Forget the Jersey Shore. If you crave the solitude of a never-ending, undeveloped stretch of coast to beachcomb, birdwatch, and sunbathe to your heart’s content, this short list of America’s best national seashores is for you.
Let’s get the basics out of the way. I trust that you are familiar with the National Park Service. But what is a National Seashore? In short, national seashores are a part of the National Park Service but have a different designation — like a national monument or national park.
Federally appointed by Congress as coastal areas that are of natural and recreational significance, national seashores focus on the preservation of a coastline’s natural values while also providing water-oriented recreation and education. So, what makes our National Seashores special?
These coastal areas have rich, biodiverse ecosystems that are especially vulnerable to the threats of climate change. They are critical to protecting coastal communities and ecosystems from extreme weather and offer endless opportunities for seaside adventures.
In total, there are 10 National Seashores located on the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts — so you could check them all off your bucket list. But here are our top three picks.
The 3 Best National Seashores
Seven miles off the coast of southern Georgia, you’ll find the state’s largest barrier island. Known as Wisso by the native Timucan nation, Cumberland Island is home to one of the most important loggerhead turtle nesting sites in the southeast.
Only accessible by private boat or ferry, permits are limited to just 300 visitors a day. That means it is easy to ditch the crowds and find your own secluded stretch of pristine, undeveloped shoreline, or dense live oak forest.
While you are welcome to visit for the day, we recommend at least 2 to 3 days to explore the ocean and estuaries, beaches and dunes, oak and pine forests, as well as salt marshes and freshwater wetland ecosystems this remote island has to offer.
Historically rich as it is biologically diverse, Cumberland Island was once a gilded age playground for the Carnegie family and their fellow titans of industry. Today, you can tour the mighty ruins of Dungeness as well as the impressive Plum Orchard mansion.
Head north on the island to visit the first settlement, where emancipated slaves of the Gullah Geechee culture created a thriving community and built the First African Baptist Church in 1893.
Trip Idea: Bikepack on Cumberland Island
Cumberland Island is an ideal spot for your first bikepacking trip! Although loose sand can be challenging at times (we recommend fat tires), Cumberland Island is flat and easy to navigate.
From Sea Camp Ranger Station, head north on the Main Road for approximately 5 miles, keeping an eye out for the many feral horses that inhabit the island. Once you reach the Willow Pond Trail, stash your bike (no bikes are allowed on backcountry trails) and find camp at the Hickory Hill backcountry campsite.
From basecamp, hike the rest of the Willow Pond Trail to the beach, taking in the dynamic maritime forests, Carolina jasmine, neon saltwater marshes, rolling dunes, and miles of undisturbed shoreline — perfect for beachcombing.
Be aware of wildlife — it is common to run into armadillos, alligators, feral hogs, and feral horses while on the trail.
Having a bike makes it easy to explore the most remote pockets of the island. Hop back on your bike and ride north on the Main Road for about 6 miles to the Brickhill Bluff Trail.
Tucked along a brackish river, the Brickhill Bluff campsite is a great spot to take lunch and watch pods of dolphins swim out with the tide. If you’re feeling adventurous (and have plenty of water), continue riding another 4 miles north to check out the First African Baptist Church, Museum of African American history, and Whitney Lake, where the island’s largest alligator is rumored to hang out.
Things to Know Before Your Visit
- Location: Mainland Visitor Center, 113 West St. Marys Street, St. Marys, GA 31558
- Getting there: Cumberland Island is only accessible by ferry. Reservations are strongly encouraged.
- Camping: Permits for both group campsites and backcountry campsites are required.
- Bikes: Bicycles are permitted on the island. Visitors can bring their own for a $10 fee. Bicycles are only allowed on the Main Road and on the beach between Sea Camp and Dungeness sea crossings.
- Entrance fees: $10 for adults, youth under 15 years are free.
Cape Cod National Seashore
Jutting 60 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean, Cape Cod National Seashore offers 40 miles of pristine sandy beaches, marshes, ponds, and even wild cranberry bogs stretching from Chatham to Provincetown. Home to 370 species of shorebirds, Cape Cod National Seashore is a birder’s paradise. Be sure to bring your binoculars!
Cape Cod National Seashore is steeped in early American history. For nearly a century, an area known as Peaked Hill Bars has attracted writers and artists seeking the isolation and inspiration provided by the moody Atlantic coastline.
Icons of American art and literature like E.E. Cummings, Jackson Pollock, and Henry David Thoreau each lived and worked in weathered, primitive dune shacks left behind by the United States Life-Saving Service, whose mission was to assist survivors of shipwrecks in the early 20th century.
Today, modern creatives have the opportunity to apply for artist residencies through nonprofits like thecompact.org.
Trip Idea: Hike Great Island to Jeremy Point and Tavern Loop
The longest hike in Cape Cod National Seashore, this 9.1-mile loop near Wellfleet is considered to be one of the best hikes in all of Massachusetts. From the Great Island parking area, the trail starts off on a slight descent through a maritime forest toward “The Gut,” a stomach-shaped section of the Herring River that connects to Wellfleet Harbor.
Keep left on the sandy trail toward the elevated heights of Great Island and the Smith Samuel Tavern — an archaeological site marking where a 17th-century whaling tavern once stood.
The hike continues through even-aged pitch pine forests and saltwater marshes to the base of Great Beach Hill, a colossal sand dune standing 75 feet tall. After a quick but challenging ascent, you’ll be rewarded with sweeping views of the Herring River, Wellfleet Harbor, and Cape Cod Bay.
If you time it right, you can extend the hike to Jeremy’s Point Overlook, which is a sandbar-like stretch of beach that emerges at low tide. This leg of the journey offers a very secluded beach experience, with plenty of opportunities to birdwatch and beachcomb for razor clams, lady slipper shells, and bay scallop shells — often seen as a symbol of Cape Cod.
From Jeremy’s Point, head back north on the Great Island Trail for an easy return hike along the beaches of Cape Cod Bay. Always be mindful of the tide, bring plenty of water, and pack sun protection.
Things to Know Before Your Visit
- Location: Salt Pond Visitor Center, 50 Nauset Road, Eastham, MA 02667
- Getting there: Once on the Cape, most park features are off Route 6 from Eastham to Provincetown. Stop at a park visitor center, or at a chamber of commerce, to get a map of the local vicinity.
- Camping: Cape Cod National Seashore does not offer camping, but Nickerson State Park and Wellfleet Hollow Campground are nearby state campgrounds and can be reserved on Reserve America.
- Bikes: Bikes are allowed on the three designated national seashore bike trails, on paved roads and parking areas, and on unpaved roadways (fire roads). Bicycles are not permitted on hiking trails or on beaches.
- Entrance fees: All hiking trails are free, but beaches require a $15-25 entrance fee.
Point Reyes National Seashore
Less than 2 hours north of San Francisco, Point Reyes National Park offers visitors an 80-mile tapestry of estuaries, bays, lagoons, tidal mudflats, marshes, grassy bluffs, and forested ridges that support an abundant diversity of wildlife. This California gem has 150 miles of trails and several secluded beaches to explore, like Point Reyes South Beach, where a colony of elephant seals can be viewed.
For more wildlife viewing, head to the Tomales Point Trail on the northernmost part of the peninsula to see tule elk, an elk subspecies that is historically native to the region and was once on the brink of extinction.
Trip Idea: Backpack to Wildcat Campground and Alamere Falls
After reserving well ahead of time, pick up your backcountry permit from the Bear Valley Ranger Station and make your way to the Bear Valley Trailhead. Hike through the thick Douglas fir forests along the Bear Valley Trail for about 3 miles before turning left onto Glen Trail.
You’ll crest a ridge to the Coast Trail, where you can take in expansive ocean views (if it isn’t too foggy). Hang a sharp right on Stewart Trail for a short walk to Wildcat Campground.
The most remote camp in Point Reyes, Wildcat Camp is a picturesque field on top of a seaside bluff. Here you can set up camp and continue on to Wildcat Beach and Alamere Falls.
A dramatic sight to behold, Alamere Falls is an impressive 40-foot-tall cascade that flows directly into the ocean — a feature shared by only 34 waterfalls in the world.
But before you make the trek, be aware of tides and surf conditions. You will need a low tide to safely walk along the beach to the base of the falls.
Things to Know Before Your Visit
- Location: 1 Bear Valley Road, Point Reyes Station, CA 94956
- Getting there: The Bear Valley Visitor Center is located approximately 30 miles north of San Francisco, less than a mile off Highway 1 along Bear Valley Road. Travelers may approach the park via the winding scenic Highway 1, either from the north or the south.
- Camping: Point Reyes National Seashore only offers backcountry hike-in and boat-in camping. Site availability is limited, so be sure to plan ahead.
- Bikes: Point Reyes permits biking only outside of wilderness areas along emergency access/dirt fire roads, paved roads, and a few single-track trails.
- Entrance fees: Point Reyes does not require an entrance fee, but campsites start at $30 per site, per night.