Tidepools, formed at low tide when the waters along craggy coasts retreat, teem with living creatures typically invisible to the naked eye. Scuttling hermit crabs, ochre sea stars and purple sea urchins are only some of the creatures and critters left exposed. To explore these pools is called tidepooling, and it can be a relaxing, family-oriented way to spend a day.
Shi Shi Beach
Olympic National Park, Washington
Put simply, Shi Shi offers the best tidepooling in the contiguous 48 states. Situated inside Olympic National Park, the 2-mile crescent-shaped beach is strewn with sea stacks -- tiny islands of land that the ocean has worn from the mainland over time. You name the critter, it probably lives here. Mussels are the most common inhabitants, though sea stars, razor clams, limpets, chitons, hermit crabs and sea cucumbers are here, too. These tidepools are most famous for their sea anemones, boneless creatures that come in never-before seen shades of green, pink and orange. Touch these creatures and they feel sticky -- that's how they pluck tiny animals from the current.
Tidepools aren't the only attraction on Shi Shi beach; at the south end of the beach sits Point of the Arches, a towering arch carved by the sea. The spot is a favorite among outdoor photographers intent on capturing the view at sunset.
Perhaps the only downside to Shi Shi beach is its remoteness -- getting there requires some patience. The quickest way is a 2-mile hike from a parking lot off Hobuck Rd. on the Makah Indian Reservation. There are slower, more challenging routes, too, both of which require at least 10 miles of beach hiking.
Fitzgerald Marine Reserve
Moss Beach, California
The sea life is abundant in the tidepools of this hidden stretch of beach 30 miles south of San Francisco. As visitors wander among the coralline algae and occasional sea urchin, they are often treated to seeing harbor seals hauled out on nearby rocks.
The reserve encompasses a flat and striated rock outcropping that geologists estimate is more than 50 million years old. During particularly low tides, rangers and volunteers from the Friends of the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve roam the outcrop to give visitors personalized information about the natural history of the area and the critters they see.
Heading south, the tidepools stretch for roughly 1.5 miles along the bottom of 200-foot bluffs to the pocket beach that surfers use to reach Mavericks, 1 of the most famous surf spots in the world. From this beach, when the water is particularly calm, you might spot gray or humpback whales, spouting in the distance.
While exploring the reserve, visitors should be aware they must observe a federal law insisting they stay 300 feet away from any marine mammal hauled out on rocky intertidal areas. In addition, there is no collecting of anything, even shells and rocks.
Because Fitzgerald is so close to a major city, there are plenty of places to stay while you're there. In Moss Beach, try the Seal Cove Inn, a bed-and-breakfast within walking distance of the park. For a more lively experience, check out the Half Moon Bay Inn in nearby Half Moon Bay.
Tofino, British Columbia
Granite is everywhere in 1 of Canada's most famous beach and summertime low tides reveal thousands of water-worn cubbies in the rock. Many of the same creatures in other tidepools also can be found here: mussels, barnacles, chitons, sea slugs, hermit crabs and minnows, to name a few. Because the water is too cold to be cloudy, the colors of these animals are unbelievably bright.
While here, spend a few nights at the posh Wickaninnish Inn and take a day to explore Frank Island, which can be reached by land bridge during low tide. Because Tofino sits unprotected on Vancouver Island's Pacific coast, it bears the brunt of storms coming in from the west, and rain can appear out of nowhere. Always carry rain gear or an umbrella and a dry pair of socks.
First Encounter Beach
Summertime inspires New Englanders to flock to Cape Cod, site of this historic spot. The beach, on the cape's western shore near Eastham, reportedly was the site of the first encounter between the Pilgrims and Native Americans when the Pilgrims made landfall. Today, it is a great place to encounter tidepools.
Here, the pools are unique. Instead of unveiling hundreds of hidden nooks and crannies, low tide at First Encounter reveals nearly a mile of tidal flats, which create hundreds of tiny, natural ponds. Each pond is its own ecosystem until the next flood tide. Minnows and other small schooling fish usually hang out in these pools. Lucky beachgoers also may spot sea snails and horseshoe crabs beached by surprise.
Regular visitors also patrol these tidepools for tiny fiddler crabs; these tiny crabs hide just beneath the surface of the sand and wait for dusk to come out and feed. Breathing holes the diameter of a straw are telltale signs that these little guys are lurking below.
There are no crabs on the menu at the Lobster Shanty, Eastham's most famous lobster shack. Many visitors stay at the Whalewatch Inn so they can walk to both the restaurant and the beach. For the true thrill seekers, the crashing surf at Coast Guard Beach is nearby, too.
Hunting Island State Park
Beaufort, South Carolina
Hermit crabs and white shrimp are among the creatures you'll find in the tidepools at this popular Southeast beach spot, but most visitors still come seeking sand dollars. The critters, relatives of the sea urchin, are prevalent on the Atlantic Ocean side of the marshy sea island. People come from hundreds of miles to spot (and collect) them.
In addition to sand dollars, the park's tidepools are home to blue crabs, spot-tail bass and diamondback terrapins, to name a few. This smorgasbord of critters attracts herons and egrets. Occasionally, visitors even might spot an American alligator, desperate for a decent meal.
The park is also home to 1 of the longest fishing piers on the Eastern Seaboard (1,120 feet), and South Carolina's only lighthouse open to the public. It also offers the region's best slash pine-palmetto forest, and the best spot for seeing South Carolina's state tree, the cabbage palmetto, in its native habitat.
Most visitors make a day trip from Beaufort, which is 16 miles away. Stay at the Fripp Island Golf & Beach Resort and score a tee time on the picturesque Ocean Creek, golfer Davis Love III's first signature course. The greens overlook the Great Salt Marsh and the Atlantic.