2019 Bucket List

North America’s 16 Best, Most Overlooked Beaches

Warm weather has officially arrived, and we’ve got your plan: the most stunning beaches for surfing, casting, lounging, and exploring


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Catch the Wind

Playa Norte, Los Barriles, Baja California Sur, Mexico

It’s hard to imagine that anywhere close to Cabo could feel like a secret, let alone a sanctuary. But if you head north instead of south on Highway 1 from Los Cabo International Airport, you’ll discover the wilder side of Baja. Unlike the rough waters of the Pacific coast, the East Cape borders the glassy, bathtub-warm Gulf of California, making it ideal for snorkeling, paddling, and wind sports. In winter the town of Los Barriles, with its wide, flat beaches, turns into a kiteboarding and windsurfing mecca, but in summer you’ll likely have the sand to yourself. Just outside town you’ll find the 30-acre, waterfront Playa Norte RV Park (from $15). With short- and long-term leases, it’s the kind of place that makes you consider quitting your job and living the simple life. —Jen Murphy

Tour Wild Shores

Hobuck Beach, Olympic Peninsula, Washington

Point your compass northwest and eventually you’ll hit Hobuck Beach, on the tip of Washington’s rugged Olympic Peninsula. Surrounded by mountains and rainforest, Hobuck’s isolated shore is protected from storms by a pair of rocky points and offers consistent surf for anglers and boarders nearly year-round. The water is cold—neoprene is a must—but between bald eagle sightings and rambles amid the evergreens that line this forgotten coastline, your frozen fingers will forgive you. Summer is your best bet for sunshine; winter is prime for empty lineups and solitude. For hiking, check out Cape Flattery or trek down to Shi Shi Beach. Both trailheads are located just minutes from Hobuck Beach Resort, which offers camping (from $25) and cabins (from $115) all year. —Kade Krichko

Kick Back in Time

Boca Grande, Gasparilla Island, Florida

Everything about this barrier island is old-school, from the legend of its 18th-century namesake, Spanish pirate José Gaspar, to its Victorian lighthouse. The three-square-mile isle, located an hour’s drive from Sarasota and over a causeway, is as laid-back as Florida gets. No buildings rise higher than three stories, and no retail chains are allowed. In-stead the focus is on the beach and the languid turquoise waters beyond. Bird-watch at Gasparilla Island State Park, paddleboard the Gulf of Mexico, fish for trophy tarpon, or day-trip to nearby Cayo Costa for nine miles of pristine sand. The Gasparilla Inn and Club, an elegant hotel straight out of a Tennessee Williams play, has a private beach on the Gulf side where guests swim, lounge, or take wind- or kitesurfing lessons (from $265). —Stephanie Pearson

Find Fresh Water


Twelvemile Beach, Pictured Rocks National, Lakeshore, Michigan

While the water is clean and cold—averaging just 59 degrees in the summer—this pebble-strewn sugar-sand beach lining Lake Superior’s southern shore looks like the azure Caribbean, due to the sun’s reflection off the surrounding 500-million-year-old sandstone. Arrive early in the day (9 A.M.) or early in the season (mid-June) to nab one of 36 rustic sites in the first-come, first-served Twelvemile Beach Campground, some of which are right on the water. From there, zip into a wetsuit, launch a sea kayak, and paddle stunning shoreline of cliffs and geologic formations like Chapel Rock, a 4,000-year-old freestanding sandstone column. Rent your boat at Grand Marais Outfitters, or get in on a guided tour with Munising-based Pictured Rocks Kayaking. —S.P.

Learn to Surf

Playa Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

A consistent swell and downward dog—that’s why most people come to this village on Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula. Waves break all year off Playa Guiones, a surprisingly empty four-mile belt of jungle-rimmed beach, and range from beginner-friendly to double-overhead. The sandy bottom and excellent local instruction—try a day lesson with Coconut Harry’s or the weeklong Surf Simply camp—make it one of the world’s best places to learn. You’ll notice a plethora of gorgeous yogis walking around sipping kale juice, thanks to the Bodhi Tree Yoga Resort and the Blue Spirit yoga retreat, both of which host accomplished visiting instructors. Grab dinner at La Luna, where everyone goes to watch the sunset over Playa Pelada. Stay at the centrally located Harmony Hotel (from $370). —Mary Turner

Land the Big One

Grand Isle State Park, Grand Isle, Louisiana

The Creole State is better known for bayous than beaches, but head south and you’ll find Grand Isle, where golf carts are the preferred transportation and mom-and-pop restaurants, like the Starfish Diner, serve seriously good seafood. Campers flock to 150-acre Grand Isle State Park and fall asleep to the sound of the surf. But the real draw here: the 280 species of fish found offshore. In summer, Captain Danny Wray of Calmwater Charters will guide you to speckled trout aboard a 22-foot catamaran, and in the fall he leads kayak trips into the marshes to stalk redfish. Come July, fishermen from around the globe descend for the International Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo. It’s touted as the country’s oldest fishing tournament, so expect big catches, crab races, and a shrimp boil. —J.M.

Entertain the Kids

Poipu Beach, Kauai, Hawaii

Poipu has dreamy swaying palms, soft yellow sand, and curling surf breaks, but this three-quarer-mile expanse of three golden crescents on Kauai’s south side is perfect for another reason. Unlike the fierce Pacific swells that batter the island’s north shore, the water here is gentle enough to swim, snorkel, SUP, and catch waves year-round. There are public showers, a brand-new playground, and a protected natural keiki pool for the grommets. Experienced surfers paddle to the outer reef, while rookies take lessons at Poipu Beach Surf School on beginner waves like Lemon Drops. It’s worth soaking up Old Koloa Town’s classic aloha vibe or tackling the Kukui Trail, a five-mile out-and-back that drops 2,000 feet into Waimea Canyon, the iconic Grand Canyon of the Pacific. Splurge on a room at Koa Kea Hotel and Resort (from $429). Just steps from the shore, its spa offers seaside treatments like sunburn-rescue wraps. —S.P.  

Snag Your Own Private Island

Hotel Island, Lake Ouachita, Arkansas

With 40,000 acres of famously clear water, endless bays, and nearly 200 islands—all of which are open to camping—Arkansas’s Lake Ouachita has plenty of beaches. One of the best, Hotel, is really a mini archipelago comprised of three islands dotted by sandy coves. Pick up a free map of the man-made lake when you rent a SUP, kayak, fishing skiff, or ski-boat from the Lake Ouachita State Park marina, on the east side of the lake. After claiming your isle, fish for trophy bass, water-ski, scuba-dive in search of rare freshwater jellyfish, or paddle the 16-mile Ouachita Geo Float Trail, which traces the intricate sedimentary rocks along the shoreline. Meanwhile, from the Brady Mountain Recreational Area, you can run or ride the 40-mile Lake Ouachita Vista Trail, designated Epic by the International Mountain Bicycling Association. —S.P.

Explore Reefs and Wrecks

Loggerhead Key, Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

This collection of seven small islands, accessible only by boat, is one of the most remote national parks. Loggerhead Key, a 49-acre isle filled with coconut groves and a lighthouse surrounded by a ring of empty white-sand beach and some of the best snorkeling in the U.S., is the gem of the lot. Little Africa, a coral reef just off its western shore, is teeming with so many tropical fish, you’ll think you’re inside an aquarium. For something more adventurous, venture a mile south to the Windjammer wreck, a 19th-century ship submerged in just 20 feet of water. Rent kayaks and book a passage on the Yankee Freedom III in Key West. The ferry will drop you at Garden Key, home of imposing Fort Jefferson. From there it’s a three-mile paddle to Loggerhead with the lighthouse to guide your way. —Graham Averill

Escape the City

Beacon’s Beach, Encinitas, California

The steep and winding dirt path that leads down the 80-foot-high bluff from surf-centric Encinitas to Beacon’s Beach is a blessing and a curse. It can feel precarious if you’re hauling a surfboard or a toddler, but the short trek—and limited parking on Neptune Avenue—keeps the crowds away from this secluded city-run beach, named after a flashing clifftop beacon used during World War II. Most come for a swim or a sunrise surf, but there’s enough golden sand for barefoot walks at low tide, too. Don’t know how to surf? Veteran instructor Kahuna Bob will teach you. Need a rental board? Stop by Progression Surf, just blocks away on Highway 101, then grab an Americano and an egg and avocado breakfast sandwich from nearby Coffee Coffee. Finish the day with a pitcher of sangria at Le Papagayo. —M.M.

Camp on the Sand

Portsmouth Island, Cape Lookout National Seashore, North Carolina  

It’s easy to overlook Portsmouth Island. The 250-acre Outer Banks isle sits in the popular Cape Lookout National Seashore, but it has no permanent residents, no paved roads, no shops or Putt-Putt courses. In other words, it’s perfect. Catch the ferry from the town of Atlantic on the mainland and explore the miles of shore along its eastern coast with a 4×4. As part of Cape Lookout, the only region in the Outer Banks where you can camp on the beach, this might be the best excuse ever to use a rooftop tent. Explore the 18th-century ghost town of Portsmouth Village, and bring a shortboard for the beach break, a rake for hunting quahogs, and plenty of fishing gear for the drum and snapper lurking in the deep blue water. —G.A.

Island Hop

Cape Bay Beach, LaHave Islands, Nova Scotia

Canada might seem more suited to thick beards and chunky sweaters than board shorts and sunscreen, but this eastern province has pris-tine beaches in spades. Case in point: the LaHave Islands, a group of 20 small isles punctuated by white sand lining thick pine forests. A road bridges the more populated islands, but it’s worth paddling to the out-lying landmasses. The kayaking is mellow if you stick to the protected channels, but experienced paddlers should search for seals hunting in False LaHave Bay. Pitch a tent on Cape LaHave Island, which is pub-lic land, and head for Cape Bay Beach, with a half-mile’s worth of dunes and bodysurfing. Cape LaHave Adventures offers a food-centric multi-day excursion, with boiled lobster, clams, and oysters on the beach every night. —G.A.

Act Like a Local

Cinnamon Bay, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands

Trunk Bay in Virgin Islands National Park may be St. John’s most famous beach, but locals know to head one odometer click north. Cinnamon Bay has ample sandy real estate, sky blue water, shady nooks under sea grape trees, and the best bodysurfing and people-watching on the island—which, though still recovering from the 2017 hurricane season, is open for business. Hail an open-air taxi in Cruz Bay, St. John’s main settlement, then work up a sweat on the Cinnamon Bay Trail, a two-mile round-trip that starts near old plantation ruins. Cinnamon Bay Water Sports rents paddleboards, kayaks, and Hobie Cats, and offers sailing lessons, too. If you don’t want to deal with coming and going, book an eco-tent at Cinnamon Bay Resort and Campground, just off the beach (from $104). —Devon O’Neil

Surf Empty Sets

(Scott Dickerson)

Cannon Beach, Yakutat, Alaska

Southeast Alaska’s Lost Coast, a remote tract jokingly called the Far North Shore, has long lured devoted surfers with the promise of crowd-free waves and a dramatic wilderness backdrop. After the 55-minute flight from Juneau to the community of Yakutat, head over to Icy Waves Surf Shop, where owner Jack Endicott can outfit you and direct you to the best breaks. Cannon Beach has consistently good surf in summer, and after storms the 14-mile stretch of sand is a beachcomber’s dream, with finds like Japanese fishing floats— spheres of blue glass once used to keep nets afloat. In winter, water temps drop below 40 degrees, but the swell rises to tow-in-worthy heights. After an icy session in a five- or six-millimeter wetsuit, warm up over buttered rum and fresh halibut at Glacier Bear Lodge (from $145). —J.M.  

Discover Your Inner Artist

The Outer Beach, Cape Cod, Massachusetts

This 40-mile band of untouched Atlantic coastline, which curves gently from Chatham to Provincetown, offers something rare in the densely populated Northeast: solitude. Protected from development as part of the Cape Cod National Seashore, the region has long attracted and inspired luminaries including Henry David Thoreau, Jackson Pollock, and playwright Eugene O’Neill, who once called it “a grand place to be alone and undisturbed.” Biking and walking trails wind through the dunes, marshes, and ponds. Entrance fees, collected at the park’s visitor centers and six beaches, are required in summer for access. Afterward, stop by Art’s Dune Tours to book a guided trip of the Peaked Hill Bars Historic District, full of artist shacks from the 1920s, some of which are still in use today. —Ian Aldrich

Earn Your Sand

Wildcat Beach, Point Reyes National Seashore, California  

Alamere Falls, on the southern end of remote Wildcat Beach, sucks people in like a siren call. It’s an Insta-worthy sight, to be sure, with water tumbling 30 feet down sheer sandstone thick with moss before forming a small creek that meanders into the Pacific. But a visit to Wildcat Beach isn’t about social-media glory. It’s about the two and a half miles of remote shoreline caught between the cliffs and the Pacific and the mandatory 5.5-mile hike through Point Reyes National Seashore to get there. From the Palomarin Trailhead you’ll weave through eucalyptus groves, skirt inland ponds, and crest seaside crags before ever setting foot on sand. When you do, continue a mile south to see the waterfall, or head north for solitude among the sea stacks. The trek is best done as a two-day out-and-back, with a stay at Wildcat Camp ($20), located in a meadow on a bluff overlooking the ocean. Or go all-in and link several beaches together for a full hike of the 17-mile Coast Trail. —G.A.