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A Beachin’ Road Trip

Pack your bags and cruise towards the water. We’ve plotted the ultimate coastal summer getaway.

It’s time to put the mountains in your rearview mirror and make your way towards a little sand and surf. From Georgia’s barrier islands to the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay, we’ve put together the ultimate Southeast coastal road trip. Break up the itinerary into multiple trips or drive the whole route in one big go. 

Soaring Sights

Calm Walks through Georgia’s Coastal Wildlife Refuges

For wildlife lovers, it doesn’t get much better than the three National Wildlife Refuges dotting Georgia’s coast open to the public—Harris Neck, Blackbeard Island, and Wassaw. Established to provide a series of sanctuaries for migrating birds, as well as supporting a suite of other saltwater species, the refuges hold a combination of pristine habitat and solitude that’s utterly inspiring. 

Matthew Emmer, a photographer and president of the Friends of the Savannah Coastal Wildlife Refuges, especially enjoys cruising the wildlife drive at Harris Neck. He describes the experience as otherworldly, with Spanish moss draping from the live oaks, alligators swimming in ponds, and a variety of birds nesting in the trees. “Once you turn into the property, it just engulfs you,” he said. “You’re transported into a new place.”

Photo: Harris Neck offers an escape from crowded summer stops. Photos by Matthew Emmers

Of the three refuges, Harris Neck is the only one accessible by car. The trails and shores of the other two are reached by boat. Although all three refuges are within 30 miles of each other as the bird flies, they each offer a unique experience. “Each refuge is vastly different and creates special opportunities for the different species of wildlife that call them home,” Emmer said. 

At Harris Neck, keep an eye out for the threatened wood storks that nest in the cypress trees. Wassaw plays an important role in helping to bring back the endangered loggerhead sea turtles who nest on the island during the summer, while Blackbeard Island is an excellent location to spot a variety of shorebirds year-round. 

OTHER SIGHTS TO SEE: There’s a lot more to explore as you drive up and down Georgia’s coast. Enjoy the beaches on Jekyll and St. Simons Island, get a taste of southern cuisine in Savannah, and spend some time in the charming towns of St. Mary’s and Darien. 

Visit Cumberland Island National Seashore for miles of undeveloped beach and maritime forests, accessible only by ferry. Stay a few days at one of the island’s campgrounds for a truly immersive experience. You might even catch a glimpse of the horses, alligators, or armadillos roaming the island.

TRAVEL TIPS: When visiting wildlife refuges, remember to help keep the wildlife wild. Before you go, read about the more fragile species that inhabit the refuge and make sure to give nesting birds a wide berth. “Some species, like the Piping Plover, nest in the sand and are susceptible to accidental disturbance by beachgoers so it’s always good to keep a watchful eye when on a refuge,” Emmer said. “You never know what you might find.”

Hit the Trails

Wind through the South Carolina Low Country

By foot or bike, the Spanish Moss Trail provides a scenic tour through South Carolina’s Lowcountry. Meandering for 10 miles through the wetlands of northern Beaufort County, the rail trail links the towns of Port Royal and Beaufort and features plenty of amenities full of southern hospitality. The paved path is still in development and when completed will cover 16 miles. 

Dean Moss, founder and volunteer executive director of the Friends of the Spanish Moss Trail, bikes the trail multiple times a week. “The trail has become the key ingredient for travelers as they decide on a place to visit with mild temperatures and outdoor recreation—and this trail does not disappoint,” he said. Within a short distance, you can enjoy changing landscapes, from open marshes to verdant oak canopies.  

Photo: The Spanish Moss Trail runs through a variety of ecosystems in coastal South Carolina. Photos courtesy of Friends of the Spanish Moss Trail

According to Moss, the path offers a variety of adventures. “Whether you are a young family with children learning to ride bikes, want a sunset stroll to see the dolphins play in the salt creeks, want a connected 20-mile round trip cycling experience, or are a lifelong learner who wants to experience the rich history of the Lowcountry—you can find it on this trail,” he said.

Near the trail’s southern terminus, the Port Royal Cypress Wetlands and Rookery is an ecological oasis in the middle of town. A variety of boardwalks, paved trails, and natural paths weave around the wetlands, with signage providing information about the local natural history. Keep an eye out for nesting birds, towering cypress trees, and the occasional glimpse of an alligator. 

You can also head to Hunting Island State Park for trails snaking through a myriad of ecosystems, from beachfront and maritime forests to a lagoon and barrier island. Here you can also book a dolphin-watching tour and a campsite to stay the night. 

OTHER SIGHTS TO SEE: Book a tour to learn more about the Lowcountry’s rich Gullah Culture. Experiences range from cooking shows and fishing to nature walks and museums. A variety of events throughout the year feature Gullah food, art, culture, and more. 

When you’ve explored the mainland, travel out to one of the islands off the coast for breezy shops featuring local art and restaurants serving up the fresh catch of the day. Walk the beaches of Harbor Island or visit the sanctuary that is Fripp Island for spectacular wildlife viewing. On the county’s southern coast, Hilton Head Island is a bike-friendly community featuring beaches, restaurants, and lodging easily accessible by pedal power. Guided electric shuttle and bicycle tours are available at Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge. 

Photo: The Spanish Moss Trail runs through a variety of ecosystems in coastal South Carolina. Photos courtesy of Friends of the Spanish Moss Trail

TIRE TIPS: Need some wheels for getting out and about? The friendly folks at Lowcountry Bicycles, which offers rentals and repairs, have knowledge of the local biking scene dating back more than three decades. 

Relaxation Station

Chill out on North Carolina’s Brunswick Islands

On the southern tip of North Carolina’s coast, you can find secluded spots to set up your chair and watch the waves roll in. Between six beaches and 10 coastal towns, the Brunswick Islands offer a peaceful getaway for those who prefer a laidback vacation. 

On the barrier islands, spot a variety of marine life, from dolphins swimming in pods to shore birds walking the dunes; or catch sight of an endangered loggerhead turtle making its way up the beach to lay eggs. 

Photo: The beaches of North Carolina’s Brunswick Islands provide a wealth of outdoor recreation opportunities, from wildlife viewing and paddling to relaxing by the shore. Photos courtesy of NC’s Brunswick Islands

While vacationing on Oak Island in 2001, Suzan Bell came across a sea turtle nest that had been fenced off for protection. She spent the rest of the summer visiting nest after nest along the beach, learning more about local efforts to protect the endangered sea creatures from the volunteers assigned to keep watch. From that moment Bell was hooked, spending her summer vacations every year patrolling the beach for turtle tracks and sitting around hatching nests late into the night.  

More than 20 years and hundreds of nests later, Bell is a full-time resident on the island and oversees the Oak Island Sea Turtle Protection Program volunteers with her husband. “I still feel excited every time I see the hatchlings emerge and boil out of the nest,” she said. “Every time I see a nesting mama turtle, I get the adrenaline flowing.” 

Whether it’s exploring the nature preserves on Bald Head Island and Bird Island or heading into the towns of Southport and Calabash for fresh seafood, she says there are many ways to relax by the water. “We love that it has a small-town feel; it wasn’t a Myrtle Beach-type area,” Bell said. “Although there are some wonderful local shops and fun places, it’s a quiet, beautiful beach that is undisturbed.”

Photo: The beaches of North Carolina’s Brunswick Islands provide a wealth of outdoor recreation opportunities, from wildlife viewing and paddling to relaxing by the shore. Photos courtesy of NC’s Brunswick Islands

OTHER SIGHTS TO SEE: In addition to walking the beaches looking for shells, Bell recommends a trip to the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Surf City, about an hour’s drive north across the Cape Fear River. Take a tour of the sea turtle hospital to learn more about what it takes to get these dynamic swimmers back into the ocean. 

TURTLE TIPS: Nesting turtles do not see well on land, so make sure to pack out all your gear and fill in any holes you’ve dug before leaving the beach each day. If you happen to be on the beach when a nesting turtle reaches the shore, do not shine lights, make loud noises, or approach her. “If you’ll just stand back and watch, hopefully, you’ll see this great, magical experience of watching her dig the chamber and lay the eggs,” Bell said. 

Pristine Paddling 

Float quiet Virginia waters in Cape Charles

When David Burden opened SouthEast Expeditions more than two decades ago, Cape Charles was a quiet spot on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Having studied environmental science in college, he quickly recognized the beauty and potential of the area. Between the 70 miles of undeveloped coastline in the form of barrier islands and millions of acres of pristine salt marsh, it’s an ideal location sandwiched between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.

Today, the Eastern Shore is recognized as one of the top paddling destinations in the country. “You have places like coastal Maine, San Juan Islands, and the Everglades—people that have been there, the Eastern Shore is now on that list,” Burden said. “It’s an incredible change that we hoped would happen over time.” 

SouthEast Expeditions offers a variety of guided paddling tours around Cape Charles. Join in a festive jaunt out to a sandbar, complete with snacks, cold drinks, and a stunning sunset. Or take a relaxing float out to Chatham Vineyards, passing local wildlife on your way to the historic property. This experience comes with a guide, gear, complimentary wine tasting, and a bottle of wine to take home. 

Photo: Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Water enthusiasts of all skill levels will enjoy paddling the crown jewel of the area—the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge. “It’s this incredible migratory habitat with amazing salt marshes, and the creeks just wind through those like an old medieval maze,” Burden said. Keep an eye out for a host of species, from blue crabs and monarch butterflies to colorful wildflowers and marine turtles. 

There are more sights to explore along the 100-mile Seaside Water Trail, running from Cape Charles to Chincoteague Island. Whether you choose to explore the area by boat or on foot, there are wonders to be found all around you. “It’s really about this amazing, natural place that we’re trying to help create relationships between people and the salt marsh,” Buden said.

OTHER SIGHTS TO SEE: There are a variety of other ways to get on the water, from boat tours and jet skis to kiteboarding and standup paddleboarding. Then you can head into town for delicious treats, including hand-churned ice cream, fresh clam chowder, and local craft brews.

TIDE TIPS: Just like you would check the water levels on a mountain river, it’s important to look at the tide charts before heading out on the coast. Depending on where you’re paddling, you might find yourself stuck with no way to get back to shore once the tide goes out. 

Folly Creek, one of Burden’s favorite spots to paddle, gives you a great overview of the area if you time it right with the tides. Paddling from an inland saltwater creek to a coastal saltwater marsh, you’ll eventually reach the intertidal basin of the uninhabited inside barrier islands with the Atlantic Beach on the outside. “This entire trip through the intercoastal ecosystems is a beautiful paddle,” Burden said.

Down by the Bay

Tour Maryland’s waterfront state parks

Massive cliffs shelter the remains of prehistoric species, trails provide views of historic lighthouses, and boardwalks wind through marshes. It’s all found at the dozen state parks in Maryland that border the majestic Chesapeake Bay. 

Popular parks, like Calvert Cliffs and Elk Neck have hiking and biking trails, scenic campgrounds, and fishing access, while smaller parks, including Franklin Point, offer a more secluded experience. 

Your itinerary should include a stop at Janes Island State Park for a walk along the isolated beaches. On the mainland section of the park, you can reserve a campsite or cabin, enjoy a picnic by the water, and try crabbing on the canal. From the marina, launch your kayak into Daugherty Creek to access more than 2,900 acres of salt marsh and the Chesapeake Bay. The park has full and half-day kayak rentals during the summer. 

Photo: The sun sets over Susquehanna River State Park in Maryland. Photo by Sean Simmons/Visit Harford

From the marina, seven water trails wind through creeks and marshes, past coves and historic landmarks. Each trail is well-marked to guide you through your paddle. A variety of routes—from short jaunts with abundant wildlife to a 12.5-mile circumnavigation of the entire island—allow paddlers of all abilities to enjoy the park. 

Christina Carlson, park manager at Janes Island, enjoys paddling the yellow trail from the marina out to Flatcap Beach. “You have five miles of white sand beach on the east side of the island, only accessible by boat,” she said. “It’s quite peaceful out there.” Carlson likes to spend her time on the island walking the beach and looking for pretty shells that catch her eye. Swimming is also permitted on the Tangier Sound side of the island. 

Adventurous paddlers can reserve one of the three primitive backcountry campsites on the island, only accessible by boat (you will need a permit). Treat the site with care due to the sensitive nature of this pristine marine environment.

OTHER SIGHTS TO SEE: The Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Watertrails Network connects more than 170 sites to tell the story of the region’s history and wildlife. Visit a variety of parks, historic sites, museums, and byways to get a full picture of the area. Highlights include North Point State Park, Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Scenic Byway, and the Annapolis Maritime Museum.

TICK TIPS: During the summer months, it can get pretty buggy by the bay. Make sure to pack plenty of bug spray and check for ticks at the end of the day. The parks recommend wearing lighter colors as flies are attracted to dark colors. 

Cover photo: Walk the beaches of North Carolina’s Brunswick Islands, including Ocean Isle Beach. Photo courtesy of NC’s Brunswick Islands

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