What you might find at a National Park Service beach: silky sand, miles of nearly empty strands, lush scenery and even some wild horses. What you won't find: a carpet of sunbathers on towels and acres of concession stands. Part of the charm of these NPS-managed beaches that we all co-own as U.S. citizens is the focus on preservation as an equal aspect to recreation. Many of these mostly undiscovered beaches shelter natural flora and fauna, and though these are still fantastic destinations for sun-worshipping, they're also wonderful for a quiet morning stroll beside the rhythmic lap of waves.
To help the NPS celebrate its 100th anniversary (Aug. 25, 2016) we decided to catalog a list of the 10 national seashores and one very beach-worthy national park. Grab your friends, load up the car and have fun exploring—just remember to leave the area better than you found it.
Assateague Island National Seashore—Maryland
On the remote Assateague Island National Seashore in the Atlantic along the coast of Maryland and Virginia, wild ponies and horses roam the 37-mile-long expanse. Farther south, venture into the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge that neighbors Assateague Island. Kayak through marshy waters around the island, hike across the island or sit and watch wild ponies, deer and other wildlife. For a signature experience, attend the Chincoteague pony swim when the wild ponies are rounded up by local firefighters to swim across the quiet Assateague channel and later be auctioned off. The event, however, can be very crowded.
Canaveral National Seashore—Florida
Launch from sites in Canaveral to explore Mosquito Lagoon and Indian River. Take a scenic, 6-mile drive on Black Point Wildlife Drive through the park's pine forests and marshy lengths before settling in on the beach for a day of fishing or relaxing at this coastal Florida gem. Fowl hunting is permitted at the nearby wildlife refuge. Canaveral National Seashore also makes a great day trip from theme-park-centric Orlando—about an hour east of Orlando. For a longer stay, travelers can find hotels and other forms of lodging in the small towns near the park. Camping is permitted at several locations within the park.
Cape Cod National Seashore—Massachusetts
Explore miles of biking trails at this New England favorite just two hours outside of Boston. Beaches around Eastham, Wellfleet, Truro and Provincetown are open during the warm summer months, and it's a legendary shore—which also means it can be one of the most populated of the National Seashores. The waters around this cape sank more than 1,000 ships, so with nearly 400 years of history in the water, keep your eyes peeled while wandering the Cape Cod National Seashore beaches, because you just might find an artifact washed upon the beach. From the head of Meadow Beach in North Truro, an entire shipwreck (the Frances) can sometimes still be seen during low tide.
Cape Lookout National Seashore—North Carolina
Catch a ferry and ride out to the barrier islands of Cape Lookout on the coast of North Carolina. During the day, find shells of several colors and varieties and spot a range of wildlife. At night, tour around the lighthouse with a flashlight and a park ranger for a different experience (you also can do a self-guided tour of the lighthouse during the daytime, but you might as well call it "legs day" since there are 207 steps to the top). Cape Lookout celebrates its 50th anniversary this year as the NPS celebrates its 100th.
Cumberland Island National Seashore—Georgia
The Cumberland Island National Seashore is roamed by wild ponies and only accessible by boat that leaves downtown St. Marys, Georgia. The Dungeness Ruins are particularly lovely, belonging to Revolutionary War hero Gen. Nathanael Greene and his wife, Catherine Littlefield Greene. Greene bought the property and then, after his death, Catherine commissioned the building of the estate. The nearby Plum Orchard is open for guided tours with park rangers. When you're ready to go, check this extensive guide to seeing the wild horses of Cumberland Island.
Fire Island National Seashore—New York
Just offshore of Long Island, the NPS protects 26 miles of Fire Island's wetlands, beaches, marsh and expansive maritime holly forest. The rare maritime holly forest is impressive for taking hold on a narrow barrier island where growing conditions are harsh. Hear the boardwalk creak underfoot as you explore the acres of the holly forest and comb the nearby William Floyd Estate for nests of Eastern box turtles (but make sure to not disturb the turtles or their nests).
Gulf Islands National Seashore—Mississippi and Florida
Here's the downside: Nearly 80 percent of Gulf Islands National Seashore is actually submerged. Here's the upside: That means great snorkeling, swimming and boating—and there is still plenty of beach, 160 miles of it, to be specific. Millions of visitors flock to the Gulf Islands—the largest of the national seashores—each year to see the gopher turtles and other interesting and endangered species.
Padre Island National Seashore—Texas
Though Padre Island National Seashore only makes up a part of the total land area of this barrier island, the 70 miles of protected area include dune systems, wind-tidal flats, coastal prairie and more. The term "fly south for the winter" applies to the 380 bird species that visit in the winter or have taken up permanent residence on the island. Padre Island separates the Gulf of Mexico from Laguna Madre, one of the biggest hyper-saline lagoons in the world. It's all easily accessed from San Antonio (almost 2.5 hours driving) or Houston (about 4 hours driving), and is only 35 minutes drive from the Corpus Christi International Airport.
National Park of American Samoa
Mostly untouched and situated in the South Pacific Ocean midway between Hawaii and New Zealand, the American Samoa is a retreat from busy mainland life. The villagers that live on the island proudly honor Samoan culture and daily life. Choose to participate in the home stay program within a Samoan village for a complete experience. Enjoy the lush rainforests and white sand beaches that the three islands of the National Park of the American Samoa have to offer.
Point Reyes National Seashore—California
Point Reyes National Seashore protects open grasslands, hills and forests, but head here for the remote beachfront. While there, make sure to spot the iconic, red-roofed Point Reyes Lighthouse on the western-most point of this triangular area that juts into the Pacific Ocean a little less than a two-hour drive from San Francisco. The park is located along the legendary coastal road trip route that is Highway 1. The paddling at Point Reyes is famed, with its mix of oceanfront, bays and estuaries. From March through June, in the estuary of Drakes Estero, harbor seals birth speckled seal pups.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore—North Carolina
The Hatteras Lighthouse—one of the tallest lighthouses in the U.S.—protected ships from the Outer Banks and Diamond Shoals, an area so deadly to sailors it was named “the Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Then the lighthouse itself had to be protected; in 1999 it was moved inland because the ground on which it stood was being eroded by the sea. Camping is allowed at a few points along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and off-road vehicles are allowed in certain areas, but humans share this wild expanse with sea turtles and nesting birds.