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America’s National Seashores: 10 Coastal Treasures to Discover

America’s National Seashores offer opportunities to explore some of the country’s most stunning coastal landscapes. Managed by the National Park Service, these protected areas range from sandy beaches and dunes to marshes and maritime forests. As of 2024, there are ten national seashores across the United States.

In the United States, Congress typically designates national seashores through legislation. The process usually involves identifying significant coastal areas with unique natural, scenic, or recreational qualities worthy of protection and national recognition. These areas are often characterized by their outstanding natural beauty, cultural significance, or ecological importance. 

National Seashores provide experiences like swimming, beachcombing, beach camping, birdwatching, hiking, kayaking, fishing, hunting, and wildlife viewing for nature lovers, outdoor enthusiasts, and families wanting to connect with nature.

Assateague Island National Seashore (Maryland/Virginia)

America's national seashores - Assateague Island National Seashore
The Assateague ponies. Photo credit: Alexandrea Sumuel

Assateague Island National Seashore is located along the eastern shore of Maryland and Virginia. Its ecosystem is characterized by sandy beaches, salt marshes, and coastal forests. The barrier island supports a wide variety of wildlife, including migratory birds, shorebirds, and marine species. Its habitats provide essential nesting grounds for seabirds, feeding areas for marine life, and refuge for the iconic wild ponies that roam its shores.

The Assateague ponies, also known as Chincoteague ponies, are a beloved symbol of Assateague Island National Seashore, known for their wild and free-roaming nature. Each year, the “saltwater cowboys,” a group of local volunteers, round up the ponies for the annual Pony Swim from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island in Virginia. Following the swim, a yearly auction is held on Chincoteague Island, where some of the ponies are sold to raise funds for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which cares for the herd.

You can enjoy beach adeventures, like swimming and beachcombing along its unspoiled shores, or explore the island through hiking trails, wildlife observation areas, and guided ranger programs. We experienced the Assateague Island National Seashore via boat tour from Ocean City, Maryland, and witnessed the wild ponies grazing by the shore. Camping facilities are also available for those wanting to experience the island under the stars.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore (North Carolina)

America's tallest lighthouse - Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse at sunrise. Photo credit: kevron2002 via Deposit Photos

Cape Hatteras National Seashore, located on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, features a unique geography of barrier islands, salt marshes, and forests. It supports a variety of wildlife, including shorebirds like piping plovers and red knots, sea turtles like loggerheads and Kemp’s ridleys, and marine mammals such as bottlenose dolphins and seals.

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse has a rich history dating back to its construction in 1870. Originally closer to the ocean, it was moved inland in 1999 due to coastal erosion, making it one of the most famous and frequently visited lighthouses in the United States. Be sure to climb the 257 steps to the top for panoramic views of the surrounding Outer Banks and learn about its fascinating history through the on-site museum. 

You can enjoy outdoor activities, including surfing along the Atlantic coast, where the convergence of ocean currents shapes the waves. Nature enthusiasts can explore hiking trails that wind through maritime forests, salt marshes, and beaches, offering birdwatching and wildlife photography opportunities. 

Additionally, the seashore’s beaches provide ample space for beachcombing, shelling, and sunbathing. At the same time, its waters invite fishing enthusiasts to cast their lines in pursuit of catches like red drum and speckled trout.

Cape Lookout National Seashore (North Carolina)

America's national seashores - Cape Lookout
Cape Lookout Lighthouse. Photo credit: Moonborne via Deposit Photos

Cape Lookout National Seashore, also located along the Outer Banks of North Carolina, is characterized by sandy beaches, dunes, and salt marshes. The environment provides a habitat for wildlife, including shorebirds such as piping plovers and American oystercatchers, sea turtles like loggerheads and green turtles, and colonial nesting birds such as royal terns and black skimmers.

Take a ferry to the uninhabited barrier island of Shackleford Banks, where you can explore beaches, dunes, and maritime forests. One of the main attractions is the chance to observe these wild horses that roam freely on Shackleford Banks. Additionally, the seashore provides excellent opportunities for fishing, with anglers casting their lines from the surf or chartering boats to reel in coastal species, including flounder, drum, and bluefish. 

Other popular activities include windsurfing, kayaking, canoeing, and beach camping (in some areas). Unfortunately, the Cape Lookout Lighthouse was closed in 2021 due to safety concerns. Therefore, you cannot climb it. 

Cape Cod National Seashore (Massachusetts)

Standing in the Highland Lighthouse tower in Cape Cod, MA
View from the Highland Lighthouse. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

Cape Cod National Seashore, on the eastern coast of Massachusetts, stretches along the iconic Cape Cod peninsula. Among its inhabitants are shorebirds like piping plovers and red knots, marine mammals such as seals, and species of migratory birds. The seashore provides essential breeding, nesting, and feeding grounds for many wildlife populations.

Cape Cod National Seashore has a rich maritime history, with historic lighthouses representing the region’s seafaring heritage. These landmark beacons, including Highland Light and Nauset Light, have guided ships along the treacherous coastline for centuries, preserving maritime safety and navigation. You can explore these historic lighthouses, learn about their historical significance, and admire their breathtaking coastal views.

At Cape Cod National Seashore, you can explore beaches, hike or bike scenic trails, and enjoy recreational activities like kayaking and SUP along the Atlantic coastline. Nature enthusiasts can go on birdwatching excursions or explore the seashore’s diverse ecosystems, including salt marshes and coastal dunes. 

Fire Island National Seashore (New York)

Fire Island, NY
Fire Island National Seashore. Photo credit: demerzel21 via Deposit Photos

Fire Island National Seashore, off the southern coast of Long Island, New York, features a coastal ecosystem encompassing sandy beaches, maritime forests, and salt marshes. It supports wildlife, including piping plovers, American oystercatchers, and least terns, which nest along the seashore’s sandy shores. The seashore also provides a vital habitat for endangered species like the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle.

Fire Island National Seashore’s car-free policy contributes to its unique charm and environmental preservation efforts, allowing you to fully enjoy the island’s natural beauty without the noise and pollution of vehicles. Visitors use bicycles (prohibited on boardwalks) and walking trails to navigate the island. To reach Fire Island National Seashore, you can take a ferry from Long Island, New York, as no bridges connect the island to the mainland. 

Fire Island National Seashore offers activities such as hiking through its network of scenic trails, including the Sunken Forest Trail, known for its ancient maritime forest ecosystem characterized by towering trees and plant life. Beachgoers can swim, canoe, and fish along the island’s 32-mile stretch of sandy coastline, which is also a fantastic spot for observing wildlife such as piping plovers, ospreys, and seals. The Fire Island Lighthouse, accessible by car, offers guided tours and panoramic views from its observation deck.

Cumberland Island National Seashore (Georgia)

America's national seashores - Cumberland Island National Seashore
Cumberland Island National Seashore. Photo credit: iofoto via Deposit Photos

Cumberland Island National Seashore, located off the coast of Georgia, has a diverse coastal ecosystem characterized by forests, beaches, and marshlands. It supports a variety of wildlife, including wild horses, loggerhead sea turtles, and bird species such as ospreys, wood storks, and painted buntings.

One unique activity at Cumberland Island National Seashore is exploring the island’s historic sites, including the ruins of Dungeness Mansion, once owned by the Carnegie family. You can take guided tours or self-guided hikes to discover the island’s rich cultural heritage and learn about its fascinating history as a retreat for the wealthy elite. 

At Cumberland Island National Seashore, you can explore its beaches, maritime forests, and salt marshes. You can also take scenic hikes along the island’s extensive trail network, offering opportunities to observe diverse wildlife species and stunning coastal views. The seashore provides ample opportunities for recreational activities such as biking, hunting, kayaking, fishing, and beach camping.

Canaveral National Seashore (Florida)

national seashores - Canaveral
Canaveral National Seashore. Photo credit: jacksonjesse via Deposit Photos

Canaveral National Seashore encompasses a diverse coastal ecosystem along the east coast of Florida, between New Smyrna Beach and Cocoa Beach. It features beaches, dunes, and salt marshes. Its dynamic environment supports a wealth of biodiversity, including shorebirds, sea turtles, and marine life. The seashore’s habitats provide essential nesting grounds for endangered species and serve as important feeding areas for migratory birds along the Atlantic Flyway.

You can explore Canaveral National Seashore on scenic hikes along beaches and coastal trails, offering breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean. Take advantage of the park’s waterways by kayaking or canoeing through mangrove forests and estuarine habitats, encountering wildlife such as manatees and dolphins. We visited from New Smyrna Beach and took a fantastic eco-kayaking tour of the seashore. 

You will also have the unique opportunity to view Kennedy Space Center rocket launches from designated areas along the coastline. These viewing areas offer unobstructed views of the launches against the backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean, providing you with a breathtaking experience.

Gulf Islands National Seashore (Florida/Mississippi)

national seashores - Gulf Islands
Sunset at Gulf Islands National Seashore. Photo credit: Wirepec via Deposit Photos

The Gulf Islands National Seashore ecosystem is characterized by barrier islands, maritime forests, coastal marshes, and seagrass beds, which support many different plant and animal species. These habitats provide critical nesting grounds for endangered species such as sea turtles and shorebirds while serving as essential stopover points for migratory birds along the Mississippi Flyway. Additionally, the seashore’s beaches and waters are home to marine life, including dolphins, manatees, and fish species.

Gulf Islands National Seashore has a collection of historic forts, including Fort Pickens, Fort Massachusetts, and Fort Barrancas. These forts offer a fascinating glimpse into the area’s military past dating back to the 19th century. Fort Pickens, in particular, stands out as one of the best-preserved coastal forts in the United States, boasting a distinctive pentagonal shape and intricate brickwork that reflects its strategic importance during the Civil War.

At Gulf Islands National Seashore, you can enjoy outdoor activities, including swimming, sunbathing, and beachcombing along its shores, which stretch for miles along the Gulf of Mexico. The seashore also offers excellent opportunities for birdwatching, with over 300 species of birds in the area, including ospreys, pelicans, and herons. Water sports like kayaking, snorkeling, and paddleboarding are popular ways to explore the seashore’s waters and marine ecosystems.

Padre Island National Seashore (Texas)

Birds at Padre Island National Seashore
Royal terns at Padre Island National Seashore. Photo credit: CheriAlguire via Deposit Photos

Padre Island National Seashore, stretching over 70 miles along the Texas Gulf Coast, offers every from beaches to rolling dunes and tidal flats. It is home to abundant wildlife, including the critically endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, which nests on its shores. You can also observe bird species like the Roseate spoonbill and the colorful painted bunting. The waters provide opportunities to spot bottlenose dolphins, stingrays, and fish species.

One unique aspect of Padre Island National Seashore is its status as the longest undeveloped barrier island in the world. Padre Island is also known for its cultural heritage, with archaeological sites revealing thousands of years of human history, including evidence of Native American settlements and Spanish exploration.

Padre Island National Seashore offers a wealth of activities for those looking for outdoor adventure. You can enjoy beaches, explore through guided hikes, go on a birdwatching excursion, enjoy windsurfing, or a kayaking trip through the tranquil waters of the Laguna Madre. Anglers will find ample opportunities for fishing, whether casting from the shore, pier, or boat, with a chance to catch various coastal species.

Point Reyes National Seashore (California) 

tree tunnel at Point Reyes
Cypress Tree Tunnel at Point Reyes. Photo credit: yhelfman via Deposit Photos

Point Reyes National Seashore, located on the rugged California coast, is known for its stunning natural beauty and wildlife. The park is home to the iconic Tule elk, which roam freely across its grasslands and coastal scrub. Birdwatchers flock to the seashore to spot migratory birds such as the snowy egret and the Peregrine falcon, as well as resident species like the endangered California condor. Marine life thrives along the shoreline, with opportunities to observe elephant seals, sea lions, and even migrating gray whales during certain times of the year.

One of the most unique features of Point Reyes National Seashore is the historic Point Reyes Lighthouse, perched dramatically on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. This iconic landmark offers a glimpse into maritime history and breathtaking panoramic coastline views. Point Reyes is also home to the famous San Andreas Fault, making it one of the few places in the world where you can witness the effects of tectonic plate movement on the landscape.

Things to do include scenic hikes along the park’s trails, leading to stunning overlooks and secluded beaches. Whale watching is a popular activity during the winter and spring months. You can also enjoy kayaking and backcountry camping. The park’s diverse habitats provide excellent opportunities for birdwatching as well. 

United States National Seashores

Alamere Falls at Point Reyes
Alamere Falls at Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo credit: radkol via Deposit Photos

Visiting America’s national seashores promises an unforgettable journey through some of the nation’s most captivating coastal landscapes. From the rugged cliffs and beaches to wildlife, every moment offers a chance for exploration and discovery. 

Featured image credit: miroslav_1 via Deposit Photos

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After 30 years, Scott and Julie McConkey left the corporate world for a life of travel and adventure. What started as a gap year became a second act, and they are now full-time travel bloggers!
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