Need some sun and surf in your travel plans? NPCA staff highlight top beach vacation spots at national parks around the country.
1. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan
Not all of the best beaches are near the ocean — Lake Michigan is a popular destination for sun worshippers in the Midwest. So popular, in fact, that swimming at both Indiana Dunes and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshores can be a crowded experience, especially during the height of summer. For a quieter experience at Sleeping Bear, visit the relatively secluded Peterson Road Beach in the southern part of the park or take the ferry to South Manitou Island. The island has beautiful beaches, and the ferry landing offers a few excellent restaurants to refresh you after your journey back to the mainland.
2. Canaveral National Seashore, Florida
For a classic beach vacation with sea and surf — and maybe even a manatee sighting — it’s hard to beat this barrier island half an hour south of Daytona. These wild, undeveloped beaches with large natural sand dunes sit just a few miles north of the high-tech rocket launch pads at nearby Kennedy Space Center and Canaveral Air Force Base on Florida’s “Space Coast.” Canoe or fish in the lagoon, swim the blue waters and hike the area trails. Just get there early during peak season, as the beach — and the parking lot — fill up quickly.
3. Padre Island National Seashore, Texas
This remote Gulf Coast seashore is the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island on Earth and home to some of the best birding opportunities in the country. With only one vehicle entrance at the north end of the park near Corpus Christi and just a few miles of paved roadway, the park’s untamed shores are largely undisturbed by crowds — aside from the clusters of turtle hatchlings that find safe haven there. Park staff recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of their popular public hatchling release program. If you plan a trip next year and want to watch turtle babies make their way to the ocean, you can get details on the park’s “hatchling hotline” at (361) 949-7163.
4. Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Alaska
If your perfect beach vacation involves watching animals in the wilderness while surrounded by dramatic mountain views, consider an expedition to the Land of the Midnight Sun. Bartlett Cove at Glacier Bay is a classic Alaskan beach with humpback whales, harbor seals, otters and a wide variety of seabirds. The cove is a short hike from a nearby spruce and hemlock forest where visitors can see even more wildlife, including bears and moose. Take a guided boat tour of the area or rent your own sea kayak for a daytime paddling adventure or an overnight trip to the nearby Beardslee Islands.
5. Redwood Forest National and State Parks, California
Known best for its namesake old-growth trees, this California park also includes nearly 40 miles of wild Pacific coastline. Gold Bluffs is a wild and secluded 10-mile stretch of beachfront named for the gold dust that miners once sought there. Visitors can camp right on the sand among the dunes and driftwood, enjoying the dramatic cliffs and visits from the local wildlife, including Roosevelt elk. Visitors can also take an easy hike from the beach on a creek bed into Fern Canyon. The narrow, level path winds through 50-foot canyon walls lined with lush mosses and ferns — just pack waterproof shoes for this unforgettable misty walk.
6. Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts
No list of top American beaches is complete without a mention of this windswept New England cape. The park borders a historic fishing village with a thriving artist community and features barrier islands, pine and oak forests, tidal flats, kettle ponds, boardwalks, lighthouses, and 15 beaches for swimming and fishing. It’s a perfect place to indulge in the sand and surf. You can even swim at the same beach where Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi sent the first successful transatlantic wireless radio message!
7. Gulf Islands National Seashore, Florida and Mississippi
The 12 separate units of this park protect a series of barrier islands off the Gulf Coast and offer a little bit of everything, including snorkeling, fishing and bicycling, though the main draw is simply relaxing on the sparkling whitest-of-white sands. Hike the bayous and coastal forests on the Mississippi side and explore several impressive brick forts on the Florida side, including historic Civil War forts and a Spanish colonial structure dating back to 1797.
8. Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, California
At the southernmost tip of the country’s largest urban national park is Point Dume, just a half-hour drive from Los Angeles. Its towering bluffs, rocky coves, white sand beaches and rich kelp beds are not only popular with locals, but also a favorite setting for commercials, music videos, TV shows and movies. Enjoy the panoramic views while you swim or surf, go on a dive with a local outfitter, or visit in the winter months, when you can witness whales migrating through the bay at surprisingly close range.
9. Cape Lookout National Seashore, North Carolina
It takes a bit more planning and effort to visit this park than it does to travel to nearby Cape Hatteras, but if you are looking for remote, wild beaches, it’s worth the trouble. The only way to access these barrier islands is by boat to one of the park’s five ferry landings. Aside from a few historic buildings, including the park’s checkered lighthouse, the beaches are wild and undeveloped, and you’ll have little company, aside from shorebirds, marine animals and the more than 100 wild horses that roam the islands.
10. Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Wisconsin
Lake Superior is the nation’s largest lake — so large it could fit all four of the other Great Lakes inside of it and still have room for three more Lake Eries. Because of this, its waters are uncomfortably cold, even in summer. Lucky you: This means you can kayak around the park’s 21 islands and have the beaches and spectacular blue waters largely to yourself, far away from the summer crowds. It’s a paradise for visitors who would rather boat, fish, dive and explore the islands’ lighthouses than go for a swim — or for those who don’t mind a shockingly chilly dip.
11. Olympic National Park, Washington
The 73 miles of shoreline at Olympic offer both accessible and remote beach experiences. Drive up to Kalaloch or Rialto Beach for a family-friendly afternoon of sun and surf, or head further north and hike to more remote destinations along the Olympic Wilderness Coast. (Just be sure to carry a map and a tide chart to avoid getting trapped when the tides roll in — if unsure, check with a ranger before heading into the wilderness.) Either way, the sand, cliffs, tide pools and dramatic sea stacks are an enchanting way to experience the Pacific.
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- Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
- Canaveral National Seashore
- Cape Cod National Seashore
- Cape Lookout National Seashore
- Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve
- Gulf Islands National Seashore
- Olympic National Park
- Padre Island National Seashore
- Redwood National & State Parks
- Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area
- Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore