Fort Morgan is an off-the-beaten-path option in Alabama that’s pet-friendly, too!
Did you know 30 states in the US have a coastline? In other words, three-fifths of American states have access to a beach and about 95,000 miles of shoreline exist in the country. That’s a lot of beaches!
So, to create a list of the best of these beaches, let’s narrow it down a bit. First, we’ll exclude the seven states with Great Lakes coastline. (I mean, does a lakeshore even count as a coast, anyway? We’re not so sure, Merriam Webster!) For continental continuity, we’ll also exclude Alaska and Hawaii.
That leaves 21 states in the lower 48 with Atlantic or Pacific coastlines. (We’re avoiding the murky waters of “gulf vs. bay vs. sea” terminology.)
The goal here is to unveil one amazing beach per state. My methodology for what makes the cut? Very unscientific—it’s basically just a roundup of some of my personal favorites. See, I’ve had the great privilege of visiting all 21 of these states. I’ve been to the beach in all but five of them, and for this literal handful, I’ve enlisted the expertise of colleagues for their recommendations.
Why? Because even though the term “best” is pretty subjective, it’s also a great conversation starter. Hopefully, this article sparks an appreciation for, and a discussion around, some of this country’s most loveable little slices of sandy paradise.
Without further ado, here are 21 of the “best” beaches in America, organized by state.
Removed from the high-rise condos and six million annual visitors of the Gulf Shores, the Fort Morgan beaches offer a glimpse of what the Gulf Coast used to be like decades ago. Highlights include rich biodiversity (think dolphins, migratory songbirds, and a large sea turtle population), very little light pollution, off-the-beaten-path charm, and pet-friendly beaches.
The California coast is known for beautiful sunsets.
Where to begin? With 840 miles of coastline spanning such diverse shores as the mythical Redwood Coast, the mountainous Big Sur, and the muscle beaches of SoCal, how to do you choose a favorite? I’ve gone with San Diego’s La Jolla Shores, simply because it’s where I spent the best hangover of my life—napping next to hundreds of attractive sunbathers on the mile-long beach, playing soccer and beach volleyball, and SUP-ing in the turquoise waters alongside playful seals and above gigantic beds of kelp that stretch as far below the water as the eye can see… which is a long way given how clear the water is!
New London’s Ocean Beach Park is a bit reminiscent of New York’s Coney Island; there’s a long boardwalk, a series of carousels and other rides, and plenty of beachside food options. You’ll even find a miniature golf course and a not-so-miniature swimming pool. But beyond these somewhat gimmicky attractions, what makes Ocean Beach Park so great is the sugary white sands, the welcoming waters (around 70 degrees in summer months), and the charming New England vibe.
Located on a narrow strip of barrier island between the Atlantic Ocean and Little Assawoman Bay, this largely undeveloped stretch of beach is great for two reasons. First, it’s normally far less crowded than beach communities like Bethany Beach to the north and Maryland’s Ocean City to the south. Second, because it’s a barrier island, you literally have two beaches to choose from—an ocean side with surfing and swimming and a bay side with kayaking, sailing, SUP-ing, and more.
Slow down on the Forgotten Coast in Florida.
The tropical delights of the Florida Keys are tough to beat, as are the pristine waters of the Emerald Coast, but there’s a little place on the Gulf’s Forgotten Coast called Cape San Blas which ultimately takes the cake for me. Less developed and more secluded than nearby places like Panama City, this 17-mile barrier peninsula is considered by many to be what Florida used to be like in the 60s. There’s a slower way of life, a wide variety of coastal adventures, and at the end of your day spent playing in the sand and surf, there’s nothing better than a beach bonfire, which—unlike many Florida beaches—is actually still allowed at Cape San Blas.
Accessible only by boat and home to a colorful array of jungle-like maritime forests, abandoned 18th-century ruins, free-roaming wild horses, and 17 miles of undeveloped beaches littered with sand dollars and shark’s teeth, there might not be another place in America quite like Cumberland Island.
While much of the Louisiana coast is known for marshes and bayous, there are a handful of places where you can find a real sand beach experience. Probably the most popular option, and certainly the closest to New Orleans, is Grand Isle—a 10-mile barrier island that’s about as authentically ‘Louisiana’ as it gets. It definitely does not have the sugary sands vibe of other Gulf beaches in Florida or Alabama, but if phenomenal birding and world-class fishing are what you’re after, you’ll find it here.
See the wild ponies on Assateague Island.
Assateague Island is a 37-mile barrier island in Maryland and Virginia. Two-thirds of the island is located in Maryland, with the other third in Virginia. If there’s one thing this national seashore is known for other than its pristine beaches and large population of mystical wild horses, it’s got to be the beach camping, which is probably the best in the Mid-Atlantic.
Nestled in a picturesque cove on Mount Desert Island, Sand Beach is one of the most visit-worthy destinations in Acadia National Park. Though it’s not necessarily the place you want to go for traditional beach lounging and swimming (the water is a balmy 55 degrees even in summer!), for sheer natural beauty, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better beach.
Martha’s Vineyard is worth a visit for its scenic beaches.
The filming location of Jaws, a bougie summer getaway for affluent city slickers, and the third largest island on the East Coast, Martha’s Vineyard gets a bad wrap because of its popularity (and yeah, probably, for its exclusivity as well), but boy, does it have some lovely beaches. From seaside cliffs and serene dunes in the west to gentle waters in the north, to some of the finest surf beaches in New England on the South Shore, Martha’s Vineyard is a wonderful place to visit if you ever get the chance.
Here’s a little primer on how the Mississippi Gulf Coast works: You basically have a main drag of man-made sandy shoreline between Biloxi and Gulfport, with a couple of smaller coastal communities like Long Beach and Pass Christian further west. You can’t really go wrong with any of the beaches along this stretch, but you can certainly go ‘more right’, so to speak, by taking a boat 10 miles across the Mississippi Sound to the string of bead-like barrier islands that are part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Arguably, the best of these for beachgoers is West Ship Island. Here, you’ll find bigger waves, exceptional fishing and boating, and pristine beaches that are prime for shelling.
With 13 miles of coastline—the shortest ocean coastline of any state—you could hypothetically hit all of New Hampshire’s beaches on one half-marathon run. Ideally, in this make-believe race, there’s an aid station at Hampton Beach, because this is where you’ll want to spend the majority of your beach time. With a boardwalk, 700 feet of sand, and incredibly clean waters, it’s easy to see why this is the most popular beach in the state.
There’s more to the Jersey shore than you see on TV.
Can we skip this one? Just kidding! Despite what MTV’s Jersey Shore maybe led you to believe, New Jersey is actually home to quite a few beaches worth visiting. Cape May is one that stands out. Its motto—“The Nation’s Oldest Seashore Resort”—is evident in the Victorian architecture, the gorgeous 160-year-old lighthouse, and in the overall laid-back vibe.
You could probably find more picturesque options somewhere farther east on Long Island, but for a true NYC urbanite’s beach-going experience, Jacob Riis Beach is a local favorite. Dubbed “The People’s Beach”, this place has been a popular escape for city dwellers for about a century. The visitor center, housed in an art deco bathhouse from the 1930’s, looks a little like a prison; the beach itself isn’t altogether beautiful, as it’s comprised of coarse, somewhat dirty-looking sand; and with the number of people who congregate here on weekend afternoons, you’ll likely never have it all to yourself. But for exceptional people-watching, live reggae and dance music, and an unsuppressable electric energy, it doesn’t get better than Jacob Riis.
Located along the Outer Banks of North Carolina’s Crystal Coast, Cape Lookout is one of the wildest seashores in America. You can only get to the banks by ferry or by personal boat, and once you’re there, it’s quite likely the only company you’ll have will be the 100-odd feral ponies that call this place home. Rich colonial (not to mention pirate) history, thick forests dripping with Spanish moss, a 160-year-old lighthouse, and over 50 miles of undeveloped beach are just some of the things you’ll find at this timeless coast.
Oregon has more to offer than rocky shorelines.
There’s not a superlative in the English language that does Oregon’s Route 101 justice. You could easily just close your eyes and put a finger on the map anywhere along this 363-mile highway and find a stunning spot with sea stacks, crashing surf, and hidden coves. One place that deservedly gets a lot of praise is Ecola State Park—a 9-mile stretch of coast with labyrinthine trails, forested cliffs, and secluded sandy beaches teeming with tide pools and surfers (like Indian Beach).
Though there’s a small fee to access Narragansett Beach, it’s well-worth the cost. It has larger waves than you’ll find at some of the (free) state park beaches in Rhode Island—which makes it an ideal place for surfers and body surfers—and throughout the summer season it’s also got an awesome rotating cast of concert series’, food trucks, and great amenities like cabanas, ample parking, and easy access to town.
Two words: beach cruiser. With 12 miles of Atlantic beachfront, Hilton Head has all the right ingredients to make it a bona fide mecca for bike cruising. First, the beach itself is quite broad, so there’s plenty of room to ride. Second, the sand is hard and compact, so your tires won’t sink. Third, the wind is often blowing pretty strong in one direction, so you cover a ton of ground surprisingly quickly and you’d be forgiven for feeling like Lance Armstrong as you zoom down the beach. Just be sure to bike back via the in-town bike paths to avoid a soul-crushing headwind.
Galveston Island is a fun, historical beach town.
Another barrier island and another Gulf Coast option, but far from just another beach, Galveston Island is one of the most breathtaking places in all of Texas. There’s 27 miles of beachfront to choose from, all of which have gorgeous white sands and blue-green waters typical of the area. But beyond the beach—with its many museums, unique historical heritage, and booming craft food and drink scene—Galveston offers a rich cultural experience that’s tough to beat.
Virginia Beach could be one of the East Coast’s best-kept secrets. The main beach area is often crowded and popular among families, but for a quieter experience, beachgoers can find more secluded beaches just a few miles to the south at Sandbridge Beach. Runners will love the trails at Fort Landing State Park or the beach’s 3-mile boardwalk with a separate paved track for cyclists. For water enthusiasts, the Chesapeake Bay provides calmer waters for kayaking and SUP-ing, with more challenging open water along the neighboring Atlantic. No matter how you spend your day at Virginia Beach, crab cakes are a must afterward!
Washington’s Olympic Coast has 73 miles of undeveloped, wild, and rugged beaches. One of the most accessible and beautiful options is Ruby Beach. With a backdrop defined by towering sea stacks, deafening surf, and the enormity of the Pacific and a foreground littered with tide pools, sea anemones, and giant gardens of driftwood carnage, Ruby Beach is a place that makes you, and all of your problems feel refreshingly small and insignificant.
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