The 12 best US beaches

From southeast Florida to northwest Washington to Hawaii, Lonely Planet editors have picked the top 12 beaches in the USA.

Caves, coves and arches; mystical fog and sprawling coastlines; urban, sprawling and surfing beaches; unique formations, coastlines, colors and perspectives…the 100 shorelines featured in Lonely Planet’s Best Beaches – available in late February 2024 – cover the world.

Whether you’re looking for tips for the next trip or simply desire some beach-chair travel, we’re delighted to share the beaches in the USA that made the cut.

Read on to discover Lonely Planet’s top 12 beaches in the US. 

Man walking on Driftwood Beach on Jekyll Island, Georgia, USA, with weathered trees at sunrise.
Huge, eerie tree trunks dot Driftwood Beach © MargaretW / Getty Images / iStockphoto

1. Driftwood Beach, Golden Isles, Georgia

The gnarled oaks littering the golden sands of Jekyll Island off the coast of Georgia are haunting. They’re even a bit eerie with their spider-like branches draped across the shore. But the trees pull you in for a closer look, whispering of mysteries from centuries past. And maybe even tales of zombies – The Walking Dead filmed scenes for its 10th season here.

But with kids exploring tide pools and climbing onto sun-bleached tree trunks, the scene is far from morbid. Plus there’s a steady stream of brides and grooms smiling for wedding shots among the branches at sunset, making the most of the technicolor backdrop.

Once part of a maritime forest, the trees fell as the beach eroded and their roots were exposed to sun and salt. Some trees may be more than 500 years old while others have collapsed more recently due to storms and the relentless encroachment of the Atlantic.

Aerial view of tidal outflow at Grayton Beach, Florida, USA
Florida’s Grayton Beach features rare dune lakes © Rotorhead 30A Productions / Shutterstock

2. Grayton Beach, Grayton Beach State Park, Florida 

The sugar-white sands of Grayton Beach billow like delicate frosting, their ephemeral beauty ever-shifting thanks to winds and waves along the Florida panhandle. They’re a striking contrast to the blue-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico, which gently lap the shore.

But this one-mile (1.6km) strip of pristine sand, part of Grayton Beach State Park, is more than just a pretty face. The beach’s dunes protect three coastal dune lakes, which are a rare natural phenomenon found in only four countries around the world. A 4.5-mile (7.2km) multiuse trail winds through the woods and along the 100-acre (40-hectare) Western Lake, the largest of the park’s coastal dune lakes. Its dazzling blue waters are open for kayaking, canoeing and stand-up paddleboarding.

Illuminated hotels on Ocean Drive at South Beach, Miami Beach, Florida, USA
With its art deco architecture and lively party scene, South Beach is one of the most exciting in the US © Wojtek Zagorski / Getty Images

3. South Beach, Miami Beach, Florida

A sparkling confection of sunshine, style and beautiful people, South Beach embodies the good life. Just east of downtown Miami, SoBe dazzles like a kaleidoscope paused.

Aquamarine waters lap luxurious white sands while the tidy greenery of Lummus Park and the Promenade unfurls just west. Candy-bright lifeguard towers bring whimsy to the beach, doubling as calling cards for the many colorful facades in the Miami Art Deco District. Built in the 1930s, art deco hotels along Ocean Dr are showpieces of geometry, color and function. Caribbean flourishes and soaring palm trees add more aesthetic oomph while neon and nightclubs bring late-night sizzle. 

Skateboarders and onlookers at Venice Beach, Los Angeles, California, USA
There’s always something cool to check out at Venice Beach © arkanto / Shutterstock

4. Venice Beach, Los Angeles, California 

Cheap sunglasses are for sale in every direction on the Venice Beach Boardwalk, a 2-mile (3.2km) strip of creativity hugged by weed dispensaries, t-shirt shops and French-fry joints in southern Los Angeles – and that’s just the view on the inland side.

On the oceanside, palm trees frame the sandy beach and the Pacific, but views are interrupted by weightlifters pumping iron at Muscle Beach, basketball players shooting hoops on busy courts and skateboarders gliding skyward at the shiny skateboard park – take a seat and watch the action. Jugglers, gymnasts and artists all vie for attention – and a few bucks – along the way.

Sunset view of people having fun on El Matador Beach, Malibu, California, USA
The bluffs of El Matador Beach catch the setting sun’s rays in a dreamy way © Jiujiuer / Shutterstock

5. El Matador State Beach, Malibu, California

A “pocked beach” in western Malibu, El Matador may be tiny but it packs an oversized visual punch. One of three small beaches comprising Robert H Meyer Memorial State Beach – the other two are El Pescador and La Piedra – El Matador hugs the base of craggy bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean beside Hwy 1.

A dirt path drops down the rugged cliffside to a set of stairs that descend to the soft sands of the beach, where the visual feast really begins. A cluster of rocks and sea stacks extend from the cliffs across the cove and into the sea. The largest formations hide arches and caves, which are prime candidates for exploring and photography. Tide pools filled with sea life also demand up-close inspection. As the sun sets, a golden glow illuminates the rocks, casting shadows and revealing treasures not previously seen. On a quiet afternoon the effect borders on the sublime. 

Sunset light passes through the arch of a rock formation, Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur, California
You won’t want to miss sunset from Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur © Christer Dabu / Shutterstock

6. Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur, California

For several weeks in late December, the setting sun illuminates Keyhole Arch and a sliver of coastline with a luminous golden light. Whether a message from the gods, a portal to another world or a simple but unparalleled work of nature along the rugged Big Sur coast in California, it’s a spectacular sight during the weeks surrounding the winter solstice. And spectacular becomes sublime when a wave crashes within the arch, its spray aglow with the ethereal light.

After rainstorms, the crescent-shaped beach may turn purple in spots due to the manganese garnet washed down from the coastline’s crumbly bluffs. Due to dangerous surf, Pfeiffer Beach isn’t recommended for swimming, and it can get windy – but walking, beachcombing and sunsets are superb.

A horseback riding group by Haystack Rock on Cannon Beach, Oregon, USA
However you take in misty Cannon Beach, you’ll remember it © Adam Hester / Getty Images

7. Cannon Beach, Oregon

Haystack Rock is a mood. A volcanic remnant formed by 17 million years of uplift and erosion, it rises 235ft (72m) above Cannon Beach. A basalt monolith, it would have been familiar to the Clatsop and Chinook communities as well as the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which wintered near here in 1805 and 1806. Today Haystack Rock and the beach are popular destinations for beachgoers seeking wildlife and amazing sunset views.

Within the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge on the north Oregon coast, Haystack Rock is a haven for tufted puffins, seals and sea lions. At low tide, beachcombers can walk to its base and explore its tide pools, home to sea stars and anemones. Gray whales and humpback whales migrate along the coast in winter and again in spring. Held in June, the Cannon Beach Sandcastle Competition is truly ephemeral – all the entries are washed away by high tide after existing for a mere five hours.

The waters of Lake Tahoe at Sand Harbor, Nevada, USA
Lake Tahoe’s pristine waters tempt at Sand Harbor © Getty Images

8. Sand Harbor, Lake Tahoe, Nevada

On a spring day, when crowds are light and snow still drapes the Sierra Nevada mountains, Sand Harbor and its lakefront boulders evoke a land that time forgot. Crystal clear blue waters. Ancient white sands. Jefferson pines that soar overhead. There’s an ageless and transportive tranquility here – at least until summer, when beach umbrellas and stand-up paddleboards disrupt the spell as the crowds roll in.

Lake Tahoe, which straddles the California–Nevada state line, is the largest alpine lake in the country and the second-deepest. The water is so clear that you can sometimes see objects 70ft (21m) below the surface. You can appreciate that clarity at Sand Harbor, especially if you rent a kayak and paddle its small bay. 

A woman wacthes the wild horses of Assateague Island National Seashore, Virginia, USA
The wild horses of Assateague Island are enchanting. Just keep your distance © Vicky Faye Aquino / Shutterstock

9. Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland and Virginia 

With wild horses galloping across its windswept beaches, Assateague Island National Seashore exudes a surprisingly feral vibe, a rarity along the highly developed shores of the Mid-Atlantic. Thick maritime forests and rugged dunes round out the dramatic scene. A barrier island, Assateague hugs the coast of Maryland and Virginia on the Eastern Shore, a three-hour drive from Washington, DC. With camping permitted on the beach, it’s easy for city dwellers to dig into its untamed splendor – and wake up to gorgeous sunrises.

The park’s 37-mile (59km) beachfront is divided by the Maryland–Virginia state line. Low-key adventuring is a hallmark of the Maryland side, with hiking on nature trails, kayaking in bayside marshes and 4 miles (6.4km) of road cycling on Bayberry Dr. At Maryland’s Assateague State Park, which is tucked inside the national seashore, there is a bathhouse and, in summer, lifeguards. Stay at least 40ft (12m) away from the horses – they’re more bad-tempered than polite.

Palm trees and lush forest backs the white-sand beach of Hanalei Bay in Kaua‘i, Hawaii, USA
Dreamy forests and mountains rise from the shore of Kaua‘i’s Hanalei Bay © Sam Strickler / Shutterstock

10. Hanalei Bay, Kaua‘i, Hawaii

The last place on Earth, or a doorstep to the heavens? The difference hardly matters when admiring Kauaʻi’s Hanalei Bay, a 2-mile (3.2km) crescent of golden sand carved from the northern edge of the northernmost island in the Hawaiian archipelago. Just west of Black Pot Beach Park, the photogenic Hanalei Pier juts into the soft blue waters of the bay. Framed by rumpled green mountains and blue skies brushed with clouds, the 300ft-long (91m) pier is the only thing keeping this North Shore masterpiece tethered to reality.

The beach is divided into four named sections along the coast. Kayakers and novice surfers flock to the area around the pier, where the surf is typically the calmest. Surf lessons are offered just west. Big swells draw experienced surfers to Waiʻoli (Pine Trees) Beach Park near the middle of the beach in winter. Swimming conditions vary by location and season but are typically best in summer. Sunbathing and snorkeling are also popular.

A wide-angle shot of Oneloa Beach/Big Beach, Maui, Hawaii
Popular Oneloa Beach in Maui still retains a wild quality © Tim Roberts Photography / Shutterstock

11. Oneloa Beach/Big Beach, Maui, Hawaii

There’s something pleasingly untamed about Oneloa Beach, a broad strip of golden sand in the far southern reaches of Maui. Yes, it’s part of Makena State Park, where lifeguards scan the Pacific from canary-bright lifeguard stands. But the setting remains wild. A tangle of tropical greenery presses in on the sandy path that leads to the near mile-long (1.6km) beach – oneloa means “long sand” in Hawaiian – and the Pacific pounds the shore with waves that are an otherworldly shade of blue.

Beachgoers should be aware that shorebreaks (steep waves that break near the shore) can be too brutal for swimming. But from atop the lava-rock promontory at Oneloa’s south end, views of the beach – which is flanked by the lush slopes of Haleakalā – are magnificent.

Tourists visit Ruby Beach in Olympic National Park, Washington State, USA
Ruby Beach in Olympic National Park offers staggering natural beauty © Jason Kolenda / Shutterstock

12. Ruby Beach, Olympic National Park, Washington

It looks like a giant emptied his pockets on the shores of Ruby Beach in Olympic National Park. Tree trunks are strewn like matchsticks. Sea stacks cluster like crumbled chocolates. And a colorful assortment of agates, garnets and sea glass add a touch of glitter to the captivating mess.

The sea stacks, reachable at low tide, are the public face of coastal erosion here. Once part of the mainland, they formed after a centuries-long onslaught by ocean waves, which also carved out their caves and arches. Flanked by forested sandstone cliffs, Ruby Beach is a wonderland for children, with tide pools hiding anemones, sea urchins, purple starfish and skittering crabs. The shore and its polished rocks – the agates give the beach its ruby coloring – also hold treasures for sharp-eyed rockhounds and seashell hunters.

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