Florida’s 1,200 miles of sandy shores tend to get so crowded in summer that you can barely see the waves for the knees. Instead of squeezing in next to other beachgoers while they slather on sunscreen with their boom boxes blaring, seek out lesser-known seaside playgrounds where you can toss a Frisbee or spread a picnic blanket on your own little stretch of quiet, sandy paradise.
These 10 hidden beaches may lack lifeguard stands, but you’ll trade the mass mentality for the off-the-beaten-path allure of natural beauty.
Flagler Beach’s 19 miles of fluffy golden-red sand look like cinnamon warming under a yellow sun. And while you can’t drive on the beach, State Road A1A runs alongside it, preventing high-rises from blocking your view. It’s a town of mom-and-pop motels and cottages that spread north and south from the center of the village. Surfers hang out near the pier to catch waves, while thirsty locals flock to High Tides at Snack Jack for fresh fish on the beach or to rooftop dives such as Finn’s Beachside Pub to catch a sunset.
What to Do: Clamber over the coquina rock formations, which give Flagler’s sands their distinctive color, on the beach at Washington Oaks Gardens State Park, or spend a morning pedaling along the lush Mala Compra Greenway Trail through a dense maritime forest of live oaks and palm trees. Hang your towel at the luxurious Hammock Beach Resort, which indulges guests with elaborate pools, a famed oceanfront golf course, and stunning Atlantic views.
St. George Island
This 28-mile-long spit of shimmering white sand and tall slash-pine trees juts out into the Gulf of Mexico’s green waters southeast of Panama City. It’s a throwback to quaint beach villages, with just a general store, a few restaurants, a couple of inns and cottages, and a wild state park for exploration. Most folks simply cross the causeway, passing a flotilla of fishermen, to hang out for a week. There’s a natural sense of privacy and quiet out here, with miles of unsullied beaches for sunning and pristine marshes and woods for bird-watching.
What to Do: Ambitious visitors can climb the 92 steps at Cape St. George Light and learn how the lighthouse was rebuilt four different times after storms knocked it down. Others can explore the trails in the state park, kayak around the marshes, or fish from the piers. In June and July, you can boat into the shallow grassy waters of nearby Apalachee Bay to gather scallops. Take a bit of wasabi with you for fresh, salty sashimi on the waves. When you want to go out to eat, continue the seafood theme by diving into briny oysters from Apalachicola, littleneck clams from Alligator Point, and local shrimp, grouper, or flounder—as well as some crunchy hush puppies to make it all just right.
Cayo Costa State Park
The rumors are wrong. The best shelling beach in the U.S. is not Captiva or Sanibel, the twin islands just over the mainland from Ft. Myers. There’s one much better, located two islands to the north of Sanibel as the seagull flies. Nine-mile-long Cayo Costa may lack a bridge and chic hotels, but this state-park isle makes up for it with a staggering array of hard-to-find seashells. The beaches are so littered with cockles, whelks, olives, and conchs that you’ll have to wear shoes to walk comfortably by the shore.
What to Do: There’s rustic camping on the island if that’s your thing, but most folks stay at Bridgewater Inn on Pine Island or Angler’s Inn on Matlacha and take the Tropic Star cruise over for the day. Visitors to Sanibel and Captiva can ferry over with Captiva Cruises. You’ll want to take essentials with you, such as water, a hat, sunscreen, mesh bags for shells, and a beach chair. Spend your day swimming, beachcombing, picnicking, and relaxing while counting pods of dolphins passing by. The best time to visit is during the first low tide after a storm, when a new crop of shells is exposed on the shore.
Locals around Naples keep this tropical island a secret. You won’t see it publicized anywhere along the elite Gulf Coast of southwest Florida. The snowy white sand, which stretches for seven miles, feels as soft as baby powder. Locals scoot out to the barrier island to escape tourists and spend a quiet day or to hold parties or even weddings. The island’s residents tend to be deer, gulls, eagles, boars, the occasional panther, and sea turtle hatchlings, all attracted by the neighboring Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.
What to Do: On weekends, enough folks come out that a couple of local food boats pull up to the south end’s bayside to dish up freshly caught seafood and icy drinks. Otherwise, Keewaydin lacks facilities. Yet locals love it because it’s the only beach in the county that allows dogs. Naples Bay Resort welcomes your pets and rents boats for exploring Keewaydin. You can take your pooch for a beachy frolic (check out their boat rentals). If you’d rather leave the boating to others, Extreme Family Fun Spot runs weekend shuttles, and a couple of dolphin cruises—the Dolphin Explorer and the Sweet Liberty—regularly pull up to Keewaydin for beach walks.
This island, with three miles of undeveloped beach, was split from neighboring Honeymoon Island by a hurricane in 1921, but Hurricane Elena filled the pass back in with sand in 1985. Nowadays, you can walk to Caladesi from Clearwater Beach. Caladesi often wins awards from Dr. Beach (Stephen Leatherman) for its white quartz sand and pristine ecosystem. Consequently, the Caladesi Island State Park draws more visitors than others, though it’s far from crowded.
What to Do: Families can go to the state park for swimming, sunbathing, and beachcombing, and it also has a sizable playground with swings, climbing bars, slides, and shaded pavilions for parents to hang out while the little ones play. Your kids will likely make new playmates here. A nature path snakes through the interior, and a three-mile kayak trail meanders through the mangroves of the bay.
The longest stretch of undeveloped beach on Florida’s east coast is the 24 miles of Canaveral National Seashore. The skinny barrier island that is home to the seashore stretches out in a sandy ribbon between the Atlantic and Mosquito Lagoon. Surfers love it. While most of Canaveral’s beaches are typical wear-your-bikini places, the folks hanging out at Playalinda (the southernmost beach in the park) have a clothing-optional mindset. (Even though nudity is technically illegal, the law is rarely enforced here.) However, the beach still has a family-oriented atmosphere—the “no sex in the sand dunes” rule is generally followed.
What to Do: If you want to park nearby, arrive early as spaces fill up quickly. You may want to bring your gear in a wagon or on a bike. Be sure to wear shoes while walking to the beach, as sand spurs are especially sticky and painful here.
Not all lesser-known beaches sit in a wilderness. Navarre Beach nuzzles up to the eastern edge of Gulf Islands National Seashore, with eight miles of undeveloped beaches and towering dunes. Navarre bridges that natural world with a quietly developed town that lacks the glitter and spectacle of its better-known neighbor Pensacola to the west.
What to Do: The family-oriented community offers plenty of high-rise condos to rent, plus a fishing pier—the longest in northwest Florida. Visitors can golf, zip-line, kayak, and bike near the emerald-green Gulf waters. One of Florida’s best freshwater canoe trails flows out of historic Milton, and Blackwater River State Park is less than a half-hour away.
While Amelia Island is better known for five-star resorts and luxe condos, it’s also home to a historic seaside town. Florida’s first African-American millionaire, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, developed American Beach during the Jim Crow era because people of color were not allowed to swim along the neighboring Jacksonville Beaches. Today, American Beach is a quiet community, whispering its stories on strong sea breezes.
What to Do: The beach itself is good for sunbathing, swimming, surfing, and picnicking—and you can even drive on it (four-wheel drive is helpful). But the town is mostly abandoned and empty. The National Park Service offers interpretive tours of the community. The closest places to overnight are in nearby Amelia City and Fernandina Beach.
Sunny Isles Beach
Some of the best lesser-known beaches are hidden in plain sight. This two-mile expanse of glittering white sand is tucked between Miami and Ft. Lauderdale. It has a split personality—and that’s a good thing. Home to uber-luxe five-star resorts such as Acqualina and Turnberry Isle, Sunny Isles also sports an accessible natural character. In addition to the only public fishing pier in Miami-Dade County, Sunny Isles’ Oleta River State Park just happens to be Florida’s largest urban park.
What to Do: When you want to rough it, rent one of the state park’s 14 quaint air-conditioned cabins with covered porches and picnic tables (no kitchens or baths, but facilities are nearby). During the day, pedal down miles of off-road bicycling trails, or rent a kayak to paddle through the mangrove swamp in search of manatees and dolphins. For those not staying in a resort with white-glove beach service, head to Haulover Beach Park on the south end of Sunny Isles for 1.5 miles of public beach with lifeguards, shaded picnic tables, and public bathrooms.
These fifteen tropical islands covered with mangroves, hardwood forest, tropical birds, and small deer sit at the entrance to Tampa Bay and have seen quite a bit of entertainment through the years. Centuries ago, they hosted ceremonies and were burial grounds for Native Americans. But in the 1960s, a bridge transformed sleepy Tierra Verde into a spot for Sinatra, Dietrich, Liberace, and Torme to hang out and put on shows. Even the popular TV show Route 66 was filmed here. Today, a quiet residential community spreads out over the islands.
What to Do: Be sure to visit Pinellas County’s best park, Fort De Soto. Its three miles of unadulterated beaches are some of the prettiest and least crowded in the area, plus the park welcomes dogs. An old fort gives you a place to escape rain or find shade and has one of the best views of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge at twilight.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2013. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.