People love top 10 lists, and for decades a South Florida scientist has obliged by listing the best beaches in Florida and the US.
Every year Dr. Beach (aka Florida International University professor Stephen Leatherman) issues a list of top beaches and it gets extensive media coverage.
Leatherman’s list is not arbitrary. He’s a scientist and he has 50 criteria, ranging from “beach softness” to algae to amenities and safety. It includes how crowded the beach gets, how noisy it is and whether the area is overdeveloped. He’s an activist for beaches — he advocates for smoke-free beaches. (Cigarette butts are the #1 source of litter in the world!)
He has done this long enough that a few years ago, he sort of ran out of beaches and started over. Now, some beaches are winning this honor for the second time.
In 2023, Dr. Beach said in interviews that the mats of sargassum seaweed on Atlantic beaches had knocked all of them off his new list.
The list has included many from Florida over the years, and that makes it a good and objective way to identify the best beaches in Florida.
So here is a collection of the top-ranking beaches in Florida from 2023 and prior years.
St. George State Park, Florida Panhandle
Dr. Beach ranked St. George State Park, Florida Panhandle as the nation’s No. 1 beach in 2023 after being in the top 10 in his annual lists repeatedly.
What makes St. George special? Clear water and powdery, super-white sands. “The sand here is squeaky clean,” Dr. Beach writes. “Just rub your feet on the sand and hear it squeak.” He points out: “While St. George Island suffered a big hit in 2018 by Hurricane Michael, the area has substantially recovered, especially the sugary fine, white sand beach.”
If you are lucky enough to snag a campsite in this state park, it is also a great places to see stars under dark skies.
Caladesi Island State Park, Dunedin
Ranking No. 4 on Dr. Beach’s 2023 list, Caladesi Island State Park, Dunedin/Clearwater, has long been included in the best beaches in Florida list. Caladesi ranked No. 1 in the US in the 2008 list.
Dr. Beach writes: “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. There are boardwalk trails, but my favorite is the kayak and canoe trails through the mangroves.”
Caladesi is an island, reached only by boat or a very long walk from Clearwater and here’s a great Florida Rambler tip: It’s great to kayak to Caladesi.
Past winners among best beaches in Florida
As Dr. Beach has ranked US beaches for three decades, many of the best beaches in Florida have earned his #1 spot.
Of course, conditions can change, but it’s hard to think that a spot that was one of the best beaches in Florida a few years ago would not still be pretty wonderful.
So here is a sort of hall of fame: Winners of the #1 spot for best beach over the years.
Grayton Beach State Park, Panhandle
In 2020, Grayton Beach State Park in the Florida Panhandle was named the #1 beach in the US, No. 3 in 2019 and also won the No. 1 spot back in 1994. Dr. Beach can only write about this beach in extreme superlatives: “The sugar-white sand is pure as the driven snow, the emerald green water is perfectly clean and clear and beach development has been restrained so big sand dunes still dominate the landscape.”
The dunes along the mile-long beach harbor a unique collection of brackish lakes, and you can paddle from one to the other. Sandwiched in the middle of the 2000-acre state park is the town of Grayton Beach, a tiny beachside enclave that is a throwback to yesteryear. The state park campground features 50 sites in two loops, and at the western side of the park are 30 two-bedroom cabins.
Fort De Soto Park, St. Petersburg
Fort De Soto Park, North Beach, St. Petersburg. This is one of our favorite places to camp. Here’s our guide to Fort De Soto, which is a Pinellas County park spread over five islands and 900 acres. It was named No. 1 in 2005, when Dr. Beach wrote: “North Beach at Fort DeSoto Park is a natural jewel on the finger of a sun-drenched city. It’s a long, wide, sugar sand beach with great shelling and thriving natural dunes on the Gulf of Mexico.”
Siesta Key Beach, Sarasota
Siesta Key Beach, Sarasota. The sand at this county beach is special – it’s made of quartz, not coral. Dr. Beach crowned it #1 in 2011 and readers of TripAdvisor also named it the No. 1 beach in America in 2015.
St. Andrews State Park, Panhandle
St. Andrews State Park, Florida Panhandle. Not only does St. Andrews have the sugar white sand that makes Panhandle beaches so special, it also has good snorkeling, scuba diving, kayaking and fishing off two piers. It made the No. 1 spot in 1995.
St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, Panhandle
St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, Florida Panhandle. This pure-white-sand beach goes on and on — for 9.5 miles – and has some of the largest sand dunes in Florida. It was named #1 beach is 2002.
Best beaches in Florida that never made #1
Several beaches are always the bridesmaid: They make the top 10 list time and again, but never make it to the No. 1 spot. These include:
Barefoot Beach Preserve County Park, Bonita Springs
Barefoot Beach Preserve County Park in Bonita Springs. In 2014, it made it all the way to #2 on the best beaches list. The beach was blasted by Hurricane Ian in 2022 and remains closed as of this writing in May 2023.
When it reopens, it will again be great place to beachcomb, see dolphins in the water and gopher tortoises in the dunes. As a county park, it is less well-known outside the area and you reach this beach by winding through a community of multimillion dollar homes. Here’s a Florida Rambler story on Barefoot Beach.
Cape Florida State Park, Key Biscayne
Cape Florida State Park, Key Biscayne. Cape Florida has made the list several times. One thing that makes Cape Florida State Park so great is the historic lighthouse, which you can climb for postcard views and to learn its fascinating history. The park also has two good restaurants. More about Cape Florida State Park.
Delnor-Wiggins State Park, Naples
Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park, Naples. Delnor-Wiggins is right across Wiggins Pass from Barefoot Beach. It’s an unspoiled beach good for shell collecting and even good snorkeling, which is rare for Gulf beaches. Here’s a Florida Rambler story on Delnor-Wiggins, which only reopened in May 2023 eight months after Hurricane Ian battered it.
In 2023 the best beaches in the United States, according to Dr. Leatherman, are:
- St. George Island State Park, Florida Panhandle
- Duke Kahanamoku Beach, Oahu, Hawaii
- Coopers Beach, Southampton, New York
- Caladesi Island State Park, Dunedin/Clearwater
- Lighthouse Beach, Buxton, Outer Banks of North Carolina
- Coronado Beach, San Diego, California
- Wailea Beach, Maui, Hawaii
- Beachwalker Park, Kiawah Island, South Carolina
- Poipu Beach, Kauai, Hawaii
- Coast Guard Beach, Cape Cod, Massachusetts
About Dr. Beach
Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman is professor and director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University.
He received his Ph.D. in Environmental (Coastal) Sciences from the University of Virginia, and completed his undergraduate degree in Geosciences at North Carolina State University.
Prior to joining FIU, Leatherman was professor and director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at the University of Maryland; director of the National Park Research Unit at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; and assistant professor in the Department of Geology at Boston University.
Leatherman has authored or edited 16 books, including Sea Level Rise: Causes and Consequences; Barrier Island Handbook; Overwash Processes; Cape Cod: From Glaciers to Beaches; and America’s Best Beaches. He has also authored over 200 journal articles and technical reports, including articles in both Science and Nature.
Leatherman has provided expert testimony multiple times for the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives. He was also the on-screen host and co-producer of the 1992 film “Vanishing Lands”, winner of three international film awards, including the Golden Eagle.
Discover more Florida beaches in this Florida Rambler section.
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Veteran journalists who worked together at Fort Lauderdale’s SunSentinel newspaper, Bonnie and Bob founded FloridaRambler.com in 2010 to explore the natural, authentic Florida, writing about their natural interests in hiking, biking, paddling, RV and tent camping, wildlife, unique lodging, dining and historic places.