Assateague Island National Seashore
This 18,000-acre barrier island off the shores of Maryland and Virginia is most famous for the herd of 150 horses that run wild and free. Kids love pitching a tent in the sand next to the ocean, crabbing, and digging for clams. The water is very shallow and safe here; in some spots, toddlers can wade out for yards with you and still be only knee-deep; and there are untold tidal pools, marshes, streams, and shady grottoes to explore on the fringes of nearly 40 miles of beach.
Setting Up Camp
Camping seaside is understandably in demand, so call ahead, up to eight weeks in advance (800-365-2267 or 410-641-3030). The fee for the two bare-bones campgrounds, Oceanside or Bayside, is $14 per night. Assateague doesn't offer any lodges or restaurants on-site -- only a very small, crowded snack bar. For diapers, juice, and supplies, take a five-minute drive over a bridge to neighboring Chincoteague Island, which has all the amenities you'll need.
You'll have to drag your children away from the touch tank stocked with sea stars, urchins, and shellfish at the Barrier Island visitors' center. There, you can also sign up for the popular ranger-led family walks through the saltwater marshes. Be sure to ask the rangers to teach you "hand lining," that is, how to catch crabs with only a chicken neck tied to a piece of string (yuck, but your kids will get a kick out of it). Both the neck and the string are available at Park's Hardware and Supermarket, in Chincoteague. Or rent kayaks from Tidewater Expeditions, also in Chincoteague, to paddle through the bulrushes, where you'll see stingrays and eagles up close ($12 per hour per double kayak; ages 3 and up).
The wild horse herds are beautiful to behold -- but only from a distance. They'll bite little hands that try to feed them apples or other treats.