Blog Post Jennifer Errick Jun 4, 2014

12 of America’s Best National Park Beaches

Still recovering from the long, cold winter ... or just need some sun and surf in your travel plans this year? NPCA staff pick a dozen of the best beach vacation spots at national parks around the country.

1. Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park, Hawaii

On an archipelago known for its world-class natural beauty, this park offers an atypical paradise. In addition to its white-sand and rugged lava-rock beaches, this Big Island park offers a fascinating look into the traditional native people that once lived there. Take a guided walk to see the park’s petroglyphs near Honokohau Harbor, marvel at the engineering that created several Native Hawaiian fish ponds, and visit traditional sacred temples known as heiaus and even a holua, a stone slide built for Hawaiian royalty. After spending a day exploring, you can bask in the ample sunshine like the monk seals that visitors are sometimes lucky enough to glimpse.

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 islands 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 host a series of popular public hatchling releases in June and July. Want to watch turtle babies make their way to the ocean? 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 pristine Pacific coastline. Gold Bluffs is a wild and secluded ten-mile stretch of beach 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. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Not all of the best beaches are near the ocean—Lake Michigan is a popular destination for sun worshipers in the Midwest. So popular, in fact, that swimming at both Indiana Dunes and Sleeping Bear 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 a few excellent restaurants at the ferry landing to refresh you after your journey back to the mainland.

7. 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!

8. Gulf Islands National Seashore, Florida and Mississippi

The 12 separate units of this park protect a series of barrier islands off of 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.

9. 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.

10. 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 pristine, and you’ll have little company, aside from shorebirds, marine animals, and more than 100 wild horses that roam the islands.

11. 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.

12. 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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About the author

  • Jennifer Errick

    Managing Editor of Online Communications

    Jennifer writes, edits, and moderates online content for NPCA.