When it comes to travel, most of us fall firmly into either the adventure or the beach bum camp, and find a destination to suit our needs. But with US National Parks, you can sometimes find the best of both worlds. You might think of National Parks as places to explore mountain ranges and forests, but several parks also protect some dazzling sandy stretches of coastline.
We’ve rounded up five of the best National Park beaches for you to explore this year. Most of them are more rugged beaches where swimming isn’t advised and you’ll want to explore in hiking boots, pitch a tent for the night and bring your best binoculars for some thrilling wildlife viewing opportunities, but there is one tropical paradise where you can wear your water shoes and expect warm weather year-round. Read on to discover which of these beautiful beaches is for you.
1. Olympic, Washington: Rialto and Ruby Beach
Rialto Beach is one of the most iconic – and photographed – spots in Olympic National Park, where the trees meet the ocean and find a rocky shoreline, glistening rock pools and rugged sea stacks. Walk 1.5 miles north at low tide to Hole-in-the-Wall, a hole in a massive rock wall that you can walk through and snap photos. Look out for otters, seals, pelicans and bald eagles. You can easily while away an afternoon here or bring a backpack for a longer adventure and sleep in one of the designated campsites.
For an exquisite sunset, head to Ruby Beach, a wild stretch of beach in the northern part of the park’s southern coastline named for its ruby-like sand crystals. You can wander for hours here among the driftwood and admire the sea stacks and views of Destruction Island and lighthouse four miles out to sea.
2. Acadia, Maine: Sand Beach
With its 19 islands, it shouldn’t be too surprising that Maine’s crown jewel, Acadia National Park, harbors a few beaches and Sand Beach is a true delight. Nestled in a narrow bay, it forms a small strip of sand between the Atlantic and thick forest. Making the area more unique is The Beehive, a dome-shaped peak that rises up from Sand Beach and provides a short but difficult hike.
You can also join the Ocean Path from here, which follows the coast to Otter Head a couple of miles away, delivering some dramatic coastline with jagged rock formations. This family-friendly walk takes in several popular landmarks in the Park such as Thunder Hole where you can watch the waves crashing through, Monument Cove and the rocky Boulder Beach.
3. Dry Tortugas, Florida: South Swim Beach
If it’s crystal clear waters, coral reef and marine life you’re looking for in your beaches, you won’t do better than Dry Tortugas. Lying 70 miles off the coast of Key West, Dry Tortugas National Park offers a magical hideaway that you can only reach by boat, ferry or seaplane, but once there, you’ll find seven small islands and lots of white sand. Once you’ve set up your camping chair or spread out your camping blanket and claimed your spot, get your fishing line out or hit the water and snorkel around the coral reefs.
4. Redwood, California: Gold Bluffs Beach
There’s no doubt that if you’re heading to Redwood National Park, it’s to see giant redwoods, but you’ll find some spectacular California coastline in this park too, just not of the bikini and ice cream variety. Gold Bluffs Beach delivers miles and miles of sand and dunes where you can camp, hike and watch elk grazing. If you fancy a chance of scenery, you can join up with lush Fern Canyon here, a short walk that delivers an almost surreal display of ancient ferns in a narrow, vertical walled canyon that was the backdrop for scenes in Jurassic Park 4. You’ll be walking through the creek bed so waterproof hiking shoes may be helpful.
5. Katmai, Alaska: Pacific Coast
Alaska probably isn’t the first place that pops into your mind when you think of beaches, but the state is home to some 33,000 miles of coastline where you’ll find icy ocean and black sand beaches – which you might have to share with some of the local bears. Katmai, which is best known for Fat Bear Week, houses about 400 miles of spectacular coastline where you’ll find rugged beaches sitting in the shadow of Katmai's volcanoes. If you hang out for a while, you might spot sea life such as sea otters and whales.
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Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.