These sweet spots offer plenty of sun, sand, and surf without the extra crowds
Looking for a beach vacation where finding a spot on the sand won’t be a land rush? Look no further! These are our favorite beach towns in America that are big on charm but not so big on crowds. So pack up the swimsuits, sunscreen, and sunglasses, and head for one of these 20 beaches that are packed with family-friendly fun without being so, well, packed!
East Coast Beach Towns
Assateague Island, MD
Located on a 37-mile stretch of preserved sandy wilderness, this barrier island off the Maryland and Virginia coastline is a little piece of equine heaven. Legend has it, the wild horses that populate the shores and marshes here arrived via shipwreck hundreds of years ago. Today, the island is home to nearly 200 horses (about 75 on the Maryland side and 100 on the Virginia side). Visitors can spot them while enjoying one of the island’s other activities, including kayaking, bird-watching, dolphin-watching, fishing, hunting, crab & clam-catching, and camping (you can pitch a tent right on the sand where the horses roam!). Or, take a dedicated Saltwater Boat Tour to ensure you spot a pony or two on your visit.
If you want more of a beach town vibe, head to Chincoteague, a small and bustling town located on the Virginia side of the island, where you’ll find quaint ice cream shops, mini golf courses, uncrowded beaches, and bustling shops.
Find out more: nps.gov/asis
The easternmost town in the continental United States, Lubec Maine has been called the “best alternative to Cape Cod” for travelers looking for a quaint (yet remote) beach town. And while getting there may be a trek (it’s just across the border from Canada and about 2 1/2 hours from the Bangor, ME airport), the stark beauty and cozy New England charm of this nearly 240-year-old fishing village will make it all worth it. Take in sweeping coastal views at the iconic Quoddy Head Lighthouse (the actual easternmost point in the country). Then, head for the trails at Quoddy Head State Park, which offers amazing cliffside views of the shoreline. If it’s sandy beaches you want, the 48-acre Mowry Beach Preserve offers fine sand beaches, swimmable water, and clamming at low tide.
Find out more: Visitlubecmaine.com
Gloucester is one of the sleepy beach towns on Cape Ann. We suggest heading straight for Wingaersheek Beach, a kid-friendly spot known for low waves. There are lobstering tours, sailing tours, and kayak rentals. The St. Peter’s Fiesta is a five-day festival celebrating the patron saint of fishing—a perfect event for America’s oldest fishing port. If there’s time, be sure to check out the three(!) lighthouses, and the country’s oldest art colony.
Good to know: Starting in June, visitors can park at Stage Fort Park and take the free shuttle to the beaches on the weekends.
Find out more: Gloucester-ma.gov
Beavertail Lighthouse and Park is a must-visit in this quaint Rhode Island town, but Mackeral Cove is the hidden gem for family beach days. There are regular lifeguards on duty, a parking lot, and it’s within five minutes of downtown. If you need a break from the beach, there are plenty of other water activities: sailing, fishing, and kayaking. Also, history buffs can wander through historic buildings: the windmill, the house on the rocks, and the firefighter museum before heading over the Newport Bridge for a glimpse of those famous gilded-age summer homes.
Find out more: jamestownrichamber.com
Bethany Beach, DE
Bethany Beach is all about family. It boasts a boardwalk just like its more frequented neighbor Rehoboth but with fewer tourist attractions. The one-mile long, 150-foot wide stretch of sand is ideal for little kids and offers all sorts of fun activities: Monday night movies on the beach, Kids Nature Adventure Saturdays, and the summer concert series. Especially sweet is the comfort station near Garfield Parkway. Open 24/7 with spots to change sandy little bottoms, the cool space (read: it has AC) is a welcome retreat from the blazing sun.
Find out more: townofbethanybeach.com
West Coast Beach Towns
“Washington’s Beach Town” sits 70 feet above the shoreline, giving its community of over 450 nestled homes (the majority of which can be rented) stellar views and much to do all within a five-minute walk. There’s a park on the hill and down by the water and a slew of fun activities to be found throughout the town: community fire pits, horseshoes, bocce and volleyball courts, an indoor pool, and definitely a whole lot of bike riding. Shops and restaurants galore also await.
Good to know: For a little day trip, you’ll want to check out Olympic National Park (and it’s some million acres of mountains, coast, and rainforests).
Find out more: seabrookwa.com
Ocean Shores is a popular family vacation spot but Westport flies right under the radar, and it’s worth a visit for the razor-clamming alone (North Cove will be filled with kids and their buckets, trying to snag enough clams for dinner). Boogie boarding is also a blast, and the water is the best north of the marina. Want to take a hike? Strap on your boots and baby backpack and head for the docks. The 2.2-mile pedestrian trail leads to the Grays Harbor Lighthouse and the Maritime Museum, where you’ll get your fill of old salty sea dog tales.
Find out more: westport-graylandchamber.com
Manhattan Beach, CA
Located just 25 miles southwest of Downtown Los Angeles, this quaint little beach town is the sort of place that’s popular… but mostly with locals. Not quite touristy, but bursting with California beach charm, the little village is known as much for its fancy foodie spots as it is for its surfing and beach volleyball tournaments. Littles will love walking to the end of the Manhattan Beach Pier to dip their fingers in the touch tanks at the town’s free aquarium, where more than 100 ocean animals are on display. Hungry? Eat like a local by grabbing a bite to eat at The Kettle (it’s open 24 hours!) or order a slice of pizza at the walk-up Manhattan Pizzeria.
Good to know: Want to see a game on the sand? The pro-AVP volleyball league holds its US Open tournament every August. And, it’s free!
Find out more: Downtownmanhattanbeach.com
Rodeo Beach, CA
When it’s summer in San Francisco, “Karl the Fog,” as the city’s infamous weather condition is nicknamed, can often turn beach trips into bundled-up affairs. So head over the Golden Gate, take the exit for Rodeo Avenue, and wend your way west to Rodeo Beach, a crescent crown of the Marin Headlands. Less well known than its sandy cousins—San Francisco’s Ocean Beach to the south or Marin’s Stinson Beach to the north—it’s the perfect spot to take in NorCal sun and surf.
Also known as Fort Cronkhite, its World War II military barracks add major character to the setting, while the cove is beloved by local surfers and rarely all that crowded. If the family wants to stretch its legs, hunt for colorful pebbles by the boulder wall, explore the lagoon, or take in the view from the coastal trail above the barracks. Dogs are welcome, too! And dolphin pods have been known to frolic close to shore.
Good to know: There’s nothing commercial in the Marin Headlands, so be sure to pack a picnic or get back on Highway 101. Sausalito is just one mile north and great for grub.
Find out more: nps.gov/goga/planyourvisit/focr
Avila Beach, CA
Not quite as populated as Pismo Beach but sunnier than Cayucos, Avila Beach is a quintessential California beach town. The shallow water and far-out breaks make play easy for the littles, there are BBQs and swing sets right on the beach, and a great Farmer’s Market on Fridays. The kids can head to Harford Pier to watch for whale and sea otters, and you can rent boats and paddle boards. There’s also lodging for every budget: hotels, vacation rentals, and campgrounds.
Find out more: visitavila.com
Southern Beach Towns
Holden Beach, NC
Holden Beach in the Brunswick Islands of North Carolina has small-town charm, but plenty of activities (check out the North Carolina Festival by the Sea) to keep your family busy. You can take the kids crabbing and fishing, and explore the island by foot, by bike, or by kayak or canoe excursion along the Intracoastal Waterway. And, there is plenty of wildlife to spot: dolphins swimming offshore, endangered (and protected) loggerhead turtles making their journey from the nest to the ocean, and ghost crabs that make their way along the beach at night.
Good to know: All of New Brunswick Islands’ beaches are dog-friendly!
Find out more: ncbrunswick.com/holdenbeach
Tarpon Springs and Dunedin, FL
You’ll enjoy Greek culture at its best in Tarpon Springs, with its bakeries, shops, shrines, and cathedrals. This is also where you’ll embark on a unique experience: a boat tour that celebrates the “Sponge Capital of the World.” You’ll want to visit Honeymoon Island, a 385-acre secluded natural barrier island off Dunedin. Kids can fish, snorkel, ride bikes, picnic beneath a covered pavilion, hike on nature trails, visit a dog park, and build sand castles. Adventurous families will love the four-mile kayaking trail through the shallow waters full of mangrove forests where mangrove crabs, osprey, and other wildlife can be seen. The trail opens up to St. Joseph Sound into open water and sunshine providing a unique experience you can’t have anywhere else.
Find out more: visitpeteclearwater.com
Kure Beach, NC
Instead of heading for the Outer Banks, take a peek at Kure Beach, instead. Ocean Front Park is a hot spot for families, with the pirate ship-themed playground, tot lot, and rain gardens, with access to the dunes. Fort Fisher Recreation Area is the best place to find starfish and other ocean critters and the super popular North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher has a variety of hands-on animal encounters, including feeding lorikeets and touching a stingray.
Good to know: Freddie’s Restaurant is a must-try, family-owned Italian joint known for its pork chops.
Find out more: wilmingtonandbeaches.com/kure-beach
Port Aransas, TX
Located on 18 miles of beachfront on Mustang Island, this sleepy island town has plenty of family-friendly activities. You can go birding at one of six sites along the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, take the ferry to San Jose Island, a former ranch that is now an uninhabited wildlife preserve, or have a beach day at Mustang Island State Park or at the Padre Island National Seashore. As far as food goes, this fishing and foodie destination has 11 different restaurants that’ll cook up what you catch that very day.
Find out more: portaransas.org
Bay St. Louis, MS
Any community that had to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina is one strong community. That can certainly be said of Bay St. Louis, tucked onto the Gulf of Mexico some 90 miles east of New Orleans and as quaint as they come. When it comes to exploring the town, you’ll find good eats in the Depot District (as well as the Historic Train Depot itself, which is now home to Mardi Gras and folk art museums). Find more art, antiques, souvenir shopping, and the local library over in Old Town. Then follow Main Street right to the beach for all your favorite ways to have fun in the sand (including tossing a Frisbee to your pup as the beach is pet friendly). A bike path also extends for three miles between two piers, making for a fun pier-to-pier walk or ride challenge. When you’ve washed off the sand, check out McDonald Park’s impressive splash pad on Dunbar Ave.
Find out more: baystlouis-ms.gov
Midwest/Central Beach Towns
Traverse City, MI
Located on the southern end of Lake Michigan’s Traverse Bay, this thriving beach town is known for its hip food and wine scene as well as its sandy beaches, lush forests, and deep blue waters. Kids will love climbing 284 feet to the top of the sand dunes at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (about 40 minutes outside the city, but totally worth the drive!). Or, stay near town and head to the popular Cinch Park Beach to enjoy the city’s splash pad, sandy beaches, and volleyball courts. Want to head out on the water? You’ll find canoe, kayak, paddleboat and stand-up paddleboard rentals there, too.
Find out more: Traversecity.com
Coeur d’Alene, ID
This gorgeous lake town has been a vacation hot spot for celebs including Kim Kardashian, Kanye West, Matthew McConaughey, George Clooney, and Harry Styles. And it’s no wonder: The northwestern Idaho town, located about an hour from the Spokane, WA airport and surrounded by mountains and forests, is both a sophisticated village and an outdoor adventure paradise. Spring and summer offer biking, boating, zip-lining, white water rafting, golfing, swimming, and hiking galore—while the winter ushers in the ski season at the nearby Schweitzer Mountain Resort.
While the lake has more than 100 miles of shoreline, some of it is rocky (and parts are privately owned). For the best swimming or beachgoing for families, head to Coeur d’Alene’s City Park or Honeysuckle Beach.
Find out more: Coeurdalene.org
Park Point, MN
Duluthians know and love Park Point, a skinny shoreline that runs for six miles between Lake Superior and Superior Bay, bordering Wisconsin. Park Point Recreation Area, with grills and volleyball courts, is more popular (and lifeguarded) than other stretches, but with all six miles open to the public, there’s plenty of room to spread out, watch boats pass in the bay, and feel the winds as they dance over the dunes. For visitors, nearby Canal Park has plenty of hotels and restaurants. Be sure to educate the whole family at The Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center at the base of Canal Park’s Aerial Lift Bridge, which spans the entrance to Duluth Harbor. The museum is free of charge and is open daily.
Find out more: duluthmn.gov
Ogden Dunes, Dune Acres, Porter Beach, and Beverly Shores, IN
The lakefront communities that make up the Indiana Dunes region have as much of a groovy vibe as any other beach town—the only difference being that the stretch of water belongs to Lake Michigan, rather than the Pacific or the Atlantic Ocean. Families can enjoy hiking and birding along the Great Marsh Trail in Beverly Shores, dine al fresco at the lake view picnic area before walking miles of pristine, sandy beaches, or kayak the waters of Lake Michigan.
There are plenty of eats, including pizza made to order off the back of the Rolling Stonebaker, a food truck that can often be found near the entrance of Beverly Shores. There are plenty of public access points to the lake, and if you decide to rent a spot in one of the beachside towns, you’ll have access to private beaches, too.
Find out more: indianadunes.com
Additional reporting by Kate Loweth, Gabby Cullen & Jennifer Massoni Pardini