The National Parks of the U.S. East Coast
Heading south this year? Fill your journey with historic sites, picturesque anchorages, and stunning beaches.
From sighting wild ponies and sea turtles to exploring forts and secluded beaches, some of the best and most unexpected memories made by my family in our four years on board Osprey, our 45-foot steel cutter, haven’t happened in exotic, far-flung locales—they’ve occurred right on the U.S. East Coast at national parks and seashores. We revisit a few of these places every chance we get, and each time, they seem to get better because we always experience something new. Many offer unparalleled scenic harbors and safe havens, and park staffers always seem helpful and welcoming. There’s something truly satisfying about arriving at these locales from the water, because such an entry offers a unique perspective that only sailors can enjoy.
Over time, the four of us on Osprey—Johnny, my husband, and our son, Kaeo, and our daughter, Kailani—have visited half a dozen national parks, seashores, and monuments, sometimes hopping from one to another. This got us to thinking that it would be possible to sail the coast in two- to three-day legs between each park as a way to reel off steady miles without too much effort. If you pick your weather carefully and choose parks close to towns with important stuff like groceries, it’s quite doable to travel from Maine’s Acadia National Park to Florida’s Biscayne National Park, park-hopping all the way. What follows is based on that idea: a loose itinerary describing the parks that we’ve visited over the years. Several excellent state parks also line this route, including one we frequently visit on the Delaware coast. What I’ve listed here is only a smattering of the possibilities: Visit cruisingworld.com/1202parks for a list of all the national parks, seashores, and monuments in between that have a maritime connection.
Acadia National Park, Maine
For my money, this is simply the best national park for cruisers. Unparalleled natural beauty combined with easy, inexpensive access for people on foot makes it simple to stay here. You could spend an entire summer and never get bored or even begin to explore it all. Created in 1913 when President Woodrow Wilson set aside 6,000 acres, Acadia now encompasses 35,000 acres, the vast majority of it on Mount Desert (it’s pronounced like the course that follows dinner, as in ice cream) Island. The most famous anchorages among yachtsmen are Bar, Southwest, and Bass harbors. When we visited here, though, we cruised straight up Somes Sound, whose entrance lies between Southwest and Northeast harbors.
About five miles long, this narrow, fjordlike bay slices into Mount Desert Island, embraced between the steep granite arms of Norumbega Mountain, to the east, and Acadia Mountain, to the west. Seals and dolphins kept us company as we cruised up to a small harbor at Somesville where we dropped the hook among a dozen other boats. It was a quick dinghy ride to the public landing, where cruisers were invited to leave their dinghies on one side; locals took the other. The well-kept grounds included a trash bin and a portable toilet, all surrounded by fragrant balsam firs and saltwater meadows studded with purple and blue lupine in full summer lushness.
From the dock, it was a short walk up a gravel road to the main road and the village of Somesville. Here, we quickly learned about one of Acadia’s greatest assets, the Island Explorer buses. This system of propane-powered shuttle buses traces eight routes through all of Mount Desert, making it possible to handle the mundane tasks of cruising (grocery shopping, using the Internet, and laundry) as well as reaching towns, trailheads, and beaches all for free. In short, the entire park was at our fingertips from this one anchorage. It cost us $5 per person to enter the park on foot with a pass we bought in Bar Harbor that was good for seven days. (Visitors over the age of 62 can get a Senior Pass, which for $10 gives you lifetime admission to all national parks, historic sites, and monuments.) This pass gave us access to the park’s 120 miles of hiking trails, which include climbs up Cadillac Mountain (at 1,528 feet, it’s the tallest eastern coastal peak), as well as such trails as Wonderland, a flat, wooded path to the rocky seaside where lobstermen worked their pots just offshore.
One day, we rented bikes in Bar Harbor and set off with a backpack picnic on the carriage roads, truly one of Acadia’s most lovely and unique features. Built between 1913 and 1940 as a gift from John D. Rockefeller Jr., 45 miles of carriage roads bordered by granite coping stones weave through the park over 17 stone bridges.
Acadia also includes about 2,700 acres on Isle au Haut, an offshore island we visited a few weeks later. We were able to pick up a mooring ball ($10 a night, which we left in the plastic water bottle attached to the pendant) in the Isle au Haut Thorofare, which is the safest way to stay in this narrow anchorage. From here, the public landing is obvious, and walking trails abound on this lovely, isolated outpost.