The South's Most Secret Beaches

Secluded Southern Beach Vacations: Keewaydin Island, Florida
Photo: Photo: Art Meripol

Southerners love the beach with all their hearts, but sometimes it seems like there isn't enough beach to go around. If you are looking for vacation ideas that can take you far away from the crowds, here is our list of the most secret beaches where you can stretch your toes in the sand. Part of the pleasure is the journey, like the hour-and-fifteen-minute boat trip to secluded spots like West Ship Island, 11 miles southeast of Gulfport, Mississippi. Traveling over water is also the only option if you want to see the secret beaches of Keewaydin Island. If you prefer vacation ideas with a sense of adventure, plan to ride horses along Driftwood Beach on Jekyll Island, or take a four-wheel-drive excursion along a 55-mile-long stretch of Padre Island National Seashore. If your idea of the perfect secret beach in the South is simply a secluded place to unwind and relax, stroll along any of these peaceful shores and get your toes wet.

01 of 10

Washington Oaks Gardens State Park, Palm Coast, Florida

Washington Oaks State Park
Chris Moore / Getty Images

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.

02 of 10

Harbor Island, South Carolina

Low tide on Harbor Island
Cavan Images / Getty Images

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.

03 of 10

Keewaydin Island, Florida

Secluded Southern Beach Vacations: Keewaydin Island, Florida
Photo: Art Meripol

Eight glorious miles of nearly footprint-free sands lie hidden on this tiny tropical island between Marco Island and the luxe coastal town of 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 Island'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 Just Beachy Burgers, which pulls up on the sand to serve hot sandwiches with ice-cold sodas and beer. Join a day trip, dance in the sand at a boat party, or opt for quieter days, when you can score a deal at the Naples Bay Resort.

04 of 10

Ship Island, Gulf Islands National Seashore, Mississippi

Secluded Southern Beach Vacations: West Ship Island
Courtesy of Ship Island Excursions

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 on Ship Island 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.

05 of 10

Driftwood Beach/Jekyll Island, Georgia

Secluded Southern Beach Vacations: Driftwood Beach/Jekyll Island
Photo: Art Meripol

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 Farm 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.

06 of 10

Camp Helen State Park, Panama City, Florida

Secluded Southern Beach Vacations: Camp Helen State Park
Photo: Courtesy Florida Department of Environmental Protection

The Panhandle crowds don't know about the pristine beaches at this day-use state park, just west of Panama City between Rosemary and Carillon beaches. Here you'll find one of the largest coastal lakes in the state, Lake Powell, so this is an ideal spot for both saltwater and freshwater fishing. Kayaks and paddleboards are available to rent as well. Camp Helen was once a company resort for the Avondale Mills textile mill, and some of the buildings have been restored.

07 of 10

Padre Island National Seashore, Texas

Secluded Southern Beach Vacations: Padre Island National Seashore
Art Meripol

Everything is bigger in Texas, including this 70-mile stretch of undeveloped barrier island 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. Sea turtle hatchlings are released on the beach throughout the summer―check with the park service to see when you can witness this amazing event.

08 of 10

Sandbridge Beach, Virginia

Secluded Southern Beach Vacations: Sandbridge Beach
Photo: Courtesy Virginia Beach CVB

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).

09 of 10

Sunset Beach and Bird Island, North Carolina

Secluded Southern Beach Vacations: Sunset Beach and Bird Island
Photo: Courtesy of North Carolina’s Brunswick Islands

A half-hour drive from Myrtle Beach's high rises brings you to a little beach town full of rambling rental houses, restaurants, and a planetarium. 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 Reserve, which can be reached on foot or by boat and is known for its salt marshes and estuaries.

10 of 10

Caladesi Island State Park, Florida

Secluded Southern Beach Vacations: Caladesi Island State Park
Photo: Courtesy Florida Department of Environmental Protection

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 Caladesi Island to stroll the 3-mile beach, kayak its mangrove trails, or hike under live oaks. Visitors are allowed to spend the night on their boats in the marina.

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