America's Most Beautiful Coastal Views
People often talk about how moving the shore is—a place that relaxes, awakens, and recharges. Then there are those whom, well, it literally moves: “Our family loved going to the beach so much that we spontaneously picked up and moved our family of six there! No job, no plan, no idea whether we’d truly like it or not.... We just did it,” says Mike Ragsdale, formerly of Birmingham, AL, now of Santa Rosa Beach, FL. “That was almost four years ago, and we all agree it was the best thing we ever did as a family.”
What is it about ocean shorelines that has such power? They touch every sense: the redolence of fresh sea breeze, the sand underfoot, the sparkling sunsets, and the white noise of crashing waves. Whether you’re reclining on windswept sands or trekking across dizzying bluffs, the ebb and flow of the water is hypnotic, and its sheer expanse grounding. Something as vast as the ocean just puts all of life’s little worries into perspective.
“For me, it’s the freedom that comes with a coastal visit that’s particularly appealing,” says Jeanna Zelin, founder of Retreats by the Sea, which organizes luxury wellness getaways to such beachside destinations as Portland, ME; Santa Barbara, CA; and Chatham, MA. “You’re on vacation, so there’s no work to be done. Plus, the textures and scents and sounds of the surf carry your mind away—you turn off your left brain and just start feeling.”
Zelin’s lifelong affinity for the beach stems from childhood summers on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where wild ponies roam on certain shores. Those on Shackleford Banks have a special story, says Zelin: “The origin of the Shackleford horses, according to my relatives in North Carolina, is a mystery—with the most common legend telling the story of Spanish mustangs swimming ashore from a wrecked ship.” Camping next to meandering horses, especially ones with such an exotic backstory, makes for the most romantic and rustic of beach scenes.
Treasures can be found along all of the United States’ coasts, 95 thousand miles of eastern, western, northern, and southern shoreline that exemplify the diversity our country has to offer. Rent a convertible, crank up some Beach Boys, and cruise down the glittery glam beaches that line California’s Pacific Coast Highway. Or, for a more isolated drive, try winding in and out of the majestic fjords draping southeast Alaska’s forested border, a haven for bald eagles and humpback whales.
So whether you crave a bracing hike along blustery seaside cliffs or a relaxed afternoon under the fiery sun, the U.S. has a shore to match your every mood—and views that will blow you away.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Big Sur, CA
Some of the earth’s tallest and oldest trees, coastal redwoods can soar nearly 400 feet into the air and live more than 3,500 years. Our favorite place to sit and contemplate among this impressive species—native to certain areas of California and southwest Oregon—is Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. It’s smaller than other protected areas in central California’s Big Sur region and undeservedly (but blessedly) overlooked.
Insider Tip: The best view in the whole place is of McWay Falls, a rare coastal waterfall. Climb 10 minutes from the Julia Pfeiffer Burns parking lot (following the signs for the upper trail) to see its torrent plunge 80 feet from a vertiginous mountainside straight into the turquoise Pacific.
Brewster, Cape Cod, MA
On the beckoning hook of Massachusetts lies the town of Brewster, with mirage-like tidal flats so vast that a coast in Brazil is said to be their only rival in size. During low tide, you can walk a mile into the ocean on freshly exposed sand, alongside minnow-filled tidal pools, skittering hermit crabs, and bubbles from quahogs breathing underfoot.
Insider Tip: Stock up on penny candy like Boston Baked Beans and nonpareils at The Brewster Store before setting out to the beach. Eating it on the shore while looking up at the wind-beaten, colonial clapboard houses atop the bluff is pure Americana.
Ten Thousand Islands, Everglades National Park, FL
The nine delicate, endangered ecosystems within this 1.5 million-acre World Heritage–protected sanctuary, located on Florida’s southwest tip, contain a mind-boggling range of flora and fauna. Take in nature’s glory in the Ten Thousand Islands, a chain of mangrove-forested barrier islands bordering Chokoloskee Bay where, on any given day, you’ll spot great blue herons, endangered West Indian manatees, and gargantuan gators and crocs swimming alongside one another—the only place in the world where these toothy reptiles coexist.
Insider Tip: Take an Everglades Island airboat tour to get an overview of the untamed Gulf shore and its many wild animals...with, of course, a safe distance between you and the snapping jaws of those crocs.
Tongass National Forest, AK
Alaska’s Tongass National Forest—the largest in the U.S.—is a rainforest (albeit a temperate one) on Alaska’s southern coast. All that precipitation makes for a spectacular landscape, with mist-obscured coves, mighty waterfalls, and North Pacific fjords as immense and enchanting as Norway’s. Plus, the extraordinary wildlife (think bald eagles, porcupines, black bears) is exactly what one dreams of in Alaska, and the activities are endless, from fly-fishing to sea kayaking.
Insider Tip: From May through the first week of September, Orvis’s weeklong Alaska Adventure Cruise package will help you access the hard-to-get-to spots on intimate ships, with onboard naturalists who accompany guests during onshore excursions.
Makalawena Beach, Kekaha KaiState Park, HI
The Big Island’s west Kona Coast may be renowned for its coffee beans, but its best hidden treasure is a beach called Makalawena. To get there, park at Mahaiula and head north on the dirt path for a sweaty third-of-a-mile hike—part of it across a jagged dried lava bed. You’ll be surprised to emerge at a heavenly, triple-crescented, white sand beach so isolated that, if you even encounter another soul, it’s likely to be a flippered, friendly-looking green turtle, which for decades has teetered on the verge of extinction.
Insider Tip: Pick up a boogie board ($8.75/day) or surfboard ($30/day) at Learn to Surf Kona along Highway 19 before you test out the waves. Afterward, rinse off in the freshwater pond concealed by palm trees just beyond the sand dunes.
Newport Beach, RI
America’s wealthiest families started building their “summer cottages” (read: stately mansions) here in the mid-19th century, attracted by Newport Beach’s gorgeous views. Not much has changed since then, except that many of the historic homes—which overlook sweeps of ocean so immense it’s easy to forget that Rhode Island is our smallest state—are now open to the public, thanks largely to the efforts of Doris Duke in the 1950s. Her sprawling, 1887 English manor–style estate, Rough Point, is among the island’s most spectacular buildings—and it has the vistas to match.
Insider Tip: Don’t skip the mostly gentle 3.5-mile cliff walk, atop the beaches’ craggy rocks.
Pacific Coast Highway, Santa Monica, CA
Winding 130 miles from Oxnard to Dana Point, past some of America’s most famous beaches, this scenic southern stretch of California’s Route One is the perfect setting for a classic American road trip. The best stretch may be the four-mile, palm-lined portion that overlooks the golden sands and white-tipped surf of Will Rogers and Santa Monica state beaches from atop grassy cliffs—it’s the stuff of California dreaming. To best enjoy the area’s near constant sunny days (more than 300 per year), keep that convertible top down.
Insider Tip: Evoke the glamour of a 1920s Hollywood getaway with a night (or a meal) fit for a movie star at Mediterranean-style Casa del Mar, a T+L World’s Best Hotel. You’ll find it by detouring off Highway One at the end of the route.
It’s no wonder the Algonquin Indians named this idyllic spot—now a quaint village packed with antique shops and galleries—Ogunquit, or “beautiful place by the sea”: the 3.5-mile stretch of windswept muslin-colored sand ringed by stone outcroppings is especially striking when compared to Maine’s characteristically craggy shore. Known for an art colony established in 1898, the town continues to inspire painters and photographers today.
Insider Tip: Ogunquit’s Marginal Way—an easy one-and-a-quarter-mile stroll—starts downtown, meanders along craggy cliffs (which drop straight into cormorant- and duck-dotted waters), and ends at Perkins Cove, with two not-to-miss attractions: an iconic 19th-century footbridge and Footbridge Lobster, where the signature lobster roll is stuffed with five ounces of the day’s freshest catch—hauled in by the owner himself—and served with a side of chips or cole slaw.
Shackleford Banks, NC
You don’t have to be starring in a Clint Eastwood western to camp amid wild horses: on the Outer Banks of North Carolina—a string of spaghetti-skinny barrier islands skirting the state’s east coast—that’s just your standard vacation. The best place to pitch your tent is on the golden sands of secluded Shackleford Banks, on the Cape Lookout National Seashore, where more than 100 ponies roam among the dunes, snacking on seagrass and lazing in the surf. Legend has it they’re descendants of Spanish mustangs that escaped a shipwreck.
Insider Tip: Take the 15- to 20-minute ferry from Morehead City ($15 round-trip; crystalcoastferry.com), Beaufort ($15; islandferryadventures.com), or Harkers Island ($10-$20; capelookoutferry.com) to reach the uninhabited 2,500-acre island, part of Cape Lookout National Seashore’s Crystal Coast.
Shi Shi Beach, Olympic National Park, WA
When most people conjure the Pacific Northwest, specific images spring to mind—and Shi Shi (pronounced “shai shai”) Beach has it all: sea stacks towering above the ocean, Sitka spruce forests, and soaring herons. It’s 2.5 miles along remote, driftwood-strewn sands from the beach’s entrance to the iconic Point of Arches, a chain of enormous arched, piled, and pointed rocks—but we promise it’s well worth the walk.
Insider Tip: The muddy, three-mile trail from the parking lot to the beach crosses gorgeously forested Makah Indian Reservation lands. Before heading out, pick up a Makah recreational permit ($10; valid for one year), some picnic-ready snacks, and galoshes at Washburn General Store, located in town.
Long Beach, WA
This 28-mile-long finger of land dips into the Pacific at just the spot where the Columbia River shoots into the ocean. While it may or may not be the “World’s Longest Beach,” as a sign asserts, it is most certainly among the most untouched and hasn’t changed much in the two centuries since Lewis and Clark finished their expedition there. Take in the same view of the magical sunlit shore they must have admired while walking the 8.5-mile Discovery Trail that traces part of their route or stroll along the half-mile wooden boardwalk resting on top of the dunes.
Calvert Cliffs State Park, MD
This peaceful beach on the Chesapeake Bay attracts avid fossil hunters and shell lovers from all over the East Coast—the scenic, sandy cliffs between the bay and the woods occasionally calve like glaciers and deposit fresh Miocene-era shark teeth and snail fossils on the beach. An easy two-mile hike on paths through woods and over wetlands keeps the beach blissfully lonesome. Though the cliffs aren’t open for hiking, they provide a beautiful backdrop for watching the sunset while the gentle waves of the Chesapeake Bay jostle oyster and clamshells up on the sand.
Kiawah Island, SC
This South Carolina coastal retreat offers miles of starfish and conch shell-lined beach and marsh-lined forested paths not far from Charleston. The best way to take in the views from Kiawah Island’s expansive 10-mile crescent of shoreline is from its championship golf courses. Although all five of the Kiawah Island Golf Resort’s courses are worthy, the Pete Dye–designed Ocean course, with water views on every hole, is the main attraction. After playing, head to the Ocean Course Clubhouse for panoramic views over the Atlantic.
Tybee Island, GA
This island community, just a half hour from Savannah, offers beach lovers plenty of wide stretches of white sand for building castles. To immerse yourself in the scenery, take a kayak tour from Tybee Island through narrow tidal creeks to Little Tybee Island ($55; savannahcanoeandkayak.com), an uninhabited nature preserve that’s home to coastal salt marshes, untouched beaches, and lush subtropical forests. If you’re lucky, you might even see the resident dolphins that inhabit the maze of barrier islets off Georgia’s coast.
St. Pete Beach, FL
More old Florida than new, this lazy, low-key town on the central west coast of the Sunshine State is blissfully free of party-down revelers and velvet-rope VIP rooms. Instead, St. Pete Beach has a healthy subculture of surfers, who tend to congregate at the nearby Sunset and Upham beaches or, a bit farther north, at the Redington Beach pier. The Don CeSar, a pink lady of a resort that dominates the skyline and prime location on the sand dunes, delivers barefoot luxury with all the amenities—spa, beachfront pools, and wide-open views of the Gulf of Mexico.
Cumberland Island, GA
A short ferry ride from the crowded mainland, gloriously deserted Cumberland Island is a land unto itself: nearly 20 miles of practically untouched wilderness is dotted with the occasional historic building or ruin. A former Carnegie family retreat, this undeveloped barrier island has majestic wild horses, sugary beaches, and hiking trails through sand dunes, palmetto forests, and bird-filled salt marshes. Rent a bike from the park rangers and head south from the ferry landing to Dungeness Beach, to catch ocean views where seashells wash ashore.
South Padre Island, TX
The beauty of the 34 miles of undeveloped beaches and dunes at Texas’s southernmost tip is best experienced in the pristine blue waters: sports fans can try windsurfing, kite-surfing, or sand-surfing. Board-free doesn’t mean bored, though: go for a horseback ride on the beach or paddle a kayak through back bays and inlets; jump a fishing charter or dolphin-watching cruise; or just drive out to the end of the northbound road, cross the dunes to an empty beach, and pretend you’re on a deserted island. Unwind at day’s end while watching the sunset behind the calm waters of the Laguna Madre Bay on the island’s western shore.
Cannon Beach, OR
Ancient, rocky fingers reach up from the ocean near this popular beach town, anchored by an iconic 235-foot-tall fist known as Haystack Rock. The sea stacks draw nature lovers, who traipse the wide sandy crescent, straining to see offshore puffins or watch the sun’s inevitable descent between the basalt spires. As the tide recedes, people chase the water line and clamber over now-exposed stones, searching for starfish while gazing straight up at Haystack and the endless whitecaps beyond.
Nearly 100 miles of rugged, rocky coastline stretch out from Lubec. Located on a peninsula less than a mile at its widest, and flanked by bays, it can be tough finding a spot without beautiful coastline views. Spend an afternoon exploring the area's many lighthouses, or watch the sunrise from the coast—after all, this is the easternmost town in the U.S.
Cape May, NJ
Gently curving sandy stretches, dunes, and lighthouses make southern New Jersey a coastal viewing paradise. While it’s beautiful anytime of the year, Cape May offers a bonus attraction for just a few months each year: migratory birds pass through on their commute south for the winter. Starting mid-August and lasting into November, spot swallows, warblers, hawks, and falcons flapping down the shore.
Isle Royale, MI
One of the country’s least-visited national parks, part of the island’s appeal is its isolation. With about 15,000 visitors annually, the virtual deserted nature of the island make the coastal views that much more peaceful. Be sure to look for freshwater clams and snails lurking around in tidal pools. (Note: the park is closed in winter.)
Point Reyes, CA
Home to more than 1,000 different species of plants and animals, this West Coast national park delivers coastal views with your choice of surrounding; whether you prefer sandy shorelines or rocky cliffs, you can find it here...just make sure to get there in time to see the sunset over the Pacific.
Tourists flock to Key West not only for the laidback, party island atmosphere, but for the breathtaking views of the ocean, particularly at sunset. Score a seat at one of the many outdoors hot spots just off Front or Duval streets on the island’s west coast, grab a cool glass of Key West Lemonade (spiked with vodka), and wait for the show. Of course, we can’t promise it’ll be quiet.