25 Gorgeous Coastal National Parks
Point Reyes National Seashore, California
From its wide sandy beaches to tree-covered ridges, this park plays host to more than 1,500 species of plants and animals and 150 miles of backcountry trails for bikers, hikers, and horseback riders. Love whale watching? From January through April, the headlands and beaches are great spots to catch a glimpse of migrating gray whales.
Virgin Islands National Park, U.S. Virgin Islands
Within this park’s 7,000 acres awaits an intricate history of civilizations that used the island and the sea for survival more than 1,000 years ago. Observe cultural demonstrations like “dumb bread” baking and basket weaving, or head to the island’s shore for water sports and activities. Recognized as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, St. John’s Trunk Bay offers a 225-yard underwater snorkeling trail and snorkeling gear rentals. Extend your stay by camping beachfront at Cinnamon Bay, where refreshing tropical breezes and Caribbean water views come with the campsite!
Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts
Positioned on the outer reaches of this iconic New England destination, Cape Cod National Seashore encompasses 40 miles of beaches, marshes, ponds, and wild cranberry bogs that are rife with opportunities to explore. Nature lovers will enjoy an abundance of hiking trails, while history buffs can take a ranger-guided tour of the 19th-century home of a whaling captain or climb to the top of Cape Cod’s first lighthouse. And in the warmer months, if adventure seeking is more your speed, sign up for one of the ranger-guided canoe trips from the Salt Pond to the marsh.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan
More than 40 miles of Lake Superior shoreline comprise this national lakeshore, which captivates visitors with stunning scenery, including sandstone cliffs that stand 50-to-200-feet tall above the lake. The park provides opportunities for outdoor adventuring year-round, but you’ll want to save swimming here for summertime – Lake Superior is the coldest (but most pristine!) of all the Great Lakes.
Padre Island National Seashore, Texas
Located just off the coast of South Texas, this 70-mile span of shoreline is home to 380 bird species, 13 of which are considered species of concern, threatened, or endangered. Padre Island separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Laguna Madre, one of a handful of hypersaline lagoons in the world (it’s saltier than the ocean!). Try your skills at windsurfing in the Laguna Madre, or watch sea turtle hatchlings make their way to the ocean between mid-June and August.
Channel Islands National Park, California
Comprised of five isolated islands and 145 plant and animal species that cannot be seen anywhere else in the world, Channel Islands National Park is only 36 miles from the mainland of Southern California. Take a half-day whale watching boat trip, a full-day hike around an island, or a three-day excursion aboard a dive boat. The park is only accessible by boat, and there is no transportation or lodging on the islands although primitive camping is allowed, so plan ahead for adventure.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, Alaska
Welcome to America’s largest national park; its total size equals that of Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park, and Switzerland combined. And the grandeur is vertical as well: The park rises from the ocean up to 18,000-foot Mount St. Elias. Hire a guide or outfitter to float or fish the rivers, trek the glaciers, or fly overhead to view it all from above. Lodging is available at the Ultima Thule Alaska Lodge or the park’s 14 public-use cabins.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area, San Francisco
Comprised of 19 separate ecosystems and 200 years of American history from Native American culture to the California Gold Rush (and right in the middle of a major American city), Golden Gate National Recreation Area is supremely accessible and host to 1,270 plant and animal species. Spot whales from the Muir Beach overlook, or watch the sun go down over the Pacific at the historic Cliff House on Ocean Beach. Because this national recreation area spans tracts of land scattered about many counties, places to go and things to do are plentiful.
Redwood National Park, California
Most often recognized as home to the tallest trees on earth, this national park in the northernmost coastal region of California also protects rolling prairies, oak woodlands, river ways, and 40 miles of coastline. Cruise along eight-mile-long Coastal Drive to take in sweeping views of the Pacific, or whale watch at the Enderts and Crescent Beach overlooks. Other outdoor activities include horseback riding along the beach, cycling, kayaking, and camping in view of crashing waves.
Indiana Dunes National Park, Indiana
Yes, it’s coastal! Indiana Dunes’ 15,000 acres on Lake Michigan enchant visitors year-round. During the summer months, visitors can enjoy swimming, sunbathing, and fishing along 15 miles of sandy beach. Sticking around for the sunset over the water is also a must. Popular winter activities include hiking, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing along the Glenwood Dunes Trail (you will need to bring your own equipment, however!).
Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia
The adventure to Georgia’s largest and southernmost barrier island begins with a ferry ride from the historic city of St. Marys. The park is home to a herd of about 175 wild horses that roam the island’s maritime forests, beaches, and wide marshes. But it’s not all wilderness—visitors can also tour the 22,000-square-foot mansion built by the Carnegie family at the turn of the 20th century.
Fire Island National Seashore, New York
Just over two hours from New York City, this barrier island feels a world away, compliments of outdoor activities that include beachcombing, stargazing, and bird-watching (more than a third of North America’s bird species have been recorded at Fire Island!). It’s also a great place to go for a swim, as the park staffs two of its beaches with lifeguards in the summer months.
Acadia National Park, Maine
Rising 1,530 feet above the shore, Cadillac Mountain is the tallest peak in Acadia National Park, and often the first spot to see the pink-hued light of dawn. Marked by steep granite formations and fjords, the park’s most popular outdoor activities include hiking its stony peaks, biking historic carriage roads, and taking in the gorgeous scenery that Maine’s rugged coastline provides.
Gulf Islands National Seashore, Florida/Mississippi
One-hundred-sixty miles of white beaches and coastal marshes perched along the Gulf of Mexico and six barrier islands off the coast of Mississippi make this the country’s largest national seashore. Divers can explore a 1906 tugboat wreck or the USS Massachusetts, a 550-foot battleship sunk by the military in the 1920s. Above the surface, take a bicycle for a spin on one of the park’s numerous bike paths.
Haleakala National Park, Maui, Hawaii
Located on the island of Maui, Haleakala National Park radiates Hawaiian culture. Catch views of the bamboo forest, waterfalls, and Pacific Ocean while hiking through the tropical Kipahulu area of the park. Hike along the elevated coastline, or head down to the sand to dive in for a swim. Between the months of December and April, sea turtles, seals, dolphins, and humpback whales can be frequently spotted from shore. Plan to end at least one day atop the rocky, volcanic Summit area of the park to admire a sunset from a more than 10,000 feet elevation … in the middle of the ocean.
Biscayne National Park, Florida
Only 30 miles away from the cosmopolitan city of Miami, the aquamarine waters and emerald islands of Biscayne National Park are a surprising and welcome escape. With more than 500 species of fish inhabiting its shallow reefs, outdoor enthusiasts can explore the waters by snorkeling, diving, kayaking, and boating. Whether spending the day or the whole weekend, this park offers a Caribbean-inspired escape right off the Florida coast.
Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Alaska
West of Juneau and only reachable by plane or boat, this 25-million-acre World Heritage Site is one of the world’s largest international protected areas. Glaciers, temperate rainforests, rugged mountains, salmon streams, and fjords cover the park, making myriad opportunities for exploration. Whether kayaking, strolling the shoreline, or camping in a snow cave, Glacier Bay National Park offers sheer (and sometimes icy) drama.
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Wisconsin
Take in calm water views of Lake Superior from the cliffs and windswept beaches of the Apostle Islands. Made up of 21 islands and 12 miles of mainland, this Great Lakes gem blends culture, wilderness, and marine views to create an all-American experience for visitors. Take a scenic cruise on the park’s protected waters, or tour any of the park’s eight historic lighthouses. Activities like fishing, kayaking, and even scuba diving are also available for visitors itching to explore this truly great lake.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina
The nation’s first national seashore is flanked by two major bodies of water, the Atlantic Ocean and the Pamlico-Albemarle Sound, and offers recreational activities to match. Surfers and bodysurfers can catch some of the best waves the East Coast has to offer at Ocracoke and Bodie Islands, while those who prefer a calmer seaside experience can go crabbing or fishing.
Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland
The salt marshes, maritime forests, coastal bays, and 37 miles of beach that comprise this park are home to a wealth of wildlife, including wild horses that roam freely. The 48,000-acre barrier island is constantly being reshaped, thanks to ocean wind and waves. See the island by bicycle on a four-mile paved trail along Bayberry Drive, or hike the half-mile “Life of the Dunes” nature trail.
Olympic National Park, Washington
Olympic covers nearly one million acres of glacier-capped mountains, lush rainforests, and sandy beaches. It’s a well-rounded combination of mountainous and coastal ecosystems—chock-full of natural and cultural history. Gaze at Olympic’s vast, starry skies, discover colorful tidepools, and view the park’s wildlife through its ranger-led programs. If looking to linger for a while, check out the park’s lodge and resort accommodations, from rustic campsites and cabins to modern cottages and suites.
Canaveral National Seashore, Florida
The longest stretch of undeveloped public beach on Florida’s East Coast belongs to this 24-mile barrier island. The park also serves as a sanctuary for 14 species of federally listed, threatened, or endangered animals, including Loggerhead sea turtles and West Indian manatees. The seashore is the perfect place for people seeking solitude, too: the middle 12 miles are accessible only by horseback or on foot.
Cape Lookout National Seashore, North Carolina
The adventure to these undeveloped barrier islands three miles off the North Carolina shore begins with a trip on a ferry or a breezy boat ride from the mainland. Once you arrive, there’s plenty to do, including fishing, bird-watching, camping, and climbing the Cape Lookout Lighthouse’s 207 stairs to take in the view.
Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
Covering 100 square miles, Dry Tortugas National Park is beautifully comprised of crystal clear, open water and seven tiny islands. Vibrant coral reefs, marine life, and shipwrecks make it one of the best spots in North America for snorkeling. As if that isn’t alluring enough, the park is also home to Fort Jefferson, an historical site constructed of 16 million handmade bricks and used as a prison during the Civil War. Travel aboard Yankee Freedom III ferry to explore these tropical islands 70 miles from Key West.
Everglades National Park, Florida
Dispersed across 1.5 million acres of the Florida mainland's most southern tip, Everglades National Park is easily accessible from nearby Miami or Homestead. With two distinct seasons--wet and dry--timing is everything when planning an opportune adventure to this subtropical sanctuary. Hit the trails for a hike or join a ranger for slough slogging (a version of off-trail hiking for those willing to get their feet wet) to explore areas of the park less traveled. Charter a boat to fish along the coastline or meander through the marshes and mangrove tunnels by kayak to truly delve into the park's watery landscape.