The National Parks of the U.S. East Coast
Heading south this year? Fill your journey with historic sites, picturesque anchorages, and stunning beaches.
Cape Lookout National Seashore, North Carolina
The first time that we visited this amazing place was, in a word, frustrating. We’d motorsailed from Beaufort, North Carolina, a mere six nautical miles away, to Lookout Bight to stage for an offshore run south to Cumberland Island, Georgia. An autumn cold front was barreling through, and it was blowing 25 to 30 knots in the bight, where our anchor held perfectly fine, but launching a dinghy to go beachcombing proved to be a preposterous idea. So much beach, and no way to get there! All that blustery night, the black-and-white, diamond-patterned lighthouse stood sentinel as it has for 152 years, its beam flashing over us. It reassured me, even as my stomach gave way to butterflies at the thought that we’d be leaving at dawn the next day, flying south on all that howling wind. Which is what we did, with the promise that we’d come back and visit that endless beach.
We fulfilled the promise in the spring of 2011 on our way north from Panama, again leaving Beaufort after making a grocery-Internet-laundry stop. This time, the crews of other boats shared the same idea, but this is such a roomy anchorage that we didn’t feel crowded. After we set the hook, launching the dinghy was the first order of business, followed by two days of spectacular kite flying, beachcombing, and bird-watching. Because we arrived on our own boat—the only other way out here is via ferry—it cost us nothing to enjoy the seashore 24/7. We’d hoped for a tour of the lighthouse, but a ranger told us that we were a few weeks too early; lighthouse tours didn’t start until Memorial Day. There’s also a keeper’s house here that dates from 1873, which is home now to exhibits on the islands’ natural and cultural histories. Oh, well, there was always the beach, which seemed to go on forever.
Lookout Bight and the scrap of sand where we made our playground are mere fragments of this enormous national seashore, which encompasses 56 miles of outlying barrier beaches on Shackleford and Core banks. Together, they compose the southernmost end of the famous Outer Banks, and left as they are in their natural state, unsullied by the saltwater-taffy tourism that mars these islands farther north, you can’t help but feel grateful that someone was smart enough to set aside these places for the wild things.
Tucked behind the east end of Shackleford Banks and the fishhook tip of the Core Banks, Lookout Bight is well protected despite being a mile across. From our anchorage we could see the wild ponies that live on Shackleford Banks as they ambled out of the dunes and onto the flat, white sand. In the bight, we had frequent visits from sea turtles, and the rangers told us that so far that spring, they’d located two loggerhead nests on the ocean side.
Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia
Some 325 nautical miles south of Cape Lookout, around Frying Pan Shoals and past Cape Fear, lies another national treasure that it’s fair to say is the Osprey family’s favorite—OK, it’s probably a tie with Acadia. Located just north of the St. Marys River entrance on the Georgia-Florida border, 17.5-mile-long Cumberland Island provides a lovely anchorage right next to one of the most magical places that we know. We’ve visited this park three times now and have yet to tire of it, or even see all of it. The 36,415 acres offer ever-changing views of seascapes, dunes, salt marshes, and maritime forest. In its fairy-land forest, where palmettos brush the ground and the twisted, gnarled oaks with their beards of Spanish moss remind me of wise old wizards, I find a depthless, soulful silence.
Sailors making landfall here in the spring can delight in the scent of pine trees and the trill of birdsong. “I heard a wood thrush and a white-throated sparrow,” I wrote at the time. “A red-winged blackbird, which I heard on the way through the dunes, stood perched on a strand of sea grass, singing in the breeze. We’ve had skates jumping in the mornings and evenings, literally doing backflips out of the water, all around the boat, and plenty of dolphins, as usual. We’ve seen two horse herds so far, each with foals. One is a two-week-old Appaloosa that’s just gorgeous, with a big white face and nothing but legs.”
Hundreds of sea turtles nest on these beaches in spring, wild boar and alligators make this their home, and it’s common to see armadillos trundling through the underbrush. The human footprint here is equally varied and fascinating: Native Americans lived here as many as 4,000 years ago, the Spanish built several missions here in the 1500s, and in the 1880s, Thomas M. Carnegie and his wife, Lucy, came here and built the 59-room Scottish castle they called Dungeness. Its ruins and outbuildings today still stand as wild ponies graze on the once-immaculate lawns. On our first visit here, one of the rangers encouraged us to hike past Raccoon Flats, where there were massive mounds of dirt; it was old dredge spoil from the channel. Here, he said, we’d literally trip over fossilized shark teeth. Since then, fossil hunting has become one of our favorite pastimes here, and on a good day, we might return to Osprey with a whole spice jar full of teeth of all sizes and shapes. It costs $4 per person to stay here for seven days (it’s free for children under 16), paid in an honor-box system located at the head of the dock. Like Cape Lookout, this island is accessible only by ferry, and when from Osprey’s cockpit I watch the last boat of the day leave, I always feel supremely lucky to be able to stay. Also like Cape Lookout, it has a handy town nearby—Fernandina Beach, Florida, which is only five miles to the south—where you can take care of the cruising necessities before you come here for pure peace and quiet.