top 10 beaches in America by Dr. Beach
Top 10 beaches in America by Dr. Beach - The main beach at Caladesi Island State Park.

With widely available vaccinations and decreased travel restrictions, summer vacation 2021 is looking up. Dr. Stephen Leatherman, also known as Dr. Beach, has created a list of the best U.S. beaches for 2021.

List of The top best 10 beaches in US for 2021

1. Hapuna Beach State Park, island of Hawai'i

2. Coopers Beach, Southampton, New York

3. Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach, Outer Banks, North Carolina

4. St. George Island State Park, Franklin County, Florida Panhandle

5. Lighthouse Beach, Buxton, Outer Banks of North Carolina

6. Duke Kahanamoku Beach, Oahu, Hawaii

7. Caladesi Island State Park, Dunedin/Clearwater, Florida

8. Coronado Beach, San Diego, California

9. Beachwalker Park, Kiawah Island, South Carolina

10. Coast Guard Beach, Cape Cod, Massachusetts

Who is Dr. Beach?

The real name of Dr. Beach is Dr. Stephen P. LeathermanLeatherman—a geoscientist and coastal ecologist—got his nickname back when he was a professor at the University of Maryland, teaching a course on waves and beaches.

Each spring, Dr. Beach does what he’s done for the past 30 years. He pores over data and photographs to produce his much-anticipated America’s Top 10 Best Beaches list.

His students nicknamed him “Dr. Beach.” The list itself was born after a former student went to work for a national magazine and suggested him for a story. It all started in 1989. Leatherman was a professor at the University of Maryland, teaching a popular course on waves and beaches — even though the closest beach was hundreds of miles away. His students, who tended to come from non-scientific disciplines, called him “Dr. Beach.” Like sand, the name stuck to him.

The professor and director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University has been reviewing beaches across the country since 1991. Some of his criteria include sand softness, air temperature, water color and noise.

Every year, Leatherman ranks the best U.S. beaches based on 50 criteria scored on a five-point scale, including safety, sand quality, cleanliness and more.

Five years ago, he adjusted the criteria to give extra credit for beaches that have good safety records and no smoking.

Leatherman never expected the list would become the “biggest thing” he’d end up doing. An expert on coastal erosion and rising seas, he’s written 20 books and more than 200 articles for top journals including Science and Nature. He’s also provided expert testimony for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives on 11 separate occasions.

Last year’s winner was Grayton Beach State Park in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida.

Six of the beaches in this year's top 10 have previously been No. 1, which include Coronado Beach (2012), Cooper's Beach (2010), Duke Kahanamoku Beach (2014), Caladesi Island (2008) and Ocracoke (2007), in addition to Hapuna Beach

The 10 Best Beaches in America in Pics, Tips - according to Dr. Beach

Hapuna Beach, Big Island hawaii best beach

A view of Hapuna Beach State Park in Big Island, Hawaii. GETTY

1. Hapuna Beach State Park - Big Island, Hawaii

Hapuna Beach is one of the island of Hawaii's most expansive white sand beaches. Leatherman told CNN Hapuna Beach earned bonus points for Hawaii's ban on smoking at its beaches as well as its lifeguards' safety record. "Hawaii has some of the most beautiful beaches in the country by far, some people think Hawaii should win every year, but I point out, the problem with Hawaiian beaches is a lot of them aren't safe," he told Kerry. "Big waves, rip currents, and shore breaks. Because of that, a lot of the beaches can't make the list."

Besides Hawaii, the other states included on this year's Top 10 are New York, North Carolina, Florida, California, South Carolina and Massachusetts.

Why it made the list: “During the summer months, Hapuna is a perfect place to swim, snorkel or scuba dive in the crystal clear and clean waters,” says Leatherman.

A tip: In winter, watch out for powerful rip currents. “Fortunately, there are well-trained lifeguards at this state park,” says Leatherman.

Hapuna Beach, which first earned Dr. Beach's No. 1 designation in 1993, is one of two beaches in the top 10 from Hawaii, a state long known for its beautiful shorelines.

Beaching It From Above

Hapuna Beach on the Big Island in Hawaii has earned the No. 1 spot from Dr. Beach in his annual rankings of the best beaches in the country. Cha_DZ / Getty Images

2. Coopers Beach - Southampton, New York

coopers beach southampton Hamptons, New York best beach in america

Dunes and sand on Coopers Beach in Southampton, New York. GETTY

Why it made the list: “As the first “Gold Coast” in the country, Coopers Beach is hundreds of yards wide, made of grainy white quartz sand,” says Leatherman. “The beach is backed by large sand dunes covered by American beach grass interspersed with extravagant mansions.”

A tip: Check out the snack bar serving lunch and drinks.

Outer Banks Ocracoke Beach

A view to Outer Banks in Ocracoke Beach. GETTY

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3. Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach - Outer Banks of North Carolina

Why it made the list: “Ocracoke, once the home of Blackbeard the pirate, is still a special place—it is my favorite getaway beach,” says Leatherman.

A tip: “Don’t expect to play golf or stay at the Ritz; the main pursuits are swimming and beachcombing,” says Leatherman.

What Are The 10 Best Beaches In America - Latest Ranking by Dr. Beach
Ocracoke Day Use Area is a popular Ocracoke Island destination because of its beautiful beach. Lifeguards patrol the beach between Memorial Day and Labor Day. [NPS photo]

The Outer Banks is again the only place in the United States to have two of the top five best beaches in the United States according to renowned coastal expert Dr. Beach.

Ranked second for two straight years, Ocracoke is third in 2021, after topping Dr. Beach’s list in 2007. But it can’t be rated number one again under Leatherman’s rules to give others a chance, and is the only North Carolina beach to ever top his list.

St. George Island State Park florida panhandle best beach

Sand dunes at St. George Island State Park in Florida. GETTY

“Ocracoke, once the home of Blackbeard the pirate, is still a special place — it is my favorite getaway beach. Here you will find some of the wildest beaches in the country. Big surf dominates in late summer so families with children may want to come earlier in the year. Don’t expect to play golf or stay at the Ritz; the main pursuits are swimming and beachcombing.”
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4. St. George Island State Park - Florida panhandle

Why it made the list: “This long barrier island, far from urban areas, is a favorite destination for beachgoers, anglers and bird watchers as nature abounds,” says Leatherman.

A tip: “Besides swimming in the crystal-clear water, I enjoy beachcombing and shelling,” says Leatherman.

Lighthouse Beach Buxton, Outer Banks of North Carolina best beach hatteras

Lighthouse Beach in Buxton on the Outer Banks of North Carolina GETTY

5. Lighthouse Beach - Buxton, Outer Banks of North Carolina

Why it made the list: “This lifeguarded beach is the number one surfing spot on the U. S. Atlantic Coast as the large offshore sand banks, known as Diamond Shoals, cause wave refraction focusing wave energy on this beach,” says Leatherman.

A tip: “It is fun to stroll down to the Cape Point where a long sand spit often exists, making one feel somewhat like Moses because the waves are coming from both directions as you walk along this narrow string of sand in the ocean,” says Leatherman.

Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head Volcano, Honolulu, Oahu Island, Hawaii, USA best beaches

A view overlooking Duke Kahanamoku Beach and Diamond Head Volcano on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. GETTY

6. Duke Kahanamoku Beach - Oahu, Hawaii

Why it made the list: “This is one of the most picturesque beaches in the USA with the iconic Diamond Head volcano in the distance,” says Leatherman.

A tip: Head to the nearby Duke Kahanamoku Lagoon—“a favorite bathing and swimming spot,” says Leatherman.

Caladesi Island State Park Florida best beach

Walking on pathway to Caladesi Island State Park in Florida. GETTY

7. Caladesi Island State Park - Florida

Tampa Bay residents don’t have to travel far to find a bit of paradise. Dr. Stephen Leatherman, a.k.a. “Dr. Beach,” recently ranked Dunedin’s Caladesi Island seventh on his top 10 list of best beaches in America.

Why it made the list: “The white beach is composed of crystalline quartz sand which is soft and cushy at the water’s edge, inviting one to take a dip in the sparkling clear waters,” says Leatherman.

A tip: “There are boardwalk trails, but my favorite is the kayak and canoe trails through the mangroves to see the large blue herons and other birds that frequent this wonderful natural area,” says Leatherman.

Coronado Beach California san diego best beach in america

Coronado Beach in California.GETTY

8. Coronado Beach - San Diego, California

Why it made the list: “With its subtropical vegetation, unique Mediterranean climate, and fine sparkling sand, beach-goers flock to this beach for great ship-watching and the summer’s warm and mild surf,” says Leatherman.

A tip: Check out the Hotel del Coronado, a local landmark that was built over a hundred years ago. “Kings, sheiks, actors, and actresses have stayed at this iconic hotel,” says Leatherman.

Kiawah Island best beaches

The sun sets on Kiawah Island. GETTY

9. Beachwalker Park - Kiawah Island, South Carolina

Why it made the list:“This is a nature-lovers coast so visitors can bring their canoes and kayaks to paddle through the tidal inlets,” says Leatherman.

A tip: “It is also fun to walk or bicycle down the fine-grained sand beach to Captain Sam’s Inlet to see thousands of birds,” says Leatherman.

Eastham Beach Cape Cod best beach

Relaxing on Coast Guard Beach in Eastham, Massachusetts. BOSTON GLOBE VIA GETTY IMAGES

10. Coast Guard Beach - Cape Cod, Massachusetts

Why it made the list: “Coast Guard Beach, accessible by bicycle from the Salt Pond Visitor’s Center or shuttle bus, is located where a sand spit extends southward from the glacial sea cliffs,” says Leatherman.

A tip: “Note the red flags with shark images on days when these predators are around and follow the advice of lifeguards,” says Leatherman.

Coast Guard Beach was the only New England beach to make the rankings and one of just two in the Northeast. The beach has a special place in history as the spot the Mayflower landed in 1620.

"The picturesque old Coast Guard station still sits atop the glacial bluffs, allowing for a spectacular view of the Nauset Spit barrier system and bay," Dr. Beach wrote about the Eastham spot. "During the summer, beach goers take quick, refreshing dips in the ocean as water is chilly."

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