Top 10 national park beaches
10 scenic spots to swim, float, and soak in the sun at the West's amazing national parks
Many people, of course, consider the 3- to 18-day trips one of the high points of their lives. As for the beach experience, the water isn’t warm—figure anywhere from 48° to 60°—but given that Grand Canyon summer temps can rise to above 100°, it feels, says veteran outfitter Steve Hatch, “just great.”
Don’t miss: Well, the river rafting. Trips are often booked up far in advance, but in this recessionary year, you should be able to slip into one now through the end of the season in midfall.
Get there: All-inclusive river trips from $1,100 for four days; nps.gov/grca for a list of park-approved outfitters. –Peter Fish
Don’t miss: Taking on the Merced by raft. Rent a four- to six-person raft at Curry Village Recreation Center, and float 3 miles to Sentinel Beach; the $26 fee includes shuttle service back to your start.
Get there: In summer, take the El Capitan Shuttle to stop E4 and walk 1/4 mile to Cathedral Beach, or get off at E5, 1/2 mile from Sentinel Beach; $20 per vehicle; nps.gov/yose or 209/372-8319 (raft rental). — Peter Fish
Don’t miss: Point of the Arches, a mind-bending array of sea stacks 1.3 miles down the beach.
Get there: Neah Bay, about 160 miles northwest of Seattle, is on the Makah Indian Reservation; ask for a map when you buy your Makah Recreation Pass ($10); nps.gov/olym or 360/645-2711 (reservation info). —Matt Villano
A few, like Lone Rock Beach, can be reached by car. But some of the best are nameless coves accessed only by boat. Good thing you can rent powerboats at three lake marinas: Antelope, Bullfrog, and Wahweap. (Houseboats are also popular, but you can’t navigate into narrow coves as well.)
Don’t miss: A cruise to the lake’s south shore and Rainbow Bridge National Monument, home to the world’s largest known natural rock bridge.
Out in the waves, bodyboarders and surfers perform aerial acrobatics. On shore, scenically carved sea caves make El Matador a favorite with photographers, often seen snapping away at leggy models.
Don’t miss: The chance to take a photo of one of Southern California’s best sunsets.
Get there: 10 miles up the coast from Malibu on Pacific Coast Hwy. between Broad Beach and Decker Canyon Roads; $8 per vehicle; parks.ca.gov or 805/370-2301. –Ken McAlpine
All the better for you. Climb up and over, and you’ll see a narrow finger of sand stretching 2 miles north between Drakes Bay and a mighty estuary teeming with birds. Out at the tip, harbor seals loll and bark. On the rare sunny summer day, the water is calm and swimmable.
Don’t miss: A walk with your pooch, welcome on-leash at the section south of the parking lot.
Get there: From the Bear Valley Visitor Center, head north about ¼ mile to Bear Valley Rd., turn left and follow it 1¼ miles to Limantour Rd., then turn left again and go 7½ miles to the parking lot at Limantour Beach; nps.gov/pore or 415/464-5100. –Lisa Trottier
Officially in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, the beach is cooperatively managed by California State Parks and the surrounding Redwood National Park.
Don’t miss: The oasis of Fern Canyon, back from the beach, where sinuous walls, blanketed by moist green, press in on a cobbled stream.
Get there: 50 miles north of Eureka and 40 miles south of Crescent City, take Davison Rd. off U.S. 101; $8 per vehicle; parks.ca.gov or 707/465-7335. –Ken McAlpine
Don’t miss: The moderate 2-mile trek on the Pipiwai Trail to 400-foot-sheer Waimoku Falls, the most beautiful in Hawaii.
Get there: 10 miles southwest of Hana on State 31; $10 per vehicle; nps.gov/hale or 808/248-7375. –Paul Wood
A historic Army airfield transformed into a native plant–lined beach oasis, Crissy draws jogging moms with strollers, kitesurfers, picnickers, dog walkers, cyclists, fishermen, and 8-year-olds letting the cool bay water lap their toes. All this and the Golden Gate Bridge looming gracefully, plus lattes, baked goods, and book browsing at the Warming Hut.
Don’t miss: Let’s Be Frank’s superior grass-fed beef hot dogs from the cart just outside the Warming Hut on weekends.
Get there: From downtown S.F., take Marina Blvd. to Baker St., where it turns into Mason St., then follow it west (along Crissy Field) to parking; nps.gov/goga or 415/561-3040 (Warming Hut). –Peter Fish
The pretty cobbled beach is just a launching point: From here, you can snorkel in the diverse kelp forest just off the beach or paddle a kayak farther out, past the island’s dark cliffs and sea caves.
Don’t miss: The short hike from the beach up Smugglers Road to the high bluff and the stand of cypress pines known as Delphine’s Grove, where you’ll fall under the spell of a sweeping ocean view and the sound of the wind in the boughs.