Just for summer: 51 great American beaches

ByCompiled by Laura Bly, Jayne Clark, Monica Hortobagyi and Kitty Bean Yancey
May 27, 2012, 10:47 AM

— -- The fantasy is universal: Endless sun and sand, swimmming and surfing, boating and beachcombing.

To kick off the unofficial start of summer, USA TODAY asked local experts to select one great beach in each state and the District of Columbia. Here are their picks:


Stretching from the Gulf of Mexico inland to Lake Shelby and Middle Lake, the Gulf State Park near Gulf Shores is a lovely (and low cost) beach getaway. You can build a sandcastle on snow-white beaches, fish or just take it easy on the porch of a lakeside cabin. The restaurants, shops, and family-friendly attractions of Gulf Shores are nearby. 800-252-7275; alapark.com/gulfstate

— Recommended by Stephanie Granada, travel editor, Southern Living magazine


With more than 40,000 miles of shoreline and thousands of lakes, Alaska has many scenic beaches. Homer Spit, a narrow gravel bar more than 4 miles long jutting out into Kachemak Bay, stands out. People walk on it, camp on it, fly kites, ride bikes, go fishing, picnic, launch boats, catch ferries, shop, eat and drink — and do all of that while enjoying a spectacular view of the glaciated Kenai Mountains. 907-235-7740; homeralaska.org

— Recommended by the editors of Alaska's The MILEPOST travel guide


Lake Havasu, aka "Arizona's West Coast," has more than 400 miles of shoreline, sun and sand, but lacks riptides, biting insects and sharp-toothed fish. Boats and other equipment are for rent in Lake Havasu City, home of the relocated London Bridge. Some of the finest beach areas are in Lake Havasu State Park, or cruise the river until you spot a private beach that suits. golakehavasu.com

— Recommended by Janet Webb, Farnsworth, Arizona-based freelance writer


DeGray Lake Resort State Park's Caddo Bend Day Use Area appeals to all ages. You can lounge in chairs, play in the water or just stretch out in the sand. Beach diversions are among an array of activities available at the park, including horseback riding, cycling, boating, camping and relaxing in the spa. degray.com

— Richard W. Davies, executive director, Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism


Orange County's Crystal Cove State Park isn't just about the beach — gracefully curved coves with reliable waves for surfing and bodysurfing. On the inland side of Pacific Coast Highway, park trails climb foothills for killer views of the ocean you just swam in. If swimming and hiking make you hungry, grab a cheeseburger and a rich milkshake at Ruby's Shake Shack. crystalcovestatepark.com

— Recommended by Peter Fish, editor at large, Sunset magazine


Medano Creek at the Great Sand Dunes National Park near Alamosa is the state's unique contribution to the beach scene. Fed by snowmelt from the surrounding Sangre de Cristo Mountains, its ephemeral flow lasts only from about April to mid-June. It offers a cool respite from the sun-soaked, 7,500-foot-high sand dunes set at 8,000 feet in altitude, the highest in North America. The shallow creek flows swiftly (it's great for tubing) and even has tides. And it's surrounded by 30 square miles of "beach." nps.gov/grsa/medano-creek.htm

— Recommended by Linda DuVal, Colorado Springs-based freelance writer


Connecticut's oldest state park, Sherwood Island, offers athlete-perfect fields, a shaded grove for picnickers, even paved runways for pilots of radio-controlled model planes. But the main attraction is the beach itself, which stretches about a mile and a half. By the food pavilion, it can be a party. But follow the shoreline west and you will find yourself alone on the dunes with just the shorebirds and wild grasses blowing in the wind. stateparks.com/sherwood_island.html

— Recommended by Susan Farewell, editor-in-chief of FarewellTravels.com


Backed by extensive sand dunes, the long swimming and sunbathing beaches of Delaware Seashore State Park are quieter than those in the beach towns. And the farther you walk from the entrances near the bathhouses and concessions, the more peaceful they are, with the sound of the surf punctuated by the calls of sea gulls and the whistles of lifeguards. Designated surfing and sailboarding beaches complement areas devoted to surf-fishing. destateparks.com/park/delaware-seashore

— Recommended by Theresa Gawlas Medoff, Delaware-based travel writer

District of Columbia

Let's face facts: Washington, D.C., doesn't have a beach. But the city is finally capitalizing on its Rodney Dangerfield of rivers, the Anacostia. Yards Park, just a mile and a half from the U.S. Capitol, has a kid-friendly fountain and wading pool, open spaces and an old-fashioned boardwalk. Festivals and Friday night concerts bring crowds out in force. Early mornings are perfect for strolling on the quiet waterfront, watching rowers on the river or relaxing in wooden chaise-lounge chairs. yardspark.org

— Recommended by Laura Powell, travel journalist based in Washington, D.C.


It was for good reason that Siesta Beach, just 15 minutes from downtown Sarasota, was chosen the nation's best beach in 2011 by Stephen Leatherman (aka Dr. Beach). Follow the gently sloping beach to the calm, warm Gulf waters and dig your toes into the powdery white-quartz sand. Lifeguards and free parking make it safe and easy for everyone to enjoy. visitsarasota.org/siesta-key

— Recommended by David McRee, publisher, beachhunter.net


The crown jewel of Georgia's Golden Isles, St. Simons Island glitters with sandy beaches, upscale restaurants and charming boutiques for the turned-up-collar set. Preppy though it may be, the island still manages to transport visitors to a simpler time, thanks to its canopy of live oaks and abundance of bicyclists. Fitness buffs won't need to find a gym; the hard-packed sand on the island's East Beach makes it easy to jog or cycle along the Atlantic. goldenisles.com

— Recommended by Allison Weiss Entrekin, travel writer and editor in Atlanta


There aren't many long stretches of sandy shoreline in Kailua-Kona on the volcanic Big Island, so the 45-minute drive along the Kohala Coast to Hapuna Beach— the largest on the island — is worth the early wake-up. The beach is spacious enough to spread out. And if you still need more room, consider the clear waters, where you can snorkel and swim in calm conditions and body-board in the surf. Grab some snacks from KTA Superstore or a plate lunch from Pine Tree Cafe and make a day of it. gohawaii.com/big-island

— Recommended by Catherine Toth, a Hawaii-based food and travel blogger and freelance writer


Crystal-clear Lake Coeur d'Alene is more than two dozen miles long and includes a waterfront preserve in downtown Coeur d'Alene with sandy beaches and hidden coves. You'll be treated to scenic views of the Bitterroot Mountains, the "floating green" on the local golf course, and osprey and bald eagles fishing near the shoreline. You can relax on a lake cruise, parasail or rent watercraft. 877-782-9232; coeurdalene.org

— Recommended by Kitty Delorey Fleischman, publisher/editor, IDAHO magazine


Lake Michigan sparkles to the east, the Chicago skyline rises to the south, and the free-admission Lincoln Park Zoo lies to the west. The surroundings of the wide, sandy expanse of Chicago's North Avenue Beach alone would qualify it for top ranking in the state. But great people-watching, sand volleyball games, lifeguards and a fully equipped beachhouse with bar and bike rentals make it No. 1. chicagoparkdistrict.com/facilities/beaches

— Recommended by Laurie D. Borman, Illinois-based freelance travel writer


You'll find just over 3 miles of broad, sand beach — and freshwater swimming — along Lake Michigan's southern shore. Behind it lies Indiana Dunes State Park's scattered hills of shifting sand. Tough going up Devil's Slide dune, but thrilling to skid down! After visiting the Nature Center, enjoy a hike through forest and around the 1,530-acre Dunes Nature Preserve. Trail 8 climbs up-over-and-down four massive sand hills — with great lakeshore views. in.gov/dnr/parklake/2980.htm

— Recommended by Sally McKinney, author of Hiking Indiana


Clear Lake is an iconic getaway town where a city beach and a state park beach packed with swimmers lie near the downtown's cute shops and restaurants. A new bike path winds along both beaches and loops around the lake. The city park, complete with a band shell, hosts lots of summer festivals. clearlakeiowa.com

— Recommended by Geri Boesen, creative director, Midwest Living


Scott State Park, north of Scott City, opens like a surprise package amidst the vast plains and farmland of western Kansas. Hidden in a wooded canyon of craggy cliffs, the park's spring-fed lake has a pleasant swimming beach with a playground and concession stand offering food, fishing supplies, canoes and paddleboats. The 1,020-acre state park also has camping, hunting, nature trails and historic sites. kdwpt.state.ks.us/news/state-parks/locations/scott

— Recommended by Beth Reiber, freelance travel writer based in Lawrence, Kan.


Among the most popular of 17 state park resorts is Buckhorn Lake in the rugged mountains of eastern Kentucky. Created in 1961 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Kentucky River, the lake offers swimming and water skiing plus rental cabins, a park lodge and nearby boat-in campsites. parks.ky.gov/parks/resortparks/buckhorn-lake/default.aspx

— Recommended by Stephen Vest, editor/publisher, Kentucky Monthly


Back in business after three hurricanes and a major oil spill, the khaki sand beach at Grand Isle, on the Gulf of Mexico south of New Orleans, stretches flat and shallow for 7 miles. There's plenty of room to swim, wade, kayak or surf-fish, and the close-knit community's family vibe and string of mom-and-pop motels, cabins, campgrounds and a state park (no amusement parks, strip malls or high-rise condos) is welcoming. grand-isle.com

— Recommended by Jack Curry Jr., New Orleans-based writer and blogger


In a state famous for waves crashing against its rock-bound coast, Ogunquit Beach's 3.5-mile stretch of sand has long made this small southern Maine town a summer mecca for beachgoers. The wide, scenic beach also sports a magnificent mile-long cliff walk. Stroll along Marginal Way for a grand view of beach and rock-strewn sea, all in one sweeping glance. ogunquit.org

— Recommended by Mel Allen, editor, Yankee Magazine


Assateague Island National Seashore, a 37-mile-long barrier island that sweeps south from Ocean City, Md., into Virginia, offers sandy shores for kayaking and canoeing and lifeguard-protected beaches. Some beach areas are open to over-sand vehicles. For an unforgettable photo op, scan the shore for wild horses; this is one of the few places in the USA to see them in their environment. 410/641-1441; nps.gov/asis

— Recommended by Antonia van der Meer, editor in chief, Coastal Living magazine


Crane Beach, part of the 2,100-acre Crane Estate in Ipswich, is a gorgeous property owned and protected by the non-profit Trustees of Reservations. Miles of white-sand shoreline and pristine water beckon swimmers and sunbathers, while 5 miles of trails through dunes, a wildlife refuge and the showpiece Great House are a delight to explore. Even in summer, the beach is never overcrowded because parking is strictly controlled. thetrustees.org/places-to-visit/northeast-ma/crane-beach-on-the-crane.html

— Recommended by Kim Foley MacKinnon, travel writer and author of Outdoors With Kids Boston


Ludington's Stearns Park Beach is just one of a string of lovely Ludington beaches that stretch for miles along Lake Michigan. The broad, white-sand swath is family-friendly, with a new skate park, easy access to town and a walkable pier out to North Breakwater Light. michigan.org.

— Recommended by Ellen Creager, travel writer, Detroit Free Press


Minnesota's best beach lies on 6-mile-long Park Point, which shields Duluth's harbor from the furious storms of Lake Superior. Though the water is rarely warm enough for swimming without a wetsuit, the beach is a great spot to watch incoming waves, giant saltwater freighters and Great Lakes ore carriers passing under Duluth's signature Aerial Lift Bridge, and to spot birds that rest on the point during spring and fall migrations. The Park Point Nature Trail follows the beach and occasionally passes old-growth pine and tamarack. exploreminnesota.com

— Recommended by Greg Breining, author of Paddle North: Canoeing the Boundary Waters-Quetico Wilderness


You can get to Ship Island, off the Mississippi coast, only by boat. That's just part of its charm. Undeveloped except for the century-old Fort Massachusetts, this remote beach destination is perfect for a languid day spent shelling and swimming in tranquil waters. Keep an eye out for bottle-nosed dolphins on your sunset cruise back to Gulfport. 866-466-7386; msshipisland.com

— Recommended by Stephanie Granada, travel editor, Southern Living magazine


Table Rock Lake, created by a 6,423-foot-long dam that sits about 6 miles from the heart of the Branson strip in southwest Missouri, has more than 745 miles of shoreline. Private development is kept clear of the shoreline to ensure a natural look, with a buffer of open land for trees, wildflowers and wildlife. Marinas, campgrounds and resorts offer access to the lake, which is one of the largest and cleanest in the USA. 417-739-2564; visittablerocklake.com

— Recommended by Gary Figgins, editor, Show-Me Missouri magazine


The state's 3,000-plus lakes include Whitefish Lake, a sparkling jewel in an eponymous town of 6,300. The 6-by-1-mile lake sports three public access areas, including City Beach, a sandy expanse with picnic shelters, barbecue grills, playground, dock and concession stand. Plus, you get spectacular views of the Whitefish Mountain Range. explorewhitefish.com

— Recommended by Jean Arthur, Montana-based freelance writer


Tucked into the proverbial middle of nowhere in central Nebraska, Calamus Reservoir gets its sandy beaches courtesy of the Sand Hills, a unique ecosystem of prairie grass and rolling sand dunes. And unlike many other state reservoirs, Calamus has very little development along its shoreline. Among the activities available on and off the water: sailboating, windsurfing, water skiing and bird-watching for such varied species as prairie chickens, pelicans and cormorants. outdoornebraska.com

— Recommended by Alan Bartels, field assistant editor, Nebraska Life magazine


Pine-cone-flecked golden sand, towering evergreen forests and deep cobalt waters help Lake Tahoe's Zephyr Cove compete with ocean beaches across the country. But it's the frosty Rum Runner cocktails and abundance of beautiful young beachgoers that make this landlocked beach the best in Nevada. For sun seekers who aren't tempted by fruity frozen drinks and toned, tanned bodies, the adjacent Zephyr Cove Resort features beachside relaxation in historic cabins and the M.S. Dixie II paddlewheel. It offers scenic tours and sunset dinner cruises across the breathtakingly beautiful mountain lake.

— Recommened by Charlie Johnston, associate editor, Nevada Magazine

New Hampshire

Newly renovated Hampton Beach State Park offers swimming, fishing, surfing, picnicking and RV camping (with full hookups) along 2 miles of Atlantic beachfront. Fun events include a sand sculpture competition in June and a seafood festival in September. The beach has been recognized by the National Resources Defense Council as having some of the cleanest water in the USA. nhstateparks.org

— Recommended by Tai Freligh, communications manager, New Hampshire Division of Travel & Tourism Development

New Jersey

New Jersey's southernmost resort town, Cape May, boasts clean and wide ocean beaches and cozy, secluded bay beaches. TripAdvisor named it the No. 2 beach destination in the USA in 2011. Cape May also is renowned for perfectly preserved Victorian B&Bs and has gussied-up waterfront hotels and motels. 866-922-7362; discovercapemay.com

— Recommended by Ken Schlager, editor, New Jersey Monthly

New Mexico

The Blue Hole, aka "Nature's Jewel," in landlocked Santa Rosa, is a spring-fed pool with an inflow of 3,000 gallons per minute of crystal-clear 64-degree water. About 80 feet in diameter, it widens as it deepens, to 130 feet. It's a popular swimming and diving spot today. But it dates to prehistoric times. Later, Spanish explorers, Pueblo Indians and, likely, Billy the Kid before he rode into Santa Rosa, cooled off in the Blue Hole. The '30s brought Route 66, and the spot gained fame as one of the most refreshing stops along the Mother Road. It still is. santarosanm.org

— Recommended by Jan Butchofsky, travel photographer and longtime New Mexico resident

New York

At just over 30 miles long and under a mile wide, car-free Fire Island near New York City consists of national seashore, private property and vast expanses of golden-sand beaches that take up almost half the land. Visitors spend the summer swimming, taking lazy hikes, or getting around by rented bikes and little red wagons. If you haven't rented a cottage, head to Ocean Beach for a hotel — as well as most of the island's few restaurants and all its nightlife. nps.gov/fiis/index.htm

— Recommended by Neil Schlecht and Jason Clampet, Frommer's Guides

North Carolina

The state's coastline is one long, 300-mile beach: The trick is finding a stretch that's not so remote you have to bring your own drinking water, or so overrun by T-shirt huts and putt-putts that you want to flee. Oak Island, south of Wilmington, has a nice blend of basic amenities and miles of open, mellow beach. There's great kayaking on the sound side, a transportation system friendly to bikes, and small-town atmosphere. southport-oakisland.com

— Recommended by Joe Miller, a North Carolina-based blogger

North Dakota

North Dakota is far from an ocean, but it still has beautiful beaches, such as the hidden gem in Icelandic State Park. The beach along the shore of Lake Renwick is simply known as "the swimming area," and its wide swath of soft sand invites digging in toes, building sandcastles and relaxing after a dip. Visitors also can cast a line here. 701-265-4561; parkrec.nd.gov

— Recommended by Beth Schatz Kaylor, North Dakota-based writer and blogger


Cedar Point Beach was already acclaimed by a local newspaper in 1867 for its white sand and prime location along the north-central shore of Lake Erie. The beach grew in popularity boosted by a water trapeze, an 1892 roller coaster, and the historic Breakers Hotel. Today, the beach still boasts a mile stretch of pristine sand, a world-famous amusement park, parasailing, volleyball tournaments, and a unique list of famous guests and events throughout its history. cedarpoint.com

— Recommended by Tom and Joanne O'Toole, Ohio-based travel/outdoor journalists


Nestled at the base of the Ouachita Mountains in eastern Oklahoma, McGee Creek State Park near Atoka includes the small but serene Buster Hight Beach Area. The 3,350-acre McGee Creek reservoir draws a mix of swimmers, anglers and boat enthusiasts, and — unlike other local watering holes — is rarely crowded. Most fellow parkgoers will be deer, rabbits and birds of all kinds. The beach is a perfect vantage point to watch each evening's blazing sunset before heading to a cabin or campsite. travelok.com/listings/view.profile/id.4972

— Recommended by Megan Rossman, associate editor, Oklahoma Today


The boulders, monoliths and towering sea stacks strewn along the southern Oregon coast serve as a dramatic backdrop for winter storms that steamroll across the Pacific. Come summer, however, uncrowded Bandon Beach is a favorite for strolling, splashing and horseback riding. Nearby oceanfront Bandon Dunes Golf Course, a classic Scottish-style links course, has been compared to Pebble Beach and St. Andrews. bandon.com

— Recommended by Alicia Spooner, editor/ publisher, Oregon Coast Magazine


A gentle giant, Pymatuning Reservoir is an all-ages escape. Unlike its Great Lakes cousin Erie, an hour north, Pymatuning offers sheltered beaches along 70 miles of wooded shoreline, family cabins and campgrounds, and a low-horsepower rule that keeps pontoon boats purring. Instead of using a boardwalk, families stroll the Linesville Spillway. So many ducks cluster at this fish hatchery that they literally walk on the fish — a sight that has made generations of toddlers giggle. pymatuning-state-park.org

— Recommended by Christine H. O'Toole, Pittsburgh-based freelance travel writer

Rhode Island

East Matunuck State Beach has more than enough to amuse everyone: waves perfect for boogie-boarding, a huge curve of fine sand to stroll, and a busy breachway at one end where you can watch everything from the Block Island ferry to working fishing boats come and go.A new pavilion and concession stand will open this summer, but if you'd like a casual sit-down lunch or dinner, walk a block or two to Jim's Dock in the adjacent village of Jerusalem. riparks.com/eastmatunuck.htm

— Recommended by Pamela Thomas, former features editor, Providence Journal

South Carolina

Backed by undulating dunes, Kiawah Island's swath of sparkling sand stretches uninterrupted for 10 miles along the Atlantic Ocean. The spectacular beach on this private island is tops in the state for a serene spot to soak in the sun and surf. But you don't have to stay at Kiawah Resort to experience its idyllic sands. Just outside the resort gates, Beachwalker County Park offers the only public access to the island's beach. kiawahresort.com

— Recommended by M. Linda Lee, freelance travel editor and writer in Greenville, S.C.

South Dakota

Crowds will enjoy Lewis and Clark Lake west of Yankton this summer, but there will still be secluded spots on the shoreline. Sunbathers and swimmers take in views of sailboats and eagles on a big blue body of water bordered by yellow chalkstone bluffs. Hiking trails, a marina, bars, music and more make Lewis and Clark a popular prairie respite. 605-668-2985; lewisandclarkpark.com

— Recommended by Bernie Hunhoff, editor, South Dakota Magazine


Nashville Shores water park on Percy Priest Lake has a new Kowabunga Beach, complete with four-story treehouse and "sprayground." Customers also can brave the waves in Breaker Bay wave pool, ride the Big Scream water slide and float down Castaway Creek, Tennessee's widest lazy river. 615-889-7050; nashvilleshores.com

— Recommended by Cindy Dupree, Tennessee Department of Tourist Development


Only a 15-minute drive from Corpus Christi's tourist-packed beach is Padre Island National Seashore, a 70-mile stretch of clean white sand and clear blue water. When you're swimming, you can see the bottom — a rarity where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Lone Star State. This relatively uncrowded and serene area is a great place for families and nature lovers. Besides swimming, you can fish, camp, boat and barbecue. And it's OK to park right on the sand. Just watch for nesting turtles and that pesky high tide. nps.gov/pais/index.htm

— Recommended by Ken Hoffman, columnist, Houston Chronicle


The season is short at Bear Lake Rendezvous Beach in northern Utah. But from Memorial Day to Labor Day, folks pack the expansive beach and nearby campground to enjoy boating, sandcastle building, volleyball and picnics. The water temperatures may be on the cool side, but the area provides a respite from the heat in the valley. Campers can enjoy shade provided by cottonwood, willow and birch trees. Boat and cabin rentals also are available. stateparks.utah.gov/parks/bear-lake/rendezvous

— Recommended by Tom Wharton, outdoors writer, The Salt Lake Tribune


Carved by glaciers and hugged by Mount Hor and Mount Pisgah, 5-mile-long Lake Willoughby in Westmore boasts crystal-clear, usually chilly waters that reach more than 300 feet deep. The North Beach is frequented by families and lots of Canadian vacationers; the South Beach is accessed by a short trail and is clothing-optional. Cabins and camps line the east coast; state forest abuts the south and west. 800-884-8001; travelthekingdom.com

— Recommended by Jen Butson, Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing


Sandwiched between the high-rises of Virginia Beach and the burgeoning vacation towns of the Outer Banks is a 10-mile-long expanse of beach unknown even to most Virginians. False Cape State Park and adjacent Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge occupy a narrow barrier spit — the Atlantic Ocean to the east, Back Bay to the west. Both offer a wild beach experience that is rare on the East Coast. www.dcr.virginia.gov/state_parks/fal.shtml

— Recommended by Andy Thompson, outdoors columnist, Richmond Times-Dispatch


Reaching Olympic National Park's Second Beach, located just south of La Push (yes, the La Push of werewolf infamy), requires less than a mile walk along a worn cedar path before emerging onto driftwood-strewn sands facing dramatic sea stacks. First Beach can get crowded, Third Beach requires a more arduous 1.2-mile hike, but Second Beach is just right, especially when the sun's "golden locks" descend below the Pacific. www.nps.gov/olym

— Recommended by Crai S. Bower, Seattle-based outdoor writer

West Virginia

Located in central West Virginia, Summersville Lake— with five dozen miles of shoreline — is known for natural beauty, Civil War history and outdoor adventures. You can fish, swim, boat, scuba-dive and sunbathe. summersvillecvb.com or wvtourism.com

— Recommended by Jacqueline Proctor, West Virginia Division of Tourism


At Racine's North Beach, everyone from beach bums to pro volleyball players share a 50-acre stretch of well-groomed sand along Lake Michigan. The beach also is home to the fort-like Kids Cove, a large outdoor playground. The Racine Zoo is just three blocks north along a paved lakefront path. Other bonuses: weekend music concerts, lifeguards, free parking. cityofracine.org/depts/health/beach.aspx

— Recommended by Mary Bergin, author of Sidetracked in the Midwest: A Green Guide for Travelers


Wyoming isn't exactly beachcomber territory, but Horseshoe Bend in Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area has a large swimming area. There are grass and trees above the beach for picnicking, and a marina offers rentals and refreshments. Guided boat trips weave under canyon cliffs past Native American cliff-dwelling ruins. nps.gov/bica

— Recommended by Chuck Coon, Wyoming Office of Tourism

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