The best beaches in the US—that’s what everyone is looking for now that summer is finally here. The man with the prescription: Dr. Beach, a.k.a. Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, who is professor and director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University and earned his nickname when he was a professor at the University of Maryland, teaching a course on waves and beaches. Leatherman has been ranking the best beaches in America for more than 30 years, sharing the best Florida beaches, the best beaches in California and more. Every year, this renowned geoscientist and coastal ecologist ranks the top 10 beaches in the US based on 50 criteria, including safety, sand quality, cleanliness and—one of Leatherman’s passion points—a ban on smoking. “I give extra credits to beaches with no smoking,” he says.
This year, Dr. Beach has crowned Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach in North Carolina as the best beach in the US in his annual Best Beaches awards, which is published just in time for Memorial Day Weekend. Ocracoke—often called the pearl of the Outer Banks—is an idyllic island 26 miles off the North Carolina mainland, and the beach is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. “Here you have everything—clean sand and clean water and beach safety, plus it has 16 miles of pristine, undeveloped, beautiful wide sandy beach and huge towering dunes covered with American beach grass,” says Leatherman
Leatherman says that Ocracoke is his favorite getaway beach and that he has come here many times over the years on vacation. “They don’t have any big hotels and chains—it’s all small inns,” says Leatherman. His favorite place to stay is a small hotel called Blackbeard’s Lodge, which is named after the legendary pirate. “This was Blackbeard’s favorite beach, his stomping ground,” says Leatherman. “He was a real party guy and he would bring his spoils here and throw big parties and people here loved him. People say that even though he’s long gone, his spirit lives on in this island.”
Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach is also recognized for its iconic 1823 lighthouse—the nation’s second oldest lighthouse—plus a herd of once wild ponies believed to be descended from Colonial Spanish mustangs. A great eco-friendly way to explore the area is to come here on the Ocracoke Express Passenger Ferry. “I enjoy riding a bicycle or renting a golf cart,” says Leatherman.
Another North Carolina beach also made Dr Beach’s list: The Old Lighthouse Beach at Buxton, which is further north in the Outer Banks. “Both of these beaches are within the national seashore and they have no smoking. I give extra credits to beaches with no smoking,” says Leatherman. “And they have lifeguards. Beach safety is also very important to me. Rip currents are most dangerous thing at beaches.”
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So what should someone look for when they’re picking a beach for a summer vacation? “We have hundreds of great beaches in this country and it depends on what you’re interested in. If you want to go surfing, North Carolina’s Old Lighthouse Beach would be the place. If you want to walk, you go to Cape Cod’s Coast Guard Beach,” says Leatherman.
In addition to the top 10 beaches, Leatherman’s website DrBeach.org lists beaches grouped by category—from sporty to wild—plus a hall of fame list of past national winners. (After a beach tops the list, Leatherman retires it to make room for other locations.)
From North Carolina to Florida, here are Dr. Beach’s 10 best beaches for 2022.
The 10 Best Beaches in the US
1. Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach – Outer Banks of North Carolina
Why it made the list: “Ocracoke, once the home of Blackbeard the pirate, is still a special place—it is my favorite getaway beach,” says Leatherman. “Here you will find some of the wildest beaches in the country.
A tip: “Big surf dominates in late summer so families with children may want to come earlier in the year,” says Leatherman. “My personal favorite time to come here is in the fall, when there’s less people and there’s still warm water into late September. It’s really a beach for all seasons.”
2. Caladesi Island State Park – Dunedin/Clearwater, Florida
Why it made the list: “The white beach is composed of crystalline quartz sand, which is soft and cushy at the water’s edge,” says Leatherman.
A tip: “Caladesi is reached by pedestrian ferry boat, private boats or a long walk north from Clearwater Beach; the inlet is closed so Caladesi is no longer a true island, but still a great getaway,” says Leatherman.
3. Coopers Beach – Southampton, New York
Why it made the list: “Coopers Beach is located on the south shore of Long Island, New York, shielded from the cold Labrador currents in the beautiful village of Southampton,” says Leatherman. “Some of the best beach access in the Hamptons exists on Coopers Beach.”
A tip: “A snack bar serving lunch and drinks can be found here,” says Leatherman.
4. St. George Island State Park – Florida Panhandle
Why it made the list: “While St. George Island suffered a big hit in 2018 by Hurricane Michael, the area has substantially recovered, especially the sugary fine, white sand beach,” says Leatherman.
A tip: “There is much to explore on this serene 2,023-acre park,” says Leatherman.
5. Duke Kahanamoku Beach – Oahu, Hawaii
Why it made the list: “Kahanamoku Beach is located on the west end of Waikiki Beach, far from the large crowds elsewhere,” says Leatherman.
A tip: “It is the widest beach on this world-famous stretch of sand and protected by an offshore coral reef, making it a good beach for families with children,” says Leatherman.
6. Lighthouse Beach – Buxton, Outer Banks of North Carolina
Why it made the list: “Lighthouse Beach is where the old spiral-striped Cape Hatteras Lighthouse once stood until it was moved landward in 1999 because of beach erosion,” says Leatherman.
A tip: “This lifeguarded beach is the number one surfing spot on the U.S. Atlantic Coast,” says Leatherman.
7. Coronado Beach – San Diego, California
Why it made the list: “Coronado Beach is the toast of Southern California; it is a veritable oasis by the sea that is hundreds of yards wide,” says Leatherman.
A tip: “The local landmark, Hotel del Coronado, was built over a hundred years ago; kings, sheiks, actors, and actresses have stayed at this iconic hotel,” says Leatherman.
8. Wailea Beach – Maui, Hawaii
Why it made the list: “The white coral sand beach gently slopes offshore and is great for snorkeling when the ocean is calm,” says Leatherman.
A tip: “The swanky hotels are set back far from the beach, providing a beautiful-landscaped park, adorned with tropical vegetation and flowering bushes and trees,” says Leatherman.
9. Beachwalker Park – Kiawah Island, South Carolina
Why it made the list: “South of Charleston, Beachwalker Park is the public beach located on the southern end of Kiawah Island,” says Leatherman.
A tip: “The water is not clear, but it is clean and provides fantastic seafood for low-country cooking,” says Leatherman.
10. Coast Guard Beach – Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Why it made the list: “The picturesque old Coast Guard station still sits atop the glacial bluffs, allowing for a spectacular view of the Nauset Spit barrier system and bay,” says Leatherman.
A tip: “During the summer, beachgoers take quick, refreshing dips in the ocean as water is chilly. In recent years, seals have moved northward from Monomoy Island Wildlife Refuge into the populated beaches, which has attracted great white sharks,” says Leatherman.