There's no shortage of breathtaking beaches in the USA. From the island paradise of Hawaii to Cape May in New Jersey, here's our rundown of the best beaches in the USA.
The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guide to the USA, your essential guide for visiting the USA.
One of the best beaches in the USA? For most Americans, the answer is simple: Hawaii. For the quintessential sandy escape, spend a day at Makena Beach – also called Big Beach – on Maui, where screensaver-worthy golden sands unfold along bright blue waters. Take a dip, snorkel the offshore reefs, or go body surfing. The sloping beach has a strong shore break, which makes for ideal surf conditions.
Hawaii is not a state of mind, but a state of grace – Paul Theroux, Travel writer
Poipu, Kauai’s largest beach resort, lies on the south coast ten miles west of Lihue, where sunshine is more consistent and there’s great surfing and snorkelling. Two of Hawaii’s major scenic attractions – the gorge of Waimea Canyon, and Kokee State Parkway up at its far end – can only be reached from the west coast of Kauai.
The shoreline itself, however, is nondescript. Waimea, the largest town, is just one short street at the foot of the poorly marked road up to the canyon. The statue of Captain Cook, which commemorates his “discovery” of Hawaii here on January 20, 1778, is a replica of one in Cook’s home town of Whitby, England.
Explore Hawaii's Garden Isle with a guide and see some of the shooting locations of Hollywood's biggest blockbusters, including Jurassic Park. Visit some of the most beautiful movies sets on Kauai.
Many of California’s beaches are famous for their human elements – the surfers of Huntington Beach or the sunbathers in their string bikinis at Santa Monica Beach. But Big Sur is all about the stunning natural elements, which are revealed around every bend, from the rugged rock arch that rises mightily out of the sea to the gently curving sands that sparkle under the sun.
Every time I come, I'm still amazed at the breadth California has. Big Sur, Yosemite, the desert... I love it - Theo James, Actor
This is Miami in all its sun-soaked, celebrity-thronged, Art Deco glory. By day, bronzed beachgoers pose and play on the silky sands, and by night, they do the same in the thumping dance clubs.
Miami is one of these great places that is a sensual, physically beautiful place - Michael Mann, Film director
Also, explore our guide to the best places to stay in Miami and find your perfect accommodation option in South Beach.
Much of the northern section of Sand Key, the longest barrier island in the St Petersburg chain, and one of the wealthier portions of the coast, is taken up by stylish condos and time-share apartments. The island terminates in the pretty Sand Key Park, where tall palm trees frame a silky strip of shoreline.
The park occupies one bank of Clearwater Pass, across which a belt of sparkling white sands marks the holiday town of Clearwater Beach, where a condo boom has all but obliterated the small-town feel.
Small-town coastal charm, wild Atlantic beaches, lighthouses – and even some wild horses: the Outer Banks is North Carolina’s version of the Riviera. Families flock to this string of barrier islands, which is filled with kid-friendly fun. Little and big kids will love playing in the sand and surfing, as well as exploring aquariums and lighthouses.
Cape May may be right down the coast from the Jersey Shore – the land of big hair and spray tans – but it feels worlds apart. And history has a lot to do with it. Elegant Cape May, at the southernmost end of the Jersey Shore, where the Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic, is one of the oldest coastal resorts in the country and has one of the best beaches in the USA.
Wind your way through stately Victorian homes, visit the 1859 Cape May Lighthouse, take in the fading light of day with your toes curled in the sand, and then hit the seafood shacks where you can dunk fresh lobster in bowls of melted butter.
In the Florida Keys, the allure is as much what’s below the water’s surface as above it. Bring the snorkel equipment and a sense of adventure: the underwater corals are populated by brilliantly coloured tropical fish, swaying sea plants, and crustaceans.
Among the top spots are Bahia Honda State Park, Key Largo, and Biscayne Bay. Toast your adventures with a beachside margarita (or three) – and stop by Key West where the nightlife rivals its sea life.
Nantucket is a shining example of what enthusiastic preservationists can achieve. This tiny island off Cape Cod is a bastion of beautifully maintained New England charm, with cobblestone streets, artisan shops, warmly weathered seafood joints, a handsome harbour bobbing with gleaming yachts – and most importantly, 110 miles of sandy coastline, which is entirely free and open to the public.
Baker Beach, which unfolds on the windswept shores of the San Francisco peninsula, is most famous for what looms over it: the Golden Gate Bridge. Sure, you’ll probably need to throw on a light sweater to stave off the infamous San Francisco chill, but the reward is a rendering down in the soft sand while gazing up at the famously orange bridge arching against the bright blue sky.
One day if I go to heaven... I'll look around and say, it ain't bad, but it ain't San Francisco - Herb Caen, Journalist
Find more accommodation options to stay with our guide to the best areas to stay in San Francisco.
Haystack Rock, rising out of the Pacific, has become the symbol of Cannon Beach on the Oregon coast. The relaxed, stylish town of Cannon Beach is crammed with cute boutiques, wine bars, and cafés, while the offshore rocks and cliffs are home to all manner of sea birds, including the beloved tufted puffins. Cannon Beach also hosts one of the country’s oldest sandcastle festivals in June.
Not all the best beaches in the USA are on the sea. Lake Michigan is lined with splendid beaches, including the sandy strips in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. This lush park stretches for 35 miles on Michigan’s eastern coast, and also in the North and South Manitou islands. Sunbathe on the beach, and then explore the rest of the park, which is filled with hiking trails, sand dunes, and bike paths.
There is a gentleness in Michigan that you just can't replicate – Jennifer Granholm, Politician
After the bustle of Cape Cod’s towns, the Cape Cod National Seashore really does come as a proverbial breath of fresh air. These protected lands, spared by President Kennedy from the development further south, take up virtually the entire Atlantic side of the Cape, from Chatham north to Provincetown. Most of the way you can park by the road, and strike off across the dunes to windswept, seemingly endless beaches.
Displays and movies at the main Salt Pond Visitor Center, on US-6 just north of Eastham, trace the geology and history of the Cape. A road and a hiking and cycling trail head east to the sands of Coast Guard Beach and Nauset Light Beach, both of which offer excellent swimming.
With more than ten miles of broad Atlantic beach and hordes of visitors, Ocean City is Maryland’s number-one summer resort, accessible across the Eastern Shore via US-50. There’s a lively, three-mile-long one of the best beaches in the USA, along which are numerous fast-food and trinket vendors hawking their wares, and a pair of amusement parks with the usual carnival-style thrill rides.
A few miles south of Brunswick, Jekyll Island was originally bought in 1887 for use as an exclusive “club” by a group of millionaires including the Rockefellers, the Pulitzers, the Macys and the Vanderbilts. Their opulent residences, known as “cottages”, are still standing, surrounded by natural habitats that are legislated to remain forever wild.
Located within Jekyll Island State Park, Driftwood Beach is one of the most popular beaches in the USA among nature lovers. Thanks to its secluded location and serene atmosphere, the beach is an ideal place to relax, meditate and enjoy the beauty of nature. More than half of Jekyll Island is undeveloped, and activities including biking, swimming and horseback riding abound.
More ideas for travelling in the USA can be found in our guide to the best things to do in the USA.
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