Some Sand of Your Own

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, July 1995

Some Sand of Your Own

Wild, people-free beaches where all you get is sun, water, and dunes with a view
By Parke Puterbaugh

No matter how high the mercury gets, sometimes acres of terry cloth and over-oiled humanity just won't do. On the other hand, you don't want to rappel down a cliff, hike 20 miles, and swim a shark-infested channel to spend a quiet day at the shore. True wilderness beaches in the Lower 48 states are becoming as scarce as spotted-owl droppings, but there are pockets of accessible coastline where you can stake out a sandy retreat. We can't guarantee you'll be all alone, but it's a safe bet that once you're there, you won't even care.


Empire, Michigan

The Beach: A six-mile strip of the 33-mile coastal park that looks like an ocean beach with massive dunes, swaying grasses, and occasional six- to eight-foot waves.

The Action: Wander west from the parking lot to find a secluded spot in the dunes. A few miles farther west, cyclists will want to get the lead out on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, a spectacular 7.4-mile loop through the forested highlands above Lake Michigan. Another big draw is the Dune Climb, a 130-foot waddle up the granulated slope of the area's biggest mound. Just east of Sleeping Bear Point, anglers launch from Glen Arbor and cruise the shore, casting for trout, bass, and coho and king salmon. Fishing boats, small sailboats, canoes, and kayaks can be rented from On the Narrows Marina (616-334-4891) in Glen Arbor. No camping is allowed on the beach, but primitive sites at D.H. Day campground ($8 per person) are a mile and a half east of the point.

Know That: If you plan to hike the dunes, bring sneakers or at least sandals; the dune grasses are razor sharp.

Getting There: From Detroit, about five hours away, take I-75 north to Michigan 72 in Grayling. Head west to Empire and pick up a camping permit and maps at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore visitor center. From there, head north to the Maritime Museum, where you'll find parking for Sleeping Bear Point Beach. For information call 616-326-5134.

Shelter Cove, California

The Beach: A lengthy strand of slate-black sand that begins at the tiny community of Shelter Cove and continues north into the BLM lands of the King Range National Conservation Area.

The Action: From Shelter Cove, hikers can wander up the Lost Coast Trail for 25 uninterrupted miles past offshore rocks inhabited by sea lions and seals, or head inland on mountainous terrain. If you hike north along the beach for five miles, you can hook up with the Buck Creek Trail, which runs 2.5 steep miles to the 3,290-foot summit of Saddle Mountain. Camping is permitted anywhere on the beach; if you want picnic tables and toilets, head for Mattole Campground, at the north end. Surfing is best at Big Flat, midway down the beach. Don't miss a fish-and-chips feast at the deli at Shelter Cove Campground and Marina (707-986-7474).

Know That: Tides can strand unwary hikers in coves, and the occasional huge "sleeper" wave can wash the unsuspecting out to sea. Be sure to carry and consult tide tables, available at stores in Shelter Cove.

Getting There: From San Francisco, about five hours away, drive north on U.S. 101, take the Garberville/Redway exit, and head west on Briceland Road 26 miles to Shelter Cove. For information, call the BLM office in Arcata at 707-825-2300.

Santa Catalina Island, California

The Beach: A palm-fringed, crescent-shaped slice of the tropics, midway down the windward side of Santa Catalina Island, just 22 miles off the coast of southern California. Oak-covered mountains rising to 2,000 feet form a stunning backdrop.

The Action: If you choose to ignore the occasional vans that run out to the beach from the town of Two Harbors, getting there is half the fun. You can hike from Two Harbors along the seven-mile Banning House Road Trail, an inland roller-coaster course, or better yet follow the calf-bruising 17-mile trail from the town of Avalon, which ascends spiny ridges. Once at the beach, claim one of 17 campsites equipped with outdoor showers, chemical toilets, and running water. Little Harbor is protected from the Pacific by a small peninsula and offshore reef, which makes for good fishing (halibut) as well as snorkeling and scuba diving. The wave action for decent bodysurfing is one cove east at Shark Harbor. Dive gear and ocean kayaks can be rented from the Catalina West End Dive Center in Two Harbors (310-510-2800).

Know That: Keep an eye out for flora and fauna found nowhere else on earth (a list is available from the Santa Catalina Conservancy, 310-510-0954), such as the Catalina ironwood tree, as well as the approximately 200 bison that roam the island.

Getting There: One of the main ferry operators is Catalina Express Commuter (310-519-1212), whose boats make the 90-minute crossing from San Pedro and Long Beach on the mainland to Two Harbors and Avalon all year long. Round-trip fare is $21-$35; it's $3-$5 extra to bring a bike or surfboard. Camping is $7.50 per night; for reservations call the Two Harbors Visitors Information and Service Center at 310-510-2800.

Monhegan Island, Maine

The Beach: A harbor shoreline bounded by rocky outcroppings on a tiny Atlantic outpost a half-mile wide and less than two miles long.

The Action: Monhegan Island is not hard-wired to the mainland--all electricity comes from gasoline-powered generators, and after nightfall part of the island gives way to kerosene lamps. Camping isn't allowed, and the topography is too rugged for biking. Most of the island, however, is a privately run preserve, with 18 numbered trails edging the windswept headlands and penetrating the churchlike calm of Cathedral Woods. Allow a good half-day to negotiate Trail 1, which follows the cliffs and gullies of the island's perimeter. On Swim Beach, only the hardy brave the frigid water, even in July and August. But lobstermen launch their skiffs, and sea kayakers poke around the coves and inlets. Island inns are bare-bones; at the Trailing Yew ($52 per person per night, including breakfast and dinner; 207-596-0440) meals are served family-style. Other choices are the Island Inn (207-596-0371) or Monhegan House (207-594-7983).

Know That: Wait for high tide to take a swim, since the sand tends to warm the water a bit. Swimmers should beware the strong undertow.

Getting There: The Laura B and the Elizabeth Ann passenger ferries run year-round from Port Clyde to Monhegan Island. Round-trip fare is $24 for adults; reservations are essential. Call 207-372-8848.

Ozette, Washington

The Beach: A wide, three-mile stretch of cobble-strewn sand, edged by steep headlands on the Olympic Peninsula's wild western shore, with views of sea stacks marching into the blue.

The Action: The beach at Ozette (actually two adjacent beaches, Cape Alava and Sand Point) is one leg of the 9.3-mile loop known as the Ozette Triangle. Starting from the campground at Lake Ozette, take either the north fork to Cape Alava or the south fork to Sand Point; both are boardwalked for nearly their entire three-mile lengths and pass through marshes, meadows, and pockets of old-growth forest teeming with waterfowl. Once at the beach, set up camp anywhere and wait for whales, sea lions, seals, and sea otters to cruise by. Intrepid hikers have been known to lug in collapsible kayaks to play in the typically roiling surf.

Know That: The Ozette loop trail goes around two headlands marked with the warning "caution" on topo maps. While they're generally passable at low tide during summer, you should consult tide charts and keep an eye on the weather.

Getting There: From Seattle, about five hours away, take the Edmonds/Kingston Ferry and hook up with U.S. 101 via Washington 104. Continue northwest for 43 miles to Washington 112 and then go 46 miles to the turnoff to Ozette, a mile west of the town of Sekiu. From there, it's about 21 miles to the Ozette ranger station. You can pick up park maps and tide charts at a nearby kiosk. For information, call Olympic National Park headquarters at 360-963-2725. Camping permits are required, but reservations can't be made more than a month in advance. Call 360-452-0300.


Bear Island, North Carolina

The Beach: A three-and-a-half-mile oceanfront stretch of barrier island surrounded by salt marsh, 60-foot dunes growing sea oats, and forests of oak, loblolly pine, and red cedar.

The Action: You won't find solitude at Bear Island's designated swimming area (smack in the island's midsection), where three lifeguards are on duty from Memorial Day to Labor Day. But walk a few minutes in either direction and you're sure to locate a deserted plot for sunbathing, bodysurfing, or surfcasting for bluefish, mullet, and drum. On days when a stiff wind pushes the waves up, some surfers muscle their boards the half-mile across the island from the ferry landing. The two-mile Canoe-Kayak Trail winds its way through salt marsh to a lagoon; pick up maps at park headquarters (910-326-4881). Canoes and kayaks are available from Waterway Marina Rentals in the town of Swansboro ($30-$40 per day; 919-393-8008). You can camp at 14 designated spots in the dunes and at either end of the beach. Permits ($5 per night) must be obtained from park headquarters. Drinking water is available and campers can use the rest rooms and cold showers at the swimming beach.

Know That: Bear Island is closed to camping during the full-moon phases of June, July, and August to minimize disturbance to nesting loggerhead turtles.

Getting There: From the town of Jacksonville, take North Carolina 24 about 20 miles to Swansboro, turn onto North Carolina 1511, and proceed three miles or so to park headquarters and the ferry landing. The ferry makes the 2.5-mile trip to Bear Island several times a day from April through October ($2 for adults).

Matagorda Island State Park, Texas

The Beach: Some 38 miles of Gulf-side dense-pack on a low-lying barrier island seven miles off the Texas coast north of Corpus Christi.

The Action: Formerly used by the Air Force for bombing runs, the uninhabited island is now partially a refuge for whooping cranes and some 300 other species of migratory birds. Motorized vehicles are prohibited, which means that you'll have 80 miles of beaches, roads, and mowed pathways practically to yourself for two-wheel and two-leg exploring. Surfers and bodysurfers set up anywhere along the Gulf shore, where the waves range from three to five feet (bicycles and surfboards can be carried on the ferry for free). Visitors to Matagorda can also take advantage of some of the best fishing in Texas: Red and black drum, whiting, black-tip sharks, speckled sea trout, and redfish have all been reeled in by surfcasters. There's also the occasional six-hour beachcombing and shelling tour led by park rangers and biologists.

Know That: While there's a primitive campground on a two-mile stretch of the Gulf-side beach, there are no phones, concessions, electricity, or drinking water on the island, so you'll need to pack everything in.

Getting There: Ferry service from Port O'Connor, about three hours southeast of Houston, operates four days a week, making one round-trip on Thursday and Friday and three on Saturday and Sunday. Round-trip fare for the one-hour crossing is $10 for adults. For reservations and park information, call headquarters at 512-983-2215.

Parke Puterbaugh is currently at work on a guidebook to California's beaches, to be published next spring by Foghorn Press.

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