Go where the pros go to spot coastal treasure, from sea glass and driftwood to shimmery fishing floats.
Writer: Julia Rutland
1 of 7Photo: David Hillegas
Best place to find it: Playa Cofi, on the north shore of Vieques, a 30-minute flight from San Juan, Puerto Rico. The beach is sprinkled with colorful bits of bottles and jars frosted smooth by fine sand and wave action. (Hatteras Island, North Carolina, and Hammonassett Beach State Park in Madison, Connecticut, are other good bets.)
Why here: High tide washes ashore broken bottles, jars, and dishware from nearby shipwrecks and old landfills. There’s nothing like finding rare bits of red glass from old cars!
Don’t miss: The Beading Bikini, which sells handmade sea glass jewelry; 787/435-6850 or beadingbikini.com.
2 of 7Photo: Ted Tucker
Best place to find it: Lincoln City, Oregon, about two hours southwest of Portland. Road’s End State Recreational Site offers profuse piles. (Virginia’s Kiptopeke State Park and Chincoteague Island are also prime sources.)
Why here: Oregon has been a vital part of the logging industry since the 1800s. While being transported down rivers, much wood ended up in the ocean, ultimately surfacing on the beach, water-weathered and sun-bleached. You can take loose driftwood, but don’t dig up buried pieces—they protect against coastal erosion.
Don’t miss: Nearby D River State Recreation Park, an eight-minute drive south, is considered one of the best kite-flying beaches in the United States because of a unique mix of equatorial and polar air. For more information visit oregonstateparks.org.
3 of 7Photo: Ted Tucker
Best place to find them: Northern Michigan, particularly around the cities of Petoskey and Charlevoix, where the gray-and-white fossilized pieces of coral are abundant. Collectors have them polished to show off their pretty markings.
Why here: Millennia ago, warm, shallow seas covered Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, followed by glaciers that scraped the bedrock and deposited fossils along their paths. Each spring, Lake Michigan’s melting ice unearths new pieces and carries them to shore.
Don’t miss: Petoskey State Park, for camping, hiking, and lazing on the scenic bay beach. For more information call 800/447-2757, or visit michigan.gov/dnr.
4 of 7Photo: Altrendo Nature/Corbis
Best place to find them: Sanibel Island, Florida. Off the coast of southwest Florida near Ft. Myers, Sanibel is North America’s premier spot for scooping up shells including conchs, whelks, cockles, and breathtaking, perfectly preserved sand dollars. Locals say Bowman’s Beach is the best for shelling. (We’ve also been lucky in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Galveston, Texas.)
Why here: Sanibel’s unique east-west orientation in the Gulf of Mexico means currents constantly deposit shells along its crescent-shaped shoreline.
Don’t miss: The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum houses an extensive collection of shells from Florida and around the world; 888/679-6450 or shellmuseum.org.
5 of 7Photo: Ted Tucker
Best place to find them: In Ocean Shores, Washington, about two and a half hours southwest of Seattle
Why here: Strong ocean currents have been depositing these hollow glass spheres—used by fishermen to keep their nets afloat—along the shores of the Pacific Northwest for about a century. The peak years for finding the floats, which range in hues from aqua to black, have passed, but plenty are still bobbing along.
Don’t miss: Grab your binoculars and head south to nearby Westport to watch pods of migrating gray whales; westportwa.com.
6 of 7Photo: Ted Tucker
Best place to find it: Nags Head, Outer Banks, North Carolina
Why here: Wide expanses of beach, such as those along North Carolina’s barrier islands, are prone to intense lightning strikes, which melt the quartz in the sand into thin tubular or amoeba-like shapes also called fulgurites.
Don’t miss: Jockey’s Ridge State Park, the tallest natural sand dune on the East Coast, is a good spot for finding fulgurites. Don’t remove any specimens you find on state property, though: The park is a protected natural area. You can also visit the park museum to see fulgurites on display. For more information call 252/441-7132, or visit jockeysridgestatepark.com.
7 of 7Photo: Gentl & Hyers
When to Hit the Beach
Following a storm, hunt just after high tide. In good weather, look after a full or new moon, when the highest tides recede, depositing goodies. Always check regulations and posted signs before you remove anything from a beach.