The South's Most Secret Beaches
Washington Oaks Gardens State Park
Palm Coast, Florida This is the place for people who love dramatic natural settings. Nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway about 35 minutes south of St. Augustine, this golden-sand state park is rocky―covered with coquina, or “sand” that is actually made of crushed shells. Three- to 4-foot boulders of compressed coquina dot the beach. Each rock looks as if it were sculpted by a trained hand.
At low tide, waves pound the rocky coast, making it a place not for swimming, but strolling. Tidal pools attract a variety of seabirds, from herons and egrets to willets and sandpipers. The park’s western edge features a majestic formal garden and a historic home under long-armed live oaks. floridastateparks.org/washingtonoaks
Hidden between stately Beaufort and exclusive Fripp Island, this Lowcountry isle is a quiet place, with 3 miles of secluded beach visited mostly by pelicans, herons, and horseshoe crabs. Each day here begins with a sunrise that turns the Atlantic into a pink sea framed by golden marsh grasses.
Harbor Island feels far away from it all, but not too far from the amenities that make a good family trip. Groups can bunk in low-rise villas or choose from a few dozen oceanfront homes large enough for family reunions. There’s a community playground too.
Nearby attractions offer plenty to do: Explore Gullah culture on St. Helena Island, try a shrimp burger at the Shrimp Shack, climb the lighthouse at Hunting Island State Park. Later, get a sitter and join the throngs at Johnson Creek Tavern, Harbor’s local dive.
Eight glorious miles of nearly footprint-free sands lie hidden on this tiny tropical island between Marco Island and Naples. The bay side grows lush with the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. It’s hard to imagine you’re just a few miles west of the traffic on I-75.
There’s no bridge, so you’ll need a boat to anchor at the calmer bay side. Keewaydin’s few visitors gravitate to its southern tip, where a quarter-mile path through sea oats, palms, and pines leads to the beach. Pack a picnic or find the Burger Barge, which pulls up on the sand to serve hot sandwiches with ice-cold sodas and beer.
Join locals for day trips or to dance in the sand at the annual boat party, held the second Saturday in May. or opt for quieter days, when you can score a deal at the Naples Bay Resort.
West Ship Island
Gulf Islands National Seashore, Mississippi
Of all our picks, this small barrier island is the farthest from civilization, about 11 miles southeast of Gulfport, Mississippi. Getting there is part of the fun. To reach it, hop aboard a Ship Island Excursions ferry for an hour-and-15-minute ride across sparkling waters to the new visitors center.
The National Park Service typically posts lifeguards here from Memorial Day to Labor Day, along with chair and umbrella rentals (you’ll find a restroom and cold-water showers too). The ferry has a snack bar, but most folks bring a small cooler (you must pack out what you bring in). On the island’s west end, explore Fort Massachusetts, which dates to 1866.
The ferry runs two times each day in the summer, so you can stay a few hours or linger all day. Weekends tend to be more crowded, but from early to mid-week, you’ll have this island paradise almost all to yourself.
Driftwood Beach/Jekyll Island
Not far from the new-hotel construction zone in the middle of Jekyll Island, this secret shore on the northern tip offers solitude and haunting beauty. Ghostly tree-skeletons rise from the sand, overlooking the St. Simons lighthouse across the St. Simons Sound. These trees died from erosion that has taken place over the last hundred to two hundred years.
You can ride horses on this beach―
Three Oaks Carriage Company, run out of the historic Jekyll Island Club Hotel, leads treks across Driftwood Beach. Vanderbilts and Rockefellers once summered at the club and on these beaches, taking pleasure in the same thing that draws visitors today―a peace interrupted only by terns skittering along the water’s edge or an occasional ship humming in and out of port. jekyllisland.com
Camp Helen State Park
Padre Island National Seashore
Everything is bigger in Texas, including this 70-mile stretch of beach between Corpus Christi and South Padre Island. Five miles of beach are open to two-wheel-drive vehicles; another 55 miles require four-wheel-drive vehicles, which adventurous types use to explore a wilderness as untamed as a wild mustang. nps.gov/pais
North Carolina’s Outer Banks don’t actually end at the Virginia state line. Sandbridge, 25 minutes south of Virginia Beach, sits at the northern tip of the OBX, where you’ll find a tiny residential community with a couple of restaurants, an outfitter for kayaking, and a chic condo next to the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge and False Cape State Park. Bring a bike so you can explore the refuge and the state park (which lacks an access road). sandbridgebeachva.com
Sunset Beach and Bird Island
A half-hour drive from Myrtle Beach’s high rises brings you to a little beach town full of rambling rental houses. Sunset Beach proudly preserves its undeveloped beachfront with wide setbacks―that means a spacious beach. Lofty sand dunes stretch 3 miles south to the inlet connecting the Carolinas on Bird Island state nature preserve. sunsetbeachnc.gov
Caladesi Island State Park
Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, aka “ Dr. Beach,” recommended this island just north of Clearwater Beach five years in a row, and it was the national winner in 2008. It’s an all-natural beach, ideal for swimming, sunning, and shelling. Take a private boat or the Caladesi Connection ferry to stroll the 3-mile beach, kayak its mangrove trails, or hike under live oaks. floridastateparks.org/caladesiisland