Image: North Country Trail in Michigan
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
A 4,000-mile-long hiking path unites the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and the North Country Trail in Michigan is a stunning section. On Lake Superior’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, the trail stretches along 42 miles of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, taking in 300-foot sandstone bluffs weathered by glaciation and time.
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updated 8/8/2011 8:35:02 AM ET 2011-08-08T12:35:02

Mickey Hart, drummer for the Grateful Dead, knows just where to go to unwind: a coastal park near his Sonoma, Calif., home. “Doran Beach has it all,” he says. “The surf is beyond description.”

Slideshow: America's most beautiful coastal walks

Coastal walks can make us grateful to be alive; fortunately, you’ll find great strolls all over America’s 12,380 miles of coastline. And the most beautiful of these walks, like the American landscape itself, take a number of forms.

In Alaska, a coastal trail reveals a mash-up between nature and civilization, where the fierce, snowcapped Chugach Mountains rise next to Anchorage’s skyscrapers. Roam the trails of Georgia’s Cumberland Island and you’ll see more wild horses and armadillos than residents. And in Washington State’s Olympic National Park, fans of the "Twilight" series can pay homage to werewolves: myth has it a shape-shifter on the coast turned a wolf into the first Quileute Native American.

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Coastal walks have the ability to inspire such stories and get us thinking. Sure, you get to admire the scenery and experience an invigorating rush. But it’s also a chance to let your mind wander, free from everyday routines and influenced by the rhythms of nature. (As poet T. S. Eliot put it when musing on indecision, “I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.”)

So it’s exciting to see preservationists looking out for these coastal access points. They’re behind an ambitious $668 million land acquisition plan that will create the California Coastal Trail (CCT), connecting Santa Barbara to bluffs on Oregon’s border, with Mickey Hart’s Doran Beach in between. The 1,200-mile result will be the most extensive coastal trail on earth.

How important is that? Some scientists believe we are actually programmed for coastal walking; that the crucial evolutionary moment when Homo sapiens stood upright and lost our hair happened when we moved to the beach and our ancestors stayed in the trees. Whatever the motive, there’s no denying that we feel compelled to wander the shore.

So don’t fight your instincts. Put on your walking shoes and set out for one of America’s most beautiful coastal walks.

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