The South's Best Beaches

Dauphin Island (Alabama)
Photo: Robbie Caponetto

Where are the best beaches in Florida? The best beaches in North Carolina? From Texas to Maryland, the South has some of the most glorious sand and saltwater you'll find anywhere. Our best beaches offer that wonderful sense of escape that only comes with the wind in your hair, the sun on your face, and the sound of waves breaking against the shore. There are popular favorites like Dauphin Island and Orange Beach in Alabama; Padre Island, Texas; and Seaside, Grayton Beach, and others in South Walton County, Florida. But we also have the stunning waters of Bahia Honda Key; Assateague Island, Maryland, where wild horses have roamed for centuries; and Bald Head Island, North Carolina, where you'll arrive by ferry and cruise around in a golf cart (no cars allowed). Whether you love the Gulf or the Atlantic, a secluded beach or a family-friendly vacation, we've got the best beaches and beach towns on both.

01 of 20

Dauphin Island (Alabama)

Dauphin Island (Alabama)
Robbie Caponetto

One of Alabama's best-kept secrets: This sleepy, family-friendly beach town near the Mississippi border is a favorite summer getaway for Mobile residents. History buffs will want to hop over to Fort Morgan, a quick ferry ride away, while the outdoorsy crowd can take advantage of watersports in the lagoon or cycle the bike trail that runs the length of the island. townofdauphinisland.org

02 of 20

Orange Beach (Alabama)

Orange Beach (Alabama)

With its pearly-white sand and majestic, watercolor-like sunsets, Gulf Shores is one of the Deep South's most beloved beach vacation spots. Plus, just seven miles east is Orange Beach—every bit as pretty and a whole lot more deserted. gulfshores.com

03 of 20

Bahia Honda Key (Florida)

Bahia Honda Key (Florida)
Elena Elisseeva

Just off the Overseas Highway, the 500-plus-acre Bahia Honda State Park is home to one of the few sandy beaches in the Keys. An old railroad bridge, once part of the Overseas Railroad, now forms a pedestrian walkway and observation deck, and the crystal-clear waters are ideal for snorkeling. bahiahondapark.com

04 of 20

Caladesi Island (Florida)

Caladesi Island (Florida)
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Accessible only by private boat or a 20-minute ferry ride from Honeymoon Island, this stunning state park just north of Clearwater is a treat for beachcombers with its myriad shells. Nature enthusiasts will enjoy renting a kayak and paddling among the thick mangroves. floridastateparks.org/park/Caladesi-Island

05 of 20

Naples (Florida)

Naples (Florida)
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There's nary a bad spot along Florida's palm-fringed Gulf Coast, but the glitzy greater Naples area—home to Bonita Beach, Marco Island, and Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park, as well as the extravagances of Millionaires' Row—is the crème de la crème. naplesgov.com

06 of 20

Shell Island (Florida)

Shell Island (Florida)
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Many Panama City Beach vacationers stick close to the Strip, which is all the more reason to hop aboard the shuttle, or a charter boat, and hightail it to Shell Island. This seven-mile uninhabited peninsula is very popular among boaters. Keep your eyes peeled for dolphins as you motor along, as wildlife sightings are many. Back on the mainland, the 1,260-acre St. Andrews State Park is also well worth a visit. visitpanamacitybeach.com/beaches/shell-island

07 of 20

South Walton (Florida)

South Walton (Florida)

These sugar-white sands on the Gulf of Mexico occupy some of the prettiest real estate in the country. You'll be enchanted by the 16 quaint beachfront neighborhoods (including Seaside and Alys Beach), and 26 miles of waterfront along Highway 30A. Don't miss Ed Walline Park in Santa Rosa or the dramatic dunes of Grayton Beach State Park. visitsouthwalton.com

08 of 20

Saint Augustine (Florida)

Saint Augustine (Florida)

This charming community in northeastern Florida has a distinctly old-European flavor to it—St. Augustine was, after all, founded in the 16th century by the Spanish. Enjoy a surf-town vibe thanks to great waves and 40 miles of laid-back beaches (Vilano and Crescent being two local favorites). oldcity.com

09 of 20

Jekyll Island (Georgia)

Jekyll Island (Georgia)
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One of Georgia's popular Golden Isles, Jekyll Island has 10 miles of beautiful beaches. Its lush marshland is home to a colorful tapestry of diverse wildlife, and there are frequent sightings of sea turtles. An hour due south, but accessible only by private boat or ferry from St. Marys, the deserted beaches of Cumberland Island National Seashore make for an enthralling detour. jekyllisland.com

10 of 20

Tybee Island (Georgia)

Tybee Island (Georgia)
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Just east of Savannah, Tybee Island is steeped in Civil War history and peppered with sand dunes. First commissioned in 1732, the Tybee Island Light Station is one of the nation's oldest lighthouses. After surveying the deep blue sea, enjoy one of the island's three distinct oceanfront and two river beaches. tybeeisland.com

11 of 20

Assateague Island (Maryland)

Assateague Island (Maryland)
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Straddling the border with Virginia, this 37-mile-long barrier island is home to wild horses running free. The feral Assateague ponies, and their Chincoteague neighbors—they are separated by a fence—have inhabited the island's National Seashore for hundreds of years. You may also see deer, dolphins, eagles, foxes, or pelicans since so much wildlife calls this incredible island home. assateagueisland.com

12 of 20

Bald Head Island (North Carolina)

Bald Head Island (North Carolina)
Laurey W. Glenn

Life on Bald Head moves at a much slower pace, so you'll immediately feel at ease once you trade your vehicle for a golf cart—no cars are allowed on the isle. You'll arrive via a ferry from the mainland and settle into the lazy, subtropical environment. baldheadisland.com

13 of 20

Ocracoke Island (North Carolina)

Ocracoke Island (North Carolina)
Chris M. Rogers

Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach are arguably the most well-known spots among the Outer Banks' 200 miles of coastline, but it's the artsy village of Ocracoke and the shell-lined Cape Hatteras National Seashore that are the true hidden gems for kiteboarders, surfers, and fishermen alike—as well as those who want to do nothing but chill. The island is a 45-minute ferry ride from the mainland. ocracokevillage.com

14 of 20

Shackleford Banks (North Carolina)

Shackleford Banks (North Carolina)
Peter Frank Edwards

Accessible by passenger ferry, this 9-mile-long barrier island populated by wild mustangs is situated in the southernmost part of the picturesque Cape Lookout National Seashore. nps.gov/calo

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Topsail Beach (North Carolina)

Topsail Beach (North Carolina)
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Just 30 miles north of Wilmington, the rugged North Carolina coastline is on full display on Topsail Island. Rumored to be where Blackbeard buried his treasure, the island is rich in pirate history. Check out the abandoned watchtowers— leftovers from Operation Bumblebee, a post-World War II experimental Navy missile project. Then, enjoy a visit to the Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center. topsailbeach.org

16 of 20

Capers Island (South Carolina)

Capers Island (South Carolina)
Jason Frye

Capers Island, just south of Charleston, is home to the aptly named Boneyard Beach. For over a mile along this otherworldly stretch of sand, twisted tree skeletons protrude from the Atlantic. Catch a ferry, captain your own vessel, or paddle a kayak, because you can get here only by water. Once you arrive, you can camp here among the hollowed cedars and oaks—as long as you have a free permit.

17 of 20

Kiawah Island (South Carolina)

Kiawah Island (South Carolina)
Christopher Shane

Home to the much acclaimed resort of the same name, Kiawah Island's 10,000-acre private community in the South Carolina Lowcountry houses a preserve, as well as a Conservancy protecting and researching various species of reptiles and birds. kiawahisland.com

18 of 20

Sullivan's Island (South Carolina)

Sullivan’s Island (South Carolina)
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The Charleston area is teeming with accessible beaches like the tourist favorite, Folly Beach, but few offer quite the view as Sullivan's Island. It overlooks Fort Sumter, James Island, the Battery, Mount Pleasant, and the whole of the harbor. charlestoncvb.com/beaches/sullivans-island

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Padre Island (Texas)

Padre Island (Texas)
Kenny Braun

Hit this spring break party spot at any other time of the year and you'll be pleased by how peaceful you'll find it. On North Padre Island, enjoy 70 miles of flat, protected coast in the Padre Island National Seashore; on South Padre, find 34 miles of uninterrupted beaches and the sparkling emerald waters of the Gulf—quite simply, one epic sandcastle scene. sopadre.com

20 of 20

Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge (Virginia)

Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge (Virginia)
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Virginia Beach may have a lively boardwalk in the heart of its downtown, but venture just south for complete peace and quiet—and perhaps even a dolphin or two—in the 8,000-acre Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. You might also spy white-tailed deer, sea turtles, herons, and other waterfowl among the sand dunes and freshwater marshes, so have your binoculars ready. fws.gov/refuge/back_bay

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