T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park in Port St. Joe, Florida.
Photograph by John Kernick
America's Best Beaches
Grab the sunscreen and leave your cares behind. Here are 40 inviting public shores for every occasion, offered up by the world's foremost "beachologist."
For Stephen P. Leatherman, an environmental scholar, a day at the beach is a day on the job. Known to millions as “Dr. Beach,” Leatherman swims not only in academic waters but also the mainstream: He rates America's beaches, and his ratings get reported far and wide. A Florida International University professor with a doctorate in coastal sciences, Leatherman is a man obsessed with sand, salt water, and recreation.
“Beaches represent nature at its most accessibly intriguing. Mountains are grand, but static. Beaches are dynamicalways changing. Sand is in constant flux, propelled by the energy of waves. And the beach experience is sensual, all rhythm, salt air, openness, and crashing waves,” says Leatherman, whose love of sand seems ingrained. “When I was growing up, my parents believed that each family should have an amusement for neighborhood kids. Others had tree houses or basketball hoops; I had the biggest sandbox in Charlotte, North Carolina.”
To produce his annual list of America's best beaches, Leatherman designed a rating system. Fifty criteriaincluding sand softness, water temperature and clarity, number of sunny days per year, size of breaking waves, lifeguards, pests, and pollutionare rated on a five-point scale to help determine the best beaches for walking, surfing, family swimming, and more. “My rating system is scientific, but it also represents 50 ways to love a beach. If only all of life could be this rewarding,” he says. “But I'm still searching for the perfect beach.”
Top 10 Beaches
America's Best: 2002
National Winner: T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, FL Extending nine miles from the Florida Panhandle, in Port St. Joe, this beach is framed by dunes and forests (with campsites and cabins). Emerald water laps against some of the whitest quartz-crystal sand in the world. Herons and egrets call this spit home; dolphins dip and dive along the coastline.
2. Hanalei Beach, Kauai, HI
Most Hawaiian beaches are short; Hanalei is a two-mile crescent of white coral sand in the mouth of a valley. In summer the water is sparkly calm, and year-round the village of Hanalei is a riot of cafés and inns. The film South Pacific was shot primarily on adjoining Lumahai Beach.
3. Ka`anapali, Maui, HI
Anchored by a black volcanic cone and lined with palms and tropical plants, this beach on Maui's sunnier, drier side features wave-taming sandbars. The best swimming (in the lee of flows) is on Ka`anapali, near the Sheraton Maui hotel.
4. Fort De Soto Park, FL
The shallow water around these five islands (which cover 1,136 acres) is the main attraction. Schools of silvery game fish (tarpon and kingfish) are visible from the shore; two fishing piers and 235 campsites add to the fun.
5. Caladesi Island State Park, FL
You'll need to take a ferry from Honeymoon Island to get to this island, 30 miles west of Tampa. White beaches and dunes, Gulf waters, diving pelicans, and a pirate-filled past all are part of the story.
6. Ocracoke Island, NC
Blackbeard the pirate anchored on this Outer Banks island, still an uncommercialized escape. Locals number in the hundreds. The village closest to the wild beaches is a treat of oak trees, wee streets, and cozy eateries.
7. Hamoa Beach, Maui, HI
James Michener called this the world's most perfect beach; 4,000-foot-high cliffs, flame-red bromeliads, and gray sand beachesa scenic backdrop for luausadd up to a near perfect Polynesian portrait.
8. East Hampton Main Beach, NY
A 300-year-old easement protects this broad coastline from tacky development. The stretch of coarse sand along Main Beach, abutted by grassy dunes, attracts both celebrities and hoi polloi.
9. Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, FL
Escape the Miami scene and go seven miles south to the tip of tranquil Key Biscayne. Join hungry beach strollers for gourmet fish fare at the Lighthouse Café.
10. Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, Oahu, HI
Be at this palm-studded crater by 9 a.m. to beat the crowds attracted by gold coral sand, sapphire water, and 420 species of tropical reef fish that swim along with you.
Previous National Winners
2001 Poipu Beach Park, Kauai, Hawaii
2000 Mauna Kea Beach, Big Island, Hawaii
1999 Wailea Bay Beach, Maui, Hawaii
1998 Kailua Beach Park, Oahu, Hawaii
1997 Hulopoe, Lanai, Hawaii
1996 Lanikai Beach, Oahu, Hawaii
1995 St. Andrews State Recreation Area, Florida
1994 Grayton Beach State Park, Florida
1993 Hapuna, Big Island, Hawaii
1992 Bahia Honda State Recreation Area, Florida
1991 Kapalua Bay Beach, Maui, Hawaii
The Best of the Rest
Cannon Beach, OR
Kite flying, sand-castle building, and gawking at 235-foot Haystack Rock (rising from the sea) are the primary pastimes along this seven-mile stretch of sand.
Carpinteria State Beach, CA
A natural offshore breakwater softens the surf's temper on this coast, which makes for a calming escape from frenetic Los Angeles, to the south.
Coast Guard Beach, MA
Massachusetts's best beaches line the 30-mile Cape Cod National Seashore. This one, in Eastham (accessible by foot, bike, or car), is a spit attached to eroding glacial cliffs.
Long Beach Island, NJ
Wide beaches, bike rentals, Victorian inns, and Barnegat Lighthouse (on the north end) make this 18-mile barrier island a prime mid-Atlantic draw.
Rehoboth Beach, DE
Crowds flock to miniature golf, arcades, and saltwater-taffy shops (Dolle's Candyland is the best)all near the mile-long boardwalk.
Carmel Beach, CA
Sand dunes topped with cypress trees frame this crescent coast. The water may be chilly, but nearby Carmel-by-the-Sea is a warm-spirited beach town.
Coronado Beach, CA
This sweeping San Diego-area mica-sand beach glints in the sun. View Navy ships and, 19 miles offshore, the Coronado Islands.
Grayton Beach State Park, FL
Brackish lakes and ponds lie between the crystalline water and cafés of this panhandle destination; each autumn, migrating monarch butterflies flutter by.
Hammocks Beach State Park, NC
This forested park on small Bear Island can be reached only by boatunless, that is, you are one of the endangered loggerhead sea turtles that nest here.
Kailua Beach Park, Oahu, HI
Mountains rise in the distance of this 30-acre park; windsurfers and kite surfers provide local color.
Cumberland Island National Seashore, GA
A ferry takes you to Georgia's largest barrier island. Maritime forests conceal bird rookeries, and alligator holes abound.
Highland Light Beach, MA
Blue clay is the treasure that potters collect from the continually eroding 100-foot-high cliffs of this Cape Cod beach. Visit the historic lighthouse, which was moved inland five years ago.
Jasper Beach, ME
In Machiasport, close to Canada, this beach is better for eagle-viewing than hiking; the rocks make for slippery footing.
Kalalau Beach, Kauai, HI
It takes a rocky hike, boat ride, or sea-kayak trip to get to this Na Pali Coast State Park beach, where prismatic waterfalls sprinkle down from high cliffs.
Rialto Beach, WA
Hike 1.5 miles along this driftwood-strewn Olympic National Park shore and play among the towering sea stacks, tidal pools, and a surf-carved tunnel called Hole-in-the-Wall.
Bandon Beach, OR
Semi-precious gemstones like agate and jasper are washed ashore by winter storms, along with Japanese glass floats and various other seaborne treasures.
Calvert Cliffs State Park, MD
These eroding cliffs along the Chesapeake Bay hold some 600 species of million-year-old fossils; bones and seashells crown the sands.
Caspersen Beach, FL
Snorkel the depths of this stretch of Venice shoreline, near Sarasota, and find black shark's teeth, shells, fossilized bones, and more.
Point Reyes National Seashore, CA
North of San Francisco, this peninsula is ideal for watching migrating gray whales and sifting sand to spot grains of granite and quartz.
Sanibel Island, FL
Sand dollars, scallops, whelks, fighting conchs, and other shells are among the gems that wash ashore on this barrier island, especially after winter storms.
Cape Hatteras Beach, NC
The southern flank of Hatteras boasts the highest wave energy on the East Coast. But there's more: Anglers love fall here, when bluefish and mackerel make their runs.
Ditch Plains Beach, NY
Long Island's easternmost end (especially here, in Montauk) packs sea cliffs along the shore, almost always uncrowded sand, warm water in late summer and early autumn, and ocean swells that roll in from the south to create grand (albeit famously unpredictable) Atlantic waves.
Huntington Beach, CA
This is “Surf City U.S.A.,” site of major waves (though chilly water requires a wet suit). The International Surfing Museum is here, and during full-moon tides from March to August it's the place to see the running of the grunionsmall, shimmery fish that lay eggs on the beach.
Seaside Beach, OR
South of the Columbia River, Oregon's original beach resort is a mix of art galleries, shops, and an aquariumall along a two-mile boardwalk. Brave surfers dig this spot for its substantial waves, though the water is cold.
Waimea Bay, Oahu, HI
Known for the largest ridable surfing waves on the planet (typically 20 to 30 feet in winter, though waves can peak at 40 feet), Waimea Bay is surprisingly swimmable in the summertime. Hike the hills in winter to watch the surfers.
Atlantic City, NJ
Equally garish and amusing, this busy beach attracts gamblers and gawkers galore. The wide shores provide safe swimming.
Ocean City, MD
Crabcake sandwiches, a shark exhibit, honky-tonks, and trolley rides add up to One Big Party.
Ocean City, NJ
For over 100 years, folks have headed here for salt air, swims, snacks, and tunes (at the Music Pier).
Santa Cruz, CA
A huge indoor arcade and cool rides, including a wooden roller coaster, make Santa Cruz a beach boardwalk bonanza.
Virginia Beach, VA
This three-mile pedestrian highway can feel frenzied; a walk beside the tide offers serene tonic.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published, but we suggest you confirm all details before making travel plans.