Get ready to dig your toes in the sand: From white strands to secret coves, we've found the ultimate spots by the shore, plus fabulous lodging so you can stay as long as you like.
Gulf Shores, Alabama
Alabama's best beach stretches six miles from Gulf Shores Parkway to the end of Dolphin Drive. The farther west you go the less congested it gets—until there's nothing but sun, sea, and your own footprints. But what sets Gulf Shores apart from other Gulf Coast destinations is the quality of the sand: soft underfoot and ultra-bright white. Summer water temperatures hover at bathtub levels, and gentle waves make the beach safe for even the youngest waders.
Hotel Recommendation: The Kiva Dunes Resort sits minutes from West Beach. Read our review.
Photo: Peter Vitale/Courtesy of Four Seasons
Santa Barbara, California
East Beach is a wide strip of white sand with gorgeous views of the offshore Channel Islands. In the old Cabrillo Bathhouse, Santa Barbara Aquatics offers volleyball lessons, kids' summer camps, and other beach activities.
Mendocino Coast, California
Three hours north of bustling San Francisco is the lush and serene Van Damme State Park. Follow towering redwoods down to the quiet gray-sand shoreline to explore sea caves by kayak, dive for abalone, poke through tide pools, or commune with sea lions.
Photo: Hisham Ibrahim/Corbis
Miami Beach, Florida
This part of the Sunshine State is known for glitz and glamour, but the golden sands of South Beach have a carefree, friendly spirit. Striped towels cover the beach recliners outside Sagamore Art Hotel (rates start at $265; sagamorehotel.com), where it's fun to cool off in the lobby while admiring unique sculptures. Down the street, dig your toes in the sand and sink your teeth into fresh Corvina fish tacos at Lucy's Cantina Royale.
Photo: David Muench/Corbis
Cumberland Island, Georgia
Part of an 18-mile stretch of sand on the island's Atlantic side, Sea Camp Beach is wide and wild, strewn with driftwood and a gazillion shells and backed by sea grass and rolling dunes. Roam the beach in search of wild horses, sea turtles, manatees, and prehistoric-looking horseshoe crabs. Collect shark's teeth and shells from the soft gray sand, and sleep under the stars in one of Sea Camp's tents on the beach.
Photo: Micah Wright/First Light/Corbis
With rust-colored palisades that plunge 1,000 feet into the sea, Kauai's remote and lush Na Pali Coast has starred in numerous movies, from Jurassic Park to The Perfect Getaway. Hanakapiai is the most accessible of its half-dozen beaches, reached by hiking the Kalalau Trail two miles from the end of Highway 56. Pack a picnic lunch and coconut juice, and pretend you're a castaway for a day.
Photo: Tony Novak-Clifford
One of the cradles of the Hawaiian pineapple industry, Maui's northwestern shore is better known these days for organic farms, golf courses, and a beach that consistently ranks among the best on the planet. Framed by towering coconut palms, Kapalua's sunny strand tumbles into teal-colored water filled with coral and tropical fish.
Photo: Greg Probst/Corbis
Mt. Desert Island, Maine
Lining the ocean side of Mt. Desert Island, the golden grains of Sand Beach span 290 yards between two rocky headlands. The tranquil bay is one of the few places in Acadia National Park that lends itself to safe swimming. Browse the tide pools at either end of the strand, or scout for seabirds on Old Soaker Island.
Photo: Yacouba Tanou
Assateague Island, Maryland
South Ocean is a throwback to the Atlantic coast of long ago—wild, windy, and ripe for exploration. Get an OSV (over-sand vehicle) permit and cruise down the 12 miles of drivable shore for a day of crabbing, clamming, and surf fishing. Or hang ten on some of the best waves along the Mid Atlantic.
Photo: Chris Hackett/Tetra Images/Corbis
Located on the town's untamed Atlantic side, Head of the Meadow Beach is ideal for romantic picnics, long walks, and adventurous over-sand driving. Plus, warm summer water and an offshore sandbar make this a good spot for swimming. The remains of the sailing ship Frances, wrecked in 1872, can be seen from shore during super low tides.
Photo: Kirkendall-Springs Photography
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan
This spectacular white-sand strand on Michigan's Upper Peninsula is a northern nirvana of fishing, beachcombing, and lakeshore camping. Twelvemile is flanked by two other natural wonders: the 300-foot-high Grand Sable Dunes, and the chromatic sandstone cliffs that give the park its name.
Cape May, New Jersey
The Cove is a beach for all seasons that draws swimmers, kayakers, and surfers in sultry weather; beachcombers, birders, and surf anglers arrive during the cooler months. The gray-sand beach has been a popular seaside retreat since Victorian days.
Photo: Tara Donne
Montauk, New York
Out beyond the Hamptons is the other Long Island—Montauk. The beach is famous for its lighthouse (1796) and its refreshing lack of attitude, especially among the surfers who hang at Ditch Plains. The super long break makes this wave haven ideal for newbies or veteran long-boarders. And locals say the Ditch Witch truck serves the best beach grub around.
Atlantic Beach, North Carolina
North Carolina's best-kept beach secret is the small resort town of Atlantic Beach in the largely uninhabited Bogue Banks barrier islands. The coastal community of Pine Knolls Shores stretches west from the city center, a strip of fine white sand that's home to the North Carolina Aquarium.
Ocracoke Island, North Carolina
Combine your sun and sand with arts and crafts on this funky island in the Outer Banks. The 16-mile-long beach stretches east toward Cape Hatteras, accessible via Highway 12 or, for those with a nose for adventure, by kayak along Pamlico Sound. Swimming, shelling, kite-flying, and wild-horse watching count among the beach activities.
Photo: Craig Tuttle/Design Pics/Corbis
Coos Bay, Oregon
Pack your hiking boots for a Pacific Northwest beach escape on the fringe of Coos Bay. In addition to three sandy coves, the cape has rich tide pools, seal and sea lion colonies, and bounteous beach fishing. Whales can often be seen offshore.
Photo: Kindra Clineff
Block Island, Rhode Island
Barefoot or bicycles is the vibe of this tiny (11-square-mile) island off the southern New England coast. Long, lean, and pewter-colored, Fred Benson Town Beach rides a sandy isthmus between Great Salt Pond and the open Atlantic. Summer booms with kayak, boogie board, and umbrella rentals.
Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
Hilton Head's eastern shore is 12 miles of white sand. As its name suggests, this beach is loved by locals because it's less crowded than most and swimmer-friendly, thanks to its gentle underwater slope. There's also a playground and a shady picnic area behind the dunes.
Photo: National Park Service Centennial
North Padre Island, Texas
North Padre is raw, unencumbered Texas coast—a dramatic contrast to the spring break chaos of South Padre. Near the island's north end, Malaquite Beach is rarely crowded. The visitor center has displays on local history and wildlife. Work up a sweat windsurfing, kayaking, or walking any of the 60 miles of uninterrupted sand down to Mansfield Channel.
Photo: Ben Kashdan/National Park Service Centennial
Olympic National Park, Washington
Olympic National Park includes more than 70 miles of jaw-dropping coast spangled with soaring cliffs, tide pools, and untamed strands, including the driftwood-strewn beach at Kalaloch. From otters and puffins to the largest bald eagle population in the Lower 48, this stretch of coast is rich in wildlife. Chill on the gray sand and stare at the wild Pacific, knowing there is nothing but water between you and Siberia on the other side.