by Mountain House May 27, 2021

10 Best Coastal Hikes in the US: Beach Backpacking Must-Sees

Sure, overnighting alongside alpine lakes or out atop some desert rimrock vantage is amazing. But there’s something uniquely special about a backpacking adventure along the beachfront: tenting out (or just unfurling the ol’ sleeping roll) within earshot of crashing surf, watching moonrises and sunsets reflected in shimmery grandeur, filtering water from a dune lake or a sand river.

Coastal hikes and beach backpacking forays require proper preparation and gear: From unpredictable weather to the physical demands of hoofing it over sand, beach cobble, and driftwood, it’s not all sand-between-your-toes bliss, by any means. We’ll talk more about this at the end.

But first, let’s put the spotlight on some of the very best beach backpacking trips and best coastal hikes in the U.S.—not an exhaustive list, but one sampling some of the scenic and geographic variety these kinds of adventures can feature.

(1) Fairy Head Loop Trail—Cutler Coast Public Land (Maine)

A “best-kept-secret” sort of deal along what Maine calls its “Bold Coast,” the 12,234-acre Cutler Coast Public Land provides awesome oceanfront camping along the Bay of Fundy. The 10.35-mile Fairy Head Loop Trail shows off the rich maritime mosaic here, from spruce-fir-larch forests, white-cedar swamps, peatlands, and blueberry barrens to steep headland cliffs and cobbly coves.

Campsites at Black point and Long Point coves as well as Fairy Head give you a chance to bed down with ocean sounds in your ears—no sleep quite like it!

(2) Parallel Trail, Yankee Paradise Trail, and Associated Footpaths—Cumberland Island National Seashore (Georgia)

Hike into the Spanish-moss-strung interior of the biggest of Georgia’s Sea Islands on a backpacking foray on Cumberland Island, with ready access to fetching Atlantic beaches roamed by feral horses. The Parallel Trail leads you north from the hub of Sea Camp Campground into Cumberland Island National Seashore’s wilderness acreage, where you’ll fall under the spell of a twisty maritime forest of live oaks and palmettos as well as pinewoods, wetlands, and other island ecosystems. Pitch a tent at the Hickory Hill or Yankee Paradise backcountry campsites, and follow east-running side paths such as Duck House to reach the Cumberland swash.

You can arrange for backpacking circuits of varying lengths, enjoying easy hiking and a plenty of tastes of Sea Island solitude. Besides ponies, keep an eye peeled for scuttling armadillos (and take care to secure food from island raccoons).

(3) Coastal Prairie Trail—Everglades National Park (Florida)

Get a taste for the wildness of Florida’s far southwestern mangrove coast on the Coastal Prairie Trail in Everglades National Park. This 15-mile round-trip path leads from the Flamingo area through buttonwood copses, mucky prairie, and mangrove forest to windy Clubhouse Beach at the bottom of big, roadless Cape Sable. The trail’s flat but sometimes muddy and buggy; drink plenty of water and wear sun protection, as this is an exposed route.

Ah, but the rewards from the beach campsite: Gaze out at the shimmery flats of Florida Bay, plied by bottlenose dolphins, manatees, sawfish, tarpon, and sharks, and savor a wild seaside sunset touched off, perhaps, by a graceful flock of brown pelicans.

(4) North Country National Scenic Trail/Lakeshore Trail—Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (Michigan)

Some 42 moderately strenuous miles of the North Country National Scenic Trail hug the gorgeous Great Lake coastline of Upper Michigan’s Pictured Rocks via the Lakeshore Trail. Dip into deep woods, break out to the brink of soaring sandstone escarpments lashed by waves, marvel at coastal waterfalls spilling into mighty Lake Superior, and here and there steal down to cobble and sand beaches. Fourteen backcountry camping areas with multiple sites each offer backpackers overnight perches for star-strung skies and a muffled soundtrack of a roaring inland sea.

Summer offers the all-around best weather for trekking the Pictured Rocks stretch of the North Country Trail, but also a rogue’s gallery of biting insects, including mosquitoes, deer flies, and stable flies. You’ll be sharing these coastal heights with black bears, too, so be sure to abide by bear-safe hiking and camping practices throughout.

(5) Ozette Loop—Olympic National Park (Washington)

Sample one of the wildest and most magnificent seashores on the West Coast on the famed Ozette Loop, which loops you from forest-cradled Ozette Lake to the raw, roadless Olympic National Park coast and back again. Boardwalk paths through redcedar swamps and garden-like glades link the lake and the Pacific, the margin of which here manifests as driftwood-strewn beaches and bold sea stacks backed by fern-jungled spruce rainforest. Enigmatic petroglyphs on coastal rocks add to the magic, as do occasional sightings of spouting gray whales, Steller sea lions, and bald eagles.

The Loop’s a little shy of 10 miles, with fairly easy-going in the coastal forest but tougher hiking on the beachfront; consult a tide table to stay on the right side of the surf.

(6) Oregon Coast Trail—Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area (Oregon)

More than 400 miles long, the Oregon Coast Trail shows off the legendary loveliness of Oregon’s seaboard—one we’re partial to here at Mountain House, given the Beaver State’s our longtime home! Hiker/biker campsites at the many state parks accessed by the trail offer backpacker accommodations, and every section of this long, rugged coast is spectacular. But some of the most extensive opportunities for remote beachfront backpacking await in the roughly 70-mile stretch of Section 6 on the south-central coast, which passes through the sandy wilds of the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area.

From freshwater dune lakes and towering dune scarps to gnarled shore-pine woods and broad rivers emptying into fog-fading waves, this is a special landscape with plenty of opportunities for solitude. The 6.5-mile loop from Tahkenitch Campground to Threemile Lake and the swash offers a great taste—just respect snowy-plover nesting closures, take care with your driftwood fires, and watch out for skeeters in the piney backwoods behind the primary dunes.

(7)  Lost Coast Trail—King Range National Conservation Area/Sinkyone Wilderness State Park (California)

A worthy southern counterpart to the backcountry Olympic coast in Washington, the Lost Coast of Northern California preserves a primal oceanfront long protected from development and vehicular access by the intensely rugged King Range. The roughly 50-mile-long Lost Coast Trail links the Bureau of Land Management-overseen King Range National Conservation Area with far-flung Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, and it offers easily one of the best coastal hikes in the country.

The northern leg of the Lost Coast Trail, about 25 miles, provides the most extended hikes by the beach: challenging on account of sand-trudging, river-fording, and tide-skirting, but wonderful nonetheless. Farther south you’ll spend more time on high promontories or in shadowy coastal forests. Wildlife abounds along the entire route, from Roosevelt elk and black bears in the hills to river otters, harbor seals, and whales glimpsed from the beach.

(8) Coast Trail—Point Reyes National Seashore (California)

Another gorgeous stretch of Northern California coast—and more rich opportunities for oceanside camping—await in the Point Reyes National Seashore on the Point Reyes Peninsula north of San Francisco Bay. Backpackers here can explore quite the mosaic of wild habitats, from Douglas-fir and bishop-pine forests to coastal prairie, scrub, freshwater and salt marshes, dunes, and tidepools. Some of the 150 or so miles of tread here take the form of fine coastal hiking trails.

A popular backpacking route proceeds north on the Coast Trail from the Palomarin Trailhead to Wildcat Beach, where low tide allows access to the famous Alamere Falls in the Phillip Burton Wilderness. You can continue northward past multiple other strands edging Drakes Bay to the Coast Trailhead off Limantour Road, making for an approximately 15-mile seaboard adventure.

(9) Kalalau Trail—Na Pali Coast, Kauai (Hawaii)

The Kalalau Trail is surely one of the most legendary of the trails on this list—indeed, likely one of the most legendary coastal trails in the world. Its 11-mile course between Ne’e Beach and Kalalau Beach brings fit hikers into the glories of northwestern Kauai’s remote, roadless Na Pali Coast: lush, cliff-walled, waterfall-painted, and wave-lashed. It’s not an easy trek, and bad weather can make conditions dangerous with muddy footing and tricky stream crossings, but the opportunity to experience a wild, head-spinningly beautiful seacoast—one deeply imbued with Native Hawaiian history and culture—is a precious one.

(10) Coastal & Fort Trails—Caines Head State Recreation Area (Alaska)

Backpack along the grand edge of Resurrection Bay in the Caines Head State Recreation Area near Seward. Strike out from Lowell Point to campsites at Tonsina Point or, 5.1 miles in, beautiful North Beach, timing your trek by the tides. You can also climb up to the historic vantage of Fort McGilvary (7.4 miles from Powell Point), perched some 650 feet above the bay overlooking the cape of Caines Head, or head from North Beach three miles farther to a campsite at South Beach. Icy mountains, coastal temperate rainforest, whale- and sea-lion-plied waters, bayfront camping: It all adds up to Alaska awesomeness!

Other Popular Choices

Here are just a few other of the best coastal hikes and beach-backpacking destinations in the U.S.: 

  • Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness—Fire Island National Seashore (New York)
  • Cape Lookout National Seashore (North Carolina)
  • Superior Hiking Trail (Minnesota)
  • Trans-Catalina Trail—Santa Catalina Island, Channel Islands (California)

Beach Backpacking Tips

Hikes by the beach and surfside camp-outs can be magical, but the coastal environment definitely presents its own challenges. Weather at the margin of land and sea (or giant freshwater lake) is often fickle: Be prepared for high winds, rainstorms, blasting sunshine, and disorienting fogginess, depending on the specific location and season. On seacoasts, tidal movements complicate hiking right along the shoreline. Always have a tide chart on hand and time your traverses accordingly; it’s all too easy to get stranded by the flood tide if you’re careless.

Whether you’re switchbacking up and down headlands, clambering over driftwood, fording tidal rivers, or simply slogging on the sand—an exhausting substrate to hike over, especially weighted down with a pack—keep in mind that coastal hiking can be very strenuous even if you aren’t dealing with significant elevation gain. You may well find yourself covering less ground in a day than you do on typical inland trails.

Learn more about what to bring in your pack on beach hiking trails in our Mountain House guide, and meanwhile get the lowdown on assembling the best backpacking pantry here.

And speaking of Mountain House, make sure you’re stocked up with delicious, just-add-hot-water meals to fuel your beachfront rambles! Check out our full inventory right here.

From the sandstone cliffs of Pictured Rocks to the maritime forest of Cumberland Island, from Maine’s rocky coves to the cobble beaches of the Kenai Peninsula, the well-prepared backpacker can enjoy waterfront adventure in spades in the U.S. And take it from us: The whitecaps, dune grasses, and seascape sunsets look even more ravishing when admired with a Mountain House feast!


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