These treasured places promise surf, serenity, and surprises.
Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts
It stretches along the cape's entire 40-mile, Atlantic-facing beach. Locals love Coast Guard Beach, a prime swimming spot favored by Henry David Thoreau. At the tip of the cape, the Province Lands dunes create a vista of minimalist beauty. You can also see lighthouses, an old lifesaving station, 11 nature trails, and, depending on storm-shifted sands, perhaps one of the 1,000-plus shipwrecks recorded here; 508/255-3421 or nps.gov/caco.
Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland and Virginia
Nature's force, in all its benevolence and sometimes its wrath, vividly displays itself on this 37-mile-long barrier island, which sweeps south from Ocean City, Maryland, and well into Virginia. Most exploration here is by bicycle, by watercraft, on horseback (though not on the backs of the island's famous wild horses), or on foot. The same waves and wind that shape the miles of virtually deserted beach and create such a hypnotically soothing coastal ambience can also howl frighteningly out of control. Here, the invisible bonds of history, spirituality, and nature that connect us become almost palpable; 410/641-1441 (Maryland), 757/336-6577 (Virginia), or nps.gov/asis.
Cape Lookout National Seashore, North Carolina
The more-accessible Cape Hatteras National Seashore (252/473-2111 or nps.gov/caha), just to the northeast, gets more attention, partly for the famous Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. But the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, with its striking black-and-white diamond pattern, is pretty cool, too. And the three unbridged, nature-dominated Cape Lookout islands―North Core Banks, South Core Banks, and Shackleford Banks―show what the Outer Banks were like just a few decades ago, before strip malls and giant rental homes. Check out Portsmouth Village, an eerily well-preserved ghost town; 252/728-2250 or nps.gov/calo.
Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia
Serene landscapes and 17 miles of glorious sand and surf mix with fading reminders of a grander time. Cumberland was once a playground for the wealthy Carnegie family, who built a scattering of mansions amid the scrubby maritime forest. Most sit disused or in ruins. One, the Greyfield Inn (904/261-6408 or greyfieldinn.com), is the island's only lodging aside from primitive camping. It's a romantic blend of luxury and rusticity ( Coastal Living, "Natural Escape," March-April 2000, page 46). Otherwise, Cumberland is a great day trip. The National Park Service strictly limits access, so it's easy to feel as if you have the place to yourself―just you and the birds and the beach; 888/817-3421 or nps.gov/cuis.
Gulf Islands National Seashore, Florida and Mississippi
The largest national seashore extends across several barrier islands. It offers plenty to see (three hulking 19th-century forts) and do (trails for biking and hiking), plus a rare combination of beach and solitude. The Mississippi islands are reachable only by boat or ferry. On the Florida segments, you can drive through a stripped-down landscape of sea, sky, and sand until the only evidence of human presence is the half-drifted-over two-lane highway; 850/934-2600 in Florida, 228/875-9057 in Mississippi, or nps.gov/guis.
Padre Island National Seashore, Texas
Don't expect a pristine natural experience. The National Park Service says this is the world's longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island― 65 miles of white sand, extending southwest from Corpus Christi. But motor vehicles are allowed almost everywhere on the beach, as is camping. Currents and prevailing winds pile up lots of debris. Some of it, such as immense steel mooring buoys, is pretty fascinating. You'll see plenty of birds, and sea turtles nest during the summer. Windsurfers congregate at Laguna Madre, the bay that the barrier island protects; 361/949-8068 or nps.gov/pais.
Point Reyes National Seashore, California
Nature outdoes herself on the Pacific Coast's only national seashore, proclaimed by President John F. Kennedy in 1962. Point Reyes' 100 square miles of beaches and forests, meadows and marshes, windswept bluffs, and gentle coves drape the northwestern shoulder of the San Francisco Bay Area. Try hiking (don't miss the half-mile walk over the San Andreas Fault Zone); kayaking (paddle alongside locals on Tomales Bay); wildlife viewing (see protected tule elk); tide pooling (meander at Palomarin Beach); picnicking (head for Hearts Desire Beach); and camping (stop at panoramic, hike-in Sky Camp); 415/464-5100 or nps.gov/pore.
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Wisconsin
The best view of the Apostle Islands comes from the water. Twenty-one of the 22 islands and 12 miles of mainland shoreline near Bayfield, Wisconsin, make up the national lakeshore. (An early miscount put the number of islands at 12, so they were named after the biblical apostles.) Excursion boats, water taxis, and rental boats or kayaks allow great views of the sandstone cliffs and sea caves. In winter, you can sometimes visit the caves just by walking across the Lake Superior ice (call 715/779-3398, ext. 499, for ice conditions). Any time, the Apostles show off extraordinary natural beauty and interesting traces of history, including eight lighthouses. For more, see "Odyssey on an Inland Sea," Coastal Living, September-October 2002; 715/779-3397 or nps.gov/apis.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan
Colorful sandstone cliffs inspired the name of this ruggedly gorgeous park on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Wildlife, waterfalls, and Lake Superior storms add to the adventure. Campers, hunters, hikers, boaters, fishermen, cross-country skiers, scuba divers, kayakers, and other outdoorsy types love it. Even the human additions―a lighthouse, a former Coast Guard lifesaving station, abandoned farmsteads, old logging trails―appeal to the wild spirit in all of us. Those with milder inclinations will enjoy the glass-bottom boat tours of local shipwrecks; 906/387-2607 or nps.gov/piro.
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Indiana
Biologists like the diversity―more than 1,400 species of flowering plants and ferns, for example. Geologists like the dune fields, some almost 200 feet high, showing centuries of successive Lake Michigan shorelines. Historians like the landmark structures, including five houses barged here from the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. Birders like the opportunity to see as many as 350 species. And everyone likes the 15 miles of beaches; 219/926-7561, ext. 225, or nps.gov/indu.
Other national seashores and lakeshores:
• Canaveral National Seashore, Florida: 321/267-1110 or nps.gov/cana
• Fire Island National Seashore, New York: 631-289-4810 or nps.gov/fiis
• Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan: 231/326-5134 or nps.gov/slbe