The Underrated American Beaches You Need to Hit Before Summer’s Over
Maybe you’ll encounter a nice little taffy shop along the way.
In theory, the best beaches should be tranquil places where the sounds of crashing waves and balmy breezes instantly hypnotize you into nirvana, sort of like yoga without all the stretching. In reality, a day at a popular beach often becomes a misadventure in parking, fighting for sand space, and diligently trying to tune out loud music from strangers—in other words, the kind of day that would make your dad say, “If I wanna relax, I’ll just stay home!”
Yet there are still some beaches around this great nation that the masses haven’t ruined, where oceanfront houses are cheap, tourists are few, and—save for a quaint little taffy shop or a group having a sunset bonfire—it’s easy to get a panoramic stretch all to yourself. From coast to coast, these are the laid-back, underrated American beaches to hit before the summer sun sinks beyond the horizon for the year.
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.
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.
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). Plus, 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—and read up on Hawaii's current Covid protocols before you even think about getting on island time.
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 almost suspiciously 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.
Orval Hansen Point Beach, Idaho
In a state with over 1.7 million people, Redfish Lake in Sawtooth National Forest is the sort of place that should be completely uninhabitable on hot weekends. But because it’s far from population centers—yet not too far, striking the perfect balance between seclusion and accessibility—the lake’s best beach is rarely crowded. Sure, in the height of summer you might find some groups or bike tours stopping through, but on most days you’ll be able to spread out on the coarse sand and quietly marvel at the jagged peaks of the Sawtooth Mountains from the shores of the deep blue lake.
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 seven. 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.
Guana River State Park, Florida
The story goes that the shoreline at Guana River State Park is where Ponce de Leon first spotted Florida through his telescope and, upon gazing at the shoreline, turned and announced to his men, “Can you believe the size of that cockroach?!” He was probably also astounded by the sheer beauty of this stretch of coastline just north of St. Augustine, one of Florida's most underrated beaches. Here, bright golden sands butt up against imposing grass-covered dunes, which are about as close to cliffs as it gets in ultra-flat Florida. Even on spring break weekends, you won’t find much more than a smattering of families hanging on the beach, and with such wide spaces, it’s never hard to find a patch of sand to claim. It’s also a top spot for gathering shark teeth if you want a little trophy to take home.
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.
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.
Bear Island, North Carolina
South of the Outer Banks along the Carolina coast sits Hammocks Beach State Park, a stretch of barrier islands originally designated as a private park for Black beachgoers from 1952 until integration in 1964. Here, you’ll find all the mid-Atlantic majesty people drive hours to find in North Carolina, with few crowds around to spoil it. Hop on a short passenger ferry at the mainland visitors center, and you’ll soon find yourself on Bear Island, a sprawling, four-mile stretch of unspoiled sand dunes and maritime forests. If you opt to kayak to the island instead, just be careful: The paddle there is pretty easy, but the tide can move out quickly and leave you with a long, unpleasant canoe drag home if you don’t time it right.
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.
Ship Island, Mississippi
The hour-long ferry ride from the brackish beaches of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast brings you to a chain of white-sand islands known as the Gulf Islands National Seashore. The best among them is Ship Island, where you can rent a chair, kick back next to the marshlands, and imagine what Florida must have been like before it was all condos. The crystal blue water and powdery sand create a little paradise on the bayou, and though there’s not much other than a snack stand in the way of amenities, you won’t mind at all. When you can travel less than an hour from a city and feel like you’re in a remote destination, packing a cooler doesn’t seem like much of a price to pay.
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.