From the coconut palm-fringed bays of the Virgin Islands to the chilly wind- and wave-carved Olympic Peninsula coast, some of America’s best beaches are protected within the confines of the park system. They tread a delicate balancing act between recreation and conservation of fragile shoreline ecosystems that nourish billions of creatures.
National Seashore: Atlantic Coast, Maryland and Virginia
Sprawling across a barrier island shared by Maryland and Virginia, this national seashore boasts 37 miles of white-sand strand within easy driving distance of several of the eastern seaboard’s largest cities. Only a small part of Assateague’s beaches are accessible by paved road, which means that sunseekers must either hike to their favorite patch of sand or obtain an over-sand vehicle permit from the park service and cruise down the 12 miles of beach on the Maryland side, where driving is allowed. The Maryland side also sports several beachfront campsites, but you may have to share your secluded camp with the island’s wild horses. Surf fishing has long been popular along the Assateague coast; crabbing and clamming are possible in the shallow bays on the island’s leeward side. The seashore is also one of the best places along the mid-Atlantic to board surf, with consistent surf throughout the year and fairly warm water in summer thanks to the Gulf Stream.
National Seashore: Duck Harbor, Nauset, Marconi Beach
To naturalist Henry David Thoreau, who made four visits to Cape Cod between 1849 and 1857, the cape was a coastal version of Walden Pond, a place to discover and escape back into nature. The cape is still that way today, a wild thing on the eastern edge of Massachusetts that continues to rebuff civilization. The national seashore portion includes 40 miles of strand, much of it backed by rolling dunes, with 15 different beaches, some town managed and others under the auspices of the Park Service. They range from the placid bayside sands of Duck Harbor to untamed Atlantic strands like Nauset to historical shores like Marconi Beach, where, in 1903, Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi sent the first successful transatlantic wireless radio message between the United States and Britain. The long stretch of sand between Race Point and Head of the Meadow is open to off-road vehicles with a park permit. The only camping within the national seashore is self-contained vehicle camping at Race Point; tents and camping trailers are not allowed. The nearest other camping is in Nickerson State Park near Orleans.
National Park: Hawksnest Bay, Trunk Bay, and Cinnamon Bay
Turquoise water, talcum-powder-fine sand, palm trees swaying in a gentle breeze: What’s not to love about the beaches in this Caribbean national park? The more renowned beaches are on the north shore of St. John Island, a chain of pearly white strands that includes Hawksnest Bay, Trunk Bay, and Cinnamon Bay. Trunk Bay boasts a snack bar and an offshore snorkel trail through coral gardens. Cinnamon has a beachfront campground and cottages, and a water-sports shack where various boards and boats are rented. Farther east, gorgeous Maho Bay is home to a luxury tented camp on a sliver of private land between two park sections. Those who crave more seclusion can hoof it to isolated strands on the south shore of St. John and the park’s Anneberg sector. The beach at Brown Bay looks out across Sir Francis Drake Channel to the British Virgin Islands. The 1-mile Ram Head Trail leads to an unusual (and normally empty) blue cobblestone beach. The park’s most isolated beach, located at Reef Bay, requires a 2.23-mile hike along a trail of the same name.
National Seashore: Shackleford Banks
The main advantage of Cape Lookout over its much more visited northern neighbor (Cape Hatteras) is the remoteness, a solitude born of a lack of bridges to the mainland: A boat is the only way to reach these unsullied North Carolina barrier island beaches. And advance planning is necessary, because other than the five ferry landings, the islands are completely wild. Swimming, surf fishing, and beachcombing for shells are three ways to while away a lazy Cape Lookout day. The surfing isn’t half bad, either, especially along Shackleford Banks and Cape Point. With so little development, wildlife thrives inside the national seashore, in particular shore and migratory birds, and the harems of wild horses that roam the Shackleford Banks. Primitive camping is allowed along the beaches, and there are two sets of rustic cabins at Great Island and Long Point.
National Seashore: Watch Hill and Sailors Haven
The best thing about Fire Island—other than the quantity of so much pristine coastline so close to one of the planet’s largest urban areas, greater New York City—is the fact that a ferry ride is needed to reach the park’s choicest beach areas. Regular boat service operates from Sayville and Patchogue on Long Island May to October. The rest of the year it’s a long hike to those lonely beaches from car-accessible Fire Island Lighthouse in the west and Wilderness Visitor Center in the east. Lifeguards are on duty throughout the summer at Watch Hill and Sailors Haven, the two ferry-accessed beaches in the heart of the park. Besides sunning and swimming, the barrier island’s shoreline offers plenty of other activities, including surf fishing, waterfront nature walks, bird-watching, and beachcombing (you are allowed to take away 2 quarts of empty seashells per day). Watch Hill’s campground is open May to October; year-round backcountry camping is allowed in the Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness area at the park’s eastern end.
National Recreation Area: Baker, Muir, and Rodeo Beaches and Crissy Field
There’s an argument to be made that Golden Gate offers a greater variety of beaches than any other unit of the National Park System. Beaches in the San Francisco Bay Area park range from tiny urban slivers popular with early morning swimmers (Aquatic Park) to massive strands that can accommodate as many as a million people on summer holiday weekends (Ocean Beach) to secluded wilderness beaches that can only be reached by foot (Tennessee Cove). Boulder-strewn Baker Beach offers unsurpassed views of the nearby Golden Gate Bridge. The thin strip of sand at Crissy Field is a popular launching pad for windsurfers and kiteboarders. Muir Beach is home to a Zen meditation center, a popular English pub (the Pelican Inn), and a Monterey pine grove where monarch butterflies often winter. Rodeo Beach shares its magnificent stretch of coast with a wildlife rich lagoon, and Marin Headlands, on the north side of the Golden Gate, houses vintage World War II Army buildings and a Cold War-era Nike missile site. The park offers three waterfront campgrounds, all of them in the Marin Headlands section.
National Lakeshore: Lake Michigan Shore
Anyone’s first visit to Lake Michigan’s Indiana Dunes is a mind-blowing experience: a pristine lakeshore set against a backdrop of smokestacks, cranes, and other bleak industrial architecture. But that is what is so special about this park, the fact that it shares space with steel mills and port facilities. Conservationists kicked off the campaign to save the nearly 200-foot-tall dunes more than a century ago, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that their dream became reality. The park extends along roughly 20 miles of lakeshore just east of Chicago, a stretch that also includes Indiana Dunes State Park and a number of private holdings. Swimming is allowed between 7 a.m. and dusk, but bathers should recognize that a freshwater body as large as Lake Michigan can be just as hazardous as the open ocean, including rip tides, large waves, and ice in winter. Hikers and bikers can enter the park an hour earlier. Visitors can overnight at Dunewood Campground or at a site inside the state park.
National Park: Kalaloch, Rialto, and Ozette Beaches
Dramatic, windswept strands define the western edge of Washington State’s Olympic National Park, a place where you can always find an empty beach even at the height of the summer season. The 73 miles of park coastline feature soaring cliffs and sea stacks, sandy beaches and rocky shores, chromatic tide pools and rocky offshore islands where millions of seabirds nest. Kalaloch is the most user-friendly, a wide and sandy strand with a lodge and two campgrounds. The only other drive-up sand is rough and tumble Rialto Beach, adjacent to the Quileute Indian Reservation. Even farther north, the refreshingly remote Ozette beaches are reached via 3-mile boardwalk trails from the parking lot at Ozette ranger station. Dozens of remote beaches bask in the park’s Olympic Wilderness Coast. Some are accessible by walking along the shore at low tide; others involve hiking along various coastal paths like the Oil City Trail, Shi Shi Beach Trail, and the lengthy North Coast Route. Camping is permitted along wilderness beaches with a park permit. To avoid getting trapped by the incoming tide, rangers recommend that anyone hiking the Olympic coast always carry a current tide chart and topographic map.
National Seashore: North Padre Barrier Island
Texas’ quiet North Padre Island remains virtually unchanged from when Spanish explorers first probed its long crescent shore 500 years ago. Eons of waves, tides, and hurricanes created the 70-mile-long landfall and its wilderness beaches, the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island on the entire planet, and likely to remain so given its Park Service protection. Five species of sea turtles lay their eggs along local beaches, and given that it’s located on the central flyway between North and South America, the island offers rich pickings for bird-watchers. Recreation opportunities also abound: swimming and surf fishing on the Gulf shore, windsurfing and kayaking on the lagoon side. The national seashore’s only vehicular entrance is in the north, near Corpus Christi. Paved road extends only a few miles into the park; south of the Malaquite Visitor Center, the only way to transit the strand is by hiking, biking, or driving on top of the sand. Vehicles are allowed on the beach all the way down to the park’s southern tip; four-wheel drive is highlyrecommended.
National Lakeshore: Twelvemile and Sand Point Beaches
It seems counterintuitive that some of the nation’s best beaches should be so far away from the sea. However, the Great Lakes aren’t exactly ponds and many a coastal resort would love to have the kind of beaches lining Michigan’s Pictured Rocks. The park name derives from the sandstone cliffs that etch much of this Upper Peninsula shoreline. Wildly scenic beaches flank the multicolored palisades. Sand Point’s placid pocket-size beach is protected within the confines of South Bay, whereas Twelvemile Beach opens straight onto Lake Superior with views that seem to stretch to Canada. The small beaches at Chapel Rock and Miners Castle are named after nearby rock formations. At the far end of the park are the Grand Sable Banks and Dunes, which plunge 300 feet to the lake. Only the hardy go for a dip in chilly Lake Superior (also known for its rip currents), but the Pictured Rocks beaches make for great walking, camping, and just contemplating.
This story was originally published in the National Geographic book The 10 Best of Everything: National Parks.