Bordering lakes and oceans, these protected areas showcase the beauty of America's coasts.
The national seashores and lakeshores across North America are some of the best-kept secrets on public lands. Since the first one was designated in the 1950s, the National Park Service has preserved thousands of acres of coast along the Great Lakes, Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, and Gulf of Mexico. They’re the perfect mix of wildlife, nature, and beach. A National Park pass will get you free entry into all of these, making a great excuse to one up and add a few of these to your vacation list.
Top Picks for You
Assateague Island National Seashore
Famous for the wild ponies that roam the beaches, Assateague Island is one of the most diverse national seashores in North America. Yes, you can easily see the famous horses here and learn about their history, but there are many other popular activities you can do, including crabbing, looking for seashells, and kayaking. Birdwatchers also love Assateague because it’s on the Atlantic migratory flyway, and you can look for more than 300 bird species each year.
One of the closest towns to Assateague is Ocean City. Check out the sites or get your seafood fix here before or after your trip to the island.
Canaveral National Seashore
You don’t have to go to an exotic island to experience the magic of sea turtles—just plan a trip to Canaveral National Seashore! Learn about the four sea turtle species that nest here. For the best chance of seeing a mama turtle or the young as they hatch and scurry for the ocean, plan to visit during nesting season: April through October. The undeveloped beaches at Canaveral provide habitat for more than 15 animals on the threatened or endangered species list. Canaveral is near NASA and the beaches are perfect for viewing rocket launches.
Cape Cod National Seashore
Summer is always packed at Cape Cod, drawing thousands of visitors to the sandy beaches, wild cranberry bogs, marshes, and more. The lighthouses are some of the most popular attractions in this area—be sure to check the schedules if you’re looking for a tour or to see inside. There’s also an important research center here where you can learn about the local ecosystem or even get involved in a citizen science opportunity. Wouldn’t it be cool to say you helped scientists with research at a national seashore? Enjoy the day at this seashore, or to plan an entire Cape Cod vacation, start here.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
WHERE: North Carolina
Cape Hatteras takes the honor of being the nation’s first national seashore. When the National Park Service designated it as a protected public land back in 1953, they recognized how important the habitat was to area wildlife. The seashore offers a diverse ecosystem for dozens of animal species, including birds, reptiles, plants, sea turtles, and other marine life. It’s also known as one of the best places in the area to view the Milky Way.
INSIDER TIPWant to try your hand at surfing? This is a great place to do it. Learn more about the surfing opportunities here while planning your trip to the North Carolina coast.
Cape Lookout National Seashore
WHERE: North Carolina
You won’t be able to just drive up to the sights at Cape Lookout, but that’s part of the charm of this national seashore. With most of the attractions only accessible by ferry, you definitely want to do your research so you can catch the right ride to the seashore. Some of the activities that make it on your to-do list during your trip might include a lighthouse climb, a hike to see the wild horses, or birdwatching.
Cumberland Island National Seashore
Here’s another seashore that you’ll have to take the ferry to get to, so you’ll want to check the ferry schedule to make your plans. Since there are no paved roads on the island, you’ll want to plan to bring your own bike or rent one when you get there. Another popular way to get around the island is by kayak, which you can also rent. The island provides valuable habitat for otters, sea turtles, and other wildlife. To make the most of your trip here, plan to camp for a couple of days so you can have plenty of time to roam the island.
INSIDER TIPThe bird population here is amazing, offering seashore, marsh, and other valuable habitats year-round.
Fire Island National Seashore
WHERE: New York
Looking for a weekend escape from the city? This is it! You won’t find a more authentic wilderness experience this close to New York City. Fire Island has so much to see and do, from camping and hiking to fishing and canoeing. They also have special events going on pretty much year-round, so be sure to check the calendar if you’re looking for a reason to visit. While on the island, you can learn a lot about New York’s history. For history buffs, the popular Fire Island Lighthouse is a must-see stop, and William Floyd Estate should be on your list as well.
Gulf Islands National Seashore
WHERE: Florida and Mississippi
As the home to old forts that were used in the Civil War, this seashore is a definite destination for war and history buffs. You can learn more about the history here. As the largest national seashore, it’s spread out over two states. Learn what you can experience on the Mississippi side compared to the Florida side. You can’t go wrong with either one, though. Both are great places to camp, hike, and look for marine life from the Gulf of Mexico. Best of all, the weather is great, making it a good location to visit year-round.
Padre Island National Seashore
This seashore is 70 miles long and home to the longest undeveloped barrier island in the world. Barrier islands offer protection to the mainland from things like tidal waves and hurricanes. This makes it a great destination for wildlife, and that’s definitely the case for Padre Island. You’ll find nearly 400 bird species here throughout the year, and it’s also home to the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. You can learn more about the sea turtle program and your best chance of seeing them here.
INSIDER TIPThe national seashore is really considered part of North Padre Island, which is near the popular beach destination, South Padre. A lot of people don’t even realize the national seashore is here, but it’s worth a detour from the typical tourist spots.
Point Reyes National Seashore
This seashore is the only western destination you’ll find on the list, located just outside of San Francisco. The diversity of this seashore is impressive, boasting more than 1,500 plant and animal species. Some of the highlights of this seashore include Alamere Falls, kayaking around and viewing the Point Reyes Lighthouse, and watching for tule elk. Don’t forget to drive through cypress tree tunnel and check the schedule for regularly scheduled events like yoga, seminars, and guided hikes.
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
Wisconsin has a national lakeshore?! This destination is in the far northern part of the state and is made up of 21 individual islands. You can access a lot of the Apostle Islands from the mainland, but if you go for a visit, you’ll definitely want to consider taking a ferry or a cruise to see the other areas only accessible by water. These islands are truly some of the top spots in the Great Lakes to experience untouched wilderness. The best time to visit is definitely summer, but if it’s a cold winter, be adventurous and check out the ice caves. Nineteen of the 21 islands have camping available, making it some of the most remote camping you can find in the U.S.
Indiana Dunes National Park
You wouldn’t expect to find amazing and gorgeous sand dunes just an hour outside of Chicago, but that’s exactly what you’ll get at Indiana Dunes. Both a state park and national lakeshore, this area offers amazing (and challenging) hiking trails that stretch 15 miles along the southern shore of Lake Michigan. On a clear day, you’ll be rewarded with gorgeous views of the Chicago skyline. During spring, it’s a popular spot for birdwatchers because it’s a feeding and resting spot for many migrating birds.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
If you’re an avid hiker, you’ll love Pictured Rocks because there are nearly 100 miles of trails from which to choose. Along these hikes, you’ll have spectacular views of secluded wilderness, waterfalls, and of course, the stunning shores of Lake Superior. Here at the lakefront, you’ll see what the park is named for: the colorful sandstone cliffs. One of the best ways to see the cliffs is to take a boat tour. Check out this cheat sheet for the most beautiful and scenic sites along the lakeshore. It’ll help you get the most bang for your buck.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
It might be odd to think about amazing beaches being in Michigan, but that’s exactly the case at Sleeping Bear. The beaches here are natural and pristine. During the summer, they rival many ocean beachfronts—yes, really! Like Indiana Dunes, there are lots of dunes here to hike and climb. It can be a long and tiring walk up in the sand, but the views are definitely worth it. If you’re interested in science, you can learn how dunes form. From lighthouses, summer wildflowers, and wilderness for miles, you’ll have plenty to explore at this national lakeshore.