Central Oregon Coast
Where the Pacific Ocean clashes against central Oregon, visitors will find a combination of craggy, churning coastline punctuated by vast swaths of sandy beaches. People often don’t realize central Oregon’s sand is special; “because of the rain, it’s very clean, and it’s really round,” said Angie Riley, digital marketing manager for Eugene, Cascades and Coast. “That’s why a lot of people from around the world come here just to play in the sand.”
The Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area stretches 40 miles from Florence south to Coos Bay with massive dunes looming over the coastline. Sandland Adventures and Sand Dunes Frontier offer two types of dune buggy experiences: Sandrails seat two to four people and can only be compared to a roller coaster on sand. Larger dune buggies that can seat about 25 people aren’t as speedy, but it’s still thrilling to crest the top of a dune not knowing what awaits on the other side: an ocean view, sand-buried trees or a shockingly steep slope.
C&M Stables takes groups of about a dozen on horseback beach rides. The trail ride winds through coastal woodlands and wetlands before cresting a dune to expose the wide beach and gentle waves below. Once on the beach, riders can spread out and even trot through the foaming surf.
North of Florence, the 1894 Heceta Head Lighthouse sits on a rocky outcropping overlooking churning water below. The lighthouse offers tours and a bed-and-breakfast in the lightkeeper’s house.
Outer Banks, North Carolina
The Outer Banks is a skinny 200-mile stretch of peninsulas and barriers islands that jut into the Atlantic Ocean, putting the string of land near the Gulf Stream from the south and the Labrador Current from the north.
“It’s a natural environment that’s really hard to come by,” said Lee Nettles, executive director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau.
The unique geography of the OBX islands contributes to its lure and lore, making it a popular place for bird-watching, sport fishing and shipwreck hunting.
On the sound side, i.e., facing the mainland, Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head is the site of the tallest “living” or active sand dune system on the East Coast. Visitors can walk the mile-and-a-half Tracks in the Sand trail over the dunes to the sound, take the milelong Soundside Nature Trail loop that leads to an overlook or stick to the 360-foot-long boardwalk with interpretive displays and a deck that delivers dune views.
Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge has a visitors center where guests can use scopes trained on North Pond to view some of the 350 migratory bird species that nest and rest in the refuge. Two trails also allow visitors to explore the habitat and spot wildlife.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore is home to two lighthouses: Cape Hatteras and Bodie Island. Both are open seasonally for self-guided climbs to the top, where visitors can take in sweeping views of the coastline.
Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts
Cape Cod National Seashore’s 43,600 acres straddle the narrow peninsula that hooks around the east side of Cape Cod Bay, giving visitors waterfront access to both the calmer waters along the western shores and nearly 40 miles of seashore facing the powerful, pounding waves of the Atlantic.
The park has six beaches that “are all very beautiful,” said Dani Cessna, a ranger for the park’s South District. Coast Guard Beach often lands on lists of the country’s best beaches and is closest to the Salt Pond Visitor Center, which has a bookstore, a museum and a theater. The center is also close to the Nauset Marsh Trail, a 1.3-mile easy loop that “is one of our best marsh trails.”
In addition to beaches, the park’s diverse landscape delivers salt marshes, kettle ponds and coastal woodlands. The bayside is the best area for beachcombing “because it’s gentler over there, so seashells and sea glass and driftwood stay intact.” Although most of the park’s six beaches face the Atlantic, Glade Island Trail leads hikers through the marsh to a bayside beach of the same name. In Provincetown, Herring Cove Beach is another good bayside option, and the observation deck at Province Lands Visitor Center provides 360-degree views of the dunes and the ocean and is the best place to spot humpback, minke and right whales.