Best Beaches to Play Hooky

In honor of the great weather we’re having this week, I’m reprising my piece on the best beaches for playing hooky. Here is how to call in sick. But hurry: the fog returns this weekend. Tip: When you want to find out if it’s foggy on the coast, before you go, check the fog-view satellite during daylight hours. (Click on the 1K visible satellite, and the 2K fog satellite.)

No car? Fear not. Take Muni to Baker or Ocean beach. Baker Beach is often warmer and always sexier—you can tan nude at the north end (pack a slingshot to ward off the slack-jawed boys spying from the cliff tops). Ocean Beach‘s saving graces are easy access and close proximity to the super-cool Camera Obscura and Louis’ Restaurant, the greasy-spoon diner with the million-dollar views.

Weekend traffic is horrendous in Stinson Beach, but not on a Thursday. Sprawling for three miles, Stinson is one of Northern California’s rare long, sandy strands. And it’s a primo spot for a beach party: not only are there freestanding fire grills, but alcohol is permitted on the beach (no glass). One caveat: Make sure your passengers aren’t the sort to get motion sick on tortuous Hwy 1.

If you can’t deal with bridge traffic or carsick friends, head south. Grey Whale Cove (aka Devil’s Slide) is California’s only state-sanctioned nude beach, and has sugary-soft white sand with stunning vistas. If bare breasts make you squeamish, continue two coves farther south to the locals’ favorite, Montara State Beach (aka McNee Ranch). Though it’s close to Hwy 1, the sand is long and wide, and at low tide, you can comb critter-packed tide pools.

Southern San Mateo County beaches have the most variety. Among the best: Gazos Creek State Beach is ideal for long walks down sandy strands—and it’s usually empty. If you long for New England-style beaches, those compact crescent-shaped rocky coves, head directly to Bean Hollow State Beach, the only dog-friendly beach this side of Half Moon Bay.
Gay boys and grlz have one (fabulous) choice: San Gregorio, the big daddy of Northern California gay beaches. Normally it’s sopped in by fog, but not this week. Head north of the state beach parking lot—way north—to the private lands where nudists have built driftwood shelters. (There’s an exclusive private parking area down a toll road on private property, but its location is the province of the gay underground. Ask your ‘mo friends, or park at the state beach and hoof it north.)

The best beach for off-leash dogs is Fort Funston, at SF’s southeastern edge. When you tire of playing fetch, you can watch hang gliders take their lives into their own hands. The best beaches for barbecues are in San Mateo. Read my tips on cooking over an open fire. It’s easier than you may think.

Beach days are rare. We live at the westernmost edge of Western civilization, at the very margin of land and sea, but we get so caught up in our day-to-day dramas that we forget to recognize what’s around us. The time is now. In the words of Horace: “Seize the day! lest the years imprison us.”

More beaches, hotels, restaurants, and hikes in San Francisco

Mammoth Mountain Road Trip

Soaring above the Ansel Adams Wilderness in the saw-toothed eastern Sierra, Mammoth Mountain is California’s best ski resort, bar none. High above tree line with a base elevation over 8000ft, Mammoth is actually a dormant volcano, and from atop the sky-punching 11,053ft-high summit, you can see clear across the entire state to the Coastal Range. Three miles of wide-open bowls stretch across the mountain’s 3500-acre face, some nearly vertical with gulp-and-go chutes, others gently sloping, ideal for ballroom-style shooshing.
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The cross-country center looks like a scene from a snow globe, with 19 miles of groomed trails wending through dense pine forests dotted with icy-blue lakes. At its center is the Tamarack Lodge, a vintage 1930s log-cabin-like lodge surrounded by rustic cabins. Downhill skiers do better staying at the Village at Mammoth or the new Westin Monache, both near nightlife and walkable to the village gondola, which whisks skiers to the base of the mountain. Alas, the town of Mammoth Lakes is strictly utilitarian—a patchwork of condo complexes, subdivisions, and strip malls—but with skiing so great, who cares?
When you’re driving through such majestic scenery, you hardly notice the clock. I made the seven-hour trek from San Francisco last week—and the time flew by. US 395 is among California’s most spectacular roads, rivaled in beauty only by coastal Hwy 1.
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Mono Lake always catches me off guard. As US 395 wends south along the Walker River, your eye grows accustomed to whitewater, tall pines, and narrow mountain passes. Everything rises so high around you that you forget you’re at elevation. Then suddenly the sky opens up and the Mono Basin unfurls a thousand feet below in eerie vastness. At the South Tufa Trail, you can sit on this bench and apprehend space in ways not possible in the city.
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I’m forever amazed how few Northern Californians make the trip to the eastern Sierra. Whenever I need to hit the reset button, to find new perspectives on day-to-day life, this is one of my favorite places to go. The mountains hang like curtains from heaven. Everything is so big, it’s impossible to judge distance. Consciousness snaps into the present.
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Nothing beats the exhilaration of skiing in a Sierra snow storm, but after three days of powder-skiing, my legs burned out and I was ready for home. On the way, I detoured north around Lake Tahoe to see the snow depth at Donner Pass, near Sugar Bowl ski area. At one point during last week’s storm, snow fell at a rate of two inches per hour, dumping a whopping four feet in a single 24-hour period. That house in the above image is buried to the second floor eaves. Spring skiing will be fantastic this year.