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Do you love visiting America’s beautiful sights? You can thank some forward-thinking government officials for starting to preserve many of these valuable areas almost a century ago.
The federal national seashore program protects some of the most beautiful places on our nation’s coastlines from development. What and where are they? Let’s find out!
What Is a National Seashore?
National seashores are coastal areas that the federal government has set aside for public recreational use. Congress deemed these places worth preserving for ecological reasons or perhaps because they contain historic structures.
National seashores aren’t the same as national parks, but they’re officially part of the National Park System. The program dates to the 1930s, when the federal government also expanded the national parks program greatly.
10 National Seashores You Need to Visit
There are 10 different national seashores in the U.S. Most are along the Atlantic Ocean, including two on the Gulf of Mexico, while there’s only one on the Pacific. Many contain gorgeous beaches, but you’ll also find amazing forests, marshes, lakes, and lagoons. Here are some details on all of them to help you plan your visit.
#1. Padre Island National Seashore, Texas
Address: 20301 Park Rd 22, Corpus Christi, TX 78418
About Padre Island National Seashore: Texas is so big that many visitors may never realize it has a beach. The seashore extends almost 80 miles from the city of Corpus Christi down to North Padre Island. Don’t confuse this place with South Padre Island, which is more of a resort area that’s popular with spring breakers. Unlike most other beaches in the seashore system, these are open to vehicle traffic, so there are fewer pristine areas. One of them is Laguna Madre, with its naturally rocky shoreline.
Why You Need to Visit: These relaxed rules for driving on the sand mean you can set up camp close to the water’s edge. You can also enjoy typical gulf activities like saltwater fishing, boating, windsurfing, and scuba diving. You might even get to explore the ruins of some Spanish shipwrecks from the 16th century. It’s an incredible area for birding, too. Keep your eyes peeled for a crested caracara.
#2. Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia
Address: 113 West St. Marys Street, St. Marys, GA 31558
About Cumberland Island National Seashore: Our nation’s complex history takes a front seat at this unique spot that’s accessible only by boat. This barrier island lies off the coast of southern Georgia, almost in Florida. It has an incredibly diverse wildlife population as well as some captivating ruins from the plantation-era cotton trade. The historic island also was a resort playground for the wealthy. You can tour a mansion built in 1898 by a member of the Carnegie family.
Why You Need to Visit: Catch the ferry boat to discover some almost forgotten corners of history and the beauty of these unique salt marshes. Besides the mansion, you can also tour a modest African American church from the same era. There are 17 miles of continuous, undeveloped beach with not even a dock on-site. The seashore has a host of attractions on the mainland, too. At the visitor center, you can learn about the area’s important role in the War of 1812.
3. Gulf Islands National Seashore, Florida & Mississippi
Address: 1801 Gulf Breeze Pkwy, Gulf Breeze, FL 32563
About Gulf Islands National Seashore: Hurricanes have battered many towns along the Gulf Coast time and again. The barrier islands offshore create a natural buffer to help protect them. A few of these islands in Mississippi and Florida collectively make up the Gulf Islands National Seashore. They showcase miles of beach wilderness as well as some historic military structures. These include Fort Pickens in Gulf Breeze, Fla., and Fort Massachusetts on Mississippi’s Ship Island. This seashore’s other protected islands include Horn Island, Cat, and Petit Bois in Mississippi, and Santa Rosa Island, near Pensacola, Fla.
Why You Need to Visit: This is an opportunity to experience this area’s natural beauty away from commercial zones and popular tourist spots. Florida’s Naval Live Oaks section is 7.5 miles of hiking trails. The Mississippi headquarters on Davis Bayou in Ocean Springs is in a picturesque park with stately live oaks and magnolias.
Address: S. Washington Ave, Titusville, FL 32796
About Canaveral National Seashore: The Kennedy Space Center gets more attention, but next door is an island with 24 miles of sand and dunes. It’s an ideal habitat for the endangered Kemp Ridley turtle, but there are literally thousands more animals and plants here. Mosquito Lagoon may not sound inviting, but it’s home to dolphins, manatees, and a variety of seagrasses. On its western shore is Seminole Rest with its ancient Native American mound.
Why You Need to Visit: Much of Florida’s shoreline is overdeveloped, but not here. With Florida’s mild climate, you can enjoy some hiking, fishing, or boating pretty much year-round. And if you time your visit right, you have an excellent vantage point for a rocket launch.
5. Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts
Address: 99 Marconi Site Road, Wellfleet, MA 02667
About Cape Cod National Seashore: Just 70 miles from Boston, Cape Cod has traditionally provided a welcome respite from city life. It’s far enough outside the city to have its own laidback feeling of remoteness. Pres. John F. Kennedy personally designated this family favorite in 1961. Known for its iconic lighthouses and its renowned cranberry bog, this classic vacation spot has 40 miles of sandy beaches. There are six different swimming areas here as well as historic sites like the Marconi Station and the Dune Shacks.
Why You Need to Visit: Free-spirited Cape Cod has an incredible history and an inviting air. There are 11 different trails for hiking or cycling, and you can brave the chilly waters for kayaking or swimming. There’s also a section of the park that’s open for off-roading.
6. Assateague National Seashore, Maryland & Virginia
Address: 7206 National Seashore Ln, Berlin, MD 21811
About Assateague National Seashore: The Mid-Atlantic region has its own charms, and they’re on full display at this seashore that straddles two state lines. Assateague, with its 37 miles of shoreline, is on the coast of the Delmarva Peninsula. It’s a fairly narrow strip of mostly marshland, only a mile or so at its widest. Two-thirds of this barrier island is within the boundaries of Maryland, while the other third is in Virginia. Congress added Assateague to the list of seashores in 1965, saving it from its fate as a planned development called Ocean City.
Why You Need to Visit: Camping, hiking, and kayaking are popular here. You can see the unique breed of wild horses called Chincoteague ponies, as well as some wild deer and foxes. Migrating snow geese, by the thousands, are another attraction twice a year.
Pro Tip: Learn everything you need to know about camping on Assateague Island.
7. Fire Island National Seashore, New York
Address: Ocean Beach, NY 11770
About Fire Island National Seashore: When you’re in New York City and want to go to the beach, you head to Fire Island. It lies off the southern coast of Long Island, and it’s just an hour’s train ride from Manhattan. Once you reach the island by ferry, you can stretch out on 31 miles of sandy beach or explore the seaside towns. There are 17 different beach communities neighboring the public lands, each with its own charm and character.
Why You Need to Visit: One unique feature is the Sunken Forest, a grove of 300-year-old holly trees that are almost hidden behind the dunes. You can explore this natural oddity from an elevated boardwalk or drop a line nearby for striped bass or bluefish. For a dose of national history, visit the historic home of statesman William Floyd.
8. Point Reyes National Seashore, California
Address: 1 Bear Valley Road, Point Reyes Station, CA 94956
About Point Reyes National Seashore: The only national seashore on the West Coast, Point Reyes is a popular getaway for residents of the congested Bay Area. This Pacific Coast cape with its dramatic rocky cliffs is in Marin County, about 40 miles from San Francisco. Point Reyes isn’t just a beach destination – the hilly terrain includes forests and grassy plains. On the wildlife front, elks, bobcats, bears, and badgers call the place home. Right on the Pacific Coast Highway, this incredible spot became a national seashore in 1972.
Why You Need to Visit: You’ll enjoy the commanding ocean views. Make time to explore Wildcat Beach. It’s a 13-mile round trip to visit the stunning Alamere Falls, which cascades 40 feet down a rocky cliff. The incredibly photogenic Cypress Tree Trail is another must-see, and so is the Tule Elk Reserve at Tomales Point.
9. Cape Lookout National Seashore, North Carolina
Address: 1800 Island Road, Harkers Island, NC 28531
About Cape Lookout National Seashore: The Outer Banks, a 200-mile string of islands off the coast of North Carolina, has two different national seashores. This one, which contains its southernmost beaches, became part of the registry in 1966. This uninhabited area, also called the Crystal Coast, overlooks Raleigh Bay and has 55 miles of undeveloped sand. You can also visit the majestic 163-foot-tall lighthouse and learn about the two historic villages on Harkers Island. Birding is big here, too, with more than 250 documented species along these shores.
Why You Need to Visit: Go swimming, fishing, or windsurfing, or comb the beach for souvenir shells. Make time for the Diamond Lady, the distinctively patterned lighthouse that dates to 1859. You can learn about the day-and-night responsibilities of being a 19th-century lighthouse keeper. Shackleford Banks is home to a contented population of wild horses.
Pro Tip: While visiting Cape Lookout, check out these top 10 things to do in North Carolina!
10. Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina
Address: 46375 Lighthouse Road, Cape Hatteras Light Station, Buxton, NC 27920
About Cape Hatteras National Seashore: You could call Cape Hatteras the grandparent of them all because it got the seashore program rolling. Congress authorized it as the first seashore in 1937, and it finally became official in 1953. This 70-mile strip on the northern part of North Carolina’s Outer Banks contains three separate islands. From north to south, they are Bodie Island, Hatteras Island, and Ocracoke Island. Some call this area “the Graveyard of the Atlantic” because of the inordinate number of shipwrecks offshore.
Why You Need to Visit: Cape Hatteras is a renowned site for surf fishing, and it also draws many wildlife watchers. The endangered piping plover is an elusive but star attraction for birdwatchers. You can also encounter several kinds of sea turtles as well as dolphins and seals. There are more than 500 campsites on the beach and in the dunes, and vehicles are allowed in certain beach areas.
The purpose of the national seashore program is to keep these incredible areas open to the public. That means you. If you ever wonder what your government has done for you, here are 10 great examples. Which of these national seashores have you visited?