Mountainous and hilly terrain tend to get the bulk of the attention from hikers in search of sweeping views. However, coastal hikes along sandy beach dunes or overlooking oceanfront cliffs offer similarly spectacular scenery. Breathing in the salty sea breeze, listening to crashing waves, and watching the sun dip below the horizon all offer a more relaxing way to get your steps in. Depending on the time of year, you might even get a chance to cool off mid-hike. Here are seven amazing coastal hikes in the U.S.
Gorham Mountain and Ocean Path Loop (Acadia National Park, Maine)
Maine is renowned for its rugged beauty, and its crown jewel, Acadia National Park, encompasses a group of islands along Maine’s central coast near the picturesque seaside town of Bar Harbor. There’s an abundance of amazing trails in the area, and one of the best moderate hikes combines the Ocean Path Trail with the Gorham Mountain Loop Trail (roughly five miles total).
The Ocean Path Trail follows a dramatic stretch of coastline south to Otter Point and passes vast slabs of pink granite, mesmerizing ocean lookouts, and picturesque coves. Notable landmarks include Thunder Hole, an underwater sea cave that explodes with thunderous waterspouts when the tide is right, and the massive, 110-foot-tall Otter Cliff that majestically juts into the ocean.
On the way back, turn onto the Gorham Mountain Loop Trail, which takes you up and over Gorham Mountain, where you’ll be rewarded with stunning ocean views. Both trails are typically open year-round, but you’ll need ice traction cleats during the winter since the trail can get icy. You’ll have lots of company during summer, so hike early in the season to avoid crowds.
Dungeness/Southend Loop Trail (Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia)
Hike in Cumberland Island National Seashore to enjoy vast, empty beaches and get a chance to see wild horses and 300-year-old live oak trees draped in moss. Only accessible via a 45-minute ferry ride or private watercraft (boat, kayak, etc.), Georgia’s undeveloped southernmost barrier island is worth the effort. From the ferry dock, you can head north or south to complete the roughly 4.3-mile loop trail that’s ideal for beginners.
Highlights of the trail include the Dungeness Ruins, the decaying former estate of Thomas Carnegie and his wife Lucy. You can spend some time swimming and relaxing on the beach before heading back to the ferry dock. Watch for wild horses grazing on grass, armadillos scuttling through the brush, and lively seabirds as you make your way around the loop. Explore offshoot trails and boardwalks into the salt marshes if time allows.
Bring food and plenty of water because Cumberland Island has no concessions. If you’re day-tripping, watch the time to ensure you can catch a return ferry. For a longer visit, stay at one of the campgrounds or the historic Greystone Inn, the island’s only accommodation. Ferries to the island are available year-round, but expect hot, humid days during the summer and occasional chilly winter weather.
Alamere Falls From Palomarin Trailhead (Point Reyes National Seashore, California)
If you’re looking for waterfalls, beaches, lakes, epic ocean views, bluffs, and wildflowers all in one hike, you won’t be disappointed on the hike to Alamere Falls in Point Reyes National Seashore northwest of San Francisco. The hike is a moderate but lengthy 13.2 miles round-trip and has a 1,811-foot elevation gain. This remarkably scenic trail begins along an ocean cliff, then heads inland through a small valley past several small ponds and lakes. You’ll eventually end up at Wildcat Campground on the beach. Then, hike south on the beach to the 40-foot-tall falls cascading onto the rocks or ocean, depending on the tide.
While splendid, there are a few important things to note about this hike — first, you must time it right to coincide with low tide, or risk getting trapped against the cliffs for several hours. Second, there is an unsanctioned shortcut to the falls from the maintained trail that shortens the hike by about four miles.
The journey involves ascending and descending loose rocks and brushing past numerous poison oak plants. The National Park Services strongly advises against using this shortcut because many people end up injured — requiring complex search and rescue efforts. Lastly, this year-round hike is extremely busy on weekends, so arrive early to find parking.
University of Western Florida/SRIA Dunes Preserve Trail (Santa Rosa Island, Florida)
The Dunes Preserve Trail leads hikers through rolling white dunes speckled with swaying sea oats and small shrubs and trees. You’ll enjoy views of the sparkling, turquoise Gulf of Mexico on one side and the equally scenic Santa Rosa Sound on the other as you explore this 3.7-mile trail (one-way) on Santa Rosa Island. Santa Rosa Island, a delightful 40-mile-long barrier island in the Florida Panhandle, is part of Gulf Islands National Seashore. The trail is part of the 1,500-mile-long Florida National Scenic Trail, which runs from Panhandle south to the Everglades.
What makes this section so spectacular is that most sea dunes are protected and off-limits to hikers, but this dune ecosystem is accessible. You won’t find a clearly marked trail that traverses through the dunes — instead, you’ll meander between the dunes by following a series of orange-marked PVC posts, with occasional boardwalks over sensitive areas. You can park at either end of the trail and make it a round-trip, 7.4-mile-long adventure or turn around earlier for a shorter trek. The trail is open year-round, but summer is hot, humid, and prone to afternoon thunderstorms.
Cape Perpetua Trails (Siuslaw National Forest, Oregon)
Just west of Eugene, Oregon, is the spectacular Cape Perpetua Scenic Area, which offers a 26-mile network of trails to explore. Your best bet is to hike a few interconnecting trails to see the area’s many highlights. Start with the short Captain Cook Trail, which leads from the Cape Perpetua Visitor Center down to tidepools, the Spouting Horn (a blowhole at high tide), Cook’s Chasm (a deep inlet), and Thor’s Well (a collapsed sea cave that wells and spouts with the swells). After completing this loop, you can connect with the Cape Cove Trail to the Trail of the Restless Way, which hugs the coastline to the Devil’s Churn, a narrow gully where waves roll in and put on an impressive show.
Make your way back to the visitor center to pick up the Saint Perpetua Trail, a challenging 2.7-mile-long, out-and-back trail that climbs a series of switchbacks. The effort is worth the reward once you reach the top for breathtaking views of Oregon’s stunning coastline. Bring binoculars and watch for migrating whales. If time allows, hike the two-mile-long, round-trip Giant Spruce Trail to see a 185-foot-tall, more than 500-year-old giant Sitka spruce tree. Cape Perpetua’s trails are typically open year-round, although some close during winter due to debris.
Caines Head Trail (Caines Head State Recreation Area, Alaska)
Just outside of Seward in southern Alaska, the Caines Head State Recreation Area is a chunk of land overlooking Resurrection Bay that once housed the World War II-era Fort McGilvray. The out-and-back Caines Head Trail is roughly 15 miles long, but you can shorten the route by turning around earlier or arranging for a water taxi to pick you up. In addition to sweeping ocean views, you might see sea lions, whales, spawning salmon, bears, eagles, sea otters, and plenty of seabirds. The abandoned fort and garrison are also worth exploring once you reach Caines Point.
Be aware that a three-mile section (between Tonsina Point and North Beach) is an intertidal zone that is underwater during high and even some low tides. Hikers must carefully plan their hike to reach this segment during very low tides (and don’t forget about the return trip). The trail passes a few cabins, a seasonal ranger station, some picnic tables, and two campgrounds, so many hikers stay overnight and return during low tide the following day. Conditions for the hike are ideal between May and October.
Ka’ena Point Trail (Ka’ena Point State Park, Hawaii)
Kauai’s challenging and coveted permit-only Kalalau Trail receives much of the attention when it comes to fabulous hikes in the Aloha State. However, Oahu offers plenty of other scenic trails, including the five-mile-long, out-and-back Ka’ena Point Trail. Escape the hustle and bustle of Honolulu and head out to Oahu’s far northwestern tip to rugged, remote Ka’ena Point State Park.
The trail follows an old railroad bed and dirt road that leads to Ka‘ena Point Natural Area Reserve, a protected area harboring one of Hawaii’s last intact dune ecosystems. The reserve is one of the world’s only places where you can see nesting and baby albatrosses.
Instead of walking along the dirt road (which is open to a limited number of 4x4 vehicles), walk down to a beachfront trail that passes fascinating tidal pools and lounging monk seals. Watch for whales offshore and savor the endless ocean views. The easy, year-round hike has minimal elevation gain, but this is Oahu's windy, dry side, so the trail has no shade and can get very hot. Bring a towel so you can swim on calm days at any of the small beaches that dot the coastline. To avoid the heat, consider hiking in the early morning or late afternoon to catch the sunrise or sunset.