Sand Ho!

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, July 1993

Sand Ho!

No summer's complete without a little sugar underfoot. But don't you want more in a beach? Fifteen that have it.
By Parke Puterbaugh


Cape Elizabeth, Maine
Maine has more than its share of rocky coastline, but sand beaches are a scarce commodity. You can have both at two state parks on Cape Elizabeth, eight miles (a bracing bike ride) from Portland. Two Lights State Park (207-799-5871), on the Casco Bay side, admittedly has the more spectacular setting: waves crashing noisily against a rocky headland that rises steplike to a piney woodland. Swimming is out of the question--especially after a pilgrimage to the Lobster Shack to gorge yourself on its heavenly (and cheap) lobster rolls. But just a mile away, on the sheltered southeastern side, lies Crescent Beach State Park (207-767-3625) and a swath of soft sand, where a typical summer Saturday finds Down Easters and Canadians dashing breathlessly into the ocean--water temperature barely tops 60 degrees during the dog days--and dashing back out with renewed appreciation for the sun.

Cape Henlopen State Park, Delaware
The mood on Delaware's relatively brief coastline can range from the vigilant civility of Rehoboth Beach to the Animal-House-by-the-sea mentality of Dewey Beach. Happily distinct from either is Cape Henlopen (302-645-2103), an expansive seaside wilderness where Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic. The park encompasses 3,400 acres of salt marshes, migrating dunes, tidal flats, pinelands, cranberry bogs, and a four-mile sand beach where you can stake out a comfortable plot, if not a private one, even on July 4. On your way to the beach you'll pass Hoss's Pier 1, where you can rent the tackle to lure a bluefish or a flounder back to dinner at the park's 160-site campground. And pack the disc--there's a nine-hole Frisbee-golf course right off the beach.

Crane's Beach, Massachusetts
The town of Ipswich was settled by shipbuilders, fishermen, and lace makers in the 1630s. Life was not a beach on the North Shore back then, nor is it now. But since 1945, the 12,000 denizens of Ipswich have been able to claim as their own Crane's Beach, a four-mile-long, dune-backed white wonder along Ipswich Bay. The beach and the adjacent wildlife reservation fall under the purview of the Richard T. Crane, Jr., estate, dominated by the plumbing-fixture mogul's 59-room Georgian-style mansion. (The bathrooms alone warrant the guided tour.) With a permit from the town clerk (508-356-4161), you can dig for a less glamorous bit of heritage: the Ipswich clam. Wait for low tide, then look for bubbles in the sand. The best flats are on the beach's eastern edge near the Castle Neck River.


Jekyll Island, Georgia
At the turn of the century, a handful of America's filthy rich turned Jekyll Island--one of what the poet Sidney Lanier called Georgia's "golden isles"--into a private terrain de jeu. Today the 5,550-acre island is state-owned and open to commoners. Deep green vegetation still carpets much of the island. There's also an unfortunate plentitude of deep green golf courses, but every person on the links is one fewer on the seven-mile beach or in the wild marshlands. They're unbeatable settings for hours of near-solitary wading, bird-watching, swimming, picnicking, sunning, reading, surf-fishing, and generally acting like a millionaire with time on his hands. Bait and friendly advice are available at the historic marina (912-635-2891); the Jekyll Island Authority (912-635-3636) has advice, but no bait.

Kiawah Island, South Carolina
While many East Coast beaches are eroding away, Kiawah Island keeps growing, thanks to sand passed its way by the Charleston Harbor jetties. Fortunately, development hasn't followed suit. Kiawah Island Real Estate, which owns most of the island, practices controlled growth: Four thousand acres of this drumstick-shaped 10,000-acre barrier island will forever remain wilderness, and the abundance of wildlife, including the endangered brown pelican and the threatened American alligator, is viewed as a valuable attraction. The town of Kiawah itself sponsors a state-licensed program to protect the threatened Atlantic loggerhead turtle, which nests all along the 11-mile beach between May and August. To help patrol the nests and collect data, call Robert Cowgill at 803-768-1311.

Long Key, Florida
Midway down the Florida Keys, where white sand beaches are the exception rather than the rule, the beach at Long Key is a little bit grassy, a little bit rocky, and a whole lot beautiful. About half of it falls within the Long Key State Recreation Area (305-664-4815), which has 60 oceanfront campsites and two nature trails that thread tangled hardwood hammocks, sand dunes, and tidal flats but inevitably lead to the beach. Rangers teach snorkeling and marine ecology in the emerald shallows. Historically, however, the essential items on a Long Key packing list are not a mask and fins, but a fly rod or light spinning tackle. In fact, the recreation area includes the former site of an anglers' club once presided over by writer and bonefish fanatic Zane Grey--and wiped out, with other harbingers of the tourist trade, by the 1935 hurricane.


Cayo Costa, Florida
Like Sanibel and Captiva islands, its developed counterparts immediately to the south, Cayo Costa is shell-hunter heaven. The white beach that rims the lush interior is sometimes so dotted with baby's ears, banded tulips, or the shells of some 396 other species that you can't see the sand. What's important here, however, is what's missing: electricity, commerce, and waves of amateur conchologists practicing "the Sanibel stoop." The seven-mile-long barrier island, 90 percent of which is state parkland, is accessible only by boat (passage can be found from any marina on Captiva, Pine Island, or Boca Grande). There are 12 primitive cabins (call 813-964-0375 for reservations) and a pine-and-palm-shaded camping area for about 30 tents, all 100 yards from the Gulf of Mexico. Take no live specimens from the park, and bring your fishing tackle: Boca Grande Pass, off the northern tip, is famous tarpon territory.

Mustang Island State Park, Texas
In the words of an early explorer, "her treasure is the gold of her sun, the silver of her moonlight, and the sapphire of her pearl-crested waves." Mustang Island State Park (512-749-5246), on the eponymous barrier island that separates Corpus Christi Bay from the Gulf of Mexico, looks much like it did then--except for the preponderance of beach blankets. But the mile and a half set aside for primitive camping on the five-mile beach allows for relative peace and quiet. The main event here is--what else?--fishing. Shell gathering runs a close second, especially in late fall, when a reversal of current erodes the beds and washes the booty ashore.

Santa Rosa Island, Florida
Follow the neon fish sign out of Pensacola, and two bridges later you're on Santa Rosa Island at Pensacola Beach, a not-unappealing place to spread a towel or gobble steamed shrimp and crawfish. Don't stop here, though, because bookending Pensacola Beach's commercial hubbub are the beaches of Gulf Islands National Seashore (904-934-2600), an undeveloped oasis in the Redneck Riviera--which you may know by its more salable moniker, the Emerald Coast. The location and $4 entrance fee of the Fort Pickens area, nine miles west of Pensacola Beach on the western tip, keep the hordes at bay. You can explore the labyrinthine fort that once held Geronimo, recline on the white-quartz sand on the gulf side, snorkel on the sound side, or fish for trout, mackerel, and mullet off the pier.


Carpinteria State Beach
Carpinteria is known as the "world's safest beach," an appellation that extends back to 1602, when a Spanish explorer first proclaimed it costa segura. The mile-long beach slopes seaward slowly; there's no undertow and no riptides, and at low tide you have to walk for what seems like forever to immerse yourself completely. But what makes it more than merely soothing is its setting at the foot of the Santa Ynez Mountains and its view of the Channel Islands. (The adjacent 262-site campground includes a number of beachfront sites; call 805-684-2811.) Because the waters are so kind, those serious about surfing tend to stay around the corner at legendary Rincon Point.

Sunset State Beach
The hard-to-reach beaches of Santa Cruz County are often overlooked, but they're worth the extra effort to visit for their striking wildness. At Sunset State Beach (408-724-1266), seven miles of broad white-sand beach and roiling surf rise into dunes crowned by wind-gnarled trees. The park's northern entrance is a roller-coaster ride of hairpin turns along steep cliffs--actually ancient, overgrown dunes. To the south, a lower entrance road meanders through fields of artichokes and flowers. The swimming is good for an area better known for its surfing, and a eucalyptus grove behind the dunes grants shady picnicking and protection from the beach winds. The 90 campsites are a five- to ten-minute hike up the bluff, and after sundown the beach is open only to campers.

Zuma Beach
At its best, Zuma Beach, on the Malibu coast, is a geologic symphony: The chaparral-covered Santa Monica Mountains plunge into the sea here, with only a sparkling three-mile strip of sand as a buffer--think of it as Little Big Sur. At worst, it's a still-beautiful cacophony: Southern swells from storms off Mexico end their crescendo here, and mudslides or firestorms can close up the entire area. It's therefore fitting that beachgoers seem to have no shortage of adrenaline. Surfing, scuba diving, and volleyball in particular are pursued with a vengeance. But take care in the water: Riptides have been known to drag up to 20 people at a time out to sea, necessitating blitz rescues by the lifeguard patrol. For a surf report, call the Los Angeles County Lifeguards at 310-457-9891.


Cannon Beach, Oregon
The focal point at this northern stop on U.S. 101 isn't the cold-but-surfable ocean; it's Haystack Rock, a 235-foot mound of barnacle-encrusted basalt that's the third-largest coastal monolith in the world. When the tide retreats, wade around the base, exploring the prolific marine community there. Down among the waves it's chockablock with sea anemones, minuscule crabs, starfish, and mussels. Above, hordes of squawking gulls, tufted puffins, and cormorants--for all of which the rock is a protected rookerycontinuously circle. The beach itself is hard and flat, and the dry, powdery sand "sings" as it's blown around by the stiff coastal breezes that bring out the kite-fliers en masse. Call the chamber of commerce at 503-436-2623.

Mackerricher State Park, California
Mendocino County hugs the coast for 130 miles, much of it inaccessible sea cliffs and tiny pocket beaches. Almost exactly at midpoint, near Fort Bragg, is an anomaly: MacKerricher State Park (707-937-5804), which includes a long, broad, mostly sandy beach and an equestrian trail that runs seaside the entire ten miles. If you prefer a steed with two wheels, pedal the logging road that separates the beach from the rest of the park. (Rent horses at Ricochet Ridge Ranch, 707-964-7669; bikes at Fort Bragg Cyclery, 707-964-3509.) A boardwalk on the bluff leads out to Laguna Point, an opportune place to observe seals, sea lions, and California gray whales. If you want to make a night of it, the park's ten no-frills walk-in campsites are a five-minute hike from the sand.

Point Roberts, Washington
There are two ways to go to the beach (and no fewer than four customs checkpoints on the round trip) on this 4.5-square-mile conifer-blanketed raindrop that drips off the Canadian mainland into the Strait of Georgia. You can own or rent a home--a double-wide trailer, an adobe hacienda, a prim Cape Cod--and take advantage of the state law that extends waterfront property to the low-tide line. (Call the chamber of commerce at 206-945-2313.) Or you can visit one of the three distinct expanses of public coastline: Lighthouse Park (where you can also camp; 206-945-4911), a gravelly, windy, prime whale-watching spot; sheltered Maple Beach, with its single general store and fine boardsailing conditions; or the unnamed south beach, from which a panorama of the San Juan Islands unfolds. Blissfully, there are no motels, only one B&B, and a few restaurants--in short, nothing has been Californicated, because there's nothing to Californicate.

Parke Puterbaugh is a coauthor of the Life Is a Beach guidebooks, published by McGraw-Hill.

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