When you think about places the National Park Service protects, you might immediately think of the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, or Zion National Park. Maybe you imagine the alligators of the Everglades or the bison of Yellowstone. But did you know the National Park System also includes national seashores?
These preserved coastlines allow everyone to enjoy natural, undeveloped beaches, dunes, and marshes. These seashores also help people learn more about the plant life and wildlife there. Let’s look at five unique national seashores you’ll want to visit the next time you plan a family vacation. Let’s dive in!
What Is a National Seashore?
National seashores have natural and recreational significance. The government has deemed these locations worthy of protection and preservation. These seashores include beaches, marshes, forests, lakes, lagoons, dunes, lighthouses, and other historic structures. In total, national seashores protect 595,000 acres of the United States shoreline.
Pro Tip: Learn more about What Is the Delmarva Peninsula and why you should visit.
Is a National Seashore a National Park?
A national seashore is part of the National Park System but isn’t technically a national park. It has a different designation than the 63 national parks. The National Park Service manages over 400 units, like national historical sites, monuments, and lakeshores. They preserve them all for future generations because of their history, cultural significance, or ecology.
How Many National Seashores Are in the US?
In August 1937, Congress authorized Cape Hatteras National Seashore as the first of its designation. Since then, they’ve added nine sites to the National Park System for a total of ten national seashores. Canaveral was the most recent in 1975. Most of these seashores border the Atlantic Ocean. Only one, Point Reyes National Seashore, lies along the Pacific Coast.
Is It Free to Visit These Seashores?
There’s no entrance fee to visit Point Reyes, Cape Hatteras, Cape Lookout, and Fire Island. There are fees to see the other national seashores. An America the Beautiful pass or any other annual pass will get you in for free.
Pro Tip: We did the math to determine if the America the Beautiful Annual Pass is worth it. Find out here.
5 Stunning National Seashores to Add to Your Trip Itinerary
Although there are ten national seashores in the US, here are our top five. Four are along the Atlantic Ocean, while Padre Island Seashore rests along the Gulf of Mexico. They all offer beautiful sunrises and excellent outdoor recreation.
1. Canaveral National Seashore
Canaveral National Seashore is the most recent to join the National Park System. It’s the longest stretch of undeveloped Atlantic coastline in Florida. This barrier island has 24 miles of beaches where several thousand marine turtles lay their eggs. In addition, Mosquito Lagoon is home to dolphins and manatees. Visitors can explore ancient Timucua shell mounds, go birding, and watch rocket launches. Fishing and boating are also popular activities. The vehicle entrance fee is roughly $20.
Canaveral National Seashore’s Playalinda Beach also boasts some of the best views of space rocket launches at the Cape Canaveral Kennedy Space Center just to the south. This is where we watched the historic first launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket. You can’t complain when you can enjoy a beach day while waiting for the spectacle.
2. Cape Cod National Seashore
Cape Cod National Seashore protects 40 miles of beaches, marshes, ponds, lighthouses, and wild cranberry bogs. It is popular for its six beaches: Coast Guard Beach, Nauset Light Beach, Marconi Beach, Head of the Meadow Beach, Race Point Beach, and Herring Cove Beach.
Oversand beach driving is very trendy here but requires a permit. From May through October, park rangers teach visitors about saltmarsh ecology, maritime history, the area’s First People, and more. Eleven walking trails are open year-round, plus three bike trails. The vehicle entrance fee is approximately $25.
3. Padre Island National Seashore
Along the coast of Texas, Padre Island National Seashore protects 66 miles of coastline. This barrier island is home to one of the last intact coastal prairie habitats in the US. This part of the country has a unique cultural history, with Native Americans, Spanish explorers, and cattle ranchers all living here at some point.
One of the unique features of this seashore is Laguna Madre, a hypersaline lagoon. One of only a handful in the world, this lagoon is saltier than the ocean and invites windsurfers, boaters, birders, and anglers to reconnect with nature. Visitors also enjoy camping, birding, fishing, canoeing, kayaking, and beachcombing at Padre Island. A 7-day vehicle pass is approximately $25, or a 1-day vehicle pass is $10.
Similarly to Canaveral, Padre Island National Seashore provides visitors and campers the opportunity to watch space rocket launches from SpaceX Boca Chica launch site.
Pro Tip: Enjoy some fun in the sun at one of these 7 Best Beaches in Texas for the Perfect Beach Day.
4. Assateague Island National Seashore
Do you want to see wild horses in their natural habitats while enjoying a day in the sun? Assateague Island National Seashore is one of the most-visited seashores in the country because of these beautiful creatures. They split into two primary herds: one on the Virginia side and one on the Maryland side. Visitors must observe these horses from a distance and avoid feeding them, as interactions with humans could be detrimental.
As an animal lover and horse nerd since she was little, Caitlin insisted on visiting Assateague as part of our East Coast travels. However, we were delighted to find that there are many things to do in this region. Besides the wild horses, people know Assateague Island for its beautiful beaches, salt marshes, maritime forests, and coastal bays. It’s one of the few national seashores permitting camping on the beach. Crabbing, horseback riding, and photography are other trendy activities. The vehicle entrance fee is around $25.
Pro Tip: Wild life lovers will love searching for the Wild Ponies of Assateague.
5. Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Finally, along the Outer Banks of North Carolina lies Cape Hatteras National Seashore. It is the first of its designation in the National Park System. These islands are ever-changing due to the wind and water, and the plants and animals that call this seashore home are constantly adapting, too. In the winter, seals show up along the shoreline. The female loggerhead and green turtles return yearly to nest on the beaches.
The Cape Hatteras Light Station is one of the most famous lighthouses on the East Coast and protects one of the most hazardous sections of the Atlantic Coast. Although it sometimes closes for restoration, visitors can access the grounds 24/7. We suggest checking the website for closing and opening schedules, just in case. Visitors also enjoy fishing, hiking, beachcombing, kayaking, and swimming. There is no entrance fee, but there are costs for activities within the national seashore.
Is Swimming Allowed At the Seashores?
Swimming is one of the most popular activities at every one of these national seashores. These coastlines are protected areas for visitors to enjoy water recreation and sunbathing. Kids can build sandcastles. Couples can go for evening strolls. These seashores are outdoor recreational playgrounds you can enjoy in many ways. Just note that lifeguards may or may not be on duty, depending on the season and location.
Can You Go Beachcombing At the Seashores?
Many national seashores allow beachcombing. It is especially popular at Padre Island National Seashore. The best time to go is after a storm passes through because of the treasures that wash ashore. They allow you to keep up to a five-gallon bucket with anything you find. However, if you find a live animal in its shell, please leave it alone. However, not all seashores have the same rules. For example, Assateague Island only allows a one-gallon bucket. So, check the beachcombing rules at each location before starting your hunt.
Also, remember that just because you can doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Leave No Trace principles ask people to leave these protected places as you found them. Additionally, studies have shown that dead and empty sea shells are important to “perform many important environmental and ecosystem services,” from nest-building materials for birds and other organisms to beach stabilization.
Pro Tip: Check out our guide on Fire Island National Seashore: New York’s Natural Haven to plan a relaxing adventure.
Is Fishing Allowed At These Seashores?
Like swimming, fishing is another activity enjoyed by visitors of all ages at these seashores. However, you’ll need a valid and appropriate fishing license for the state that you are visiting. For example, you’ll need a valid Texas fishing license package (license and endorsement) to fish along Padre Island. A valid Florida fishing license is necessary to fish along Canaveral, and you’ll need a Massachusetts fishing license to fish along Cape Cod.
A saltwater license is necessary at Assateague Island, and officials enforce state regulations on size, seasons, and limits. Stop by a Visitor Center or a Ranger Station for details. Finally, officials require you to obtain a Coastal Recreational Fishing License to fish along Cape Hatteras.
America’s National Seashores Provide Amazing Scenery
When you think about our country’s landscape, you might imagine the towering peaks of the Rockies or the red rocks and canyons of the Southwest. Perhaps you think of the fall colors of the Appalachian Mountains or the deep springs of Yellowstone. But don’t forget about America’s national seashores. These protected areas offer beautiful scenery for relaxing or enjoying endless fun in the sun.
Which national seashore will you visit next? Tell us in the comments!
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