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10 best beaches in Florida based on a scientist’s ratings

Last updated on August 7th, 2021 at 09:24 am

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.

His is not an arbitrary list. 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.

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 2021 and prior years.

The beach on St. George Island goes on for mile after pristine mile. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Best beaches in Florida: The beach on St. George Island goes on for mile after pristine mile. It was named the #4 best beach in the US in 2021. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

St. George State Park, Florida Panhandle

Using Dr. Beach as our source, then, in 2021, the best beach in Florida would have to be St. George State Park, Florida Panhandle. It was #4 on the overall US list and has ranked in the top 10 in his annual lists in many years.

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.”

Caladesi Island State Park
Best beaches in Florida: Caladesi Island State Park in Dunedin/Clearwater is a favorite. It was ranked #7 in 2021. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Caladesi Island State Park, Dunedin

In 2021, another Florida beach made the US list: Caladesi Island State Park, Dunedin/Clearwater, won a #7 ranking. It’s long been included in the best beaches in Florida list. Caladesi ranked No. 7 in 2019 and was Dr. Beach’s No. 1 in 2008. 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. 

Grayton Beach State Park, Panhandle

Best beaches in Florida: Grayton Beach was the #1 beach in the US in 2020 according to Dr. Beach.
Best beaches in Florida: Grayton Beach was the #1 beach in the US in 2020 according to Dr. Beach. (Photo by Ryan Murphy)

In 2020, Grayton Beach State Park in the Florida Panhandle was named the #1 beach in the US. This beach was ranked 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.  

Past winners among best beaches in Florida

As Dr. Beach has ranked US beaches for three decades, many of the best beaches in Florida 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.

Oyster catcher at Fort Desoto Park
Best beaches in Florida: An Oyster catcher at Fort DeSoto in one of the many examples of wildlife seen at this expansive park.

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 in Bonita Springs
Best beaches in Florida: Barefoot Beach was ranked #2 one year, but never made it to the top of the list. It’s in Bonita Springs. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Barefoot Beach Preserve County Park in Bonita Springs. In 2014, it made it all the way to #2 on the best beaches list. We love Barefoot Beach, a 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 on Key Biscayne
Best beaches in Florida: Cape Florida State Park on Key Biscayne. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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 Pass State Park
Best beaches in Florida: Spectacular Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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.

In 2021 the best beaches in the United States, according to Dr. Leatherman, are:

  1. Hapuna Beach State Park, Big Island Hawaii
  2. Coopers Beach, Southampton, New York
  3. Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach, Outer Banks of North Carolina
  4. St. George Island State Park, Florida Panhandle
  5. Lighthouse Beach, Buxton, Outer Banks of North Carolina
  6. Duke Kahanamoku Beach, Oahu, Hawaii
  7. Caladesi Island State Park, Dunedin/Clearwater
  8. Coronado Beach, San Diego, California
  9. Beachwalker Park, Kiawah Island, South Carolina
  10. Coast Guard Beach, Cape Cod, Massachusetts

About Dr. Beach

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.

NOTE: Follow this link to learn status of red tide in the region.

A note from the editor:

The information in this article was accurate when published but can change without notice. Please confirm details when planning your trip by following the links in this article.

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