Northern California

Ride a wave, ride the ocean breeze, from Crescent City to Big Sur
Jeff Phillips

• Average July days of heavy fog, Eureka: 3.5

• Average July high temperature, San Francisco: 64.6°F

• Average July water temperature, Santa Cruz: 59°F

Brooding and cold, the unwelcome guest at Northern California's summer beach party is, inevitably, the coastal fog. Rise early and you'll find it lying on the beach in moody wisps that don't burn off until long after your second cup of coffee. Most days it will pull back from the shore long enough to let the sun warm the sand and allow the pleasures of wading in the surf, donning a wide-brimmed hat, and picnicking in the dunes, but by late afternoon the dark bank creeping toward shore is usually dense enough to dim the sunset. There are exceptions, of course, places like Santa Cruz or the "banana belt" south of Point Arena where geography helps hold the fog offshore. But in July, Northern Californians always toss a jacket in the trunk next to the beach umbrella. You just never know.

BEST LIGHTHOUSE
Battery Point Lighthouse, Crescent City

The ultimate in beyond-the-beachfront real estate, this charming Cape Cod was built in 1856 on a rock just past the breakers crashing on the Crescent City beach. Keepers Larry and Nancy Schnider offer tours of the still-working lighthouse, which includes a one-room museum where the original Fresnel lens presides. Plan carefully: you can't walk to the lighthouse at high tide.

Tours 10-4 Tues-Sun, April-September (tides permitting). (707) 464-3089; www.cr.nps.gov.

BEST BEACH HORSEBACK RIDING
MacKerricher State Park

Loping along between breakers and dunes is a forbidden pleasure on most trail rides. Reserve a private ride at Ricochet Ridge Ranch, however, and you can flick those reins on beaches in MacKerricher State Park.

On State 1, 3 miles north of Fort Bragg. Private rides start at $60 for 11/2 hours; tamer group rides start at $40. Reservations necessary; (707) 964-7669; www.cal-parks.ca.gov.

BEST BEACH PICNIC
Gualala

We will arrange any trip along the Mendocino-Sonoma coast to take us past the Food Company in Gualala around noon. Owner Naomi Schwartz makes everything except the cheese and pâté fresh each day. We go for one of the half-dozen entrées or 10 to 14 salads (menu changes daily) and something from a local winery. Picnic on the long sand spit or more sheltered beaches on the river at Gualala Point Regional Park.

Food Company, Coast Highway 1 and Robinson Reef Dr.; open 11-6 Sat-Thu, until 8 Fri. (707) 884-1800.

BEST CHAIN OF BEACHES

Sonoma Coast State Beach

The water is cold, and surf and currents are treacherous, but the 16 miles of coast from Russian Gulch above the mouth of the Russian River south to Bodega Head is pocketed with dozens of intimate, sandy strands separated by rocky headlands--ideal for strolling and picnicking. Popular family beaches include Goat Rock and Salmon Creek; beaches with steeper trails to the shore are lonelier.

Sonoma Coast State Beach: (707) 875-3483; www.cal-parks.ca.gov.

MOST HISTORIC BEACH
Drakes Beach

Did Sir Francis Drake actually stroll these sheltered sands in the lee of Point Reyes in the summer of 1579? From Point Reyes National Seashore's Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center, it's a 11/2-mile walk along the beach to Drakes Estero-- which is where, most scholars agree, the British buccaneer repaired his ship.

End of Drakes Beach Rd. Visitor center open 10-5 Fri-Tue. (415) 669-1250.

BEST BEACH HANGOUT
Fort Funston

This San Francisco beach - part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area--is a prime hangout for hang gliders and the hangers-on who watch them. This is also a rare park where you can unleash your pooch; the beach trail begins near the viewing platform.

Off Skyline Blvd. about 1 1/2 miles south of Sloat Blvd. (415) 239-2366.

BEST NEW BEACH ACCESS
Cowell Ranch Beach

Thank the California Coastal Conservancy and local conservation groups for saving this gem from development. Walk 1/2 mile from limited parking past artichoke fields to look south onto a harbor seal preserve (no access). A stairway leads down to honey-colored sand backed by steep cliffs that keep this cove hidden from the world.

Off State 1, 2 miles south of Half Moon Bay.

BEST BEACH TOWN
Santa Cruz

We recommend the view from the Giant Dipper roller coaster high above the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk precisely because it's so grand and so fleeting. Far below, the arcing sweep of wide, smooth, golden-sand beach encompasses bandstand, volleyball courts, and legions of sunbathers. There's the Municipal Wharf with its gaggle of rail-hugging fishermen. And at the north end of the beach are corduroy curls of board-crowded surf. We'd be tempted to compare Santa Cruz to the best of Southern California's beach towns, but the Giant Dipper is beginning its wicked plunge beachward and we feel a scream coming on.

Santa Cruz visitor information: (800) 833-3494. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk: (831) 423-5590; www.beachboardwalk.com.

POSHEST BEACH SLEEP
The Inn at Spanish Bay, Pebble Beach

A glorious stretch of fine white sand fronts this resort. Sure, the inn's atmosphere is a little formal (we didn't say stuffy) for a beach resort, and starting at $425 a night, it's a splurge. But even standard rooms have a fireplace and wet bar. And the view from the dining room of Roy's at Pebble Beach, a mainland outpost of chef Roy Yamaguchi's famed Hawaii-based chain, is as sublime as the innovative Pacific cuisine.

On 17-Mile Dr., Pebble Beach. Reservations: (800) 654-9300; www.pebblebeach.com.

LEAST EXPECTED FAMILY BEACH
Sand Dollar Beach, Los Padres National Forest

Beaches are rare and treacherous along Big Sur, where the scenery is vertical and surf bludgeons wicked-looking rocks at the base of most cliffs. That's why Sand Dollar is such a surprise. There's no hint from the blufftop that a trail leads down to a wide, flat, gray-sand beach blessed with a gentle shore break that kids and dogs can splash in.

About 9 miles south of Lucia, 4 miles north of Gorda. (805) 995-1976; www.campone.com.