Best Beaches for Kids
When you're young and free, the beach-going checklist looks something like this: warm sand, swimmable water, sunny skies.
But once you become a parent, well, things become a bit more complicated.
As an expert travel writer, I’ve visited all but a handful of states in the U.S., and have wandered along some amazing beaches. But once I became a mom, I had to add more filters to my search for the perfect beach. My kids may only think of which beach has the best waves, but I need to consider things like lifeguards, nearby restrooms, play areas, umbrellas to block the sun and food options nearby.
Which beaches have I found to be the best for beach-lovers that also offer the amenities parents need? The following is your surefire list of go-tos.
Beaches of South Walton, Florida
South Walton is made up of 26 miles of "singing beaches," with sand so soft and fine it literally squeaks as you walk on it.
There are 16 different communities in South Walton, with the main stretch of road comprised of two sand-strewn lanes known as 30-A. This road passes through quaint and colorful neighborhoods such as Rosemary Beach, Watercolor and Seaside, the latter of which stood in for utopia in the Jim Carrey film, “The Truman Show.” With tin houses, white-picket fences and pastel-colored cottages, families can rent homes within steps of the beaches, which nestle the emerald-green waters off the Gulf of Mexico.
The beaches in South Walton dip into the mid-40s during the winter months, but otherwise will range between the 60s and 90s from spring through fall. The water is warm and calm, so little ones can happily splash in the water without being overpowered by waves.
Each village has snack and food shops, as well as public restrooms near the shore, and the area is hiring additional lifeguards as more and more people discover its still-uncrowded beaches. In areas without lifeguard chairs, guards on jet skis and ATVs patrol the beaches and water.
Gulf Shores, Alabama
The same squeaky-soft sand found along the Florida Panhandle extends into Alabama's Gulf Shores. Ignore any negative "Redneck Riviera" nickname you may have heard: These beaches are amazing!
There are 32 miles of white-sand beaches along the Gulf Shores, with emerald-green and warm Gulf of Mexico waters for kids to enjoy. You'll find 10 public-access ways to the wide beaches; they never get too crowded, and each area has public restrooms, showers and nearby dining. At many fresh, local seafood spots, shrimp is the tasty main feature.
You can rent bicycles, kayaks, stand-up paddle boards, boogie boards and surfboards along the coastline, which can be delivered to the many beach vacation rentals that are popular with families. Plus, the city of Gulf Shores just invested $15 million to renovate its public beach area, which includes a boardwalk where festivals and events take place throughout the year.
Green spaces and walking paths were added in 2018, connecting the city and its beaches to the neighboring Gulf State Park, which has its own beaches, along with lots of space for kids to explore.
Those of us who grew up on the Atlantic Coast beaches of Florida never complained – but given a choice on where we would go for a vacation, most of us crossed the state to enjoy the Gulf Coast beaches, where the water is warmer, clearer, cleaner and simply prettier. Beaches in Southwest Florida, in particular, are less crowded, providing an escape from city bustle.
Clearwater has its share of high-rises but still feels peaceful, and is one of the most family-friendly beaches in the country. Here, the sugar-white sand is as soft as powder – your child could be covered in it and not feel any grit. Its consistency also makes for the best sandcastles, which is why the area hosts an annual Sugar Sand Festival in the spring, featuring sand sculptures by artists from around the world.
Clearwater’s Pier 60 offers restrooms and food options, as well as fishing for all ages. Lifeguards perched in chairs patrol the beaches and ensure peace of mind. You’ll find plentiful beach chairs, umbrella and cabana rentals, ample beach parking and picnic areas. And don't forget to bring some pails: This area is also known for its abundant sea shells.
Along the five-mile Beach Walk, you can bike, run and walk, as well as find shops filled with beach toys and gear, and restaurants serving up fresh seafood from the Gulf.
San Diego Beaches, California
California’s 840 miles of coastline is the warmest at its southern end, where San Diego awaits. In the Greater San Diego area, there are a few beaches that are standouts for families, including Mission Beach and Coronado Beach.
This boho mom grew up around surfing, and Mission Beach is filled with surfing, kite boarding and boogie boarding, with equipment rentals for traveling families. Lifeguard stations and restaurants are both plentiful, as well.
The Mission Beach Boardwalk, extending three miles, provides a paved stretch of beachfront path for biking and strolling, flanked by tons of shops and restaurants. At Belmont Park, kids can ride a small roller coaster and bumper cars, play mini golf, give rock-climbing a go and enjoy old-fashioned arcade games.
In nearby Coronado, home to the famous Hotel del Coronado red-roofed hotel, families will find a less-crowded and expansive beach nearly two miles in length. Ranked by many travel publications and websites as one of the best beaches in the country, it includes showers, restrooms, picnic areas, lifeguards and a playground. The lifeguard stations even offer beach wheelchair rentals.
Huntington Beach, California
Farther up the coast in Orange County, there are tons of beautiful beaches. One of the best in this SoCal area is Huntington Beach, where 8.5 miles of wonderfully groomed sand awaits. Nicknamed “Surf City,” this is a wave-jumpers’ paradise, and kids old enough to enjoy the surf can boogie board and learn to surf, with many shops selling gear and offering rentals.
This wide beach is separated from town by a paved boardwalk and wide streets, making the beaches quiet and much less crowded than those found in the neighboring Los Angeles area. A pier offers fishing, with shops and restaurants clustered in its vicinity.
Main Beach, which extends from Beach Boulevard to Sea Point Avenue, is protected by lifeguards year-round. This stretch also offers multiple restrooms and showers, as well as 100 free fire rings that families can use to create beach bonfires on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Not only can you enjoy the beach during the day, but with s’mores kits in your totes, you can stay well past the stunning sunset and watch the stars come out over the Pacific Ocean.
Outer Banks, North Carolina
Most of North Carolina’s coastline is made up of the Outer Banks barrier islands. Some are 80 miles long, while others are just a few miles in length.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore, managed by the National Park Service, occupies 70 miles of Outer Banks coastline, with camping available right on the beaches. The entire stretch is sleepy, low-key and ideal for families looking to enjoy a vacation of beach simplicity.
Beach towns in the Outer Banks include Corolla, home to wild horses living on the shore; Kitty Hawk, where the Wright Brothers first took flight; and Ocracoke, which is filled with shops and restaurants on its harbor.
As Atlantic Coast beaches, ocean waves range from mild to massive. In Nags Head, visit the Surf Shop and enroll the kids in surf lessons. If the waves get to be too much, your little ones can climb the sand dunes, play mini golf, visit an aquarium or fish – there’s plenty to do here.
When you do spend the day on the sand, 17 of the beaches and recreation areas are protected by lifeguards between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and multiple public restroom facilities are scattered about the beaches, as well.
In the heart of the small island towns, shops sell snacks and beach gear, and water-sport rentals are provided by numerous companies that will deliver equipment directly to your vacation rental. (The vast majority of accommodation options here are beach rentals.)
Kiawah Island, South Carolina
South Carolina gives its northern neighbor a run for its money with its beaches. While Hilton Head may be the most famous of beach areas in the state, the underrated Kiawah Island should be on your radar. Beachwalker Beach, the main beach, even made it to the top of Dr. Beach’s annual list of best beaches.
The island features 10 miles of beaches, just minutes away from Charleston. You can combine a historic vacation to the city with a beachfront trip staying at the beautiful, sprawling Kiawah Island Resort and take advantage of all its kid-friendly amenities. Should you stay at the resort, Kamp Kiawah offers children’s programming, and the entire family can rent bikes, paddle boards and kayaks. Beach toys, games, chairs and umbrellas are also available for the resort’s private stretch of beach.
There are plenty of vacation rentals to select from on Kiawah, as well. If you are not staying at the resort, Beachwalker Beach is a year-round country park with a boardwalk and picnic areas. Nearby Folly Beach is also popular for families due to its 25-foot-wide pier for fishing and great views. During the seasonal months, you’ll find umbrella and beach-chair rentals available at both beaches, along with snack bars, restrooms and lifeguards on duty.
Cape Cod, Massachusetts
In New England, 560 miles of coastline along Cape Cod have appeared in numerous “best of” lists for beaches: Dr. Beach, USA Today, Family Vacation Critic and readers’ choice polls alike. I loved these beaches so much that I moved to the Cape for a spell, sampling all of the beaches with my little ones in tow.
A favorite for many is Wellfleet’s Cahoon Beach, bordered by massive sandy dunes. While the beach is fantastic and offers beachfront dining at The Beachcomber, families with younger kids may want to skip it since hiking up and down the dunes with gear is difficult for small legs. Coast Guard Beach in nearby Eastham is a better option, although a bit more crowded. Part of the Cape Cod National Seashore, the beach lacks nearby parking and instead offers a shuttle.
If you want to enjoy the Cape with little kids, the local favorite is Brewster Flats. Facing Cape Cod Bay, you’ll avoid the monster waves that can generate on the Atlantic. And because these are tidal flats, your kids can run and splash in low-tide waters that become perfect for shell-seeking. Kids can dig for clams and find rocks and shells for their collection.
But the “secret” and actual best beach here is Nauset Beach. A portion of the beach is available for visitors, but if you really want an amazing experience, take a left at the parking left and, once you've secured a permit to do so, drive on the sand to a remote spot where few congregate. Pack up snacks and lunch in a cooler – and bring chairs, towels, umbrellas and beach toys – to be set for a day on what feels like your own private stretch of paradise.
Of course, Hawaii’s beautiful islands should find a spot on your must-see list, with gorgeous beaches at every turn. Trying to select a favorite is a tough choice: the North Shore beaches of Oahu are fantastic for surfing, while Hapuna Beach on the main island is so natural that sea turtles are a common sight.
But for families in particular, Maui's beaches can't be beat.
Wailea’s stretch of beach resorts on white sands are very easy for parents to enjoy with young kids. For the pure wonder of it, even better is the stunning Black Sand Beach at Maui’s Waianapanapa State Park. In order to get to the beach, you must drive the famed Road to Hana, a 64-mile stretch of curving, winding two-lane roads through Maui’s rainforests. Filled with waterfalls, the drive is incredibly scenic and promises plenty of “ooh” and “aah” moments.
When you get to mile marker 32, pull off into Waianapanapa State Park, where the jewel of beaches can be found. You’ll walk through lava tubes to get to the black-as-night sand beaches that border on water so blue you’ll waste half your camera memory taking pictures.
While you are visiting the park, you can swim in freshwater pools; hike on easy, family-friendly trails through the rainforest; and picnic on one of numerous tables. Restrooms are available, but restaurants are not. To spend a day at this beach and park, you’ll want to load up the rental car with plenty of snacks, drinks and lunch.
Jersey Shore, New Jersey
Living in Pennsylvania, my family has explored the Jersey Shore beaches from top to bottom and our favorite is Cape May, at the very tip of the shoreline. Here, Victorian houses with wraparound porches cover the nearly three square miles of land, and most use bicycles to navigate around – it’s as if you have stepped into the past!
There are 2.5 miles of beaches to enjoy, with the eastern-facing beaches serving as the lounging areas and those to the south more rugged and ideal for exploration. Regardless of which you choose, the beaches are wide, clean and filled with kids for newfound friendships. Plus you’ll find restrooms and restaurants within steps of the ocean.
When not soaking up the sun, the three-block pedestrian Washington Street provides boutique shopping, dining and, another must, ice cream. Cape May is also a short drive to the resort city of Wildwood, where a classic Jersey boardwalk offers ample fun and games. Here, Morey’s Pier amusement park features rides for kids of different ages, as well as a water park and even more beaches to enjoy.
Another perk? The boardwalk doesn’t sell alcohol, so you don't have to worry about the “Jersey Shore” TV-show antics you may have been worrying about.
Just a ferry-ride away from Cape May is Delaware's own answer to a family-friendly beachfront: Rehoboth Beach. This beach touts its own Victorian charm, plus free beach-bandstand concerts and events like 4th of July fireworks throughout the summer. A one-mile-long wooden boardwalk features the Funland amusement park and tons of restaurants and shopping.
This stretch of sand has appeared on Dr. Beach's list of great beaches. Parents will love that it is littered with lifeguard stands, including a headquarters station right on the Boardwalk. Public restrooms are also plentiful.
Just south of all of the action is the one-mile Dewey Beach, which juts out between the Atlantic Ocean and Rehoboth Bay for less-crowded adventures and more privacy at the edge of the water. North of Rehoboth is Cape Henlopen State Park, as well as Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge Beach, for off-beach hikes and exploration.
Ocean City, Maryland
Regularly appearing on TripAdvisor’s top 10 beaches list – voted by readers – Ocean City is beloved for a reason: It’s a family beach through and through. With groomed and clean beaches stretching 10 miles, eight sets of restrooms, and lifeguards patrolling and sitting guard, you’ll be able to rest comfortably knowing the kids are in good hands.
When not building sandcastles, you can explore the three-mile boardwalk on foot or by bike, and play at its boardwalk arcade filled with rides, games, shopping and dining. The Travel Chanel, "USA Today" and "National Geographic" have ranked the boardwalk as one of the best in the country.
Of course, as at any good beach town, you’ll also find all of the rentals you need to have the perfect vacation, from gear like bikes and boogie boards to accommodations like condos and cottages.