Life's a Natural Beach

Five Fab Shore Breaks Awash in Unspoiled Beauty
By Joe Sugarman
  |  Gorp.com

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who think a trip to the shore should involve nothing more than flitting shorebirds, dune grass, crashing surf, and sand between your toes, and those who believe it's just not a beach vacation unless you can smell hot pizza and cotton candy wafting from the boardwalk. If you subscribe to the latter notion, be warned, this article contains no mention of Tilt-a-Whirls or saltwater taffy outlets. Instead, we celebrate five great undeveloped beaches—those rare spots where sand and surf reign supreme, and wild animals often outnumber the human beachcombers.

Assateague Island, Maryland
Assateague Island, a 37-mile-long barrier island south of Ocean City, Maryland, (amusement park central) has some beautiful wind-swept beaches, but sand plays second fiddle to the island's star attractions—175 free-roaming ponies. Supposedly descendants of mustangs that swam ashore from a sinking Spanish galleon in the late 16th century, the animals were made famous by Marguerite Henry's book Misty of Chincoteague, endearing them to little girls the world over. These days, the wild ponies are accustomed to visitor traffic and will often approach cars and tents in search of a free meal. (Resist the temptation to feed them; these are wild animals.) The island's beaches are fantastic for walking (beware the rogue pony dropping) and its sound-side waterways make for a peaceful paddle. Assateague Island is divided into a state and two national parks; visit Assateague Island National Seashore or Chincoteague (on the Virginian side of the island) for the more pristine experience.
Cape Lookout National Seashore, North Carolina
The beaches along North Carolina's famed Outer Banks deservedly get high marks for their sizeable widths, clean water, and protected dunes. But with new vacation houses springing up like beach grass and the tacky strip malls of Route 12, the main thoroughfare through Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills, settling into an all-natural state of mind in the northern Outer Banks is becoming that much more difficult. For a more peaceful alternative, head south to Cape Lookout National Seashore, a 55-mile-long chain of barrier islands that extend from Ocracoke on the northeast to Beaufort on the south. Separated from the mainland by inlets and sounds, many beaches can only be reached by boat. Opportunities for camping, hiking, beachcombing, and birdwatching are plentiful along the bare beaches and shifting sand dunes. Look for accommodations and restaurants in the nearby towns of Morehead City, Beaufort, Atlantic Beach, and Pine Knoll Shores, collectively known as North Carolina's Crystal Coast. Many of these small towns exude a charm similar to the Outer Banks of yesteryear.

Point Reyes National Seashore
When the morning fog clears, the sun shines down on Point Reyes National Seashore and its 65,000 acres of lagoons, coastal dunes, lowland marshes, and ridge-top forests. That is, until the fog returns in the afternoon. Located in Marin County, an hour northwest of San Francisco, Point Reyes experiences the same notoriously unpredictable weather patterns that San Fran does, but, hey, with a landscape showing off this much drama, who cares about constant sunshine? Frequent seismic activity has shaped the peninsula's distinctive craggy granite outcrops that loom over surfside beaches like giant vultures. Gray whales use migration channels a mile or two offshore, tule elk run wild over 2,600 acres of grassland, and nearly 2,000 elephant seals make Point Reyes their home. Satisfy your cravings for the sandy stuff at the protected Drakes and Limantour Beaches along the crescent of Drakes Bay, where swimming is permitted.

Washington's Olympic Peninsula
In a state better known for its coffee and microbrewed beer, Washington's rugged coastal beaches tend to get passed over by those annual "best beaches" lists, probably because its shores, often covered with driftwood and other flotsam and jetsam, provide more of an active rather than passive experience. Here, hiking, not lounging, is the activity of choice. At 60 miles, the Olympic Peninsula contains the longest wilderness coast in the Lower 48. Several excellent (and popular) hikes wind along the coastline, the best running between Shi Shi (pronounced shay shay) Beach and Hoh River. Trails overlook the Pacific Ocean's relentless poundings and famous sea stacks, silo-like formations of rock that jut out of the water.

Torrey Pines State Beach
Incredibly, this 4-mile-long undeveloped beach sits within the San Diego City limits. The beach is part of Torrey Pines Reserve, a 2,000-acre natural playground that's been spared development of any kind. Home to the rare torrey pine, a scraggly five-needled shrub and a remnant of the last Ice Age, the reserve contains eight miles of hiking trails along well-worn red bluffs. The beach itself is wide only at low tide, but is always a popular spot with anglers and surfers. Take the trail from the beach that winds along the cliffs to the reserve or park at the reserve and walk down to the beach. Either way, boardwalks and SkeeBall will be farthest things from your mind.

Published: 19 Jul 2000 | Last Updated: 5 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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