Ride a wave, ride the ocean breeze, from Crescent City to Big Sur
• 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 NorthernCalifornia's summer beach party is, inevitably, the coastal fog.Rise early and you'll find it lying on the beach in moody wispsthat 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 thesun warm the sand and allow the pleasures of wading in the surf,donning a wide-brimmed hat, and picnicking in the dunes, but bylate afternoon the dark bank creeping toward shore is usually denseenough to dim the sunset. There are exceptions, of course, placeslike Santa Cruz or the "banana belt" south of Point Arena wheregeography helps hold the fog offshore. But in July, NorthernCalifornians always toss a jacket in the trunk next to the beachumbrella. You just never know.
Battery Point Lighthouse, Crescent City
The ultimate in beyond-the-beachfront real estate, this charmingCape Cod was built in 1856 on a rock just past the breakerscrashing on the Crescent City beach. Keepers Larry and NancySchnider offer tours of the still-working lighthouse, whichincludes a one-room museum where the original Fresnel lenspresides. Plan carefully: you can't walk to the lighthouse at hightide.
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 pleasureon most trail rides. Reserve a private ride at Ricochet RidgeRanch, however, and you can flick those reins on beaches inMacKerricher 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. Reservationsnecessary; (707) 964-7669; www.cal-parks.ca.gov.
BEST BEACH PICNIC
We will arrange any trip along the Mendocino-Sonoma coast totake us past the Food Company in Gualala around noon. Owner NaomiSchwartz makes everything except the cheese and pâtéfresh each day. We go for one of the half-dozen entrées or 10to 14 salads (menu changes daily) and something from a localwinery. Picnic on the long sand spit or more sheltered beaches onthe river at Gualala Point Regional Park.
Food Company, Coast Highway 1 and Robinson Reef Dr.; open 11-6Sat-Thu, until 8 Fri. (707) 884-1800.
BEST CHAIN OF BEACHESSonoma Coast State Beach
The water is cold, and surf and currents are treacherous, butthe 16 miles of coast from Russian Gulch above the mouth of theRussian River south to Bodega Head is pocketed with dozens ofintimate, sandy strands separated by rocky headlands--ideal forstrolling and picnicking. Popular family beaches include Goat Rockand Salmon Creek; beaches with steeper trails to the shore arelonelier.
Sonoma Coast State Beach: (707) 875-3483; www.cal-parks.ca.gov.
MOST HISTORIC BEACH
Did Sir Francis Drake actually stroll these sheltered sands inthe lee of Point Reyes in the summer of 1579? From Point ReyesNational Seashore's Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center, it's a11/2-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
This San Francisco beach - part of the Golden Gate NationalRecreation Area--is a prime hangout for hang gliders and thehangers-on who watch them. This is also a rare park where you canunleash your pooch; the beach trail begins near the viewingplatform.
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 conservationgroups for saving this gem from development. Walk 1/2 mile fromlimited parking past artichoke fields to look south onto a harborseal preserve (no access). A stairway leads down to honey-coloredsand backed by steep cliffs that keep this cove hidden from theworld.
Off State 1, 2 miles south of Half Moon Bay.
BEST BEACH TOWN
We recommend the view from the Giant Dipper roller coaster highabove the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk precisely because it's sogrand and so fleeting. Far below, the arcing sweep of wide, smooth,golden-sand beach encompasses bandstand, volleyball courts, andlegions of sunbathers. There's the Municipal Wharf with its gaggleof rail-hugging fishermen. And at the north end of the beach arecorduroy curls of board-crowded surf. We'd be tempted to compareSanta Cruz to the best of Southern California's beach towns, butthe Giant Dipper is beginning its wicked plunge beachward and wefeel a scream coming on.
Santa Cruz visitor information: (800) 833-3494. Santa Cruz BeachBoardwalk: (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) fora beach resort, and starting at $425 a night, it's a splurge. Buteven standard rooms have a fireplace and wet bar. And the view fromthe dining room of Roy's at Pebble Beach, a mainland outpost ofchef Roy Yamaguchi's famed Hawaii-based chain, is as sublime as theinnovative 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 thescenery is vertical and surf bludgeons wicked-looking rocks at thebase 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 awide, flat, gray-sand beach blessed with a gentle shore break thatkids and dogs can splash in.
About 9 miles south of Lucia, 4 miles north of Gorda. (805)995-1976; www.campone.com.