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Grab & Go: 10 Iconic Beaches in America

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Nudging the dark brown spiked tail with a toe, I backed off a few steps and watched. No responding movement.

Tiptoeing back up, I squatted down and poked the hard tail with a finger.

Still no movement. Shooting a relieved look at my brother who was crouching on the other side of the horseshoe crab, I smiled; it was safe. He flipped the dead crab onto its back — shiny tank-like shell scattering sand.

Welcome to late summer of my childhood on the Jersey Shore. Where we spent long hours collecting seashells, footprints wandering in and out of the surf like drunken monkeys. Chasing sandpipers. Brief minutes spent creating a sketch of a sandcastle before growing bored.

Now I spend my beach days people-watching over the top of my book because people-watching at the beach can’t be beat.

Memorial Day — the unofficial start of summer — has just passed. Sun, sand, and fun are calling. Grab your stuff to hit the beach, so you can toss over horseshoe crabs and check out their inner workings underneath.

Beach Day Packing List Basics

What staples should your beach bag always contain? No matter which beach you’re hitting up, some things in your bag always remain the same. Then, depending on where you’re exploring, just add in a few extra items to make your bag destination-specific.

The Basics:

  • Sunscreen
  • Water-resistant light jacket (for unexpected rainstorms)
  • Water bottle (with water)
  • Beach towel
  • Good beach read: paperback or e-reader — you pick
  • Protein bar to ward off hunger: the wrapping keeps your grub sand-free
  • Flip flops: kick off your walking shoes for these bad boys
  • Sunglasses


Sunset Bay State Park — Coos Bay, Oregon

Four hours south of weird Portland, Oregon, in a little inlet on the coast, is Coos Bay. Only 15,000 people live there, but this idyllic town is rich in natural beauty. Tear yourself away to visit Sunset Bay State Park (20 minute drive from Coos Bay), if just to see its stunning sunsets book-ended by cliffs. In the summer, daytime highs don’t crest 70 degrees. Pack accordingly.

Extras to Pack:

  • Medium-weight jacket for chilly nights
  • Hat for cool days
  • Camping gear: If you opt for beach camping at a local campground
  • Sleeping bag: If you opt for a yurt rental

Check Out:

  • Cape Arago: Spot whale pods or barking sea lion, and cave exploring opportunities abound
  • Yurt rental: $, sidestep tent camping in the rain for the joys of camping without the pain
  • Shores Acres: Nearby state park with coastal cliff-side gardens of pioneer timber baron Louis Simpson’s estate

North Avenue Beach — Chicago, Illinois

Bet you didn’t think “beach” and “Chicago” existed in the same sentence. Me neither. There are plenty of beaches in Chicago — thank you, Great Lake Michigan — North Avenue Beach is the creme de la creme.

Located next to Lincoln Park Zoo and a few blocks north of Magnificent Mile, this local favorite is super popular. So, if you’re planning to go, get there early for a prime spot. If you can’t sit still longer than 15 minutes, let off steam in volleyball tournaments, swimming, or take a walk along the jogging path.

Extras to Pack

  • More sunscreen
  • Darkly shaded sunglasses for prime, covert people-watching
  • Swimsuit
  • Beach chairs to stake out your spot

Check Out:

Barton Springs Pool — Austin, Texas

Fed from an underground spring, this three acre pool in Zilker Park has year-round constant water temperature of 68-70 F degrees. When Robert Redford was five years old, he learned how to swim here. Yeah, now you definitely want to visit this beach, don’t you?

Extras to Pack

  • Cash for the $8 non-resident entrance fee
  • Wide-brimmed hat for napping on the grassy hill
  • Leave the drinks and snacks at home: they won’t let you bring them in
  • Swimsuit

Check Out:

  • Rainey Street: $$, street filled with restaurants, live music, and chill alcohol consumption (vs the chaos of 6th Street on Friday night)
  • Rita’s Italian Water Ice: $, shaved flavored water ice like you’ve never had it before
  • Iron Cactus: $$, Enjoy hot (thermally warm) salsa with your chips. It’s write-home-worthy.

Glass Beach — Mendocino Coast, California

Instead of sand, this beach is covered in the world’s highest concentration of beach glass. After a huge earthquake in 1906 that leveled many of local town Fort Bragg’s buildings, the town dumped the debris into the ocean. They thought it’d wash away. It didn’t.

Rather, the ocean methodically returned the debris to the beach as Mermaid’s Tears or beach glass. Keep your eyes peeled for the rare “sapphire” and “rubies” (blue and red glass rubbed smooth by the ocean).

Extras to Pack

  • Hard-soled shoes
  • Daypack for your beach glass collection
  • Camera

Check Out:

Cumberland Island — Georgia

Georgia’s largest barrier island boasts a history dating back to Spanish missions in the 16th century. What’s that? Tell you about the beaches here? My pleasure. Long, deserted stretches of sand unspoiled by high rises or crowds. Occasionally a horse trots by. You hear the world breathing.

Extras to Pack

  • Baby wipes: The only facilities are bathrooms and water
  • Lunch
  • Snacks
  • Camera
  • Extra sunscreen
  • Sturdy walking shoes to explore

Check Out:

  • Greyfield Inn: $$$, stately mansion turned inn on the island
  • Dungeness Ruins: Poke around the ruins of a historic house… need I say more? Okay, fine: It has ties to the Carnegie family
  • Bike rentals: $, rent a bike for the day at Sea Camp Dock

Windsor Beach, Lake Havasu — Arizona

Sand. Palm trees. Arizona. Yes, those three things do go together at Lake Havasu.

Summer gets hots here — July’s average high is 109 F degrees — but the water is so, so cool. Lounge on white-sand beach, occasionally checking out the mountains in the distance over the top of your book.

Extras to Pack

  • Bring Fido: It’s a pet-friendly beach
  • Cash for the $10 entrance fee

Check Out:

Medano Creek, Colorado

Frolic on a beach with white-capped mountains back-dropping your swimsuit selfies. Yeah, Colorado has it all: mountains, great beer, and beaches. 3.5 hours south of Denver is Medano Creek which follows Colorado’s sand dunes, creating a perfect landlocked beach.

Extras to Pack

  • Bug spray for the mosquitoes
  • Water-proof and sweat-proof sunscreen

Check Out:

  • Great Sand Dunes National Park: Surf down the immense sand dunes
  • Airbnb rental or this B&B, as hotels are not numerous here

Assateague Island, Maryland

Ever read Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry? Any takers? … Anyone? Okay, fine, it’s a children’s book about centuries-old bands of wild ponies that live on Chincoteague Island.

Assateague Island is a twin of that island, complete with wild ponies galloping over unspoiled beach. Camping on the beaches in this national park — with bathrooms, showers, running water — gets you up close and personal with those wild beasts. This is a great beach to take kids to.

Extras to Pack

  • Camping gear
  • Food for camping
  • Kid camping gear
  • Lunch
  • Camera

Check Out:

  • Bring your OSV (“over the sand vehicle” … oooh): $$ for permit, priceless in fun
  • Um, did I mention the wild ponies?

Ocean Beach — San Diego, California

Walk out along the long wooden pier and gaze at the darkly rippling water at night. This beach has its own weird flavor and the locals are proud of it, too. You might find drum circles, or nightly sunset gatherings, or incredible sand statutes, like I did one night.

Extras to Pack

  • Your sense of fun
  • Swimsuit

Check Out:

Gulf Islands National Seashore — Pensacola, Florida

I saved the best for last. This beach has a whopping perfect 5 stars on Yelp. You never get 700+ people to agree on one thing unless it’s that good. This beach is that good.

Emerald water, white sandy beaches, stunning sunsets, shells to collect, untouched beauty. Reviews gushed far and wide about this beach, sounding like a high school girl over a movie star crush. The pictures back it all up.

Extras to Pack

  • Camera
  • Swimsuit

Check Out:

  • Fort Pickens campground: C’mon, camping on the beach in Florida — can’t beat that
  • Fort Pickens: $, United States military fort
  • Fort Barrancas: $, preserved fort on island to defend Florida

TL;DR

Beaches — like beach bodies — come in all shapes, sizes and locations. Whatever your beach flavor is (rocky, white sands, barrier island), you’ll find your paradise water-side somewhere across America.

  • Assateague Island is a great barrier island with wild ponies
  • Ocean Beach is homegrown wacky fun with amazing fish tacos
  • Mountains + sand = Medano Creek in Colorado
  • Crazy beach glass beach in Mendocino Coast
  • Rocky, wind-swept romance of Coos Bay
  • Best. Beach. Ever. is Gulf Islands National Seashore in Florida

Image credits: Oregon State Parks, Menaker, Austin Texas, Wunderground,  Mapio, Yelp, Mountain Photography, National Geographiccoloradoguy10best, Header:
alexandre Perotto, Unsplash

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