshore flow in a thin layer near the surface. We quantify the contribution of “synoptic” and “local thermodynamic” mechanisms using a bivariate linear regression model, and find that, unless synoptic conditions force strongly onshore winds, the local thermodynamic forcing is the primary control on Santa Ana variability.