From Maryland down to Florida and west to Texas, the South is graced with more than 2,000 miles of coastline. We’ve combed the region for the very best beaches so you can get a head start on your vacation planning for the year.
Photo: Courtesy of Alys Beach
Originally published by Southern Living
Where are the best beaches in Florida? The best beaches in North Carolina? From Texas to Maryland, the South has some of the most glorious sand and saltwater you’ll find anywhere. The best Southern beaches offer that wonderful sense of escape that only comes with the wind in your hair, the sun on your face, and the sound of waves breaking against the shore.
There are popular favorites like Dauphin Island and Orange Beach in Alabama; Padre Island, Texas; and Seaside, Grayton Beach, and others in South Walton County, Florida (pictured here is Alys Beach). But we also have the stunning waters of Bahia Honda Key; Assateague Island, Maryland, where wild horses have roamed for centuries; and Bald Head Island, North Carolina, where you’ll arrive by ferry and cruise around in a golf cart (no cars allowed). Whether you love the Gulf or the Atlantic, a secluded beach or a family-friendly vacation, we’ve got the best beaches and beach towns on both.
Next: The Best Beaches in the South
Photo: Robbie Caponetto
One of Alabama’s best-kept secrets: This sleepy, family-friendly beach town near the Mississippi border is a favorite summer getaway for Mobile residents. History buffs will want to hop over to Fort Morgan, a quick ferry ride away, while the outdoorsy crowd can take advantage of watersports in the lagoon or cycle the bike trail that runs the length of the island.
Photo: Elena Elisseeva
Just off the Overseas Highway, the 500-plus-acre Bahia Honda State Park is home to one of the few sandy beaches in the Keys. An old railroad bridge, once part of the Overseas Railroad, now forms a pedestrian walkway and observation deck, and the crystal-clear waters
Accessible only by private boat or a 20-minute ferry ride from Honeymoon Island, this stunning state park just north of Clearwater is a treat for beachcombers with its myriad shells. Nature enthusiasts will enjoy renting a kayak and paddling among the thick mangroves.
Photo: Thomas Straubinger
There’s nary a bad spot along Florida’s palm-fringed Gulf Coast, but the glitzy greater Naples area—home to Bonita Beach, Marco Island, and Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park, as well as the extravagances of Millionaires’ Row—is the crème de la crème.
Many Panama City Beach vacationers stick close to the Strip, which is all the more reason to hop aboard the shuttle, or a charter boat, and hightail it to Shell Island. This seven-mile uninhabited peninsula is very popular among boaters. Keep your eyes peeled for dolphins as you motor along, as wildlife sightings are many. Back on the mainland, the 1,260-acre St. Andrews State Park is also well worth a visit.
These sugar-white sands on the Gulf of Mexico occupy some of the prettiest real estate in the country. You’ll be enchanted by the 16 quaint beachfront neighborhoods (including Seaside and Alys Beach), and 26 miles of waterfront along Highway 30A. Don’t miss Ed Walline Park in Santa Rosa or the dramatic dunes of Grayton Beach State Park.
This charming community in northeastern Florida has a distinctly old-European flavor to it—St. Augustine was, after all, founded in the 16th century by the Spanish. Enjoy a surf-town vibe thanks to great waves and 40 miles of laid-back beaches (Vilano and Crescent being two local favorites).
Photo: Patrick Heagney
One of Georgia’s popular Golden Isles, Jekyll Island has 10 miles of beautiful beaches. Its lush marshland is home to a colorful tapestry of diverse wildlife, and there are frequent sightings of sea turtles. An hour due south, but accessible only by private boat or ferry from St. Marys, the deserted beaches of Cumberland Island National Seashore make for an enthralling detour.
Just east of Savannah, Tybee Island is steeped in Civil War history and peppered with sand dunes. First commissioned in 1732, the Tybee Island Light Station is one of the nation’s oldest lighthouses. After surveying the deep blue sea, enjoy one of the island’s three distinct oceanfront and two river beaches.
Straddling the border with Virginia, this 37-mile-long barrier island is home to wild horses running free. The feral Assateague ponies, and their Chincoteague neighbors—they are separated by a fence—have inhabited the island’s National Seashore for hundreds of years. You may also see deer, dolphins, eagles, foxes, or pelicans since so much wildlife calls this incredible island home.
Photo: Thinkstock Images/Getty
Life on Bald Head moves at a much slower pace, so you’ll immediately feel at ease once you trade your vehicle for a golf cart—no cars are allowed on the isle. You’ll arrive via a ferry from the mainland and settle into the lazy, subtropical environment.
The artsy village of Ocracoke and the shell-lined Cape Hatteras National Seashore are the Tar Heel State's true hidden gems for kiteboarders, surfers, and fishermen alike—as well as those who want to do nothing but chill. The island is a 45-minute ferry ride from the mainland.
Photo: Peter Frank Edwards
Situated in the southernmost part of the picturesque Cape Lookout National Seashore and accessible by passenger ferry, this 9-mile-long barrier island is populated by wild mustangs.
Just 30 miles north of Wilmington, the rugged North Carolina coastline is on full display on Topsail Island. Rumored to be where Blackbeard buried his treasure, the island is rich in pirate history. Check out the abandoned watchtowers— leftovers from Operation Bumblebee, a post-World War II experimental Navy missile project. Then, enjoy a visit to the Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center.
Photo: Jason Frye
Capers Island, just south of Charleston, is home to the aptly named Boneyard Beach. For over a mile along this otherworldly stretch of sand, twisted tree skeletons protrude from the Atlantic. Catch a ferry, captain your own vessel, or paddle a kayak, because you can get here only by water. Once you arrive, you can camp here among the hollowed cedars and oaks—as long as you have a free permit.
Photo: Christopher Shane
Home to the much acclaimed resort of the same name, Kiawah Island’s 10,000-acre private community in the South Carolina Lowcountry houses a preserve, as well as a Conservancy protecting and researching various species of reptiles and birds.
Photo: Kenny Braun
Hit this spring break party spot at any other time of the year and you’ll be pleased by how peaceful you’ll find it. On North Padre Island, enjoy 70 miles of flat, protected coast in the Padre Island National Seashore; on South Padre, find 34 miles of uninterrupted beaches and the sparkling emerald waters of the Gulf—quite simply, one epic sandcastle scene.
Photo: Setiono Joko Purwanto
Virginia Beach may have a lively boardwalk in the heart of its downtown, but venture just south for complete peace and quiet—and perhaps even a dolphin or two—in the 8,000-acre Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. You might also spy white-tailed deer, sea turtles, herons, and other waterfowl among the sand dunes and freshwater marshes, so have your binoculars ready.