Don’t complain it’s too hot to explore the great outdoors. Hit the trail at one of these fabulous beach destinations.
Cape Henlopen State Park: Beach Loop
Windswept and battered by waves, lonely Cape Henlopen juts out into the sea, at the point where the Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean in Delaware, a place so isolated that it looks much as it did when Spaniards first spotted it about 1544. A good way to take it all in is along the Beach Loop. Though the park has given this hike an official name, there are no actual groomed trails or signposts. Instead, it follows the gentle waters along the bayshore side of the cape, rounds the cape’s tip, and returns along the Atlantic’s pounding surf. Park your car at The Point parking lot and take the pathway to the west of the lot (which leads down to Breakwater Harbor, an inlet of Delaware Bay). It’s as simple as that.
The cape’s diverse landscape supports a plethora of wildlife. You may not immediately spot the velvet ants, pine lizards, hairy wolf spiders, rabbits snakes or voles—they generally venture out beneath the cooling veil of evening. But you can make out their tracks etched in the sand.
One animal that deserves special mention is the helmet-shaped horseshoe crab. In spring, hundreds of these big, primitive creatures—a species unchanged for 300,000 years—sidle onto the bayshore, where they dig shallow holes and lay thousands of tiny, pea green eggs—as many as 80,000 each. At the same time that the crabs lay their eggs, half-starved, squawking birds using some kind of internal time clock on their migration from South America flock to the scene and jab the sand for the protein-rich eggs. With thousands of miles to go before arriving at their nesting and breeding grounds in the Arctic, these tiny red knots, ruddy turnstones, sanderlings, and semipalmated sandpipers double their weight in a mere two weeks.
Assateague Island National Seashore: Wilder Beach Walk
Assateague Island is a barrier island off the eastern coast of the Delmarva Peninsula, straddling Maryland to the north and Virginia to the south. Its northern tip, just south of Ocean City’s neon bustle, is completely, totally undeveloped. From year to year—indeed, from day to day—its topography changes … stretching, shortening, stretching again. Over eons, the sand mass has crept landward, inch by inch. Sometime far in the future, it will probably meet the mainland. But for now, this alluring place, called the wilder beach by park employees, is one to explore and enjoy. And the only way to penetrate this heavenly sanctuary is by foot … the perfect excuse for a beach walk. The wilder beach walk, as it’s unofficially called, begins from the day-use parking area of Assateague State Park—an overpopulated strip of sand in summertime. Cross the dunes along the boardwalk and, at the ocean, turn left (north). In front of you lie 6 glorious miles of solitary beachscape. Soon the sounds of sunbathing, surf-splashing vacationers fade in the distance, and before you know it, your mind is fresh and clean as the golden sand and salty breeze. You can go as far as the narrow inlet separating the island from Ocean City before turning back the way you came.
Chincoteague NWR: Wildlife Loop
Occupying the Virginia portion of Assateague Island, Chincoteague is most famous for its wild horses. Marguerite Henry, who stayed at the island’s Miss Molly’s Inn in 1947, wrote about these graceful, smallish equines (they’re horses, not ponies) in her fabled children’s book, Misty of Chincoteague. You’re guaranteed plenty of sightings on Chincoteague’s trails. One of the best is the Wildlife Loop, which encircles Snow Goose Pool. A paved road beginning from the parking area at the Chincoteague Refuge Visitor Center, it is closed to cars every day until 3 p.m., leaving it for bikers and hikers in the morning and early afternoon. The trail takes off beneath a canopy of loblolly pines where, if you’re patient, you may catch sight of a rare Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel or a Sika deer. Farther on, you’ll come to Snow Goose Pool, a veritable bird (and bird-watcher) paradise. When you’re done enjoying nature, sashay over to the park’s gorgeous stretch of golden sands and crashing surf.