America’s beaches are treasured retreats, offering remote shorelines with gently lapping waves or bustling boardwalks teeming with tourist attractions.
Known as “Dr. Beach,” Stephen P. Leatherman is director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University in Miami. For more than two decades, Leatherman has released his annual list of America’s top 10 beaches.
New York City-based travel writer Holly A. Hughes, has been to her share of beaches. She is co-author of several Frommer’s travel guides, including 500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up and 500 Extraordinary Islands.
Here are their picks for America’s best beaches:
Best family beach
For a “laid-back” atmosphere, Leatherman favors Holden Beach, N.C. (pop. 575). On a tiny barrier island, the town is primarily residential, and traffic and crime are minimal. “When I look at the family beaches, safety is a very big issue,” Leatherman says.
For Hughes, it’s Santa Monica, Calif. “My kids love Santa Monica,” she says. “This is what a Southern California beach should look like. It’s accessible, there are bathrooms, the sand is really clean, and the surf isn’t a problem when kids are young, but it doesn’t feel like you’re in a baby pool. Big beach. Big ocean.” Home to the famed Santa Monica Pier, the seaside spot features sport fishing, a harbor, specialty shops and restaurants, Heal the Bay Aquarium, an amusement park and a 90-year-old carousel offering rides for under $1.
Florida’s Gulf Coast has this category wrapped up. Leatherman’s choice is Siesta Beach, located on a barrier island off the coast of Sarasota (pop. 51,917). The sand is like powdered sugar. “It’s something to behold, really,” he says. With gentle waves and a park with showers and shade trees, the beach is naturally 600 to 800 feet wide, an unchanging characteristic thanks to crescent-shaped rocks at one end of the beach that trap the sand.
Hughes prefers Santa Rosa Island near Pensacola, where the sand is “like spun sugar,” she says. “It’s not even like sandbox sand. It’s like art-craft sand. That’s how fine and soft and sparkly it is.”
Best beach for shell seekers
Both experts agree the best beach for seashell hunting is Sanibel Island, Fla. (pop. 7,287), near Cape Coral and Fort Myers Beach. “They call it the Sanibel stoop. People are always stooping over picking up shells,” Leatherman says. Just off Sanibel’s shore are huge mud banks that trap shells, and wave erosion continually releases the shells. “The best time to go is after a little storm goes through,” he adds. Don’t miss the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum in Sanibel.
Best landlocked beach
Not all great beaches are on ocean shores. Both experts agree Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Empire, Mich., has the best inland beach. “Beyond the really high dune areas are just miles and miles of lovely lake beach,” Hughes says. Towering as high as 200 feet, the dunes of Sleeping Bear offer challenging hikes up—and gleeful slides down. “The top of the dunes is great for ship watching,” Leatherman adds. In the warmer waters of the park’s streams, collectors search for Petoskey stones, pebbles of fossilized coral about the size of quarters.
Best sunset beach
California’s Pacific view wins the sunset category. Hughes likes Venice Beach, near Los Angeles, “where nature is going on and civilization is happening, too.” Leatherman prefers Coronado Beach in San Diego, where the historic Hotel del Coronado offers guests beachside seating to watch nature spectacularly end the day.
Most historic beach
Cape Cod National Seashore, near Wellfleet, Mass., gets the nod from Hughes. Cape Cod was America’s first national seashore, so named during the administration of President John F. Kennedy, who grew up sailing off its coast.
“Long before we had a culture where people felt comfortable putting on bathing suits and lying on the beach, people loved that beach with the arm that crooks out into the ocean,” Hughes says. “It’s a gorgeous beach. When I’m there, I still think about the great naturalists like Thoreau and Beston, who loved that beach and wrote so beautifully about it.” Henry David Thoreau took four walking tours of Cape Cod between 1849 and 1857 before penning Cape Cod, and Henry Beston, in his book The Outermost House, captured Cape Cod’s essence during the mid-1920s.
Leatherman bases his choice on the charm of Cape May, N.J. (pop. 3,607). “There are all those Victorian homes with the wrap-around porches, and many of them now are [bed-and-breakfasts],” he says. “This is one of the original beach towns.”
Eagles and river otters are just two reasons why Leatherman casts his vote for Rialto Beach, near Forks, Wash. The undeveloped seaside sanctuary is a hikers’ haven on the Olympic Peninsula.
California’s Point Reyes National Seashore, 30 miles north of San Francisco, gets Hughes’ vote. More than 1,000 animal and plant species inhabit the park, which is a prime spot to witness offshore whale migration. “There’s some really nice birdlife in the marshes backing onto the beaches and great tidepooling,” she adds.
Delaware beaches have the best boardwalks, both of our experts agree. Leatherman describes Rehoboth Beach as “quintessential in the sense that it’s a wood boardwalk. A lot of places that they call boardwalks now are concrete.” He adds, “There’s just something about that boardwalk—the smell of the saltwater taffy and the popcorn. It’s just, to me, the all-American boardwalk.”
Hughes doesn’t stray far; her choice is Bethany Beach, Del., just south of Rehoboth.
Best beach for surfing—and surf watching
Leatherman recommends Waimea Bay on Hawaii’s north shore of Oahu, but only in the wintertime. “To me, this is the top surfing place in the world,” he says. For Hughes, it’s Santa Cruz, Calif.
Most beautiful beach
Both experts acknowledge that this is the toughest category. Leatherman looks to Hawaii and Kapalua Bay Beach on Maui. “The little beach is less than a mile long in a crescent shape, lined by palm trees. It’s perfectly white, pearl sand with two big lava flows that anchor it,” he says. In fact, the word kapalua means “arms of the sea,” and these arms prevent big waves. Reefs are full of tropical fish.
Hughes chooses wind-swept Cape Hatteras, which actually is a bend in Hatteras Island, one of the long, thin barrier islands that make up North Carolina’s famed Outer Banks. “You feel like you’re encountering the ocean,” she says. “It’s windy, there’s a bit of surf, and you get that odd feeling that nature is bigger than you are.”
To make your beach visit even better, be careful and alert in the water. Review some of our water safety tips before your next trip.