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10 best shelling beaches in America

It’s no shell game—T+L marks the spots for the best unburied treasure in the U.S.
Image: Sanibel Island
Find Coquinas, scallops, whelks, and sand dollars on Sanibel Island, Fla., a shellers’ mecca attributing its bounty to a wide continental shelf. Rainy day? Get your daily mollusk fix at the island’s Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum. Peter Essick / Peter Essick/Aurora
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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.

Finding the best shells

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.