America’s untamed seaside sanctuaries offer more than just golden sands and lulling waves. Choose your destination carefully and your beach-towel neighbors are more likely to be friendly seals than loud sun-seekers.
Welcome to the wild side of America’s coasts, where golden sunsets, nesting sea turtles and beach-going birds are all part of the same awe-inspiring world. Unforgettable wildlife sightings can be found all over the country, sometimes in quite unexpected places.
North Carolina’s Outer Banks
The Corolla Horses have been roaming the beaches of the Outer Banks for over 400 years. They are perhaps the oldest residents in the area, free to wander around in the over 8,000 acres of oceanfront and dune beauty between Swan Beach and Carova.
How they got there is a mystery, though a favorite theory is they survived Colonial shipwrecks centuries ago and simply thrived on the beach.
For those visiting, it’s a breathtaking sight — manes flowing in the sea breeze as the horses gallop freely along the shoreline.
“We have 99 horses, including foals that were born this year,” said Michele Elis, public relations coordinator for the Currituck County Travel and Tourism Department. “We do not corral our Wild Spanish mustangs; they roam completely free.”
The area, which is only accessible via four-wheel drive vehicles, allows the horses a unique freedom.
“You do have to keep 50 feet away from the horses since they are federally protected,” said Elis. “They may get close to you while walking on the beach, but still you are not allowed to approach them; these are wild animals.”
Groups might want to extend their trips a bit inland to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, an area with one of the highest concentrations of black bears in the world. The bear tour bus (which also includes an environmental educator) can take up to 24 people on a 2.5-hour adventure that includes not only bear sightings but also a chance to spot over 200 species of migratory shore and wading birds, the critically endangered Red Wolf and a variety of raptors.
Crystal River, Florida
The only place in North America where you can legally swim with manatees, Crystal River, Florida, has earned a reputation as a place that will seize your heart forever. “We have the largest aggregation of manatees recorded in the world, and that is because we have a huge network of springs that keep our rivers about 72 degrees year-round,” said Jodi Casalvieri, media and content manager for the Citrus County Visitors Bureau.
During the winter, as the water temperature in the Gulf of Mexico drops, the manatees will swim upriver to the spring areas in an effort to stay warm.
The experience of sharing the water with these gentle giants is nothing short of extraordinary. Organized boat tours — led by a captain and a water guide who will jump into the water with a GoPro to capture the magic — leave from the coast all winter long. Some of the boats can carry larger groups, and some companies can arrange to take two boats at once into the water if you’re traveling with a group of over 20 people.
“When you’re in the water, you’re quiet, you’re relatively still, and you let the manatees come to you,” Casalvieri said. “They do come to you very often because they’re very curious creatures; they don’t see very well, so they’ll come up close and nibble on your hair or the straps of your wetsuit. It’s something you will never forget.”
Assateague Island, Maryland
Back in the 1700s, colonists who lived on the mainland placed both horses and livestock on Assateague Island to avoid taxation and fencing laws. Over the next few centuries, the heat and the harsh conditions on the national seashore weeded out the livestock, while the horses adapted well to the harsh environment and never left.
Today, the herd is managed as a wildlife population and is free to roam over approximately 27 miles of the barrier island, some choosing to live far into the countryside and others keeping close to the coastline.
“The horses in the backcountry are very skittish of humans, but the ones in the developed area where the campgrounds and the recreational beaches are will come over to try to ransack your picnic bench or your beach blanket,” said Ashlie Kozlowski, outreach coordinator for the Assateague Island Alliance.
The rule here is the island belongs to the horses and you’re the guest, so visitors must keep at least 40 feet away. “If they approach you, it is your job to slowly move away from the horses,” said Kozlowski, who admitted it’s particularly hard during the summertime, when a lot of the horses will travel from the backcountry to the developed areas to get away from the relentless insects.
Fortunately, this is also the best time to enjoy the horses grazing or grooming each other and see the majestic stallions fighting or galloping across the landscape.
“If you’re lucky, especially on a really windy or a really hot buggy day, you might see the horses taking a dip in the ocean,” Kozlowski said.
Once you’re in the park, there are places to rent kayaks and bikes.
“We do yoga programs in the summertime, like full moon yoga and Milky Way yoga,” Kozlowski said. “We have artist workshops in the spring and the fall.”
Bartlett Cove, Alaska
It might feel odd to put “beach” and “Alaska” in the same sentence, but Bartlett Cove will give you a reason to. Nestled in the heart of Glacier Bay National Park, Bartlett Cove is untouched wilderness at its best — sprawling glaciers and lush bluish forest providing a fairytale background to the smooth pebbled beach peppered with driftwood, harbor seals and sea lions. A wide variety of birds, including black-legged kittiwakes, thrushes and migrant warblers also call Glacier Bay home.
Visitors can kayak or canoe in the bay’s waters or hike the riverside trails. They can also jump on boat tours to get closeup views of the tidewater glaciers and spot whales, sea lions, rare birds, eagles and more, said Lisa Cesaro, senior director of marketing at Aramark Destinations.
“Whale-watching excursions sail the waters of Icy Strait to Point Adolphus on a small vessel for up to 28 passengers,” said Cesaro. “gray whales are the first to arrive in April, followed by the minkes, orcas, and humpback whales in late May when they arrive here to feed.”
Bartlett Cove’s breathtaking scenery and rich biodiversity offer plenty of outdoor adventure for groups.
“This is a very remote and protected beach and coastline in southeast Alaska, the world’s largest international protected area offering solitude and wilderness not found in many places,” Cesaro said.
Cumberland Island, Georgia
Cumberland Island, Georgia’s largest and southernmost barrier island, supports a wide variety of animals and ecosystems that go from thick underbrush to maritime forests. Perhaps the most famous residents of the island, though, are the majestic herds of wild horses, introduced to the area by the Spanish in the late 1500s.
Angela Wigger, executive director of the St. Marys Convention and Visitors Bureau, pointed out the horses are the first thing you will see as you depart the passenger ferry onto the island.
“You can then often find them grazing on grasses in the salt marshes, fallow fields and historic lawns,” Wigger said.
“Cumberland Island is also one of the most important nesting areas in the state for the endangered loggerhead sea turtle, with 25-30% of the statewide nest total in Georgia,” Wigger said. You’ll find them nesting on the beach from May through September, with nests hatching between July and October.
The beach remains open the entire time, and Wigger said it is possible to see the turtles hatch, mostly at night. “You have to use a red light at night on the beach, and you cannot get too close to or touch the turtles or their nests, as they are protected,” she said.
The island is part of Georgia’s Colonial Coast Birding Trail, and the spring migration brings sandpipers, plovers and red-winged blackbirds. Summer visitors are likely to spot roseate spoonbills and oystercatchers.
“It’s a special treat to see the elusive white deer,” Wigger said. “The island has a small population of piebald deer, which are mostly white, with just a few spots of brown pigment.”