10 Best U.S. Shelling Beaches
Glass-bodied lamps filled with bleached scallop shells and sand dollars; a pink-lipped conch shell; framed shell lithographs; tiny coquinas in the car ashtray: My mother, an avid collector, filled our land-locked lives with souvenirs from the sea. Even after she got her own beach house, she still returned from trips with a trove of new shells stuffed in airtight plastic bags in her suitcase, all destined to decorate our house.
She was engaging, of course, in an ancient—and popular—pursuit. Beachcombers have a lot of reasons to risk lower back pain and treacherous tides to gather these mobile homes of the sea. My mother collected them to remind herself of days spent on the beach. Other collectors look at the fragile beauty of shells—a beauty that’s survived buffeting waves, grinding sand, and the attacks of hungry seabirds—and see a lesson from nature.
David Driver, a NYC -based artist who creates elegant, minimalist mobiles from shells, has his own theory. “It’s a very natural, thought-free, meditative thing to do while walking on a beautiful beach. It’s a ‘task’ that takes only enough of your mind to be enjoyable, but lets the rest of your mind just be, in a good way.”
Whatever their reasons, beachcombers discover harmonious symmetry and delicate pastel color; even less-than-perfect shells, with sharp edges worn smooth and exteriors eroded away, can surpass man-made objects in one-of-a-kind beauty.
This quest for beauty of the bivalve kind determines vacations for some collectors. Shell-lovers from all over the world make pilgrimages to tiny Sanibel Island on Florida ’s Gulf Coast, considered the best shelling spot in North America. Sanibel’s beaches, protected by a broad underwater shelf perfect for gently receiving deliveries from shell-laden currents, are carpeted with tiny, perfect pastel coquinas and false angel wings. The island has become so popular with beachcombers that some hotels offer rooms equipped with special sinks and worktables for cleaning and packing the day’s yield.
Other collectors head straight to beaches known for their diversity of organic and inorganic treasures. Shipwreck Beach , on the Hawaiian island of Lanai, churns up all sorts of goodies in addition to shells—even, on rare occasions, blown-glass floats from Japanese fishing nets. Nontraditional beachcombers also flock to Maryland ’s Calvert Cliffs State Park , protected from strong ocean currents by its position up the Chesapeake Bay. The beach offers plenty of shells to beachcombers, but most are in the form of Miocene-era fossils.
Getting shells home is the acid test for new collectors. You rinse them in a hotel sink, pack them into airtight containers or bags, and pray that their brittle walls don’t shatter in transit and that the containers don’t leak on the rest of your luggage. Will the shells still feel like treasures when you unpack them at home? Only time and temperament will tell.
Once my mother had toted malodorous bags of shells home from beach vacations, she meticulously cleaned them and left them arrayed in the sun to dry. She waited for winter evenings to sort her finds, spreading them out on the dining room table. The task was clearly pleasant for her, a quiet (but for the tinkling of the shells), contemplative way to remember time spent beachcombing.
Planning a trip to any of these great shelling beaches is a surefire way to guarantee some memorable seaside days. From the empty white-sand shores of Gulf Coast barrier islands to pine-studded rocky coves in the Puget Sound, we’ll steer you to the best strands and most plentiful shells so you can create vivid, sunlit memories to fill your own winter evenings.
Want to better the odds of finding treasure?
- Check the local paper for tide charts. The optimal time for shell hunting is in the hours immediately before and after low tide (and the tide ebbs lowest around the full and new moons).
- True collectors don’t mind a little bad weather. In fact, a storm can bring a shelling bonanza. As soon as it clears, head out and see what favors Neptune tossed ashore.
- Winter’s choppy waters and lack of crowds make for great hunting. Just wear a sweater.
- Don’t overlook the high-tide mark (also called the wrack line), sometimes as far inland as the dunes, where treasures that were thrown up there by the high-tide waves can escape the notice of other shell hunters. Artist David Driver concurs: “My favorite times are when there are big patches of ocean debris at regular intervals along the beach. That’s where the most interesting stuff is.”
- Get out there before the crowds. The catch o’ the day may be tucked in someone’s beach bag before you finish that first cup of coffee. You can nap at high tide.
Calvert Cliffs State Park, MD
Why Go: This peaceful beach on the Chesapeake Bay attracts avid fossil hunters and shell lovers from all over the East Coast—the soft, sandy cliffs between the bay and the woods occasionally calve like glaciers and deposit fresh Miocene-era shark teeth and snail fossils on the beach. You’ll find shells from more modern times too: the gentle waves of the Chesapeake Bay jostle oyster and clam shells up on the sand, as well as artifacts of human habitation (multicolored beach glass, burned shards of brick, even arrowheads). An easy two-mile hike on paths through woods and over wetlands keeps the beach blissfully lonesome.
What You’ll Find: Fossilized shark teeth; scallop, oyster, clam, and snail shells; beach glass; arrowheads; and quartz.
Ocracoke Island, NC
Why Go: The island attracts only those willing to drive the length of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, so Ocracoke’s wild and unsullied beaches are sparsely populated, even at the height of summer. (Schedule a spring or fall visit and you’ll have the beach and its bounty to yourself.) At North Point, you’ll find everything from tiny, butterfly-like coquinas to Scotch bonnets. Go mornings after big squalls—especially nor’easters—for the most exciting finds.
What You’ll Find: Olives, sand dollars, whelks, baby’s ears, and cowry helmets.
Sanibel Island, FL
Why Go: This shellers’ mecca attributes its bounty to a wide continental shelf. Bend over in a “Sanibel stoop” to hunt for the coveted junonia (a twisted cone shell with markings like a giraffe’s spots): find one and you’ll get your picture in the local papers. For the best pickings on this Manhattan-size island, head up to Bowman’s Beach, on the northern end of the Gulf-facing beaches almost to Captiva Island. Rainy day? Get your daily mollusk fix at the island’s Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum.
What You’ll Find: Coquinas, scallops, whelks, and sand dollars.
Point No Point Beach Hansville, WA
Why Go: Point No Point, in Hansville, offers great shelling with a view. Puget Sound’s oldest lighthouse watches over the evergreen-lined coast, and with just a brief interruption of your sand-ward gaze, you can catch a glimpse of Mount Rainier or a passing whale. The U.S. Lighthouse Society rents out the lighthouse keeper’s house to visitors, so you can stay overnight in comfortable quarters (with no labor involved—the lighthouse was automated in 1977) and get up for first crack on low-tide goodies.
What You’ll Find: Dogwinkles, limpets, and geoducks—the world’s biggest burrowing clams.
Gulf Islands National Seashore Pensacola, FL
Why Go: Just offshore from the busy beach towns along the Florida Panhandle, these narrow barrier islands are spectacularly beautiful and wild. After big storms, the blindingly white sands reveal a treasure exclusive to this region: hurricane balls. These egg-shaped finds are created by the motion of the waves during a Gulf Coast storm: straw, palmetto grass, and seaweed wrap tightly around a core object like a shell or small stone and are tossed up onto the sand. But even if the weather’s fine, you won’t come away empty-handed—prehistoric shell middens left by early settlers indicate that beachcombing these narrow strips of sand has always been a fruitful endeavor.
What You’ll Find: Comb bittersweets, coquinas, ceriths, common nutmegs, alphabet cones, lucinas, sand dollars, and augers.
Shipwreck Beach Lanai, HI
Why Go: You never know what you’ll find at Shipwreck Beach, on the island of Lanai. The same brisk trade winds and strong currents that make the waters dangerous for swimming also churn up flotsam and jetsam—and intrepid beachcombers. Accessible only on foot or by four-wheel-drive vehicles, the eight-mile-long beach—with views of Molokai across the channel—is littered with treasure, both natural and man-made.
What You’ll Find: Coral, violet snails, leopard cones, imperial cones, sea slug shells, textile cones (whose cross-hatched pattern of browns is clearly echoed in Polynesian fabric designs), and even on rare occasions, blown-glass floats from Japanese fishing nets.
Cumberland Island, GA
Why Go: Take the ferry out to gloriously deserted Cumberland Island and return with a robber baron’s hoard of sand dollars. Rent a bike from the park rangers and head south from the ferry landing to Dungeness Beach, where the best shells wash ashore. If the sun grows too intense on the sand, hop on your bike and visit the picturesque ruins of the Gilded Age mansion built by real robber barons, the Carnegies.
What You’ll Find: Coquinas, disc clams, augers, shark teeth, olives, heart cockles, ark shells, and moon snails.
Point Reyes National Seashore, CA
Why Go: Besides their dramatic beauty, this string of beaches just north of San Francisco shows collectors shells in a different light. An hour before and after low tide, the ocean ebbs to reveal tide pools along the shore that teem with sea stars, urchins, and black turbans. Admire them, photograph them, but don’t touch them: most are too delicate, and some are poisonous to humans. (And don’t worry—there are plenty of uninhabited shells to collect.) Wear waterproof shoes and hike down to the park’s Sculptured Beach for the best tide-pool viewing and shelling.
What You’ll Find: Sand dollars, olives, ocher stars, mossy chitons, razor clamshells, and goose barnacle.
San Jose Island, TX
Why Go: The long, car-free stretches of barrier islands along Texas’s Gulf Coast invite peaceful solitude, and the farther you get from the ferry dock on this 21-mile-long isle, the better the pickings. (Our suggestion: rent a bike with fat tires on the mainland and catch the first boat of the morning.) Camping overnight? Look for phosphorescent plankton in the tide pools after dark.
What You’ll Find: Sundials, shark’s eyes, and caramel-rippled lightning whelks the size of your fist.
Silver Strand State Beach Coronado Island, CA
Why Go: Named for its shimmering oyster-strewn shore, this popular and easily accessible stretch of beach on Coronado is also scattered with more enticing shells. A pedestrian tunnel under the road connects bay and ocean sides of the thin strip of beach, but the best shells are served up by the long, gentle rolling surf on the ocean side. Hotel del Coronado, a coral-red-roofed classic resort, is just a wave away (and its spa offers several face and body treatments that involve the application of gently heated, smooth shells).
What You’ll Find: Sand dollars, cockles, limpets, and scallops.