North from San Francisco, the coast bears little resemblance to the southern part of the state. The landscape, climate, flora, and fauna are distinct, and you can forget about surfing and bikinis; instead, you'll find miles of rough shoreline with broad beaches and tiny bays harboring fantastic rock chimneys, blowholes, and bridges carved by the ocean waves.

You may think you've arrived in Alaska when you hit the beaches of Northern California. Take a dip, and you'll agree with the locals: The Arctic waters on the Northern Coast are best left to sea lions. That doesn't mean you can't enjoy the beaches, though, whether by strolling along the water or taking in the views of towering cliffs and seascapes. And unlike their southern counterparts, the beaches here are not likely to be crowded, even during summer months.

The best season to visit is spring, when wild poppy, iris, and sea foam carpet the headlands, or fall, when the sun shines clear and bright. Summers are typically cool and windy, and the ubiquitous fog burns off by afternoon.

The most scenic way to reach Stinson Beach, Mendocino, and points north is to drive Hwy. 1 along the coast. U.S. 101 runs inland much more quickly, through Healdsburg and Cloverdale, but it doesn't provide the spectacular coastal views. A good compromise if you're headed to, say, Mendocino, is to take U.S. 101 to Cloverdale and then cut over to the coast on Hwy. 128.