1. Coronado Beach, California
an Diego’s Hotel del Coronado is the cornerstone of Coronado Beach, which tops a list of the top ten U.S. beaches for 2012, as chosen by coastal scientist Stephen Leatherman, aka Dr. Beach.
Leatherman’s annual ranking rates 650 public beaches on 50 criteria that include the presence of native plants, water quality, and overcrowding. Most of the 2012 beaches were also listed in the best beaches of 2011.
(See National Geographic Traveler’s best summer trips of 2012.)
A 1.5-mile (2.4-kilometer) stretch of flat, sandy shore, Coronado Beach is great for skim-boarding and walking-plus, the mineral mica lends the sand a silvery sheen, according to the Dr. Beach website.
“Dr. Leatherman’s annual list does a service by providing an incentive to keep American beaches clean and enjoyable for all,” Jonathan Tourtellot, the geotourism editor for National Geographic Traveler magazine, said by email.
2. Kahanamoku Beach, Hawaii
Located on Oahu, Hawaii, Kahanamoku Beach (pictured) is named for Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, an Olympic-gold swimmer who is “credited with introducing surfing to the outside world,” Leatherman said on his website.
Thanks to a shallow offshore reef that protects against big waves, Kahanamoku Beach is a “great swimming area” for families with children, he added.
Leatherman measures each of the 50 beach-quality criteria on a sliding scale from one to five. Though primarily designed for swimming beaches, the criteria also help determine the nicest beaches for walking, scenery, sports, and other activities.
3. Main Beach, New York
Lifeguards beach their rescue boat at Main Beach in East Hampton, New York, in 2007.
Providing “the perfect blend of nature and built environment,” Main Beach is protected by a conservation easement that dates back more than 300 years, according to Leatherman.
Frequented by many celebrities, the quartz-sand beach boasts towering sand dunes and clear blue water, and is set alongside an “idyllic” village, he said.
“The best way to get around this beach is on bicycle in order to avoid parking and to take in the beautiful vista.”
4. St. George Island State Park, Florida
Though neighboring Florida Panhandle beaches were hit hard by the 2010 Gulf oil spill, St. George Island State Park (pictured) was mostly unscathed.
The island’s “brilliant white sands and clear waters” attract many a birder and fisher—but visitors should take care to shuffle their feet when entering the water, as stingrays are often underfoot, Leatherman said.
Asked about what stood out in the 2012 survey, Leatherman noted the absence of major coastal natural disasters, “except for Hurricane Irene, [which] cut several inlets through the Outer Banks of North Carolina last September.”
5. Hamoa Beach, Hawaii
Already dubbed the world’s best beach by Ernest Hemingway, the crescent-shaped Hamoa Beach (pictured) is one of the more famous in Maui, according to Leatherman.
“To get to Hamoa Beach, one has to take the Road to Hana, the treacherous road with dropoffs of over 1,000 feet [300 meters] and sporadic guardrails, which can be an adventure in itself!” said Leatherman, who’s also the author of the National Geographic Society’s Field Guide to the Water’s Edge. (National Geographic News is a division of the Society.)
“Taking it slow on this road, with over 50 one-way bridges, is probably the safest bet.”
6. Coast Guard Beach, Massachusetts
Accessible by bicycle or via shuttle bus, Massachusetts’s Coast Guard Beach (pictured) formed when a sand spit attached to glacial cliffs.
A former Coast Guard station—now an environmental education center—still stands sentry atop the bluffs, “allowing for a spectacular view down upon the Nauset Spit barrier [island] system and bay,” Leatherman said.
This year’s top beach, Coronado Beach, will be retired from further consideration, Leatherman added. The other nine beaches—as well as dozens of others that are close in ranking—will be reevaluated this year for the 2013 list.
“It is a tough job,” he said, “but somebody has got to do it.”
.7 Waimanalo Bay Beach Park, Hawaii
Though not as “stunning” as other beaches, Oahu’s Waimanalo Bay Beach Park is safe, thanks to lifeguards and few big waves or dangerous currents, Leatherman said.
Traveler’s Tourtellot noted that the smaller Hawaiian islands took “a disproportionate three of the top ten” on the 2012 list.
“Mainland destinations might do well to ask why they are not measuring up.”
8. Cape Florida State Park, Florida
The Cape Florida Lighthouse (pictured) “allows for a breathtaking view” of the “beautiful” beaches of Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, Leatherman said.
Waves are knocked down by a large shoal, making the white coral-sand beach great for swimming, he said.
9. Beachwalker Park, South Carolina
Kiawah Island’s Beachwalker Park (pictured) is part of a “nature lovers’ coast,” attracting birders, boaters, and cyclists to the 10-mile-long (16-kilometer-long) barrier island, according to Leatherman.
Golf is also a popular pastime on the South Carolina island. “Usually golf courses and shoreline habitat don’t mix well—too much chemical and fertilizer pollution from runoff,” said Traveler’s Tourtellot.
“But the Kiawah Island Golf Resort has earned kudos for environmental responsibility and its support for nature sanctuaries,” Tourtellot said
10. Cape Hatteras, North Carolina
The first U.S. national seashore, North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras offers “some of the best board surfing along the East Coast, as well as the most famous lighthouse [pictured] in the United States,” according to Leatherman.
But, Traveler’s Tourtellot said, “Hatteras beachgoers should be aware that there is an ongoing debate about vehicular access to beaches.
“Some sections are open to ORVs [off-road vehicles], popular with the surf-fishing crowd—gotta
have those tailgates!—but not so great if you want to sunbathe in the sand or walk wilder sands rich in seabirds.”