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April 25-May 1, 2007

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Resident Tourist Guide:
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Bathing beauty

Bathing beauty: Clearly, this young woman wasn't frolicking in our frigid waters.

Salt and Spray

Where to go in the North Bay to reach the edge of the earth

By Loren Newman and "Kelp Girl" Giles

Marin County

Agate Beach Park
On Bolinas' northern tip, Agate's six-plus acres provides more than two miles of shoreline and excellent tide-pooling at low tide in the adjoining Duxberry Reef. Take Elm Road to Ocean Parkway. 415.499.6387.

Angel Island State Park
Featuring camping, hiking and biking, Angel Island offers some secluded beaches on a very public island in the middle of the San Francisco bay. Ayala Cove and Quarry Beach are protected and sandy, while Perle's Beach offers pretty, if exposed, bay views and above-average beachcombing. The Immigration Station Barracks is anticipated to be closed through 2007 for ongoing renovation. On the upside, a cafe with beer, wine and a full oyster menu is now open. Accessible by public ferry from San Francisco or Tiburon. [email protected]

Don't tell them we told you. Bolinas proves to be one of the quirkiest beaches on the entire coast. For the full experience, camp on the beach (it's free) and mingle with the colorful after-dark set. Also write on the poetry wall. Look the directions up online; we can't be held responsible. (Pssst: C122.)

China Camp State Park
Tourists and locals alike frequent China Camp to watch the wildlife, hike, swim, fish, boat, windsurf and nosh. Walk-in camping is available on a first-come basis. Located in Marin on the San Pablo Bay Shoreline. Just outside of San Rafael on North San Pedro Road. 415.456.0766.

Dillon Beach
This Highway 1 haven is located just outside of Tomales. Despite numerous shark sightings, the moderate surf is popular with surfers and the wide swathe at the mouth of Tomales Bay draws Bay Area dog-lovers, sunbathers, partiers and lovemakers from miles around, particularly Sacramento. Beach parking is $5, which is, of course, why we rarely go there. Take Dillon Beach Road from Highway 1 in Tomales.

Marin Headlands
Just on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge and long used for military purposes, the Marin Headlands also has some of the most spectacular coastal slots in Marin County, including Rodeo Beach, which is possibly the easiest beach in Marin to access, with ample parking, public restrooms and a nearby Nike missile battery excitingly open Monday through Friday. Despite unpredictable weather, the small cover offers good sunbathing, surfing and yes indeedy, even semiprecious stones. Off Highway 101, take the Sausalito exit and follow signs for Marin Headlands and the beach.

Once out in the Headlands, it's always going to be a good idea to pull over and park where you see other cars. Lots of small, chic, mainly nudie beaches are hidden here. There is, for example, Kirby Cove, a long, pebbly beach on the end of the Marin Peninsula that offers great views of the Golden Gate Bridge, along with a rock tunnel that can be explored if the tide is low enough. There are restrooms, fire pits, a few picnic tables and a few walk-in campsites for tents only. It's of note that Kirby is frequented by the au naturel crowd. The government suggests directions thusly: Take the last Sausalito exit, immediately before the Golden Gate Bridge. Turn left at the stop sign, then an immediate right up the steep hill. This is Conzelman Road. The entrance to Kirby Cove will be on your left, a few hundred yards down Conzelman Road. Look for a gravel service road and metal gate, located at the end of the viewing point pullout.

Bonita Cove can be a bit of a mystery as the entire beach disappears at high tide. A new, improved access trail makes getting there much easier. Expect to encounter fellow humans who are nude or topless. Directions: 3.5 miles from the beginning of Conzelman road, there is a parking lot with a toilet (see driving directions for Kirby Cove). This is where the trail starts.

Tennessee Cove has a 1.8-mile path leading up to it surrounded by towering cliffs. At the southern end, there is a small, sandy beach with bizarre rock formations accessible only at low tide. Take the last Mill Valley exit off Highway 101 and go left on Tennessee Valley Road, following it to its end.

Red Rock Beach is widely considered the most popular nude beach north of San Francisco and thusly gets its share of crowds. On a warm day the non-swimmable, wind-sheltered beach can draw up to 300 patrons in various states of nakedness. There is a pervasive social vibe, but be warned: the nearest bathrooms are all the way at Stinson. Located between Muir Beach and Stinson.

Muir Beach Muir's half-moon-shaped cove boasts some of the best sand in the state. Set against a thick, fragrant forest with a rippling creek, there are plenty of opportunities to check out the wildlife that inspired the great naturalist whose name is honored here. An extensive trail system leads up into the Muir Woods. The mellow surf makes this beach an ideal destination for fledgling boogie boarders and ocean swimmers. On warm days the parking lot fills up by 11am, so get there early. On Highway 101 at Mill Valley, take the Muir woods exit and follow the signs.

Paradise Beach Park Plopped down on the eastern shore of the Tiburon peninsula, the 19-acre Paradise Beach Park offers lawn and picnic areas as well as a horseshoe court and fishing pier. 350 Paradise Drive, Tiburon. 415.499.6387.

Point Reyes National Seashore
Nearly one-third of all known marine mammal species have been spotted in the waters surrounding Point Reyes. The beaches, while typically not swimming (or even dipping) beaches, are beautiful and the bird-watching is grand. This is a national treasure of huge value with several lovely beaches found along its rugged coast. We could kiss its sand. McClure's Beach is arguably Marin's most scenic beach with a rough coastline bookending the north and south sides. During low tide, there are wonderful tide pools at the south end. Because of the pervasive undercurrent, swimming and wading are heavily discouraged. Take Sir Francis Drake Boulevard to Pierce Point Road and follow it to the end.

Popular with dog walkers and trash-collecting artists, Kehoe Beach has a lovely short walk from the lot and features giant dunes, marshlands and sidling streams that lead down to this section of the so-called Great Beach. Also on Pierce Point Road. Just south of Kehoe is the bird-watching wonderland known as Abbott's Lagoon. The dunes play habitat to the endangered snowy plover and resident egrets dominate. Walk past the lagoon and enter onto the Great Beach. Walking north connects to Kehoe, above. The parking lot is off of Pierce Point Road.

Sir Francis Drake would be proud of this beach that bears his name. With striking alabaster sandstone cliffs, which make for a dramatic setting and shelter the beach from northwesterly winds, this is one of the most accessible beaches at the Point Reyes National Seashore, and now sports a nifty restaurant adjacent to the parking lot. Be sure to attend the annual sand-sculpture contest held there every Labor Day weekend. Take Sir Francis Drake Boulevard west to its very end. There is a parking fee in the summer and this is where the buses decamp for the Lighthouse tour (which is why we rarely go there).

Very popular in the summer, Limantour Beach has a long blond stretch of sand and handy dunes to hide in from the relentless bloody wind. The nearby Estero de Limantour is also worth a stroll if you like birds in that special way, and we do. Once in the Point Reyes Seashore, take Bear Valley Road to Limantour Road and follow all the way.

Stinson Beach
This popular beach seduces thousands of visitors year-round with its moderate surf, great picnicking and white sand. On warm days, the parking lot is full by noon. Though acclaimed by the sunbathing set in the summer, the beach also offers striking morning views throughout the fall and winter. There are lifeguards on duty from late May through mid-September. This is as close to a SoCal beach as it's possible to get in Northern California. On Highway 101 at Mill Valley, take the Muir Woods exit and follow the road past Muir Woods and over Mt. Tam.

Tomales Bay State Park
Tomales Park is a 2,000-acre park adjacent to the Point Reyes National Seashore located in Inverness. The park offers four day use, surf-free beaches that are protected by the Inverness Ridge. There is a "reasonable" parking fee (which is why so many cars are seen lining the roads), but if a full family is involved, it's wisest to pay up and drive to park. Included in the park is Heart's Desire Beach, which, with its flush toilets, barbecues and netted, shallow swimming area, is a perfect place to bring the young ones and for birthday parties for the older set. Pebble Beach can be reached to the southeast of Heart's Desire by taking an easy uphill trail from the main beach at Heart's. Indian Beach, a spot not yet reachable by road, is only a half-mile walk through a bishop pine forest, and Shell Beach can also be accessed by the trails from Heart's Desire. Take Sir Francis Drake Boulevard into the Pt. Reyes National Seashore heading toward Drake's Beach and use the Pierce Point turnoff to the entrance.

At ease

At ease: Growing up swimming at Stinson, we had no idea what women looked like in their bathing suits. In the late '70s, it was still all Danskin leotards and elaborately dressed armpits.

Sonoma Coast

The New York Times calls the Sonoma Coast "perhaps the most unsung stretch of shoreline anywhere in the Golden State . . . [the] wild and moody yin to Orange County's bright and placid yang." Puhleeze. Whatever. We just know that the wild rockiness of the Sonoma Coast is absolutely seductive.

Doran Beach
Possibly one of the best Sonoma beaches for a family outing. Located on a feature identified by two words that are rarely used in sequence--"sand spit"--Doran divides Bodega Bay from the harbor and Bodega proper. Surfing and body-boarding are popular on the windward side of the spit, while bird watchers enjoy the salt marsh on the other side. There are 138 year-round campsites, showers, a pier and, most importantly, a fish-cleaning station where dirty little fishes can be cleansed. $6 day use fee. 201 Doran Park Road, Bodega Bay. 707.875.3540.

Salt Point State Park
All 6,000 acres of Salt Point feature breathtaking views, stunning ground cover, sweet fishing and velvety beaches. There are 20 miles of trails plus four different beaches perfect for picnicking. A popular park during abalone season. There is a small boat launch. Salt Point is located on Highway 1, approximately 27 miles north of Bodega Bay. Call 800.444.7275 for camping reservations.

Sonoma Coast State Beach
One of California's most underrated beaches, the Sonoma Coast state beach stretches 17 miles from Jenner to Bodega Head. Various beaches within the larger state beach can be accessed along Highway 1. Generally, the heavy surf and strong undercurrents make beaches along the Sonoma coast unsafe for swimming, but some at the Bohemian do it often, and it's worked out OK for us so far. The park service would hotly disagree.

Included are Goat Rock Beach, with picnic tables, restrooms and harbor-seal colonies highlighting the expanse. No dogs allowed. Fun fact: The final scene of The Goonies was filmed at Goat Rock Beach. Do the truffle shuffle to celebrate. Highway 1 at Jenner. Blind Beach is located just on the other side of the Russian River mouth and boasts huge rock formations, including astounding natural arches.

With a capacious parking lot and fairly clean toilets, Shell Beach is popular year-round. Come prepared for the steep and sometimes eroded climb to and from the beach. Three miles south of Jenner on Highway 1. Other Highway 1 beaches on this stretch are Furlong, Rock Point, Gleason, Portuguese, Schoolhouse, Carmet, Marshall Gulch, Arched Rock, Coleman, Miwok and Campbell Cove. For its part, Wright's Beach offers 30 campsites, as well as picnic tables, fire rings and nearby showers (that would be, shhh, at other campsites). Reservations are recommended, especially on weekends and during peak season. 707.865.2391.

Duncan's Landing is notorious, boasting a reputation as the most dangerous point along the Sonoma Coast due to huge waves and inconsistent swells. It's like the Hannibal Lecter of beaches. On the other hand, the spring wildflower displays are exceptional. Also in the Sonoma Coast collection is the popular picnicking spot Salmon Creek Beach, which while disallowing dogs and fires in favor of the snowy plover, usually features lots of surfers. (And we always come out heavily in favor of men changing their clothes, wearing nothing but a damp towel, by the side of the road.)

The 98 campsites in Bodega Dunes are fully equipped with hot showers, flush toilets and even a sanitation dump station. Whale watchers flock to Bodega Head in the winter and spring to see the migration. Whales or no, the views of the burly coast in both directions are top-notch. Rangers have reported an unusually high number of "sex in public" citations. No one has any idea why.

Stillwater Cove Regional Park Good for diving, good for views, good for doing your best air-guitar imitation of "Fever Dog." Take the long stairway to the heavenly beach or use the wheelchair-accessible path. Check out the abalone divers. Try abalone diving and embarrass yourself, rather, given the recent deaths, please don't. The 210-acre park offers meadows, forests, a beach launch for small craft and a superb view. Also included are numerous camping sites, toilets, dump stations and showers. Highway 1, approximately 16 miles north of the town of Jenner.

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