One hundred years ago, President Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service. We’ve had national parks since Yellowstone was created way back in 1876. But by 1916, we’d accumulated a scattered mix of wilderness and Civil War battlefields, mostly managed by the army. When the Park Service was created and professionalized under Stephen Mather and his deputy Horace Albright, it became the National Parks we know now.
Most of the 100-year fanfare has gone to parks in the mountains or the desert: Yosemite, Yellowstone, or the Grand Canyon. But that leaves out a series of seaside parklands that constitute the oft-forgotten gems of the National Park Service. Here are some of the spots where a trip to a National Park is also a day at the beach…even if it’s not the kind of beach you might think.
The first national park in the Eastern US, Acadia is one of the jewels of the Maine Coast. Mostly composed of the rugged, rocky coastline and islands of Mount Desert Island, it’s not a placid day on the beach. The water is cold, the currents are strong, and the weather is tempermental. In fact the Park’s main beach is named “Sand Beach.” This is partly out of New England practicality and partly because it’s the only sand beach around. The shoreline is rocky, rugged, and rich in small islands, intricate coves, and wildlife.
Channel Islands, California
A 160-mile chain of 5 islands 30 miles offshore of Oxnard and Ventura, the Channel Islands are a rugged glimpse of what Southern California looked like before Hollywood and L.A. traffic: a coastal Mediterranean ecosystem now found in only five places in the world. Like the Galapagos, the islands are an isolated ecosystem where evolution has proceeded in isolation: home to the tiny channel island fox, which has recovered now that invasive feral pigs have been removed. The park also includes archeological sites, massive sea caves, and a windswept sunny escape from the rest of California.
Glacier Bay, Alaska
One of the most visually stunning parks in the world, Glacier Bay in the Alaska Panhandle is characterized by 15,000 foot peaks rising straight out of the sea. Tidewater glaciers calving glowing blue icebergs into East Arm and West Arm, and seals give birth on the floating ice to keep their young safe from grizzly bears. Glacier Bay’s icy fjords are only accessible by boat, but the best way to explore it is by sea kayak.
In Hawaii, you can watch new coastline being formed in real-time as lava flows into the sea. The Hawaii Volcanoes spans the boiling cauldrons and lava fields of Mauna Loa and Kileaua and extends down to the coastline, where as I write this, lava from Kileau is flowing into the sea, cooling, and forming new land at Komokuna. It doesn’t get much more primordial than this. But remember: lava flows are better suited to hiking boots than flip-flops.
Ask most people about Olympic National Park and you’ll hear about the Hoh Rainforest and the alpine zones around High Divide, Hurricane Ridge, and Mount Olympus. But off in a separate corner of the peninsula is 73 miles of wilderness coast that’s a rare opportunity for backpackers: from Shi Shi Beach to Rialto Beach and from Third Beach to Oil City, it’s beach backpacking and camping and obstacle-course trails over rugged headlands. Keep an eye out for whales and sea otters…and clever raccoons that know you have food.
If there’s a classic tropical paradise, this may be it. Most of the tropical island of St. John is part of Virgin Islands National Park. Coral reefs, bays, beaches, offshore cays, rugged headlands and forested trails are all protected. You can lounge on the beach and snorkel, or pack your fins and mask and hike or paddle to a deserted beach to explore on your own. Leave the warm coat at home: the average January low is 70 degrees.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California
In the heart of San Francisco, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area is what parks will probably look like more in the future: small interconnected parklands near where people live instead of a distant mountain range. In the Golden Gate, it’s Fort Point, Alcatraz, Muir Woods, Marin Headlands, Bolinas Ridge, and the Presidio. A mix of human history, nature, and an iconic city, GGRNA won’t give you the seclusion of wilderness—but for many people it’s the park close to home for the afternoon hike or dog walk. For still more it’s part of an iconic city worth traveling around the world to see.