10 Great Beaches for Nature Lovers

These public beaches have plenty of sun and sandy fun, but also help protect critical habitat and homes of a wide range of animals.

By: Steve Larese
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Cape Cod National Seashore

Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts is 40 miles of protected beach as well as marshes and ponds that are homes to hundreds of species of animals. Become a volunteer at its Atlantic Research and Learning Center, where citizen scientists are trained to observe and record seasonal changes (phenology) within the park’s ecosystem.

Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland

Maryland’s Assateague Island National Seashore is known for its herds of wild horses, possibly descendants of survivors of a shipwreck. Camping, kayaking, hunting, biking and photography are the most popular activities here, and visitors can attend ranger-guided programs throughout the year to learn more about this unique area, and even collect helpful data.

Fire Island National Seashore, New York

New York’s Fire Island National Seashore is a forested 32-mile-long barrier island teeming with wildlife such as fox, deer and seals. Beachcombing, bird watching, camping and even stargazing are a few favorite Fire Island activities. Ranger-led Fire Island Treks along the beach explore the diverse flora and fauna that call Fire Island home, and volunteer programs allow citizens to help monitor the health of the area.

Asilomar State Beach, California

Asilomar State Beach within the Asilomar Marine Reserve is home to sea otters, seals and whales lounging in the cold water beyond the shore here. The Coast Trail meanders through the 25-acres of sand dunes containing 25 species of coastal plants, and tidal pools provide hours of exploration. Guided tours are offered throughout the year.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina

North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras National Seashore is a prime nesting beach for loggerhead and green sea turtles, and visitors can watch adults lay and baby hatch throughout the season July through September. Call 252-475-9629 to find out when sea turtle nests are scheduled to be excavated in order to hatch and release baby turtles away from predators. Ranger-led nature hikes and programs take guests out into the field to study the marshes, dunes and beaches of this 72-mile-long strip of barrier islands. As one of the darkest skies east of the Mississippi, sky watching is popular here, as is surfing, beachcombing and exploring Bodie Island, Cape Hatteras and Ocracoke Lighthouse light stations.

Point Reyes National Seashore, California

More than 1,500 species of plants and animals live throughout Point Reyes National Seashore’s beaches, streams and forests. Volunteers can help with sand dune and habitat restoration, and also help out in the native plant nursery here. Help plant those plants along Cheda Creek for bank restoration, then watch for California gray whales swimming past Point Reyes.

Trunk Bay, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands

As part of the Virgin Islands National Park, Trunk Bay is known for its pristine warm water and coral reef that’s home to many species of tropical fish. Snorkel the 675-foot-long Underwater Trail of Reefs, an underwater nature trail where signage explains features of the reef as you keep an eye out curious fish and sea turtles. Stay in style at the nearby Caneel Bay Resort or Cinnamon Bay Resort.

Laniakea Beach, Oahu, Hawai'i

Laniakea Beach on Oahu’s North Shore is a go-to for surfers, but it’s also a favorite of green turtles that sunbath on the beach and paddle in the surf. There’s a parking area across Kamehameha Highway from the beach that fills up quickly, and docents make sure visitors don’t touch or otherwise bother these sun-loving honu.

Captiva and Sanibel Islands, Florida

Boasting 15-miles of sugar-sand beaches filled with 250 different species of sea shells, Captiva Island and Sanibel Island are sister communities bordering Buck Key and other nature preserves that host 230 species of birds throughout the year. Public beaches rim the islands, and hotels such as South Seas Island Resort offers guided nature walks and classes that explain the area’s habitats.

Jekyll Island State Park, Georgia

Jekyll Island State Park’s sandy beaches and quiet backwaters are perfect for beachcombers, kayakers and hikers, and photographers love Driftwood Beach with its haunting downed trees and radiant sunsets. The 4-H Tidelands Nature Center explains the area’s natural history and the sea turtles, fish, horseshoe crabs, alligators and other diverse wildlife that call Jekyll Island home, as well as offering hiking and kayaking tours. The Georgia Sea Turtle Center rehabilitates injured and ill sea turtles and has daily educational programs and volunteer opportunities. Camping at Jekyll Island State Park is within 18 wooded acres and within walking distance to popular beaches.

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