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Top 10 National Seashores

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.

10. Padre Island National Seashore (Texas)

There was a ton of plastic debris washed up on the beach, though the sea turtles did not seem to mind

9. Canaveral National Seashore (Florida)

Apollo Beach was too steep to lie down on, but we did see our first manatee in Mosquito Lagoon

8. Cape Cod National Seashore (Massachusetts)

Great white sharks might keep swimmers out of the water, but there are some nice hiking trails

7. Fire Island National Seashore (New York)

This roadless area is most easily accessed by ferry from Long Island

Tiff with the lighthouse

6. Cape Hatteras National Seashore (North Carolina)

Known for its lighthouses, beachside campgrounds, and good swimming conditions

5. Assateague Island National Seashore (Maryland-Virginia)

Wild ponies are its most famous residents, but also home to seahorses and other marine animals

4. Point Reyes National Seashore (California)

Watch for gray whales and elephant seals in the winter along the foggy Pacific coast

3. Cape Lookout National Seashore (North Carolina)

You will need a boat to access these barrier islands, a great place to camp and collect shells

2. Cumberland Island National Seashore (Georgia)           

Take the ferry for a daytrip or an overnight camping experience, and hunt for fossilized shark teeth

…and finally the #1 National Seashore:

1. Gulf Islands National Seashore (Florida-Mississippi)

Beautiful white sand beaches and interesting historic forts make this our favorite spot

Top 3 National Lakeshores

3. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (Michigan)

Most of the sand dunes are covered by forest at this spot known for its fishing and canoeing

2. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (Michigan)

We will never forget kayaking through the Petit Portal along the cliffs of Lake Superior

1. Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (Wisconsin)

Sea caves carved by Lake Superior’s waves and island campsites are the biggest draw

Canaveral National Seashore

Overview

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).

Highlights

Eldora State House, shell mounds, wildlife, fishing, kayaking, beaches

Must-Do Activity

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.

Best Trail

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.

Instagram-worthy Photo

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.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

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

Fees

$20 per vehicle day use or America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

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.

Camping

Inside the park boundaries there are no campgrounds, but backcountry camping is allowed with a permit.

Related Sites

Castillo de San Marcos National Monument (Florida)

Cumberland Island National Seashore (Georgia)

Fort Caroline National Memorial (Florida)

Explore More – What did engineers build in the 1950s to limit the breeding area for saltmarsh mosquitoes?

Assateague Island National Seashore

Overview

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.

Highlights

Museum, film, Assateague Lighthouse, wildlife, kayaking, swimming, beachcombing

Must-Do Activity

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.

Best Trail

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.

Instagram-worthy Photo

The first Assateague Lighthouse was built in 1833, while the structure seen today was completed in 1867.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

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

Fees

$25 per vehicle or America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

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.

Camping

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.

Related Sites

Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park (Maryland)

First State National Historical Park (Delaware)

Cape Hatteras National Seashore (North Carolina)

Explore More – Not just a safe haven for wild ponies, where in the National Seashore do seahorses anchor to underwater grasses?

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?

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?