Yes, you’ll get sand everywhere. But nothing beats waking up on the beach—except maybe a tranquil evening watching the sun melt into the water. And at these beautiful parks where you can camp right on the beach, you’ll find plenty of ways to while away your daytime hours.
1. Find peace on the Gulf shores of Florida
Skip the glitz of South Florida and instead head to the sparkling white sands and turquoise waters of St. Joseph Peninsula State Park on the Gulf Coast. This insider’s paradise is known for its wildlife. Fish for whiting and pompano on the Gulf side and then take the Maritime Hammock Trail across the peninsula and snorkel in serene St. Joseph Bay. If you’re adventurous, follow the Wilderness Preserve Trail to the peninsula’s northern tip. Watch for herons, ibis and the tracks of resident foxes and bobcats.
Campgrounds are equipped with the standard amenities. For more privacy, pick a site at Shady Pines—the trees will shelter you from wind, and you’re just a boardwalk away from the Gulf! Rustic cabins are also available. Reserve ahead (sites start at $24/night.)
Driving distances: 2 hours 30 minutes from Tallahassee, Florida | 3 hours 30 minutes from Pensacola, Florida | 4 hours 15 minutes from Columbus, Georgia | 4 hours 30 minutes from Montgomery, Alabama, and Jacksonville, Florida
2. Wild horses and miles of wild shoreline in Maryland
There’s no room for boredom at the majestic Assateague Island National Seashore. Children love the touch tank at the visitor’s center. Kiting, kayaking, swimming and marveling at the horses who inhabit the island are favorite daytime activities here. After dark, grab your flashlights and scout for ghost crabs.
Camping at Assateague is modern yet rustic. There are clean bathrooms, outdoor showers and fire pits, and you can replenish supplies by day in nearby Berlin. Try to reserve a site with drive-up parking on the Atlantic side. Bayside sites are more protected, but less scenic. (Sites start at $30/night, in addition to $20 park entry fee.)
Driving Distances: 2 hours 15 minutes from Norfolk, Virginia | 3 hours from Baltimore, Maryland, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania | 3 hours 30 minutes from Richmond, Virginia | 4 hours from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania | 4 hours 30 minutes from New York, New York
3. Beachcomb and eat local in Michigan
Lower waters in Lake Michigan may have turned this one-time island into a peninsula, but the shores at Fisherman’s Island State Park are as lovely as ever. Comb the beaches for fragments of petrified coral known as Petoskey stones. Stroll among the wooded dunes. Relax into a sunset over Lake Michigan. In summer and fall, pick up smoked fish and handmade bread at the Charlevoix Farmers Market and check out the Live on the Lake free summer concert series.
The campground is rustic, but beach-side campsites fill up fast, so reserve early. (Sites start at $17/night.)
Driving distances: 3 hours from Grand Rapids, Michigan | 3 hours 30 minutes from Flint, Michigan, and Lansing, Michigan | 4 hours 30 minutes from Detroit, Michigan, and from Ann Arbor, Michigan | 6 hours from Chicago, Illinois, and Green Bay, Wisconsin
4. Cool off in Washington State
The Washington coast is known for mist-shrouded heaps of driftwood and gorgeous forested bluffs. You’ll find all three at First, Second and Third beaches, just outside La Push on the Olympic Peninsula.
Introduce your children to the life of tide pools, explore the sea stacks and watch for sea lions, otters and whales. Then, sit back to relish the changing light. Waters are brisk year-round, so bring warm clothes if you plan to swim.
This is primitive, walk-in camping, and you need a permit (stop by a Wilderness Information Center on your way—permits run $8 per person per night). Call about renting a bear canister (if you don’t have your own) to safely store your food. And, be sure to carry a water filter.
Driving distances: 1 hour 30 minutes from Neah Bay, Washington | 3 hours 15 minutes from Olympia, Washington | 3 hours 30 minutes from Tacoma, Washington | 4–5 hours from Vancouver and Seattle, Washington* | 5 hours 15 minutes from Portland, Oregon
*Includes a ferry ride, so timing can vary. Avoid returning on busy Sunday evenings in summer.
5. Drink in the California Pacific
With more than 100 miles of coastal wilderness, Point Reyes National Seashore deserves more than a day trip. In fall, you’ll find tule elk bugling on Tomales Point Trail. Between January and March, take a shuttle to the Elephant Seal Overlook. Or head to the lighthouse for a history lesson—if you’re lucky, you’ll sight whales, too.
All the park’s campgrounds are walk-in, bike-in or boat-in only. For backcountry campsites, these are deluxe, with tables, grills, food lockers and potable water. But it’s the colossal views that keep visitors coming back, and reservations are a must. Plan at least three months ahead for summer trips. (Sites start at $20/night.)
Plan your trip: Visit Marin | West Marin Chamber of Commerce and Visitor’s Guide | Visit California
Driving distances*: 1 hour from Santa Rosa, San Francisco and Oakland, California | 2 hours from San Jose, California | 2 hours 30 minutes from Sacramento, California | 4 hours from Redding, California | 4 hours 30 minutes from Reno, Nevada
*Distance to Bear Valley Visitor Center; additional 20–40 meters to trailheads
Make your time on the beach unforgettable—in a good way
Before setting out to camp on the beach, remember these essentials:
- Water (go easy on yourself and the planet by packing reusable containers)
- Flashlights and headlamps
- Dry matches and lighters
- A good camp stove
- First-aid kit
- A tent with a functioning rain fly, ground cover and long beach stakes
- Printed tide charts and maps (don’t rely on your phone)
Follow these tips to ensure smooth sailing and maximum savings:
- Test your gear before leaving home.
- Call the ranger station or check the park website to learn about restrictions or closures that might affect your trip.
- Reserve a campsite to avoid last-minute hotel rooms.
- Check the weather and pack appropriately. A windbreaker is always a good idea on the beach. Bring flip-flops and walking shoes, and warm clothing for the evening.
- Protect yourself from sun and summer insects. Carry sunscreen, hats, insect repellent and balm to soothe burns and bites.
- Shop ahead for food and fuel, and make every meal a picnic.
- Know how to protect your food from wildlife.
- Invest in good camp chairs and sleeping pads, and don’t forget pillows.