America's Best Beaches, Coast to Coast

A lifeguard stand on a beach in California Photo by Pixabay

We know, we know: Picking the best beaches in the United States is a matter of opinion. Some sun worshippers prefer to be amid crowds of beautiful people, others want total seclusion, and still others have soft spots for sandy stretches next to the boardwalks, carnival rides, and saltwater taffy they associate with childhood. But when it comes to certain natural characteristics—the quality of the sand, clearness of the water, amount of pollution, and so on—it is possible to select standouts with some objectivity.

That’s the project of Florida International University coastal researcher Stephen Leatherman—better known as Dr. Beach—whose annual rankings pinpoint the finest areas of the U.S. coastline according to 50 criteria, from sand softness to swimmability and beyond. To celebrate the beauty of the country’s shores, we’ve highlighted the following beaches that consistently land at or near the top of Dr. Beach’s list. Let’s dive in!  

And for sand and surf on U.S. territory beyond the 50 states, check out our roundup of the best beaches in Puerto Rico.

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Siesta Beach near Sarasota, Florida Photo by Jsarasota [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
  • Where it is: Siesta Key near Sarasota, Florida
  • Why it’s special: Because the sand is 99% pure quartz, it’s dazzlingly white and incredibly soft. There’s lots of it, too: The crescent-shaped beach is not only long but also several hundred yards wide, allowing plenty of space for volleyball or simply sprawling in the sun (it’s no coincidence the place is named after the Spanish word for nap). A gentle slope to the clean, clear waters of the Gulf of Mexico is an irresistible invitation to go swimming, under the watchful eye of year-round lifeguards.
  • Dr. Beach’s ranking: national winner in 2011 and 2017
 
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Ocracoke beach on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina Photo by James Lee / Flickr
  • Where it is: Outer Banks, North Carolina
  • Why it’s special: For unspoiled coastal wilderness, you can’t do better than tiny Ocracoke Island, one of the most secluded spots on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore (to get here, you have to take a free ferry from Hatteras Island). Though tourism is the main industry, Ocracoke remains pretty much as undeveloped as when it was the stomping grounds of the pirate Blackbeard in the early 18th century. Clamming, seashell collecting, and swimming are the primary pursuits. The ponies that once roamed the island freely can be visited at the pasture where they’ve been kept ever since Ocracoke’s one highway was paved in 1957.
  • Dr. Beach’s ranking: national winner in 2007, #3 in 2017  
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Underwater shot of a turtle in Maui's Kapalua Bay Photo by SNORKELINGDIVES.COM
  • Where it is: Maui, Hawaii
  • Why it’s special: Two rocky headlands bracket this crescent-shaped slice of white sand on Maui’s northwest coast, creating calm conditions for swimming and snorkeling. Those who go beneath the turquoise waters of the Pacific can catch up-close glimpses of turtles and brightly colored fish swirling amid coral reefs. Kapalua Bay holds the distinction of being the first national winner named by Dr. Beach in 1991—and it has made a strong showing on most of his lists ever since.
  • Dr. Beach’s ranking: national winner in 1991, #2 in 2017
 
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Dog running on Coopers Beach in Southampton on New York's Long Island Photo by Kazuko Oguma / Flickr
  • Where it is: Southampton, Long Island, New York
  • Why it’s special: The southern shore of Long Island has some of the most expensive real estate in the country. Part of that has to do with the old-money prestige of the Hamptons as a retreat for the titans of finance and fashion who summer here (when you have an ungodly amount of money, you get to use “summer” and “winter” as verbs). But it’s also true that the 7-mile coastline abutting Southampton village is an out-and-out stunner, with wide expanses of quartz sand, grass-dotted dunes, and grand homes owned by the 0.01%.
  • Dr. Beach’s ranking: national winner in 2010, #5 in 2017
 
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Coast Guard Beach on Coast Guard, Massachusetts Photo by Margo Tabb / Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism
  • Where it is: Eastham, Cape Cod, Massachusetts
  • Why it’s special: No less an authority on New England nature than Henry David Thoreau praised the beaches of the Outer Cape in the 19th century, saying that to stand on these shores is to feel “all America” behind you. Coast Guard Beach in the village of Eastham is uniquely situated to show off the best aspects of what’s now known as the Cape Cod National Seashore. From the old Coast Guard station you can get a good view of the Nauset Spit, a finger of sand extending into the Atlantic, or explore a coastal marsh inhabited by shorebirds. Bicycle down to the beach to see seals and terns, and cool off with a bracing swim in waters with temperatures that rarely top 70 degrees, even in summer.
  • Dr. Beach’s ranking: #6 in 2017
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Grayton Beach State Park in the Florida Panhandle Photo by goldenticket76 / Flickr
  • Where it is: Walton County in the Florida Panhandle
  • Why it’s special: Grayton Beach offers 2,200 pristine acres amid the increasingly developed portion of northwestern Florida along the Gulf of Mexico. Though there are places to stay and dine in nearby towns like Seaside and Santa Rosa Beach, on the grounds of the state park you’ll find unspoiled stretches of white sand and emerald-hued water. There are also large dunes, freshwater lakes, and hiking trails that will take you past gnarled scrub oak and magnolia trees. Stay at the park’s campground for the full wilderness experience.
  • Dr. Beach’s ranking: national winner in 1994, #4 in 2017
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Coronado Beach in San Diego Photo by Pixabay
  • Where it is: San Diego
  • Why it’s special: The East Coast tends to fare better than the West on Dr. Beach’s lists. But a shining exception is this Southern California beauty, noted for its wide expanses, sparkling sand, and gentle waves. You can watch ships and unleashed dogs (they're allowed in certain areas) at the northern end, or enjoy peace and quiet to the south. In between stands the iconic Hotel del Coronado. Built in 1888, this stately landmark of Victorian elegance counts princes, presidents, and Hollywood stars among its past guests.
  • Dr. Beach’s ranking: national winner in 2012, #9 in 2017
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Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve on Oahu, Hawaii Photo by Pixabay
  • Where it is: Oahu, Hawaii
  • Why it’s special: It’s not easy to upstage the scenery at Hanauma Bay on the southeast coast of Oahu, where a curving white-sand beach runs between an aquamarine scoop of ocean and a horseshoe-shaped ridge of land that was once the rim of a volcano. But believe it or not, the marine life is what’s really impressive here. Thanks to vigilant conservation efforts, you can see large populations of green sea turtles, corals, and hundreds of Skittles-colored fish species, including parrotfish, angelfish, and Hawaii’s state fish, the spectacularly named humuhumunukunukuapua'a. If you don’t go snorkeling, you’ll miss half of the best sights.
  • Dr. Beach’s ranking: national winner in 2004 and 2016
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Kiawah Island near Charleston, South Carolina Photo by OzarksRazorback [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
  • Where it is: Kiawah Island near Charleston, South Carolina
  • Why it’s special: Most of Kiawah, a barrier isle near Charleston, is occupied by a gated resort known for its top-of-the-line golf courses. On the south end, however, there is an area with public access: Beachwalker Park. Pristine and secluded, it has numerous opportunities to immerse yourself in the landscape, whether that means canoeing through inlets, hiking amid live oaks and palmettos, or keeping watch for shorebirds, turtles, and dolphins. A sand spit at the tip of the island is one of the most contested pieces of land in South Carolina—developers and conservationists have been arguing over it for years.
  • Dr. Beach’s ranking: #10 in 2017
 
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