Want to increase your chances of happening upon some sea glass? Think like a historian. Since glass shards can take decades (or even centuries) to form into smooth, luminous artifacts, hit the beaches near old factories, Colonial-era settlements, or shipwrecks, such as Lake Erie, Pennsylvania; Gloucester, Massachusetts; or Fort Bragg, California, says S. Deacon Ritterbush, Ph.D., the author of The Beachcomber’s Odyssey. You should also have more luck after a storm or during a full moon when strong tides can stir up buried treasures.
It takes about 30 years for the ocean to break down glass into sea treasure, and not all beaches are capable of creating it, which is why a good sea glass beach is hard to find. The best options are usually near former dumping grounds, where there is consistent wave movement.
But seeking these beaches out is well worth the effort. Not only are they stunning in a completely surprising way, but they are a boon for treasure hunters. (Pro tip: Clear glass is the most common, as are brown and green. The most prized, rare glass is orange and red.)
What to look for: Since sea glass can be tricky to spot in the sand and rocks, walk toward a rising or sinking (not overhead) sun, so the light will glint on the pieces and they’ll stand out. Sea glass comes in a spectrum of translucent and opaque shades, from frosty white, aqua, and emerald to brown, red, orange, and purple.
When to look: The peak time to search is right before or after low tide; during full-moon periods when tides are stronger; or after a storm, when currents may have stirred up long-buried lumps.
Where to look: Surprisingly, you don’t always have to venture to an oceanside town to find grade-A specimens. “The glass that washes up on the shores of lakes and rivers, called ‘beach glass,’ is just as beautiful as the sea variety,” says S. Deacon Ritterbush, Ph.D., an eco-educator and the creator of drbeachcomb.com. Whether fresh or salt, the most plentiful sites will be near old factories, centuries-old settlements, ferry runs, shipwrecks, or anywhere there was potential for the glass to be deposited in the water. “Still, resources are limited, so be courteous: Take a few and leave the rest for the next person,” says Ritterbush. She recommends checking out these other glass-rich locales if you have the opportunity.
1. Bar Harbor, Maine
2. Fort Bragg, California
3. Fort Smallwood Park, Maryland
4. Gloucester, Massachusetts
5. Lake Erie, Pennsylvania
6. Lake Michigan, Michigan
7. Port Allen, Kauai, Hawaii
8. Port Townsend, Washington
9. Vieques, Puerto Rico
10. Woodland Beach, Delaware
How to spot fakes: If hitting the gift shops suits your idea of a treasure hunt, be on the lookout for imposters. Artificially made sea glass tends to have jagged edges and more intense colors. Another tip-off? “Too-perfect shards in a jar, all with uniform color, size, and shape, are probably not real,” says Ritterbush.
Fort Bragg, a charming town along California’s northern coast, is home to this extraordinary glass sea beach. From 1906-1967, the site was used to dump cars, bottles, appliances, and batteries. What resulted in years later was a shoreline blanketed with smooth, colored sea glass. From rags to riches, indeed!
(Note: Visitors aren’t technically allowed to remove the glass from this beach since it’s part of California State Parks property.)