When you think of national parks, you’re probably thinking of looming mountains, tufts of evergreen trees, and wide-open valleys. Often, the beaches within national parks are left only for those who know where to look.
Though the national park system has dozens of beaches worthy of a visit, here are six of our favorites. There's a beach for all vacationers, from the Pacific and the Atlantic to the Gulf and northernmost North American lakes, and it’s right in a national park!
1. Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Cape Hatteras National Seashore, a portion of the Outer Banks, is the first U.S. national seashore. It was established as a national seashore in 1937 to protect a string of barrier islands facing the Atlantic Ocean.
The 70-mile stretch of beach has a diverse range of wildlife. In the winter, you might spot a seal basking in the sun right on the sand. Birds frequent the beach, and you might see sea turtles, too.
A must-see is the white-and-black striped Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. The lighthouse is 208 feet tall, and the view from the top requires a trip up 250+ steps. Is it worth it if you’re physically able? Definitely!
The national seashore is only one pocket of the Outer Banks. Here are other fantastic beach towns on the Outer Banks. Or, if you’re traveling with the whole family, here’s our family-friendly sightseeing guide.
2. Dry Tortugas National Park
Seventy miles west of Key West, 100-square-mile Dry Tortugas National Park consists of islands and protected coral reefs. It’s a secluded island, so travel to the national park will be by ferry or seaplane.
To get the most out of your experience there, it’s best to get out on the water, either by swimming, snorkeling, diving, geocaching, or lazing by the beach. In addition to sparkling waters, history buffs will love the 19-century fort that you can actually visit.
Pro Tip: Dry Tortugas is one of our top national parks to avoid crowds.
3. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Maple City is perfect for landlocked travelers who long to be by the water. When you’re there, it’s just like being by the coast.
The national lakeshore sports over 60 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline. There are sandy beaches, Manitou Island for a beautiful adventure, and dense forests marbled with northern hardwood and conifer.
There are over 20 lakes clustered together in the lakeshore, and fun activities await you in every single one. There are hikes aplenty, camping, and water activities like swimming, kayaking or canoeing, and much more.
Here’s our list of recommendations for how to spend a fabulous weekend in Sleeping Bear Dunes.
4. Olympic National Park
Olympic National Park is a mecca for everything nature has to offer -- tall peaks, rocky shore, sandy beaches, tall, jagged cliffs, remarkable wildlife, just to name a few things. From the tallest peaks and the deepest parts of the forest to the beaches, there’s so much to see, do, and experience in this area of Washington.
Olympic National Park might not be known for its beaches, but boasting 70 miles of Pacific shore, the rugged coast definitely earned a spot on our list.
Kalaloch, Rialto, and Ruby Beach are a few of our recommendations. Don’t expect warm waters like in southern Florida or the Gulf, but the unique rock formations and the cool breeze are sure to be memorable.
When you’re done exploring the coastline, don’t forget to hike in the park as well. Here’s a TravelAwaits writer’s account of experiencing the Olympic Peninsula on her own.
5. Redwood State And National Parks
Redwood trees are something to marvel at, but while you’re in the area, don’t forget to experience another natural wonder … the beaches there!
Redwood has about 40 miles of Pacific coastline yours to explore. Redwood's beaches will be secluded and quiet -- ideal for escaping the hustle and bustle and resetting with the ocean waves as background music. For spectacular wildlife, explore the world of tidepool animals in Redwood.
6. Padre Island National Seashore
Home to nearly 400 species of birds, sea turtles, and tons of other marine life species, the 70 miles of shoreline is inhabited happily by wildlife. Explore the beach -- facing the Gulf of Mexico -- or the lagoon -- facing Texas.
Camp on the shore, fish, bird, kayak, canoe, or just enjoy the beach!