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Our Best Beaches: Northeast

Our Best Beaches: Northeast

From Jersey to Maine, these coastal spots provide the perfect summer vacation

cape The Great Island Trail in Wellfleet provides Cape Cod beach goers with some shade and hiking possibilities.

It’s summertime and everybody wants to go to the beach. The northeast, and especially New England endures such a frigid, trying winter each year that it’s hard to believe that come June, every mile of that coastline is reborn into a pleasant and delightful destination for locals and travelers alike.

One of the best things about East Coast beaches, besides stunning beauty, is the sunrise. Sure, not everyone’s an early riser, but to stand on the sugary, white sand and witness the day come alive with just a glimmer on the ocean’s horizon is well worth the sleep deprivation.

Another “best thing” about East Coast beaches is their history. The Wampanoag and other Algonquian speaking nations thrived within this landscape long before any township required a beach badge to enjoy its shores or before jingling ice cream trucks played the soundtrack to a summer’s day. The surrounding flora and fauna, historical monuments and architecture, from Colonial to Victorian to Modern, aptly tell our nation’s story. A little beach time, a little exploration and an unlimited list of summertime activities and your visit to the northeast beaches will be one that you’ll never forget.

Here are seven of our best beaches in the northeast U.S. and the federal lands surrounding them: 

Avalon, New Jersey

All popular culture stereotypes aside (you know what we’re talking about), New Jersey’s coastal regions give locals and visitors alike that classic summertime experience. Think saltwater taffy, ice cream—plus—the Jersey Shore has some of the best pizza in the country.

The five miles of beach at Avalon are home to one of the few remaining high dune systems on the entire East Coast, as well as your quintessential boardwalk atmosphere, great crabbing, fishing, swimming, surfing, boating and anything else you and your family love to do at the beach. Avalon—and most of Jersey’s southern beaches—are located on long, narrow barrier islands that protect the mainland from storms.

In the late summer and early fall, due to its proximity to the Gulf Stream, the ocean here becomes exceedingly warm, making this destination ideal for swimmers, surfers and anglers.

And while you’re there, make a short trip to Tuckerton to visit the 115,000-acre Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve, whether it be by boat or by land.   

Gateway National Recreation Area, New York and New Jersey

Gateway now offers overnight camping in and around New York City on Staten Island, at Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn and at Sandy Hook, New Jersey. At Gateway, you can put in a day relaxing on the beach, biking, fishing, kayaking, birding (over 325 bird species come to Gateway) or exploring Civil War-era forts and historic aircraft. In the evening, you can gaze across the water at the Manhattan skyline or head that way to take in dinner and a Broadway show.  

Montauk Point, New York

Montauk is one of those classic Hamptons locations; sometimes a visit here is like stepping right into a Calvin Klein ad. But aside from the popular beach resort atmosphere, glamor and Americana, the area has got plenty of wild, open space to explore.  Located on Long Island’s south fork, the Amagansett National Wildlife Refuge is a 36-acre refuge and home to an incredible number of rare plants an even more impressive number of bird species. 

Thirteen miles off of Rhode Island and 13 miles east of Montauk Point, Block Island sits in the middle of the Outer Lands archipelago (made up of Martha’s Vineyard, the Elizabeth Islands, Nantucket, Block Island, Long Island and their surrounding islets). Take a ferry and arrive at this truly New England destination.

Cape Cod Bay, Massachusetts

It’s hard to nail down the best beach in Massachusetts, with destinations like Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. But along Cape Cod National Sea Shore and Buzzards Bay (they’re connected by the Cape Cod Canal), miles and miles of gorgeous shoreline appear to play the quintessential, New England set you see in movies, with tons to do for families, nature lovers, hikers and adventurists.

And when you’re not sitting in the sand on an umbrella-lined beach, venture out to Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, the birthplace of East Coast whale watching. This, one of the world's premiere sites to view grey whales, sits at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay. For a great daylong activity, book a whale watching tour.

You can also visit Noman’s Land Island National Wildlife Refuge—located 3 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard in Dukes County. This is actually a 1.6-mile long island in itself, surrounded on all sides by Atlantic Ocean and about 30 percent wetlands. This destination is perfect for the nature lover to find interesting plants and birds, some of which, like the cranberry and the piping plover, are living pieces of Americana.  

Rye Beach, New Hampshire

Located in the affluent yet bucolic town of Rye—New Hampshire’s first settlement—Rye beach is a popular destination for New Englanders. Though most people don’t typically think “New Hampshire” when one mentions the phrase, “beach town,” Rye Beach has all the qualities you could ever want of a typical New England beach.

And when you’ve had enough sun and salt water, explore some more of New Hampshire’s beauty—at Great Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Newington, or in the fun, artsy town of Portsmouth.  

Goose Rocks Beach, Kennebunkport, Maine

Beaches in Kennebunkport, like Goose Rocks Beach, don’t only provide miles of fun on the sand, but they also offer some of the most scenic glimpses of the Pine Tree State. Perhaps one of the most attractive qualities of Maine beaches is their general lack of commercialism, traffic and crowds, in comparison to the more easily accessible (and warmer water) beaches in the lower Northeast states. From views of surrounding, piney islets to rare shore birds to tide pools teeming with fascinating life, the beaches of Maine contain worlds to explore.

While you’re there, visit any of Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge’s 50 miles of coastline, salt marshes and estuaries for migratory birds.  

Sand Beach, Acadia National Park

It’s not news that Acadia National Park is home to some of the most magical and untouched coastline in the lower 48, and also some of the rockiest. Acadia’s granite laden shores make for some majestic scenery and rugged exploration opportunities, but not all are ideal for your classic family beach day.  However, nestled at the eastern edge of Mt. Desert Island, between granite hills and acres of pine-covered ground, lie 290 yards of gorgeous, sandy beach.