There are exactly 10 National Seashores in the National Park Service (NPS) system, so choosing which ones to put in the Top 10 was not difficult. However, they are all similar, so ranking them was tricky. Also, without anything to put in the Honorable Mentions category, we decided to rank the three remaining National Lakeshores (after Indiana Dunes became a National Park in 2019). Click here to see all of our Top 10 Lists.
Established in 1964, Fire Island National Seashore stretches across 26 miles of the 32-mile long barrier island off the southern coast of New York’s Long Island. It encompasses 17 communities that were present when it was created, but otherwise it is mostly roadless and wild. Backcountry camping is allowed in the Otis Pike Wilderness (1,363 acres), the only federally designated Wilderness area in the state of New York.
Fire Island Lighthouse, William Floyd Estate, Sunken Forest Trail, Otis Pike Wilderness
About 2.2-million visitors come to Fire Island annually, but not necessarily to the National Seashore, which is primarily accessed by ferry boats from Long Island. A short walk down the coast can usually escape the crowds, but be aware that the area around Fire Island Lighthouse is an unofficial nude beach. Visitors can also tour the home and grounds at William Floyd Estate, a 613-acre historical site on Long Island once home to a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
There are nature trails at Fire Island Lighthouse, Sailors Haven, Watch Hill, and Fire Island Wilderness Visitor Centers, plus the beach is wide and good for walking.
The 167-foot tall Fire Island Lighthouse was built in 1858. It is run by a nonprofit organization that offers a free museum inside, but charges a fee to climb to the top.
When NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) prevented this portion of Florida coast from development in the 1950s, surely they did not imagine it would soon become one of the last long stretches of wild coastline left on the Atlantic seaboard. The area north of John F. Kennedy Space Center was set aside as Canaveral National Seashore (in 1975) and Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (in 1963).
Eldora State House, shell mounds, wildlife, fishing, kayaking, beaches
About 310 avian species have been spotted in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Other than birds, we were excited to see our first living armadillo and manatee outside of a zoo. Despite its unappealing name, Mosquito Lagoon is a nice spot for fishing and paddling. We hope someday to return to witness a rocket launch from John F. Kennedy Space Center.
Human activity in Canaveral National Seashore is evident in Timucuan shell mounds that date back thousands of years, with a separate trail to Eldora State House preserving more recent history. At the southern end of the park in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, you will find Oak and Palm Hammock Trails, as well as Cruickshank Trail that leads to an observation tower.
The park ranger told us the most likely place to see a West Indian manatee was at the boat launch in New Smyrna Beach, Florida just north of the park boundary. There were also dolphins, great blue herons, anhingas, great egrets, ospreys, brown pelicans, and royal terns.
$20 per vehicle day use or America the Beautiful pass
The main access roads are paved, but the six-mile Black Point Wildlife Drive and some boat launches are not. Unlike at other National Seashores, there is no driving on the beach allowed, but you can bicycle or walk to remote Klondike Beach.
Inside the park boundaries there are no campgrounds, but backcountry camping is allowed with a permit.
Assateague Island National Seashore was authorized in 1963, twenty years after neighboring Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge was established to protect migratory birds, like the greater snow goose. In combination with Assateague State Park they protect a 37-mile stretch of undeveloped shoreline that crosses the border of Maryland and Virginia (and is very close to Delaware). The National Park Service (NPS) manages the National Seashore and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the National Wildlife Refuge, but there is also an NPS visitor center at the refuge.
Assateague Island’s most renowned residents are its wild ponies, purported to have swum ashore from a wrecked Spanish galleon. Every year since the 1700s, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company has herded the ponies that live on Assateague Island for an auction to raise funds for firefighting. This annual event was chronicled in the classic children’s book Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry (which made our Top 10 NPS Novels list). The ponies can often spotted by hikers on the Woodland Trail, a three-mile loop hike. Nearby there is also a free NASA visitor center at Wallops Flight Facility where they launch rockets.
We mentioned the Woodland Trail above, but this park is all about walking the beach, especially the 10 miles of wild beach only accessible by foot within Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.
The first Assateague Lighthouse was built in 1833, while the structure seen today was completed in 1867.
The access roads are paved, but with a permit you can drive 13 miles of beach on the Maryland side and five miles on the Virginia side. It takes about 1.2 hours to drive the highways between the north and south bridges to Assateague Island.
On the Maryland side, the NPS operates two campgrounds with cold showers, but the one in Assateague State Park offers hot showers. Two oceanside backpacking camps and four bayside kayak-in camps are also available by permit.