No matter how you mark it, summer in the Northern Hemisphere has officially begun. And there’s nothing more quintessentially summer than a beach vacation. While it’s no secret that there are gorgeous beaches along California, Florida, and Hawaii coasts (no shade to Oregon, New York, and South Carolina, among others, either), you may not know that many of the most pristine beaches in the United States are part of the National Park System.
With over 400 units, the NPS protects various environments and ecosystems – including coastlines, lakeshores, seashores, and islands. And it’s no surprise that a protected or more remote beach will often offer a better experience than some of its more popular or less protected peers.
As a solo National Park traveler, I’ve visited countless beaches within the National Park system and am constantly asked for my recommendations. So I picked out my top twenty beaches and ranked them on a scale from great to phenomenal – because let’s get real, even the lowest ranked is still a dreamy beach in a National Park. What’s not to love?
I considered a few things in my rankings.
- Access was important, so beaches that could be driven or easily boated to ranked higher than those that are only accessible via a hike.
- I gave a higher ranking to beaches that are nearby cities while not being directly in them, so not totally remote but also not overrun.
- Of course, the landscape was the greatest factor in the ranking. While some of the beaches on this list are lakeside and not oceanside, they still got included if the lake is unique and offers more than simply a sandy area near the water.
- It was also important that the beaches have other easily available activities – so hiking, wildlife, paddling, and snorkeling opportunities helped some beaches in their rankings.
20 – APOSTLE ISLANDS NATIONAL LAKESHORE – WISCONSIN
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, 21 islands off the northern coast of Wisconsin in Lake Superior, are well known in the midwest and beyond for their beautiful beaches. Located in Bayfield, just off the Bayfield Peninsula, ample opportunities exist to explore picturesque coves and bays, sunbathe, swim, picnic, and enjoy the view.
You’ll want to hit up a beach while you visit — Little Sand Bay, Meyers Beach on the mainland, and Julian Bay on Stockton Island are great options. Or you can catch the ferry to Big Bay State Park on Madeline Island, the largest and only inhabited island in the park, to enjoy a sandy beach, hiking, and camping opportunities.
PERFECT FOR: THE MIDWESTERN ADVENTURERS.
19 – CANAVERAL NATIONAL SEASHORE – FLORIDA
Canaveral National Seashore is the longest stretch of undeveloped Atlantic coast in Florida. Spanning over 24 miles along a barrier island between New Smyrna Beach and Titusville, the National Seashore encompasses diverse ecosystems, including pristine beaches, dunes, salt marshes, lagoons, and maritime forests.
There are three major sections of beaches at Canaveral National Seashore – all known for their remote, beautiful landscapes: northern Apollo Beach, middle Klondike Beach, and southern Playalinda Beach. Visitors can enjoy swimming, horseback riding, bird watching, backcountry camping, kayaking, fishing, and even surfing along the unspoiled shore.
PERFECT FOR: THE FLORIDA VACATIONERS LOOKING FOR RESPITE.
18 – GULF ISLANDS NATIONAL SEASHORE – FLORIDA AND MISSISSIPPI
The Gulf Islands National Seashore boasts untouched, white sandy beaches that attract visitors from all over the world. Stretching across the coastlines of Florida and Mississippi, the National Seashore is known for crystal-clear emerald coast waters, ideal for swimming, sunbathing, beachcombing, and picnicking.
With 160 miles of shoreline on the Northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico, the seashore is surprisingly diverse – as it encompasses barrier islands, marine habitats, historic forts, and maritime habitats. Visitors have many options for visiting the Gulf Islands: jumping on a tour boat for a cruise, camping on the sand, snorkeling and diving, hiking, fishing, biking, or swimming. Opal Beach is a great pick if you don’t know where to start.
PERFECT FOR: THE SOUTHERN NATIONAL PARK TRAVELERS.
17 – CAPE COD NATIONAL SEASHORE – MASSACHUSETTS
Cape Cod National Seashore, located on the eastern coast of Massachusetts, encompasses 40 miles of shoreline along Cape Cod. Known for its unspoiled beaches, the seashore is an idyllic spot for swimming, hiking, over-sand beach driving, paddling, and biking.
The seashore boasts six different beaches with lifeguards on duty during summer. There are seasonal beach fees, and many beach campfire permits are issued daily. Coast Guard Beach is a stunner with beautiful views and surf opportunities.
PERFECT FOR: THE QUIET LUXURY LOVERS.
16 – PADRE ISLAND NATIONAL SEASHORE – TEXAS
Not to be confused with South Padre Island, Padre Island National Seashore is sixty-six miles of wild shoreline along the Gulf Coast of Texas. Known for its long stretches of dazzling sandy beaches, the narrow barrier island is, according to the National Park Service, home to one of the last intact coastal prairie habitats. In addition to swimming and beach-lounging, the seashore offers camping, beachcombing, fishing, birding, and paddling opportunities.
PERFECT FOR: THE CHILL TEXANS ON A GETAWAY.
15 – PICTURED ROCKS NATIONAL LAKESHORE – MICHIGAN
Located along the shore of Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is known for its stunning cliffs, waterfalls, colorful sandstone formations, dunes, and tremendous wild beauty.
Lake Superior boasts clean and clear – but cold – water for swimming, so enter at your own risk. Although no lifeguards are on duty, the glistening beaches are popular summer destinations for visitors – with Sand Point Beach as a favorite.
PERFECT FOR: THE HIDDEN GEM SEARCHERS.
14 – SLEEPING BEAR DUNES NATIONAL LAKESHORE – MICHIGAN
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, located along the northwestern coast of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, is known for its towering scalable sand dunes, miles of undefiled beaches, and 21 crystal-clear lakes.
Swimming is popular in Lake Michigan, and visitors can access several beaches easily in the park. Try Platte River Point, Esch Beach, Peterson Beach, Glen Haven Beach, or North Bar Lake.
PERFECT FOR: THE MICHIGAN SUMMER EXPLORERS.
13 – INDIANA DUNES NATIONAL PARK – INDIANA
Indiana Dunes is one of the newest parks in the NPS system to garner the designation of “National Park.” On my visit, I was surprised that this landscape was just 35 miles from Chicago — with views of the city skyline from parts of the shore. Admittedly, this park has a bit of a different and less remote feel; it is an amazing option for a quick getaway from the city.
The park boasts 15 miles of beaches on the shore of Lake Michigan, ready for you to take a dip or lay in the sun. West Beach is the most popular and also the only beach with lifeguards. Through the summer months, there is a small extra fee for the summer amenities ($6 per car or $3 with your America the Beautiful pass).
PERFECT FOR: THE GREAT LAKES LOVERS.
12 – GOLDEN GATE RECREATION AREA — CALIFORNIA
Golden Gate Recreation Area is extremely diverse — to put it mildly. With 19 different ecosystems and 2,000 different plant and animal species in the park, it is a gem close to San Francisco with recreation options of all kinds.
If you haven’t visited before — although chances are you have as it’s consistently one of the top visits NPS sites — you may be surprised that Golden Gate Recreation Area includes gorgeous beaches. Muir Beach is a favorite of mine to sit back and watch the sunset. Head to Baker Beach for an incredible Golden Gate Bridge View.
PERFECT FOR: THE CITY TRAVELERS.
11 – OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK — WASHINGTON
There is nothing quite like watching the sunset from a beach in Olympic National Park. While the vibe is decidedly less sun and sand, the moody and ruggedness is a great respite from the summer heat and crowds elsewhere.
Olympic, a peninsula home to 73 miles of undisturbed coastal wilderness, is a playground for visitors who hike, tide pool, beach comb, and watch those amazing sunsets. There are rocky and wild beaches and access points all along the coast of Olympic, but I am partial to Rialto and Second Beach.
PERFECT FOR: THE MOODY WEATHER FANS.
10 – ASSATEAGUE ISLAND NATIONAL SEASHORE — MARYLAND AND VIRGINIA
Assateague Island is another National Seashore I fell in love with on my first visit. Like Cape Lookout, it is famously home to wild horses, sandy beaches, and ample exploration opportunities.
A 37-mile-long barrier island is a great place to camp, fish, crab, bike, or swim. Located between Virginia and Maryland, it is the perfect spot to get away from the hustle and watch the waves any time of year.
PERFECT FOR: THE EQUINE LOVERS AMONG US.
9 – POINT REYES NATIONAL SEASHORE — CALIFORNIA
Just 38 miles outside of San Francisco is Point Reyes National Seashore. Popular for beaches, as well as hiking and wildlife spotting, Point Reyes has it all. Walk down the famous cypress tree tunnel before visiting one of the 12 beaches in Point Reyes.
With 80 miles of shoreline in the park, there is a beach for everyone. I always stop by Drake’s Beach for a dip and North Beach on a quick visit to the sand – the water here and many other areas on Point Reyes are generally unsafe to swim in.
PERFECT FOR: THE SAN FRANCISCAN ON A SUMMER FRIDAY.
8 – CAPE HATTERAS NATIONAL SEASHORE — NORTH CAROLINA
If you’ve spent time in the Outer Banks area of North Carolina, then the ranking of Cape Hatteras National Seashore in the top ten will be no surprise.
The wide sandy beaches and warm Atlantic water are what summer vacation dreams are made of. Spend time on the beach swimming, surfing, or relaxing before camping near the ocean, watching for wildlife, or taking your vehicle off-road onto the sand in designated areas.
PERFECT FOR: THE OBX FANATIC.
7 – ACADIA NATIONAL PARK — MAINE
While Acadia National Park is well-known for its rugged and rocky coastline, you might be surprised that it is also home to a gorgeous sandy beach. Sand Beach is a perennial favorite with locals and visitors alike – as sand beaches are few and far between on the Maine coastline.
Located within the main park boundaries, Sand Beach is located at the beginning of Acadia’s Park Road. Enjoy the views before heading on a scenic drive, hiking, or over to Jordan Pond House for popovers and prosecco.
PERFECT FOR: THE EAST COAST LONG WEEKENDER.
6 – REDWOOD NATIONAL PARK — CALIFORNIA
You may be surprised that there’s more to Redwood National Park than just the towering trees it’s legendary for. My favorite place to visit while in the park is the beach! I love relaxing on Gold Bluffs Beach, a gray-sand beach and campground near the otherworldly Fern Canyon.
You can also spend time exploring Enderts Beach, which is accessible from a rugged ½ mile trail. Enderts isn’t great for swimming but is a popular spot for tide-pooling and taking in the scenery.
PERFECT FOR: THE BUCKET-LIST TRAVELER.
5 – NATIONAL PARK OF AMERICAN SAMOA — AMERICAN SAMOA
As the least visited National Park of 2022, you might imagine the National Park of American Samoa has truly unspoiled beaches. It’s hard to describe the beauty of this island in the South Pacific and the glistening white sand and blue waters that greet you at every turn.
While there aren’t many public access points to beaches on the main island of Tutuila (as the American Samoan people own the land) — there are some spots if you’re industrious. As the park is distributed through three islands, Ofu Lagoon on Ofu Island is the best place to beach. Outside of beaches, the park is also a great place to snorkel, learn about Samoan culture, and hike through the rainforest.
PERFECT FOR: THE INTREPID TRAVELER.
4 – CAPE LOOKOUT NATIONAL SEASHORE — NORTH CAROLINA
The National Park system is more than just the 63 parks designated “National Parks.” There are over 400 NPS-managed sites, including historical sites, preserves, and National seashores. I’ve visited many National Seashores over the years, and one always sticks out in my mind — Cape Lookout. A three-mile ferry ride from Beaufort or Harkers Island, North Carolina, transports you to underdeveloped, almost secret-feeling beaches.
Camp, fish, hike, rent cabins, or climb the lighthouse. If you visit Shackleford Banks, the southernmost barrier island, you might encounter some of the 100 wild horses that inhabit the island. Or simply enjoy a day relaxing on the glistening sand.
PERFECT FOR: THE REMOTE-LOCATION LOVER.
3 – CUMBERLAND ISLAND NATIONAL SEASHORE — GEORGIA
After visiting 59 of 63 major National Parks and countless other NPS sites, one of my favorites continues to be Cumberland Island National Seashore, A barrier island off the coast of southern Georgia, full of history, wildlife, and beauty. I felt like stepping into another world while walking on the undeveloped beaches and learning about the island’s rich history on my first visit.
Known for wild horses and loggerhead turtles, visitors access Cumberland Island via a 45-minute ferry from the visitors center in St. Mary’s, Georgia. And then immediately wonder why it took them so long to explore this incredible island.
PERFECT FOR: THE HISTORY BUFF.
2 – DRY TORTUGAS NATIONAL PARK — FLORIDA
Dry Tortugas National Park is a series of islands 70 miles west of Key West, so there are, of course, ample beaches. I spent a day snorkeling at the swim beach outside the historic Fort Jefferson and lounging on the pristine sands. The beach feels otherworldly, and you are much further outside the continental United States than you are.
It is truly a bucket list-worthy trip. Dry Tortugas can only be accessed by boat or seaplane — making your trip even more interesting — and leaving the beach less crowded with a private island vibe.
PERFECT FOR: THE SNORKEL-OBSESSED TRAVELER.
1 – US VIRGIN ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK — US VIRGIN ISLANDS
In ranking National Park beaches, none hold a candle to those in US Virgin Islands National Park. The white sand beaches on the island of St. John are breathtaking, and the crystal clear blue water transports you to another world entirely. The water is warm, the landscape is astounding, and the local culture and history are fascinating.
With two-thirds of St. John part of the National Park, many beach options exist. I love Honeymoon Bay, Trunk Bay, and Watermelon Cay.
PERFECT FOR: THE ISLAND LIFE LOVER.