Are national seashores summer’s best kept secret?

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If a beach destination is in your summer trip plans, national seashores might just be the hidden gems you’ve been searching for. With beautiful natural beaches, unmatched views, historic settings and sparkling waters, national seashores give you beach parks on every coast for the perfect sand, sun and waves vacation this summer.

Planning a beach vacation? Learn why the unmatched beaches and nature of national seashores are the best kept secret. Photo credit: Depositphotos.

Among the many monuments and natural spaces that make up America’s National Park System, the U.S. has 10 national seashores. These beaches and barrier islands are protected from development and are part of the National Park Service’s preservation efforts. This means that you will find pristine beaches, uninterrupted nature, historic lighthouses and plenty of water activities at these seashores.

The beach is already a top vacation destination — 62% of Americans want to head to the coast for their next vacation, according to USA Today’s 2024 travel survey. If you are one of those people, the beaches at a national seashore have sand and water for relaxation and recreation.

Each offers a unique combination of beautiful views, walking and biking trails, camping, abundant plant and animal species and historical significance. With less commercialism, national seashores can also offer an escape from crowds. This summer, plan a vacation to one of the national seashores.

National seashores on the Atlantic coast

Seven of the Park Service’s national seashores are on the east coast, encompassing hundreds of miles of shoreline from Florida to New England. Head to one of these beach retreats or string together a few for a summer road trip.

Canaveral National Seashore

The barrier island that makes up Canaveral National Seashore is the longest stretch of undeveloped beach on the east coast of Florida. Canaveral is located east of Orlando and has plenty of opportunities for swimming, fishing and camping.

With its proximity to the Kennedy Space Center, Playalinda Beach at Canaveral National Seashore offers a prime viewing spot for rocket launches. Launch days are often busy, so plan to get to the seashore early.

Cumberland Island National Seashore

The Cumberland Island National Seashore is located just south of Jekyll Island, Georgia. The island can only be reached by the passenger ferry or a private boat. Once on the island, there are almost 10,000 acres of wilderness to explore, including beaches and marshlands. Guided tours give an educational view of the generations of people who have lived on the island.

If you want to extend your stay on Cumberland Island, reserve a spot at one of the island’s five campgrounds. There are options for both campsites and wilderness camping.

Outer Banks, North Carolina

The Outer Banks in North Carolina boast two national seashores. Cape Hatteras National Seashore has countless water and beach activities. Coquina Beach is known for its large sand dunes and gorgeous secluded beach. The barrier islands are also home to three historic lighthouses and offer the opportunity to climb the Bodie Island Lighthouse.

Cape Lookout National Seashore, the other seashore on the Outer Banks, is accessible by ferry. Once there, view the herd of wild horses, drive on the barrier islands with a permit, observe wildlife around the area or spend the day simply enjoying the sun and sand on the island’s 56 miles of beaches. Although Cape Lookout Lighthouse is closed for climbing in 2024, the Keeper’s Cottage remains open.

Assateague Island National Seashore

Assateague Island National Seashore, located off the coast of Maryland and Virginia, is home to one of America’s few herds of wild horses. Approximately 100 horses graze on the meadows and beaches, providing a majestic sight for visitors. The park also has hiking, biking, fishing and water recreation. Beach camping is available on the Maryland side of this national seashore.

Cape Cod National Seashore

Six beaches welcome visitors at Cape Cod National Seashore. Located on Cape Cod peninsula in Massachusetts, this national seashore is the perfect escape in the summer. Hike, bike and fish at the beach. You can also stroll through almost 2,000 acres of the Peaked Hill Bars sand dunes and the historic dune shacks.

Fire Island National Seashore

Located on a barrier island off the coast of Long Island, New York, Fire Island National Seashore is easily reachable by ferry and car. Relax at Fire Island with some birdwatching, beachcombing or fishing. You can also explore salt marshes, maritime forests and the Fire Island Lighthouse. 

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Gulf Coast national seashores to visit this summer

The Gulf Islands National Seashore is one of two seashores along the Gulf of Mexico. Gulf Islands spans Florida and Mississippi and is the largest national seashore at 160 miles long. The park comprises several Mississippi and Florida islands with access to different areas of the park possible by car and ferry.

Stunning white sand beaches and warm emerald waters at Gulf Islands are perfect for sunbathing, swimming and snorkeling. Historic Fort Barrancas, Fort Pickens, and Ship Island offer exhibits and programs.

Padre Island National Seashore near Corpus Christi, Texas offers another access point to the Gulf Coast. Counted as one of America’s 10 best beaches in 2023 by the Independent, this untouched barrier island boasts swimming, kayaking, camping and hiking along over 60 miles of coastline. Nature abounds as well with the release of baby sea turtles between June and August and hundreds of migratory bird species passing through.

Point Reyes National Seashore on the West  Coast

The Pacific coast is home to Point Reyes National Seashore, the only national seashore on the west coast. Point Reyes is located north of San Francisco, making it a perfect stop on a Highway 1 road trip.

The Point Reyes seashore includes 80 miles of shoreline and stunning views from the rocky headlands. Elephant seals and tule elk are a few of the thousand species that live in the area. A network of hiking trails will take you through grasslands, forests, waterfalls and beaches.

The Point Reyes Lighthouse is a must-visit stop at this national seashore. Built in 1870, the lighthouse is well known today for the 313 steps visitors must climb down to reach the light. Tamara Tsaturyan from Thriving In Parenting recalls, “Climbing down and back up the stairs to the lighthouse was a huge challenge. It was so worth it though with a breathtaking view of the mighty and wild ocean from the top.”

Travel to America’s national seashores this summer

From the sandy stretches of beach and barrier islands of the national seashores on the Atlantic to the picturesque cliffs of Point Reyes National Seashore, these destinations are among the best kept secrets of beach vacations. Explore these unforgettable seashores this summer for the ultimate beach trip.

Lisa Wells is a travel, food and lifestyle writer and photographer who has traveled across 37 countries. As the founder of Coastal Wandering, she shares her love for laid-back beach living with stories, recipes, and tips for a relaxed coastal lifestyle.

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