Wilderness Areas: Bona Fide Beaches

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1992

Wilderness Areas: Bona Fide Beaches
By Meg Lukens

Day at the beach doesn't always turn out to be...well...a day at the beach. Sometimes the fog rolls in just after you've slathered yourself with Number 15. Or the wind dies as soon as you've rigged up the short board. Or you end up camped next to a pack of ten-year-olds with squirt guns. That's why your beach should have more going for it than clean restrooms and a Tastee-Freez.

Great beaches stay that way even when the things you thought you came for disappear. They're places where wild refers to the landscape, not the social scene. They can be enjoyed without props, even without sunshine. The five we've chosen here may not be the best places to ride a wave, spike a volleyball, or work on a tan, but who needs all that on the wild blue edge of the world?

Point Reyes National Seashore. Today this hilly, windswept headland lies about an hour's drive north of San Francisco. Tomorrow it may lie off the coast of Oregon. Sitting smack on the western edge of the San Andreas fault, Point Reyes migrates northward with every shift of the skittish geologic plates. All the more reason to visit its rolling grasslands and forested ridges now, along with the fogged-in Pacific beaches to the west and the sunny sands of Tomales Bay to the east.

Limantour Beach, on the peninsula's southern coast, is one of the loveliest of Point Reyes's six major beaches. (You'll discover the secret beaches, which come and go with the tides, on your own.) Walk north three miles for a view of Drakes Estero and its harbor seals, or hike south on the 20-mile Coastal Trail.

Paddlers can launch canoes and kayaks into Drakes Estero year round (except during the March 15June 30 seal pupping season), while hikers and bikers have access to 140 miles of trails in Samuel Taylor State Park, east of Tomales Bay. Stop at the national seashore's Bear Valley Visitor Center (415-663-1092) for trail maps and to reserve a spot in one of the four free hike-in campgrounds. Trailhead Rental in Olema (415-663-1958) rents all-terrain bikes for $17 $20 a day.

Getting there: From San Francisco, drive north on Highway 101, then west on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard to Olema, where signs point the way to the Bear Valley Visitor Center.

Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. Just 35 miles north of Boston, this peaceful reserve occupies the southern two-thirds of Plum Island. Sky-starved urbanites come here to walk the six-mile beach, cast for bluefish and striped bass, and picnic in the plum-covered dunes.

Most of all, they come to see birds, including rare species like buff-breasted sandpipers, black terns, and the occasional sandhill crane. One of the last undeveloped barrier dune areas in the Northeast, the refuge is a vital stop on the Atlantic flyway, and it's set up to accommodate birdwatchers, with observation towers and marked trails that lead through the marshlands. The refuge's beach is closed April through June to protect the nesting areas of piping plovers and least terns, but Sandy Point State Reservation, at the southern tip of Plum Island, remains open.

The entrance fee is $5 per car, and the visitor center (508-465-5753) provides maps and trail information. Campsites are available at nearby Salisbury Beach State Reservation (508-462-4481). Surfland Tackle Shop (508-462-4202), outside the refuge entrance, rents casting rods and reels for about $8 a day.

Getting there: From Boston, follow Route 1 North onto I-95 to the Newburyport exit (about and hour), then take Route 113 East, which leads to the refuge.

Padre Island National Seashore. Consistently strong currents and periodic hurricanes give this 113-mile-long barrier island off the Texas Gulf Coast a decidedly untamable feel. Storm-driven tides have devoured bathhouses, stretches of road, even the visitor center, which was recently rebuilt.

Thirteen miles of paved road will get you from the Kennedy Causeway to the park entrance; then you can drive another five miles on the packed sand. After that, you'll need four-wheel drive or your own two feet. The rules are pretty simple: Stay off the dunes, don't go near the sea turtles, and don't get too greedy when the redfish start biting.

Windsurfing is the major draw here: Bird Island Basin, easily accessible via a paved road two miles into the park, offers constant winds and shallow water in sheltered Laguna Madre; rent a board from roadside vendors just outside the park. The fishing's better on the Gulf side; pick up a state license at any 7-Eleven on the way to the park. Pick up some gas, too; the last station is 13 miles from the park entrance.

The Malaquite Visitor Center (512-949-8068), on the Gulf side two miles past the Bird Island Basin road, offers maps, guided nature walks, tips for driving on sand, and camping information. Pitch your tent at a full-service campground near Malaquite or anywhere along South Beach. The entrance fee is $3 per vehicle.

Getting there: Padre is 45 minutes from Corpus Christi; take State Route 358 south (it becomes Park Road 22), then cross over Laguna Madre to the national seashore.

Assateague Island National Seashore. Assateague Island needs no introduction to those who, as prepubescent horse-crazy girls, read Marguerite Henry's Misty of Chincoteague. Misty was one of Assateague's legendary wild ponies, and her descendants still roam this remote 37-mile-long peninsula shared by Maryland and Virginia.

There are busy lifeguarded beaches and nature trails near the entrance in each state. But in between are 22 miles of untouched shoreline, where your wandering will be rewarded with spectacular surf-fishing for flounder, trout, and sharks, a secluded campsite, and your own private sunset.

Canoeists can explore Chincoteague Bay's quiet salt marshes and overnight at a paddle-in campsite (with a permit from the visitor center). Rainy Day Canoes (410-641-5029), north of the Maryland entrance near Berlin, rents boats for $20 a day.

The national seashore entrance fee is $3. Drive-in campsites are available on the Maryland side, along with vehicle- free seaside campsites as well. Camping permits cost $10$18 per night; call 800-365-2267. In Virginia, you'll have to head for a private campground on tiny Chincoteague Island; call the Chamber of Commerce at 804-336-6161. The two visitor centers (301-641-1441 in Maryland, 804-336-6122 in Virginia) have maps and info on shore closings during the piping plover nesting season.

Getting there. From Salisbury, Maryland, take U.S. 50 east 30 miles to State Route 611 south. From Virginia Beach, Virginia, take U.S. 13 north about 100 miles to State Route 175, then head east across Chincoteague Island to the national seashore.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Summer is short and the water is cold on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, but there are days when the sun bakes the sand on Twelvemile Beach and Lake Superior shimmers silvery-blue.

Once you've had your fill of lounging, trade your flip-flops for hiking boots and head for the 43-mile Lakeshore Trail, which follows pebble and sand beaches, then skirts the tops of 150-foot-high cliffs and even taller glacier-sculpted dunes near Grand Marais. Keep your eyes open for black bears, moose, and inland waterfalls.

Scuba divers can explore shipwrecks at the Alger Underwater Preserve, just offshore along the length of the national lakeshore. Grand Island Charters in Munising runs dive trips($50 for a half day; rental gear is an additional $50; 906-387-4477). Campers can pitch tents on the sandy bluff above Twelvemile Beach, or get a free permit for one of several backcountry woodland sites off the Lakeshore Trail. Stop at the main visitor center in Munising (906-387-3700) to reserve campsites and pick up trail maps.

Getting there: An hour's drive from Marquette, Pictured Rocks stretches 40 miles from Munising to Grand Marais, Michigan. Michigan State Routes 28 and 94 lead to the Munising entrance; State Route 77 leads north to Grand Marais.

Copyright 1992, Outside magazine

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