Whether you want to snorkel in crystal-clear coves, surf the biggest breaks in the U.S., or tread along a rocky shore, there’s a spectacular U.S. beach for you. But with so many options, where should you begin?
We’ve turned to the definitive expert to round up the best-of-the-best beaches in the nation: Dr. Beach, aka Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, professor and director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University. The author of "America’s Best Beaches" and more than a dozen other books, Dr. Beach uses 50 criteria to compile his list to take the guesswork out of planning your summer beach vacation.
Here are his 2021 picks for the top 10 beaches in the U.S ... plus information on where to stay nearby for extended R&R.
10. Coast Guard Beach, Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Starting off Dr. Beach's 2021 list is Coast Guard Beach in Cape Cod. Dubbed “The Great Beach” by Henry David Thoreau, this beach is the site where the Mayflower made landfall in 1620.
The beach was formed when a sand spit attached to the glacial cliffs. Today, beachcombers can walk from the spit directly onto a barrier beach system to observe nesting plovers and terns in the summer and harbor seals in the winter. If you’re fascinated by sea life or into birdwatching, take the pathway that leads to the bicycle trail bridge to get to the adjacent marsh, where you can watch shorebirds working in the tidal flats.
What to Expect: Cape Cod, Massachusetts
While you can swim at Coast Guard Beach, the sand is coarse, it drops off quickly, and the water is chilly, so it’s better suited to surfing and quick dips than long swimming sessions.
You can access Coast Guard Beach by riding a bicycle or taking a shuttle bus from the Salt Pond Visitor’s Center.
Where to Stay at Coast Guard Beach
If you want to get the quintessential New England experience, opt for one of the nearby bed and breakfasts. Many are built in the rambling Victorian style and are pet friendly, so Fido can come too.
Built in 1870 and used as a guest house since the 1920s, Inn At the Oaks is less than two miles from the beach and is a world away from the furious pace of modern life. This inn offers a glimpse into old-world Cape Cod living and a compelling history; acclaimed nature writer Henry Beston periodically stayed here while penning “The Outermost House.”
9. Beachwalker Park, Kiawah Island, South Carolina
With 11 miles of sand, Beachwalker Park on Kiawah Island is a beachcomber’s paradise. Nestled between the Bohicket River and the Atlantic Ocean, this beach is a haven for people who love everything outdoors.
While the water isn’t clear enough for snorkeling, there’s plenty of other things to do.
What to Expect: Kiawah Island
Dr. Beach recommends a bike ride down to Captain Sam’s Inlet to view thousands of birds. You can also canoe and kayak in the tidal inlets or stroll on the boardwalk, which twists and turns through a maze of oak trees, pine trees and yucca plants.
One of the best things about Beachwalker Park: the delicious seafood that’s pulled out of its waters. Dr. Beach describes it as perfect for low-country cooking. What’s more, this beach offers the only public access on Kiawah Island, and it’s dog friendly.
If you’re in the Charleston area, it’s not to be missed.
Where to Stay at Beachwalker Park
To have a truly relaxing beach vacation with the entire family at Beachwalk, head to VRBO, where you can rent oceanfront beach homes, cottages, villas and condos for a lot less than you think.
For a more upscale experience, head to the nearby Sanctuary Hotel at Kiawah Island Golf Resort, known for — as the name suggests — superlative golf by the sea.
8. Coronado Beach, San Diego, California
While California is often associated with beaches, only one beach from the Golden State made Dr. Beach’s list.
Coronado Beach in San Diego is a tropical paradise that looks like it was plucked out of the Mediterranean and dropped on the coast of San Diego. And even though the Pacific Ocean tends to be cold, the waters at Coronado Beach are warm, calm and inviting.
What to Expect: San Diego, California
Squish your toes around in the sparkling white sand, watch ships on their way to the harbor, and enjoy a respite from the summer heat while still being treated to a view of the city.
Called the “quintessential California postcard experience” by the San Diego Tourism Authority, this picture-perfect paradise is also great for tidepool expeditions, boogie boarding, body surfing or swimming in the gentle waves.
Where to Stay at Coronado Beach
The only place to stay at Coronado Beach is the historic Hotel del Coronado, famously featured in the 1958 movie “Some Like It Hot” starring Marilyn Monroe.
Built in 1888 and designated a National Historic Landmark 89 years later, the iconic hotel looks like an elegant yet beachy English abbey. The hotel also has a reputation for being haunted, so if you’re afraid of ghosts you might want to opt for another hotel on Coronado Island.
The most talked-about spirit guest is Kate Morgan, who died at the hotel after the end of a love affair. Her experience is documented in the book “Beautiful Stranger: The Ghost of Kate Morgan and the Hotel Del Coronado.”
7. Caladesi Island State Park, Dunedin Clearwater, Florida
Secluded and serene, Caladesi Island State Park beach’s emerald-green water and soft sand invite beachgoers to relax. The beach can be accessed via ferry or private boat, or by hiking or paddling from the Clearwater inlet.
“There are boardwalk trails, but my favorite is the kayak and canoe trails through the mangroves to see the large blue herons and other birds that frequent this wonderful natural area,” Dr. Beach told The Huffington Post.
What to Expect: Caladesi Island State Park
In addition to nesting birds, the beach is filled with sea creatures. You can also search for shells along the shore, or simply sun yourself on the sugar-white sand.
If you opt to paddle or hike to Caladesi Island State Park, know that the sweat equity is worth the effort, because this beach is a salve for the tired soul. If you’re not up for the physical exertion, take the ferry from Honeymoon Island, which was physically separated from Caladesi Island during a 1921 hurricane, forming Hurricane Pass. In 1995, Hurricane Elena filled in nearby Dunedin Pass, which is why you can now walk to the island.
Where to Stay at Caladesi
While there are no hotels on Caladesi Island, nearby Coconut Villas of Dunedin is pet friendly and features both gulf and inter-coastal views. Set in a lush, tropical paradise, Coconut Villas offers free bike access to guests, two pools, a fishing dock and gas grills to serve up your daily catch. The villas are located near not only Caladesi Island, but restaurants, shopping, watersport rentals and golf courses.
If you’re looking for something a little more chic, the Hotel Cabana in Clearwater Beach is a boutique inn with Key West-inspired decor.
6. Duke Kahanamoku Beach, Oahu, Hawaii
Duke Kahanamoku Beach makes up the western and widest section of the uber-popular, 2-mile Waikiki Beach.
Named after Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, perhaps the most famous Hawaiian surfer, the beach welcomes both novice and expert surfers to ride the waves.
What to Expect: Duke Kahanamoku Beach
This picturesque beach features Diamondhead volcano in the backdrop and is actually less crowded than other parts of Waikiki Beach.
As such, it's an excellent spot for families and children, especially with the nearby Duke Kahanamoku Lagoon.
Where to Stay at Duke Kahanamoku Beach
While Kahanamoku Beach sits in front of the Hilton Hawaiian Village, we recommend checking out The Modern Honolulu, a luxury hotel that has all the design elements you'd want in a Hawaiian stay.
Think living walls of leafy botanicals and teak wood throughout that give it an earthy feel. The hotel's culinary team also prides itself on using only locally sourced ingredients like coffee roasted by Hawaiian Coffee Company and pineapple from the nearby island of Maui.
5. Lighthouse Beach, Buxton, Outer Banks of North Carolina
Located in Buxton on Hatteras Island, Lighthouse Beach is known to have the best surfing, body, skim and kite-boarding breaks on the East Coast due to its proximity to the labrador current and the gulf stream.
It’s also known for being the beach where the Wright Brothers took their historic first airplane flight.
What to Expect: Lighthouse Beach
As the name suggests, this beach formerly housed the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, which was moved further inland in 1999 after centuries of beach erosion left it in danger of being washed out to sea.
If the waves are too rough for swimming, there’s plenty to do on the sand, including collecting seashells; augers, olive shells, clam shells, mollusks, scallops and whelks are common finds.
One of the most versatile beaches on Dr. Beach’s list, Lighthouse Beach offers something for every type of beachgoer.
Where to Stay at Lighthouse Beach
Settle in at the Cape Hatteras Bed & Breakfast, a 1960s hotel that was converted into a charming B&B in the 1990s. Choose from eight rooms, all with private entrances and bathrooms, and mingle with other guests on the communal sun decks and porches. This B&B also offers an ever-changing breakfast menu so you can try something different every day.
If you want to be right on the beach, the Cape Hatteras Motel is frequently rated as a top beachfront accommodation.
4. St. George Island State Park, Florida Panhandle
This long barrier island takes you away from the hustle and bustle of nearby Panama City into a world all its own.
The crystal-clear water is perfect for swimming, while bird watchers will enjoy the wildlife that calls this area home.
What to Expect: St. George Island State Park
Even though this beach suffered in 2018 after being hit hard from Hurricane Michael, Dr. Beach says that the area — and "especially the sugary fine, white sand beach" — has since recovered.
He recommends exploring the entire 2,023-acre park, especially for those who enjoy beachcombing and shelling.
Where to Stay at St. George Island State Park
There are not many properties on St. George Island itself. For larger resorts, you'll have to stay farther away in Panama City.
St. George Inn, however, is a quaint Southern property — think wrap-around porches with rocking chairs — that is just a short distance from the beach and fishing piers. It's the definite choice for guests who want easy and convenient access to the area's amenities.
3. Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach, Outer Banks of North Carolina
Ocracoke Lifeguard Beach is the best beach you’ve never heard of. Dr. Beach notes that this beach is rumored to be the former home of Blackbeard the Pirate, and as a North Carolina native, he rates it as his personal favorite.
For surfers who can’t get to California or Hawaii, Ocracoke Lifeguard Beach offers some of the best surf breaks on the east coast. While Ocracoke Island is the largest island in the Outer Banks, it’s also the most remote. If you truly want to feel like you’re marooned on a secluded island, this is the place to go.
What to Expect: Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach
“As with a gently sloping ocean floor, vacationers can typically walk out into the ocean for yards before it gets to be too deep, and with a limited population, it's entirely possible to find a stretch of beach all to yourself, even in the peak of summer,” the Outer Banks’ website notes.
A prescription for peace and quiet, Ocracoke can soothe your stressful mind and allow you to slide sand in between your tired toes while enjoying one of the most unspoiled stretches of sand in the country.
Where to Stay at Ocracoke Beach
Whether you want to rent a beach house, hole up at a hotel, or engage in some rustic camping, Ocracoke Island has you covered. Head to the Outer Banks’ website for a full list of campgrounds and hotels.
Beachfront properties include the affordable Hilton Garden Inn Outer Banks, featuring a private balcony in every guest room. Rental options range from family-friendly to romantic, all within striking distance of the water.
2. Coopers Beach, Southampton, New York
Looking to sun yourself in the Hamptons this summer?
Aside from being a top 10 beach on Dr. Beach’s list, Coopers Beach in Southampton has also been called one of seven places in New York that could pass for the Caribbean by Only In Your State.
What to Expect: Coopers Beach
“As the first ‘Gold Coast’ in the country, Coopers Beach is hundreds of yards wide, made of grainy white quartz sand,” Dr. Beach notes on his website. “The beach is backed by large sand dunes covered by American beach grass interspersed with large and extravagant mansions.”
Coopers Beach, located close to Southampton Village, is a popular summer escape for city dwellers. The beach is described as quiet and serene, and it features clean restrooms and a fully stocked snack bar.
Where to Stay at Coopers Beach
You’ll want to stay close to the beach to avoid the exorbitant parking fees; you can also catch a shuttle to the beach from Southampton Village.
The 10 hotels closest to Coopers Beach range from under $200 to almost $1,000 a night. Another option is renting an Airbnb. If you’re heading to Coopers Beach during the week, you can stay at the Southampton Inn (just a mile from the beach) for a special weekday rate. As a bonus, some of the rooms are dog friendly.
1. Hapuna Beach State Park, Big Island, Hawaii
While Maui often gets all of the love when it comes to Hawaiian beaches, Hapuna Beach State Park on the Big Island is also flanked by crystal-clear waters that are perfect for snorkeling and scuba diving.
Unusual for the Big Island — which is known for its black-sand beaches created from volcanic lava — this beach also boasts pristine white sand, earning it a top spot on this year's list.
What to Expect: Hapuna Beach State Park
Hapuna earns top marks for its affordability and accessibility as well; it costs just $5 to park, and you’ll have access to concessions, picnic areas, restrooms and showers. There are lifeguards on duty, and you can rent boogie boards, beach chairs, umbrellas and snorkeling gear.
Because of its reputation as one of the world’s best beaches, you’ll likely run into crowds during high season, but Hapuna is still well worth a visit. (Just make sure to visit in the summer, because winter brings high waves and dangerous rip tides.)
Where to Stay at Hapuna Beach
Get the most of Hapuna by opting to rent one of the four-person A-frame shelters inside the state park. A step up from camping but not quite glamping, you’ll get a screened-in room with wooden sleeping platforms and a picnic table, starting at just $30 a night.
If you’re after a warm shower and other creature comforts, The Westin Hapuna Beach Resort hugs the Pacific coastline, is newly renovated and features three restaurants. You’ll have easy access to the beach and Turtle Point, one of the Big Island’s top snorkeling spots, where you’re likely to observe sea turtles and bright, colorful reef fish.
Honorable Mention: Grayton Beach State Park Florida Panhandle
The Panhandle is Florida’s best-kept secret. While Grayton Beach State Park didn't make the top 10 list this year, it was actually the national winner in 2020, which is why we believe it deserves an honorable mention.
Nestled between towering sand dunes, Grayton Beach State Park, between Panama City and Destin, offers a sugar-white-sand beach accented by emerald-green water, gold-tinted sunrises, vibrant sunsets and moonlit evenings.
What to Expect: Grayton Beach State Park
In addition to sunning yourself on the beach, you can hit the hiking trails, bike through the forest, try your hand at both saltwater and freshwater fishing, and kayak or canoe on the beach-adjacent freshwater lake.
Featuring fresh, fast food and live music, The Red Bar is touted as a must for anyone visiting the area. The best part is that you can walk to and from Grayton Beach State Park when you exit through the back door.
Where to Stay at Grayton Beach
For travelers who relish rustic accommodations, Grayton Beach State Park offers 59 campsites that are some of the best along the gulf coast. Each campsite has electricity and running water, some have RV hookups, and all are pet friendly.
For those who don’t want to get quite so up close and personal with nature, the park also has cabins for rent that are top-rated on TripAdvisor. Nestled in the forest, but a stone’s throw from the beach, cabins can accommodate up to six people, and come complete with fireplaces, cooking utensils, screened-in porches, outdoor grills, central air and heat, and outdoor grills.
You can also opt to stay outside of the park; the South Walton Community Website features a list of rental options from cottages to beachfront homes.
Honorable Mention: Kapalua Bay Beach, Maui, Hawaii
Pack your bags for paradise, otherwise known as Kapalua Bay Beach on the northwest side of Maui, which regularly tops Dr. Beach’s list and was the national winner in 2018.
Once you arrive, snorkel and swim through crystal-clear water inside a relaxing cove bookended by two headlands formed by volcanic lava flowing into the sea. If you’ve never been snorkeling, Kapalua Bay will ruin you for all snorkeling experiences, but it’s absolutely worth it.
What to Expect: Kapalua Bay Beach
According to the Hawaii Snorkeling blog, snorkelers are likely to swim among butterfly fish, parrot fish, damsel fish, surgeon fish, moorish idol, tang, wrasse, box fish, perch, chub, trigger fish, the former Hawaii State Fish Humuhumunukunukuapuaa, goat fish, porcupine fish, hawk fish, scorpion fish, jacks, cornet fish, crustaceans and invertebrates.
When you’re back on dry land, warm your toes in the silky white sand while breathing in the cool salty air.
Where to Stay at Kapalua Beach
If you’re seeking an eco-friendly experience that doesn’t skimp on luxury, Kapalua Resort is the only place to stay. Surrounded by the protected West Maui rainforest and two marine sanctuaries, this resort stakes claim to being home of exotic species found nowhere else on the planet.
Kapalua Resort offers three options for accomodations: The Kapalua Villas, luxury condominiums with both ocean and mountain views; The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua; and the oceanfront Montage Kapalua Bay.
For travelers on a budget, the Kaanapali Ocean Inn is a 5-mile drive from Kapalua Bay Beach, but it’s still beachfront as it’s located on Kaanapali Beach.