Travel

The Underrated American Beaches You Need to Hit Before Summer’s Over

Maybe you’ll encounter a nice little taffy shop along the way.

The biggest problem with America’s most famous beaches is, well, they’re famous. In normal times there’s something magic about heading to a crowded beach: the boardwalk vendors and tanned bodies, the joys of tripping over a sandcastle or feeding a morbidly obsess seagull. But right about now, a less-busy beach experience is far, far more appealing. 

These beaches might not be as well-trafficked as Miami or as buzzy as Santa Monica, but what they lack in revelry and unsolicited Pitbull performances they more than make up for in serenity. They’re the panoramic stretches you’ll have all to yourself, the hidden alcoves tourists have yet to overrun. Maybe you’ll encounter a nice little taffy shop along the way, or a group having a sunset bonfire. But unlike the best-known beaches, those sights will become part of something far less hectic. 

Long Beach, New York

New York State doesn’t get much beach cred outside the mythical Hamptons, so perhaps seeing the words “pristine beaches” and “New York” is making you spit out your coffee. But head to Long Beach, on the Atlantic Ocean just east of Brooklyn and Queens, and you’ll find a 2.1-mile boardwalk running along soft white sand and deep-blue water, making it hard to remember you’re a 45-minute train ride from Manhattan. Long Beach often gets ignored when discussing the best northeastern beach towns, though the 5 miles of beach are lined with lively restaurants, bars, and surf shops. For even more isolation, head a little out of town to Lido Beach and Point Lookout parks, where you won’t find much in the way of amenities. But won’t find much in the way of people, either.
MORE:  Even more of New York’s criminally overlooked beaches

 

Block Island, Rhode Island

While the state of Rhode Island has a highly misleading name, its best beaches are found on this actual island about an hour’s ferry ride from Newport. The island is nearly half nature preserve, leaving beaches like the one down 141 wooden steps at Mohegan Bluffs to feel isolated and natural. It’s also one of the better surf spots in all of New England, with the waves off Mansion Beach rarely too crowded and fun for even inexperienced surfers. It’s all best explored by bike, with plenty of B&Bs and little restaurants to stop and explore before ending your day with a sunset over Charlestown Beach.
MORE:  The best beach vacations near Boston

Kailua Beach Park, Oahu Island, Hawaii
Kailua Beach Park, Oahu Island, Hawaii | okimo/shutterstock

Kailua Beach, Hawaii

It’s hard to think of any beach on Oahu as being “underrated,” with the fame of the North Shore and the tourist-clogged streets of Waikiki. But this beach park near the Marine Corps base at Kaneohe Bay is an often-empty hidden paradise. The city around it is a quiet base-and-beach town, meaning you won’t find many tourists in a park geared more towards families than throngs of visitors (even in non-pandemic times). From the shoreline you’ll get all the white sand, deep blue Pacific water, and towering green mountains you’d expect in a Hawaiian vacation. The waves are relatively calm, making this 2.5-mile stretch perfect for kayaking and paddleboarding. Just do your best to try and fit in.
MORE:  Another underrated Hawaiian vacation move? Road trip!

 

Encinitas, California
Moonlight Beach, Encinitas, California | Denise Taylor / Moment Open / getty images

Moonlight Beach, California

San Diego County beaches aren’t exactly a secret, but this beach at the bottom of a cliff in sleepy/loaded Encinitas seems sneakily overlooked. It sits in the heart of a quintessential California beach town, where cool breezes blow through rows of tightly packed beach homes -- carrying with them the scent of the area’s famous fish tacos -- and the ocean peeks out from every intersection. Park at the top of a bluff and head down to the beach, where you’ll find a soft, sandy bottom perfect for playing with kids, replete with an expansive playground with a mesmerizing ocean view and surprisingly smooth cement sidewalks, perfect for skating.
MOREHere’s what you need to eat while you’re here (including those tacos)

 

Lucy Vincent Beach
Lucy Vincent Beach, Martha's Vineyard | Brooks Kraft/Getty Images

Lucy Vincent Beach, Massachusetts

The irony of vaguely phallic rock formations sticking up from the sand along a nude beach should not be lost on anyone over the age of 7. But even if this cliff-lined beach in Martha’s Vineyard didn’t have a clothing-optional section, it would be one of the most remarkable beaches in the Northeast. The huge boulders and trademark rock column make this place seem a little more like the Pacific Northwest than New England, though erosion has taken its toll and scenery degrades a little every year. It’s a spectacular setting that’s also not usually jammed with tourists -- just keep in mind, it’s typically only accessible by town permit during high season.

Long Beach, Washington

With Oregon’s iconic Seaside and Cannon Beach hogging all the attention due south, this funky little southern Washington hamlet still manages to fly under the radar. Pity. It’s a quintessential Pacific Northwest beach town, complete with the requisite boutique hotels, rental cabins, dive bars, and taffy shops. And the beach that gives it its name is, in fact, very, very long -- 28 miles, to be precise. From busy sands adjacent to its well-trod boardwalk to the more isolated tip of the peninsula, this is basically a choose your own adventure of beach life both quiet and raucous. And that’s before you factor in the fact that the town’s unofficial mascot is a mummified half-alligator/half-man humanoid. 
MOREGet the oddly touching story of Long Beach’s famous alligator man

Schoolhouse Beach
Schoolhouse Beach | Destination Door County

Schoolhouse Beach, Wisconsin

Perhaps because it’s such a journey to get there -- one that involves a trip across the not-at-all-intimidatingly-named Death’s Door -- Schoolhouse Beach manages to be underrated despite being part of Door County, a collection of towns that render the word “twee” moot. But get to Washington Island in the middle of Lake Michigan at the right time -- before the entire peninsula freezes over, ideally -- and you’ll find yourself on a quiet, serene stretch of beach. There's no sand to speak of, only millions of tiny, rounded limestone pebbles eroded by time and the very same crystal waters that beckon you for a dip amid a magnificent forest backdrop. Afterward, be sure to warm up with straight shots of Angostura bitters in town. It’s a rite of passage. 
MORE:  Everything you need to know about visiting the Cape Cod of the Midwest

ANDREW F. KAZMIERSKI / SHUTTERSTOCK

Island Beach, New Jersey

Sure, you could take your pick of Jersey Shore towns and make a claim that they contain overlooked beaches, but at least you’ve heard of those places. Yet somehow Island Beach, one of the best state parks in the country, manages to avoid detection. That’s the way folks like it: Divorced from the boardwalk jungles of much of the shore, here you can find patches of sand untouched by all but beachcombing wild foxes and preservation-minded visitors. Yes, there’s a slightly rowdier section complete with a bar -- this is New Jersey, folks -- but the further you venture into the park, the easier it is to find an ideal stretch of solitude. There’s even a lighthouse and a boardwalk, both requisites of a Jersey beach experience. Only here, you’ll have them to yourself. 
MORE:  Everything you need to know before visiting this gem

Lighthouse in Cheboygan, Michigan
Lighthouse in Cheboygan, Michigan | SEAN PATRICK DORAN / SHUTTERSTOCK

Cheboygan, Michigan

Lake Huron consistently plays Liam Hemsworth to Lake Michigan’s Chris (Superior is definitely Luke), but that quieter profile shouldn’t diminish its charms. In fact, the rockier shores of Huron are a wonderful, less-trodden alternative to the western lake. Consider Cheboygan State Park eastern Michigan’s highlight: Here, miles of lake frontage with a mix of habitats including marshes, dunes, beaches, and wetlands. If that doesn’t fill your quota, hit nearby Burt Lake State Park’s 2,000 feet of sandy shoreline. Afterward, grab a beer on the balcony patio at the Cheboygan Brewing Company and seriously reconsider why you’ve been packing onto the beaches in Grand Haven all this time. 
MORECheboygan is one of Michigan’s best beach towns. Here are the rest.

Amelia Island

An eastern barrier island so far up the coast of Florida you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for Georgia, Amelia Island is an open retort to Florida’s storied Redneck Riviera reputation. It may be tiny, but Amelia offers up 13 stunning miles of beach to explore relatively uninterrupted. You’ll also discover roads framed by oaks dripping with Spanish moss, and the best collection of Gilded Age mansions in the state. And since "nature" and "history" in Florida so often give way to "condos" and "more condos," the underdeveloped Amelia Island is a rare chance to see what "Old Florida" was like.
MOREFlorida’s coast is teeming with overlooked stretches of paradise

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Matt Meltzer is a contributing writer to Thrillist who apologizes to everyone who wanted to keep these beaches a secret. Feel free to accept on his Instagram @meltrez1.