Cape Hatteras National Seashore

Overview

The Outer Banks of North Carolina have sparked the imaginations of travelers ever since British colonists landed here in 1585.  If you are seeking undeveloped beaches that have changed little over the centuries then this is the place to go.  The 70 miles of barrier islands protected as Cape Hatteras National Seashore are interrupted only by small seaside villages and one long section by Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.  Bodie Island and Hatteras Island are connected by bridges, but Ocracoke Island is only accessible by ferry.

Highlights

1870 Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, 1872 Bodie Island Lighthouse, Ocracoke Island Campground, beaches

Must-Do Activity

The main National Park Service (NPS) visitor center is located at iconic Cape Hatteras Lighthouse where you can learn about shipwrecks, pirates, and the monumental effort to move the 208-foot tall brick structure in 1999.  Further down Highway 12, pick up a free ferry to Ocracoke Island, a renowned vacation destination.  Several campgrounds are found along the seashore, including one on Ocracoke.  Since this remote strip of sand is not easy to get to, you will want to spend at least a night or two.

Best Trail

Walking the beach and collecting seashells is the most popular diversion, but there are also the Hammock Hills Nature Trail on Ocracoke Island and Buxton Woods Nature Trail on Hatteras Island.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Ocracoke Lighthouse is the oldest operating lighthouse in North Carolina, dating back to 1823, but it is not open to enter inside.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/caha/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None, except a fee is charged to climb Bodie Island and Cape Hatteras Lighthouses

Road Conditions

All main roads are paved and there are designated access points to drive on the beach.

Camping

There are four NPS campgrounds and they all take reservations.

Related Sites

Cape Lookout National Seashore (North Carolina)

Fort Raleigh National Historic Site (North Carolina)

Wright Brothers National Memorial (North Carolina)

Explore More – The Outer Banks are known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” so how many shipwrecks have been recorded in this area?

Charles Pinckney National Historic Site

Overview

North of Charleston, South Carolina near Fort Moultrie is a National Park Service (NPS) site dedicated to preserving the memory of one of the forgotten framers of the U.S. Constitution.  Charles Pinckney served as an officer during the American Revolution and a delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.  Before his death in 1824, he would go on to be four-term Governor of South Carolina, ambassador to Spain, and member of both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

Highlights

Museum, historic home, nature trail

Must-Do Activity

The low-country cottage that serves as the NPS visitor center and museum was built in 1828, probably on top of the foundation for the Pinckney’s plantation house.  It is filled with artifacts and information on the Pinckney family and their slaves that farmed rice and indigo.  The NPS rangers were very welcoming to us here when we visited during our Pretirement year in 2016.  This site is free to visit and located across from the well-known Boone Hall Plantation (admission charged).

Best Trail

A short trail leads to an overlook of the tidal river area, but watch out for poison-ivy and ticks.

Instagram-worthy Photo

The live oak trees growing on the property are beautiful with twisting branches draped in Spanish moss.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/chpi/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

The access roads are paved except for the last part on NPS property which is well-packed sand and gravel.

Camping

No camping at the site, but there are options outside Charleston in Francis Marion National Forest.

Related Sites

Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Historical Park (South Carolina)

Reconstruction Era National Monument (South Carolina)

Ninety Six National Historic Site (South Carolina)

Explore More – The NPS property is only 28 acres of the original 715-acre Snee Farm, part of the original royal land grant given to Richard Butler in what year?

Channel Islands National Park

Overview

Off the coast of Ventura, California a rugged archipelago is protected as Channel Islands National Park.  There is an airplane landing strip on Santa Rosa Island, but most visitors arrive to the five accessible islands by ferry.  Often referred to as the “Galapagos Islands of California,” the biodiverse kelp beds are popular with scuba divers and the sea caves attract kayakers.

Learn more in our guidebook to the National Parks, A Park to Yourself: Finding Adventure in America’s National Parks (available on Amazon).

Highlights

Anacapa Island, Inspiration Point, Arch Rock, wildlife

Must-Do Activity

Most visitors arrive by boat, with the majority taking a day trip to tiny Anacapa Island, which you can walk all the way around in about an hour.  The ferry ride is exciting in and of itself with gray whale watching, a close swing by Arch Rock, and an unforgettable landing at a dock where it is far too rough to tie up.  If you want the chance to see an amazing sunset and sunrise, you have to overnight on one of the five islands (see Camping below). 

Best Trail

On Anacapa Island, a 1.5-mile loop trail leads around the perimeter and accesses iconic Inspiration Point.  There are many miles of trails on Santa Barbara, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Cruz Islands (and all have designated campsites).

Instagram-worthy Photo

From atop Anacapa Island’s steep cliffs, we watched swimming sea lions warm their flippers in the air and flying brown pelicans catch thermals below where we stood. 

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/chis/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

There is no entry fee, but reservations are required for all overnight camping ($15 per night) and ferry prices vary by island.

Road Conditions

No roads

Camping

A few years ago, we stayed at the tiny backcountry campground (with no water available) on Anacapa Island in early April when the giant coreopsis flowers were completing their spectacular blooming period.  It was a noisy night since the island is a rookery for thousands of western gulls, plus the lighthouse’s foghorn rumbles out a warning four times per minute.

Related Sites

Point Reyes National Seashore (California)

Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (California)

Cabrillo National Monument (California)

This design we created to celebrate Joshua Tree National Park is available on a variety of products at Cafe Press and Amazon.

Explore More – The largest in the archipelago, Santa Cruz Island is 62,000 acres and 76% owned by which non-profit organization?

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Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area

Overview

On the Pennsylvania-New Jersey border, the Delaware River flows through a gap in the long ridge of the Appalachian Mountains.  This marks the southern end of Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area and the site of the Kittatinny Point Visitor Center (right off Interstate 80) managed by the National Park Service (NPS).  When preservationists fought to protect this area from being dammed in the 1960s it led to the creation of the National Recreation Area surrounding a 40-mile stretch of river designated as the Middle Delaware National Scenic River.

Highlights

Raymondskill Falls, Millbrook Village, Dingmans Falls, floating Middle Delaware National Scenic River

Must-Do Activity

Most of the NPS visitor centers are open seasonally in this resort area on the Pocono Plateau.  We visited in the offseason in late September and enjoyed hiking to Raymondskill, Silver Thread, and Dingmans Falls on the Pennsylvania side.  On the New Jersey side the main attraction is Millbrook Village, a recreated 1800s town that is open year round.  Fishing, swimming, and floating the Middle Delaware National Scenic River are popular in the summer.

Best Trail

There are more than 100 miles of trails within the park, including 27 miles of the famous Appalachian National Scenic Trail that leads to the top of Mt. Minsi for great views of the actual Delaware Water Gap.

Instagram-worthy Photo

A boardwalk trail passes 80-foot tall Silver Thread Falls on the way to 130-foot tall Dingmans Falls.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/dewa/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None for entry, but some sites have a user fee (Smithfield Beach, Milford Beach, etc.) and there are toll bridges across the river in places.

Road Conditions

There are several unpaved roads and toll bridges within the boundaries of Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.

Camping

Promised Land State Park in Pennsylvania

Campground options available in New Jersey include Worthington State Forest, High Point State Park, and Stokes State Forest.  Dingmans Campground on the Pennsylvania side offers discounts for the NPS Senior Pass. Primitive camping is allowed for thru-hikers on the Appalachian National Scenic Trail and along the riverside for boaters.  Keep a clean campsite, as black bears are common.

Related Sites

Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River (New York-Pennsylvania)

Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site (Pennsylvania)

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site (Pennsylvania)

Explore More – The Delaware River is one of the cleanest rivers in the eastern U.S. and attracts large numbers of which nationally symbolic raptor every winter?

Gulf Islands National Seashore

Overview

Gulf Islands National Seashore is renowned for white sand beaches on the barrier islands in the Gulf of Mexico, but there is more than beaches on the shores of Mississippi and the Florida panhandle (yes, Alabama is in the middle but is not part of this park).  The white sand that attracts beachgoers here originated as quartz in the Appalachian Mountains.  This coastal region was originally purchased by the U.S. from Spain in 1821 and 150 years later Gulf Islands National Seashore was created. 

Highlights

Fort Pickens, Naval Live Oaks Area, Fort Barrancas, West Ship Island ferry, white sand beaches, wildlife

Must-Do Activity

The National Park Service (NPS) has four visitor centers for Gulf Islands National Seashore, one on the mainland in Ocean Springs, Mississippi and the other three are south of Pensacola, Florida.  The most developed area is around Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island with its popular campground.  Nearby, Fort Barrancas sits next to the free National Museum of Naval Aviation on the military base.  The Naval Live Oaks Area protects the first federal tree farm started for shipbuilding purposes in 1828.  In Mississippi, only Davis Bayou can be reached by road, with (seasonal) ferry service limited to West Ship Island.  Otherwise, bring your own boat!

Best Trail

The 1,300-mile long Florida National Scenic Trail starts at Fort Pickens then runs east across Santa Rosa Island.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Fort Pickens dates back to 1829 with additional batteries upgraded during World War II.  Inside the fort there is a nice museum explaining the history of Santa Rosa Island.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/guis/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

$25 per vehicle or free with America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

All access roads are paved

Camping

Reservations are highly recommended for the NPS campgrounds on Santa Rosa Island, Florida and Ocean Springs, Mississippi.  Primitive camping is allowed on undeveloped East Ship, Horn, and Petit Bois Islands.

Related Sites

Dry Tortugas National Park (Florida)

Canaveral National Seashore (Florida)

Everglades National Park (Florida)

Explore More – What are the four species of sea turtles that nest on the park’s beaches?