East and west, beachfront campgrounds where the breakers roar you to sleep
There's nothing more peaceful than the sound of waves breaking against the beach, rhythmically transporting you into REM land. But summer beach camping can feel like trying to pitch a tent in a lobster tank. Try these five paragons of seaside virtue, where you don't have to claw your way to a campsite.
LIMEKILN STATE PARK
BIG SUR, CALIFORNIA
The beauty and views are unsurpassed along the 90 miles of cliff-hugging curves of California 1 between Carmel and San Simeon, but accessible beaches are few, and coastal camping is limited. That's why the opening of Limekiln State Park, one of the most recent additions to the California system, is cause for celebration. Located at the mouth of Limekiln Creek, the park occupies 716 acres toward the south end of the Big Sur coast. Its 43 campsites are clustered in three settings: among the redwoods, on the edge of Limekiln Creek, and along the gray-sand beach. Three environmental campsites for bikers and hikers offer the most seclusion, just a short hike up a hill overlooking the creek.
Most desirable are the ten creekside sites, a stone's throw from Limekiln's fan-shaped cove. A half-mile trail leads up the creek to the namesake limekilns—century-old furnaces where, in the 1880s, limestone was boiled into powder for export to Monterey and San Francisco. Behind Limekiln rises the Ventana Wilderness, whose 167,323 acres straddle the Santa Lucia Range within Los Padres National Forest.
The fabled Nacimiento–Fergusson Road, the only east-west artery through Big Sur, meets California 1 several miles south of Limekiln Creek, affording access to Ventana's 330 miles of hiking trails and rugged wilderness. Call Limekiln State Park, 831-667-2403. Campsites, $22 per night; call 800-444-7275 to reserve.
CAPE LOOKOUT NATIONAL SEASHORE, NORTH CAROLINA
It has no roads. It has no town. And its last resident left in the early 1980s. Looks like Portsmouth Island is all yours. You'll find 22 miles of sandy beach lining this ruler-straight barrier island in North Carolina's balmy Atlantic waters. One of three islands that make up Cape Lookout National Seashore, Portsmouth offers free beach camping outside the ghost town of Portsmouth Village (at the north end of the island) and away from sea turtle and seabird nesting areas.
Portsmouth is skinny—1.5 miles wide by Portsmouth Village and only a quarter-mile across at its southern tip. The beach is a 1.2-mile walk from the village, across sand flats that are covered with ankle-deep water at high tide. There's a bit of maritime forest and salt marsh at the north end, but otherwise the island is sandy and low-lying—a perfect target for the hurricanes that migrate up from the Bahamas between June and November, which is one reason no one lives here. Summertime water temperatures reach the mid-80s, and both the surf casting from the beach and fishing from the shallow sound—for flounder, drum, bluefish, sea bass, and sea trout—are among the best on the East Coast.
Portsmouth is serviced by a twice-daily passenger ferry from the village of Ocracoke on nearby Ocracoke Island (252-928-4361) and by a passenger/vehicle ferry out of Morris Marina in the mainland town of Atlantic (252-225-4261). The latter, operating as a park concessionaire, ferries over four-wheel-drive vehicles for $75 round trip. The marina also rents 20 cabins ($100–$110 a night) at the south end of the island for those who don't feel like roughing it. Portsmouth has no facilities, so load up on food, water, insect repellent, and sunscreen beforehand. Call Cape Lookout National Seashore, 252-728-2250.
LAMOINE STATE PARK
Within sight of glorious Acadia National Park but devoid of the summertime swarms seeking often-unavailable campsites is one of Maine's better-kept secrets: Lamoine State Park. Situated ten miles southeast of Ellsworth at the end of a nubby peninsula, the park looks due south across Frenchman Bay onto Acadia's scenic centerpiece, Cadillac Mountain. Lamoine's 60 woodsy tent sites, about a dozen of which are right on the water, rarely sell out.
No one will confuse Lamoine's pebbly shoreline with Waikiki, but the setting is inarguably pretty: evergreens almost down to the waterline, a boat ramp and saltwater fishing pier at the ready. A mile away is sandy Lamoine Beach, but forget about diving in—the frigid water (60 degrees) has swift currents. Area waters are ideal for sea kayaking, however; call Loon Bay Kayak (888-786-0676) for information on rentals and guided tours.
Best of all, this isolated state park is only a 40-minute drive from Acadia, so you can hike or paddle around Mt. Desert Island by day. And just 20 miles away is Donnell Pond, a public reserve whose 15,000 acres encompass glacial ponds, low mountains, and miles of hiking trails. Tent sites are $17 for nonresidents, $13 for Maine residents; open May 15 through October 15. Call Lamoine State Park, 207-667-4778.
GOLD BLUFFS BEACH
PRAIRIE CREEK REDWOODS STATE PARK, ORICK, CALIFORNIA
On a cloudless day in Northern California, Gold Bluffs Beach might just be America's most gorgeous stretch of coastline: a vast, sand dune–dotted expanse with sandstone cliffs rising behind it and an old-growth redwood forest covering the hills beyond—and virtually no one around. It lies inside Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, which itself is surrounded by Redwood National Park. Gold Bluffs is a nearly five-mile stretch of salt-and-pepper sand, flat, hard-packed, and flecked with gold specks that gleam in the overwash. We're not talking swimming here; this is a place to kick off your shoes and hike.
And there's more: Gold Bluffs sits along the 33-mile Coastal Trail, which runs from Orick to Crescent City. The 14,000-plus-acre state park also encompasses more than 70 miles of inland hiking trails, including the 4.2-mile (one way) James Irvine Trail that makes a spectacular descent into Fern Canyon, exiting on Gold Bluffs Beach.
Access the beach via the Davison Road turnoff from U.S. 101, three miles north of Orick. Camping is $12 to $16 a night; 25 tent sites have water, restrooms, and a solar shower. There's also a three-site, primitive campground set among the redwoods, as well as six hike/bike campsites. Call Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, 707-464-6101; call 800-444-7275 for reservations.
SHORT SANDS BEACH
OSWALD WEST STATE PARK, MANZANITA, OREGON
The 1.5-mile stretch of sand between the base of Neah-kah-nie Mountain and Cape Falcon is the top surfing spot in the Pacific Northwest, serving up the most consistently rideable waves north of the California border. It also attracts windsurfers and boogieboarders (whatever the plank of choice, a thick-gauge wetsuit is a must).
Bounded on two sides by creeks that meet at the beach, the 28-site campground ($14 per site per night) puts tenters close to the open beach. The sites are shaded by an old-growth spruce and hemlock forest, home to ancient giants up to five feet in diameter. The .3-mile walk to the campground crosses a suspension bridge over rushing Necarney Creek; the park provides wheelbarrows for gear hauling.
"Os West," as it's called by locals, is a mix of sunny beaches, high cliffs, and old-growth forests laced by more than 15 miles of hiking trails. These include 12 miles of the Oregon Coast Trail, which links you to 360 miles of coastal path extending from the Columbia River to the California border. Call Oswald West State Park, 503-368-5943. —Parke Puterbaugh