For the beach lovers among us, America’s vast terrain promises a bevy of coastal delights. From palm-tree-lined Florida escapes to lesser-known Midwestern locales, this country is truly packed with beach towns. Rather than plan a trip to a single beachy spot, why not design a road trip that allows you to hop from beach to beach? Here are five beach road trips to consider the next time you decide to hit the road in search of sand and sea.
1. SoCal Coast
A road trip down California’s coast is about as good as it gets. Whether you start in Los Angeles and make your way to San Diego or start from the south and go north, there are a ton of delightful beach towns to stop into along the way.
Starting in the City of Angels, you can hang out at Venice Beach, an offbeat, bohemian district where performers and vendors line the boardwalk. Then, drive down to Manhattan Beach, whose wide beachfront walkway is lined with opulent, over-the-top mansions in a diverse array of architectural styles.
Pacific beach paradises continue to appear as you drive south along State Route 1. Huntington Beach is proud to call itself Surf City USA, and its dramatic swells make it endlessly attractive to surfers. Ruby’s Diner sits at the end of the Huntington Beach Pier, but many other bistros and bars await in the lively commercial sector along Main Street. For more tranquil vibes, head down to Huntington State Beach, a wide swath of golden sand with fewer crowds.
Continue on to Newport Beach, boasting two separate piers: The Newport Beach Pier and Balboa Pier. You’ll find a picture-perfect marina around almost every corner. Stop at the Balboa Fun Zone, an amusement park complete with a Ferris wheel, to get your thrills.
You’ll pass a series of smaller, more buttoned-up beach towns as you continue along: Laguna Beach, Carlsbad, Encinitas, and La Jolla. And once you reach San Diego, you’ll have a whole slew of beaches to choose from: party-hard Pacific Beach, hippie hangout Ocean Beach, tourist-filled Mission Beach, or the jewel in San Diego’s crown, Coronado Beach.
2. Florida Keys
Extending 120 miles off the tip of Florida, the Keys are America’s own tropical paradise. Most people come here in droves to take part in water-based activities — boating, fishing, snorkeling, diving — so the beaches rarely get the recognition they deserve. But there are plenty of heavenly beaches peppering the islands’ far-flung landmasses.
At Cannon Beach in Key Largo, the northernmost key, two 17th century cannons stand guard over a small beachfront, which is part of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. It’s a nice spot to spend a few calming moments. If you have more time, consider a snorkeling trip or a glass-bottom boat tour within the undersea park – this is a top spot in the country for exploring the underwater world, after all.
Next stop on your beach road trip is Tavernier, home to Harry Harris Beach and Park boasting an itty-bitty slice of sand overlooking a sheltered cove. Cruise down to Islamorada for a quick stop at Anne’s Beach, a haven for wildlife with shallow, calm waters as far as the eye can see. As you reach Marathon, your choices for beaches get even more interesting and varied. Bahia Honda State Park, for example, is a true standout. With turquoise water, white sand, and an old rail relic serving as a backdrop, it’s a unique place with a deserted island feel.
Though there are lots of things to keep you entertained in Key West, from rum drinks and cigars to restaurants and museums, the beaches definitely deserve a slice of your time. Chief among them is Smathers Beach, a wondrous escape no matter when you visit, but especially during sunrise. Higgs Beach is a bit larger and livelier, and you’ll find historic landmarks, a playground, and even a restaurant there. You’ll be greatly rewarded if you head to the white-sand beach at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park. The water is blue as can be and the beachfront is backed by a thicket of palm trees, giving it an exotic island feel.
3. Great Lakes Region
Sometimes called the Third Coast, the Great Lakes region is overflowing with under-the-radar beaches that non-Midwesterners may never have heard of. In fact, practically Michigan’s entire west coast is a string of charming beach towns, each different from the next.
If you were driving from Chicago, New Buffalo would be the first destination to hunker down in. A yacht club, a cute downtown area, and an immaculate beach await in this fun lakefront escape.
Union Pier isn’t quite so set up for tourists in comparison — it’s a low-key destination with rustic accommodations tucked into the woods near the beachfront. Families gather at Town Line Beach, a great place to lie out on the pillowy sand or to take a dip in the deliciously cool waters of Lake Michigan.
The commercial district in St. Joseph is marvelous, brimming with galleries, down-to-earth restaurants, and sweet shops. But it’s the wide, spacious beachfront, perfect for watching the sunset, that makes this town the ideal vacation spot. South Haven, just two hours up the coast, likewise welcomes tourists in the summer high season. Its famous red lighthouse stands at the end of a long pier. Looking over the lake water and the beach, you’ll swear you were transported to the Hamptons.
One of Michigan’s most treasured resort towns, Saugatuck is a dreamy tourist heaven with a squeaky-clean commercial district and an unspoiled coastline backed by rolling dunes and thick woods.
4. Jersey Shore
It’s easy to overlook New Jersey’s beaches for more celebrated options, but the truth is the historic beach towns along the Jersey Shore have a personality all their own. With scenic boardwalks oozing summertime fun and that irresistible carnival atmosphere, they’re some of the nation’s most authentic coastal hideaways.
Historic Asbury Park, one of the northernmost towns along the coast, has been drawing weary New Yorkers and Philadelphians since the late 19th century, and it’s also been a magnet for musicians of all stripes. Surf City to the south is much more unhurried, and without a boardwalk, it doesn’t attract crowds like other beach towns do. Looking for an upscale meal in beautiful surroundings? This is the place.
Atlantic City practically needs no introduction — it’s brimming with casinos, high-rise hotels, high-end shops, and nightlife spots. It has a reputation as a party town, but in the daytime, kids run freely along the beachfront, enjoying the sand and waves.
As your beach road trip takes you further south down the Jersey Shore, make a stop in Ocean City. Explore Gillian’s Wonderland Pier, an amusement park that harks back to the roaring twenties. More rides, games, and amusements will call to you as you stroll down the 2.5-mile boardwalk.
Cape May is a fantastic final destination to your classic beach road trip. It boasts a wide public beach, plenty of shops and restaurants, and best of all, hundreds of gorgeous Victorian buildings.
5. Florida Panhandle
That Florida is the premier place in the United States for a sunny beach road trip is no secret, but there’s more to the Sunshine State than Miami and the towns lining the eastern coast. Boasting incredible aquamarine water, white sand, and plenty of unhurried, nature-filled parks, Florida’s Panhandle offers an array of destinations that really help you unplug.
Start at Perdido Key, on the border of Alabama, to picnic, swim, or sunbathe on its pristine shores. Then head over to more developed Pensacola Beach, which offers the same breathtaking beauty along with a selection of restaurants and hotels, especially along Via de Luna Drive. Keep heading east until you hit Destin, a Panhandle fishing town with an impressive shoreline, several golf courses, and a host of intriguing options for shopping and dining.
With undeniable Caribbean vibes and a thriving commercial district, Rosemary Beach is a stop along your beach road trip that you can’t afford to miss. Drive along East County Highway 30A to take in all the sights, including cobbled streets and West Indian-inspired architecture. Park your vehicle and take a stroll down Main Street.
If you’re not sick of gorgeous white-sand beaches (trust us, you won’t be), continue your drive until you reach Panama City Beach. Once known primarily as a spring break party spot, this beach town has simmered down quite a bit in recent years. Visitors come for the calm, clear waters and for attractions like golf, amusement parks, boat tours, and water sports.