10 Best Little Beach Towns To Visit in Fall
Half Moon Bay, California
Orange is the new blue each October in this seaside town, located approximately 35 minutes south of San Francisco, as millions of ripe pumpkins blanket the plentiful farms along the coast. The region produces more than 3,000 tons of pumpkins every year, and since 1971, celebrates with the free Half Moon Bay Art & Pumpkin Festival the weekend after Columbus Day. From hand-blown glass pumpkins to the biggest pumpkin of the year, the festival excels at all things gourdly, including pumpkin craft beer and spice lattes, delectable pumpkin pies, and ice cream. Situated between the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Pacific, Half Moon Bay also offers world-class oceanfront golfing or boutique shopping along the 19th century storefronts of charming Main Street.
Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
All those lanes of highway leading to this iconic southern resort town off the Atlantic coast of South Carolina mean something: during the high summer season, the island is seriously hopping with beach lovers. But come autumn, the traffic and the crowds dissipate, the 12 miles of beaches stretch beautifully open, and the main things hopping are the frolicking bottlenose dolphins jumping in the sea. Hilton Head in the fall is a gem with shorter (or no) restaurant waits, better rates, and ocean water that’s still warm from summer’s heat. Any time of year, the golfing is world-renowned on this 12-mile-long barrier island, and its 60 miles of public use trails make it a joy to explore.
Cape May, New Jersey
Fall in the seaside resort town of Cape May means fewer crowds yet still warm, pretty days, perfect for taking a walking architectural tour of this Victorian haven, all of which is a designated National Historic Landmark. You’ll trade summer’s human throngs for the masses of natural wonders passing through Cape May during fall migration at the Cape May South Meadows Preserve, including monarch butterflies, iridescent blue tree swallows, loons, and yellow-rumped warblers. And you can bicycle or stroll through the bountiful gardens at Beach Plum Farm, the 62-acre farm located less than two miles from downtown that provides food to Cape May resort restaurants, now with five beautiful, newly-restored historic cottages and barn stays on site.
Where can you indulge in one of fall’s iconic pleasures, apple picking, and dig your toes in the sand? In Fennville, where the sunny beach is just minutes away from rows and rows of apple trees ready to be plucked. Michigan is one of the top-producing apple growing areas in the country, and Fennville’s Crane Orchards offers a wide variety of U-pick apples, from Honeycrisp and Cortland to Ginger Gold and McIntosh, beginning Labor Day weekend. Hay rides and a corn maze round out the fun. Or visit Virtue Farm’s Tasting Room & Bottle Shop for a flight of hand-pressed, barrel-aged craft ciders made with all natural ingredients including, of course, local apples. Hidden gem West Side County Park Beach has wide wooden ramp access to the water and a lovely sunset view, or the bigger, wider beaches and gorgeous dunes of Saugatuck are less than 15 minutes away.
Southport, North Carolina
This little harbor town, situated where the mouth of the Cape Fear River meets the Atlantic, has a rich history dating back to colonial times—and it’s a spirited history to boot. During Halloween season, Southport’s ancient live oaks, historic sea captains’ homes, canopied sidewalks, and storied ghost tales cast an extra thrilling spell. An excellent guided lantern tour beginning at dusk includes Old Smithfield Burying Ground (dating back more than 225 years), located across the street from the Old Brunswick County Jail built in 1904. Between the two, it’s next-level Southern gothic. The town excels at casting spells on anglers, too, as early October brings the U.S. Open King Mackerel Tournament to the Southport Marina, with hundreds of boats vying for the biggest catch.
Port Angeles, Washington
The natural splendor here where the Olympic Mountains meet saltwater may be most sublime in the fall. Port Angeles’ waterfront promenade connects to the 130-mile-long Olympic Discovery Trail, and outdoor lovers come here for the hiking, biking, kayaking, and more in the largest city on Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula and the primary gateway to the Olympic National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. But it’s the annual Dungeness Crab & Seafood Festival in early October that draws seafood lovers for the fresh, local, world-famous Dungeness crab cooked on site and named after the nearby village of Dungeness. A newer fest, Arts & Draughts Beer, Wine, and Arts Festival, held in late September, celebrates regional craft beer, wine, and cider along with artisan wares and live music downtown.
Newport, Rhode Island
Fall color isn’t just the domain of inland mountain retreats. In Newport, you can go leaf peeping and experience glittering sea views all on the same road. The Ocean Drive Loop is an 11-mile waterfront route, perfect by bicycle to enjoy shoreline vistas of Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island Sound, Newport Harbor, coves, salt marsh and the Atlantic Ocean, as well as gorgeous fall color and Gilded Age mansions along Bellevue Avenue. Or take in the sights of the water and grand homes on the town’s breathtaking, breezy, 3.5-mile Cliff Walk. Autumn also offers Newport Restaurant Week in early November, the ideal time to sample unique, decadent menus at a steal of a price.
Avila Beach, California
Nestled in the curve of San Luis Obispo Bay, midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, colorful Avila Beach works its down-to-earth charms any time of year, but early November shines a spotlight on one of the quiet enclave’s claims to fame: its stellar wineries. The Harvest On the Coast Festival, held at the lush, waterfront Avila Beach Golf Resort and select area wineries, includes an outdoor grand tasting, live auction, plenty of varied tasting room stops offering wine specials, live music, and more. In the fertile Avila Valley, you can enjoy a full day of wine tastings right by the sea. Another Avila Beach must: tour picturesque Point San Luis Lighthouse, founded in 1890 and reachable by trolley, guided hike, or kayak.
Anna Maria, Florida
If the crazy, busy pace of fall already has you longing to clear your head, tiny Anna Maria with its big, white sand shores and turquoise water is the beach-variety blank slate you need. Located on the northern end of 7-mile-long Anna Maria Island off the Gulf Coast of Florida, Anna Maria is the epitome of a friendly, Old Florida beach town—and it’s a true respite of peace and quiet in the fall season. While the whole island is walkable and includes the neighboring little towns of Bradenton Beach and Holmes Beach, this secret getaway (shhh!) is blissfully simple and laid-back, with outdoor activities like paddle boarding, swimming, and sandcastle building ruling the day amid an average high temperature of 84 degrees in October. Slowing down is actually a mandate here, with a top speed limit of 35 mph.
Fort Bragg, California
Here’s a surfside autumn bright spot: masses of delicate dahlias bloom each early fall at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens in beautiful Fort Bragg, a former lumber town north of San Francisco. The 47-acre botanical gardens overlooking the Pacific provides stunning sea views on clear autumn days, and the must-visit Dahlia Garden's 150 varieties create a rainbow of color within one of the best botanical gardens in the country. Dahlias were one of the first blooms the Botanical Gardens’ founder Ernest Schoefer planted here. Take advantage of the site’s fall plant sale, typically held in mid to late September, and enjoy the town’s new incarnation with boutiques, galleries, breweries, and more.