Head to California's Central Valley for sun, sand, and swimming
Just about everyone who lives in Northern California is familiar with the region's ocean-beach experience. First you set up your towel and apply sunscreen, despite the complete absence of sun. Then you venture into the water up to your ankles, and your feet promptly go numb. When you attempt to retreat to your towel, you find it has blown away. Time to give up and go get some hot chocolate.
Turns out it's a lot more fun to go to the beach in an area where it really is summer. In the Central Valley, it's sunny just about every day from May to October, and it's so hot, you'll actually want to get in the water. A plethora of rivers and reservoirs ― many of them uncrowded, especially on weekdays ― means that a cool swim and the chance to lounge on a towel on the sand aren't far from the area's major highways. Bring plenty of sunscreen, set up an umbrella for those 100° scorchers, and get ready to dive in at these great inland beaches.
Granite Beach at Folsom Lake Recreation Area. When the water is low, it's a long walk over the sands to the waters of Folsom Lake, but the perfect water temperature and a large swimming area make up for the hike. Bring an umbrella for shade and a few dollars for a cold drink at the snack bar by the parking lot. $7. Exit I-80 at Douglas Rd.
Lodi Lake. You'll find clean water and a well-run public beach at this manmade lake fed by the Mokelumne River. Lifeguards are on duty, there's a wading pool for the little kids, and the setting, surrounded by oaks, couldn't be prettier. From $2; swimming beach open Tue-Sun. exit I-5 at Turner Rd. and follow it 4 miles east to 1101 W. Turner Rd.
Thermalito North Forebay. A family-friendly spot with trees, a grassy picnic area, and barbecue grills a stone's throw from the beach. You'll find calm, shallow water and lots of excited, splashing kids. $4. Exit State 70 at Garden Dr.
Willow Beach at Caswell Memorial State Park. Take a short walk through the quiet park to Willow Beach, where sandy bluffs are the perfect vantage point for setting up a blanket overlooking the lovely Stanislaus River. The banks lead down to refreshing, waist-deep water with a slow-moving current. $6. Exit State 99 at Austin Rd and continue 6 miles southwest to park entrance.
Discovery Regional Park. Right where the American and Sacramento Rivers meet, a slightly grassy expanse slopes down to the water from a shady grove. It's great for hanging out and splashing around, but use caution: Boats and swift currents make true swimming inadvisable. The county makes safety-consciousness easy, though, by providing loaner life jackets for kids. $4. Exit I-5 at Richards Blvd., head west, and follow Jibboom St. to park entrance. ―Kate Washington