Whether you’re an opportunistic beachgoer or simply can’t live without sun, surf, and sand, these affordable beach destinations are all great candidates for your next getaway. Unlike many seaside locales, they boast ample amounts of cheap lodging, convenient transportation connections to the outside world, family-friendly amenities, and secluded spots that provide respite from potentially overwhelming crowds.
And if you love your chosen destination so much you never want to leave, you might not have to – most have ample waterfront (or near-waterfront) real estate, much of it affordable, and relatively low costs of living.
Affordable Beach Destinations for Your Next Getaway
1. Rehoboth and Bethany Beach, Delaware
Tiny Delaware doesn’t have hundreds of miles of oceanfront real estate, but it makes the most of what it does have. In the state’s southeastern corner, two towns share names with the beaches that put them on the map: Rehoboth Beach and Bethany Beach. The beaches are physically quite similar: broad and level, with white sand and the occasional teeming tidal pool. Both fill up quickly on nice summer days, though Bethany’s crowds tend to be more manageable.
The towns are distinct. Rehoboth Beach is livelier and has an open, progressive reputation, while Bethany Beach is more family-friendly. (That said, both are far more relaxed than nearby Ocean City, Maryland, one of the East Coast’s busiest beach towns.) Both have boardwalks that trade in the trappings of oceanside Americana, such as soda fountains, saltwater taffy, amusement stalls, and cheap seafood restaurants. If you want to escape the crowds completely, you can head to the wild dunes and estuaries of Cape Henlopen State Park, just up the coast.
- Beach Fees: Bethany Beach doesn’t charge an entrance fee, but it costs $1.75 per hour (10am to 8 or 11pm, depending on the area) to park on most city streets during the high season (May 15th to October 15th). 2-hour limits apply on commercial streets. You can buy a $23 daily parking permit or a $69 three-day parking permit, both good for anywhere in town, at the Bethany Beach Police Department. Rehoboth Beach is also free to use. Centrally located metered parking costs $2 per hour (10am to midnight) from Memorial Day through mid-September. Non-metered spaces, which tend to be farther from the beach itself, require a permit: $10 per day on weekdays, $15 per day on weekends, or $35 for a special Friday-through-Sunday permit.
- Best Time to Visit: Though Mid-Atlantic summers can be oppressive, ocean breezes usually keep coastal temperatures 10 to 15 degrees cooler along the Delaware coast relative to inland cities such as Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Crowds peak on summer holiday weekends, such as Memorial Day and July 4th, so avoid them if possible. Accommodations are cheaper, and the weather potentially more pleasant, during the shoulder seasons: mid-April through mid-May, and mid-September through late October.
- How to Get There: If you live in the Mid-Atlantic or Northeast, driving is best, as Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. are all two to three hours away, traffic permitting. If you live farther afield, fly into one of those cities and rent a car. (Seasonal bus options may be available as well, particularly on weekends.) Flights from Chicago to all three cities start between $150 and $175. Flights from San Francisco and other West Coast cities start around $300.
- Where to Stay: Area motels and hotels fill up rapidly (and tend to be rather costly) during the high season. Camping is a far more affordable, and potentially rewarding, option. In summer, Cape Henlopen State Park – just north of Rehoboth – has rustic sites available for $40 per night in summer. Running-water sites are available for $45 per night. Delaware Seashore State Park – between Rehoboth and Bethany – has rustic sites starting at $30, and full hook-up sites (water and electric) starting at $40. (Off-season rates are $5 to $10 cheaper for both parks.) And since both parks have extensive beach frontage, you can save money on in-town parking by sticking to the more secluded stretches of sand within walking distance of your tent.
- What to Do: Aside from hanging out on the beach and swimming (weather permitting), the boardwalk is a major attraction in both towns – and since people-watching is free, strolling the boardwalk is a fun, cheap way to spend a summer afternoon. This being Delaware, the first U.S. jurisdiction to adopt statehood, there’s also plenty of history nearby. It’s free to stroll the grounds of the Dodd Homestead and the Peter Marsh House, both representative examples of colonial architecture. For homebrewers and casual beer lovers alike, the wildly popular Dogfish Head Brewery, in Rehoboth, is practically a holy pilgrimage site.
- Special Events and Seasonal Attractions: In November, the Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival ($25 for a pass) celebrates local and international filmmakers. Mid-October brings the Rehoboth Beach Autumn Jazz Festival, essential for music lovers – though at $50 or more, tickets can be pricey.
2. Manzanillo, Mexico
Manzanillo is the least touristy – and least expensive – of the Mexican Riviera’s big resort cities. (Others include Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta, and Mazatlan.) It owes this unpretentiousness and affordability to its status as a major working port – it functions as the international trade hub for the sprawling metropolis of Guadalajara, located about 100 miles inland.
But Manzanillo’s all-business heritage doesn’t mean it’s not a prime destination for beachgoers. The coastal stretch north of downtown boasts several world-class beaches with varied atmospheres and strengths: Playa Miramar is great for surfing, Playa Azul and Playa Las Brisas are tourist-friendly, and Playa Audencia and Playa San Pedrito offer opportunities to fish and mingle with locals. Despite the presence of a busy port nearby, all are clean and reasonably safe, though it’s important to take sensible personal safety precautions if you’re out and about after sundown. And Manzanillo itself has all the trappings of a great city, including super-affordable street food, free-admission historic sites, and affordable art museums.
- Beach Fees: Manzanillo’s public beaches don’t cost anything to visit, and as it’s rare for out-of-town tourists to drive themselves around here, you likely won’t have to worry about parking either.
- Best Time to Visit: There’s no actively bad time to visit Manzanillo. It’s in the tropics, so the weather is warm (highs typically range between 80 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit) year-round. The wet season stretches from June to October, peaking in September, but it’s not a guaranteed washout. Out-of-town tourists tend to visit from late fall through early spring, particularly around the end-of-year holidays and traditional spring break times, pushing up hotel rates a bit and crowding the beaches. For an authentic, less-crowded experience, shoot for May to June or October to November.
- Where to Stay: The cost of hotel accommodations varies considerably here. Generally speaking, beachfront properties are pricier than those further inland or near Manzanillo’s industrial district. In general, hotels along Boulevard Costero Miguel de la Madrid and Division del Norte offer a good mix of location (an easy taxi ride from all the major beaches and attractions) and price (as low as $40 per night, depending on season). Renting an entire home or condo through VRBO or Airbnb is popular here too, though it’s hard to find places for less than $75 per night.
- How to Get There: Just up the coast from Manzanillo – 30 to 45 minutes by taxi, depending on where you’re staying – is a busy international airport. Depending on the season, you can find flights for as cheap as $300 to $350 from Houston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other major airports in the southern and western United States.
- What to Do. You could spend a week in Manzanillo and still not get your fill of the town’s beaches. If you do get sick of swimming and lounging in the sun, check out Manzanillo’s zocalo (central square), which is free and features awesome historic architecture. For a day trip, head to Colima, a picturesque coastal town south of Manzanillo.
- Special Events and Seasonal Attractions: In mid-November, the annual International Sailfish Tournament celebrates Manzanillo’s unofficial aquatic mascot and draws thousands of fishing enthusiasts to the city. In February, the Regatta Marina del Rey sees hundreds of boats pass through on their way from San Diego to Puerto Vallarta (or vice versa, depending on the year).
3. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Myrtle Beach has a reputation as a world-class golfing destination – not exactly a promising sign for frugal beachgoers. But it’s smack in the middle of one of the country’s least expensive regions, meaning tourist dollars go surprisingly far here. Myrtle Beach also boasts a wide variety of affordable accommodations – if your heart isn’t set on staying at a five-star golf resort, at least.
“Myrtle Beach” is actually several communities: Myrtle Beach proper, Surfside Beach and Murrells Inlet to the south, and North Myrtle Beach to the north. All sit on one of the longest contiguous beaches in the United States, guaranteeing an empty (or reasonably crowded) patch of sand for you no matter how congested the area gets. And just to the south, Huntington Beach State Park showcases a classic, still-wild Atlantic shoreline ecosystem, complete with swampy forests, waving grasses, and raucous seabirds.
- Beach Fees: Myrtle Beach sits on a 60-mile stretch of uninterrupted beach. Local authorities couldn’t control access to this vast swathe of sand if they wanted to – and they apparently don’t. However, parking in Myrtle Beach can be pricey: Between $1.50 and $2 per hour in Myrtle Beach, depending on location; $1 to $1.25 per hour in Surfside Beach; and $1 to $1.50 in North Myrtle Beach. These rates are in effect during the high season, roughly March 1st through October 31st. In Myrtle Beach proper, you can buy one-day parking permits for $6 to $10, depending on where you plan to park.
- Best Time to Visit: Though frozen precipitation is rare in this region, winters definitely aren’t suitable for lounging on the beach. By the same token, summers can be uncomfortably hot and humid, even with onshore breezes to cool things down. Summer tends to be the most crowded season too. Tropical storms pose a small but serious threat in late summer and early fall. With pleasant but not oppressive weather and manageable crowds, the sweet spots are March to April, and October.
- Where to Stay: The Myrtle Beach area has plenty of affordable hotel options. If you avoid the high-end resorts just outside town, you’ll find rooms for as cheap as $60 per night during non-peak seasons – even on beachfront Ocean Boulevard, in the heart of the city’s tourist district. Camping is also a viable option here: Myrtle Beach State Park, an oceanside spread just south of Myrtle Beach proper, is a short drive (or long walk) to the center of town. Rustic sites start at $25 per night during the off-season and range up to $40 per night during the high season.
- How to Get There: If you live in the southeastern United States, driving is definitely an option: Myrtle Beach is less than six hours from Atlanta, and less than four from Charlotte. Flights from Northeastern and Midwestern cities, some of which require a layover, start at about $100 and rise from there.
- What to Do: Up for a fitness vacation? Jog, walk, bike, or swim a different section of the vast beach each day. Unless you stay a couple weeks, you still won’t see it all. For a break from the sand, take a hike in Huntington Beach State Park, or walk through the Broadway at the Beach mixed-use complex in Myrtle Beach – just focus on people-watching on the sidewalks instead of impulse-buying at any of Broadway’s dozens of pricey local and national boutiques. In North Myrtle Beach, check out T.I.G.E.R.S., a free museum dedicated to ethically showcasing live tigers.
- Special Events and Seasonal Attractions: On Wednesday evenings from June through August, check out the free Hot Summer Nights concert series in downtown Myrtle Beach. Broadway at the Beach routinely hosts free fireworks displays in the warm season, though the schedule varies widely. The annual Beach Boogie & BBQ Festival is also free to enter, though you have to shell out a few worthwhile bucks for the barbecue.
4. St. Pete Beach, Florida
St. Pete Beach is a long, low barrier island on Florida’s central Gulf Coast, just a few miles east of the bustling city of St. Petersburg. It has been a tourist destination since at least the 1960s, though its eclectic culture and reasonable prices (by Florida standards) mean it’s much more than a typical Florida beach town. Even as the area around it transformed into a major urban zone – the Tampa Bay region is home to about 3 million people, and is growing rapidly – St. Pete Beach has retained a unique local culture that the nearby gated communities and sterile high-rise districts can’t match.
Traces of the past abound in St. Pete Beach, particularly in the Pass-a-Grille Historic District, and the laid-back business district on the northern end of the island is a great place to mingle with locals. The beach itself, a classic white-sand Gulf of Mexico affair, supports sunbathing and swimming nearly year-round. And just offshore, Shell Key Preserve is one of the best bird-watching spots in central Florida.
- Beach Fees: St. Pete Beach doesn’t charge beach access fees, but parking can be a tad pricey in the middle of town: up to $3 per hour at the centrally located Pier 60 lot. Elsewhere, street meters and metered parking lots run $1 to $2 per hour, depending on how far they are from the beach. And if you’re spending time on nearby Sand Key, you’ll find $5 all-day parking there. Depending on where you’re staying, it may be worthwhile to take the extra time and walk to the beach.
- Best Time to Visit: A few midwinter cold snaps aside, St. Pete Beach basically enjoys year-round beach weather. That said, rainfall does increase markedly during the summer, and the threat of an afternoon thunderstorm is always present. Tropical storms can force last-minute itinerary changes in late summer and early fall too, so avoid that corridor if possible. And if you prefer uncrowded beaches, note that arrivals peak around spring break time and the winter holidays. Late spring and late fall offer the optimal mix of good weather and manageable crowds.
- Where to Stay: Hotels can be pricey in central St. Pete Beach, which is dominated by high-end resorts. However, three-star options within spitting distance of the beach start at a more reasonable $100 per night, depending on the season. Budget motels in or near the center run as low as $60 per night, but quality and amenities can be uneven. Camping options are limited within easy driving or biking distance.
- How to Get There: If you live in Florida, St. Pete Beach’s central location means driving is probably your best option. Otherwise, the city is convenient to Tampa International Airport, a major travel hub for central Florida. Flights from major northern cities, such as Chicago and New York, start at $125 and rise from there, depending on the season. Flights from the West Coast can be pricier: $350 and up from San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle.
- What to Do: Though St. Pete Beach is only a few blocks wide in most places, it’s nearly 10 miles long, probably too long for a comfortable walk. Renting a bike ($25 per day at Island Action Sports) is a great way to get around from the prime beach area, in the island’s central and southern reaches, and the downtown district, near the northern tip. (There’s also a convenient bus that runs the length of Gulf Avenue, the island’s main drag.) Check out the famous Don CeSar Beach Resort near the island’s midpoint (it’s free to walk around the grounds) and the Pass-a-Grille Historic District before or after the beach. At night, head north to the unpretentious oyster bars along Corey Avenue, or to popular, music-friendly local hangouts like the Drunken Clam.
- Special Events and Seasonal Attractions: On the second Saturday of each month, the free Sunset Fest features family-friendly entertainment and tasty local food. During the spring, St. Pete Beach Recreation Department sponsors free concerts on the beach, mostly featuring local bands and cover artists. If you’re into art, check out the Mainsail Arts Festival in nearby St. Petersburg – an April tradition in central Florida.
5. South Padre Island, Texas
Everything’s bigger in Texas, even the coastal barrier islands. Though 30-mile-long South Padre Island is dwarfed by its neighbor to the north, it still offers plenty of sun, sand, waves, and beach culture. And thanks to its southerly location – its southern tip is just a few miles north of the Mexican border – it’s a legitimate year-round beach destination.
Aside from the miles-long beach and well-preserved coastal ecosystem contained within Padre Island National Seashore, just to the north, South Padre Island’s strengths are familiar to anyone who’s spent time in Texas. Food and lodging is generally a bargain here, the transportation infrastructure is above average, parking is relatively easy, and the culture mixes traditional Southern charm with a laid-back beach vibe.
The one major drawback: South Padre Island is among the country’s most popular spring break destinations, so families need to think twice about visiting from late February to early April.
- Beach Fees: The city of South Padre Island doesn’t charge beach access fees, and its parking policies are more liberal than most other beach towns – it’s definitely possible to park without paying a meter here, if you can find a space. (Beaches on the southern tip of SPI are city-owned.) However, Cameron County, which controls Isla Blanca Park, Andy Bowie Park, and most non-park beach accesses, charges a $5 daily vehicle entrance fee at all lots and parks. And, because this is Texas, you can actually drive onto the beach at Beach Access #5 and #6 (north of the built-up area), though this isn’t recommended without a four-wheel-drive vehicle or at high tide. Also, you must take care to observe posted warnings.
- Best Time to Visit: South Padre Island is basically a tropical destination – temperatures almost never drop below 45 degrees here, even in winter. That said, tropical storm season (roughly July through September) can be risky, as even the threat of landfall can force evacuations and upend your plans – possibly losing you money in the process. Also, it’s not advisable to visit during spring break season, particularly if you have younger children. As a notorious destination for thrill-seeking college students, South Padre transforms from a normal beach town into a bacchanalian revelry for most of the month. During this period, prices are higher, local establishments are packed to the gills, traffic is awful, and sleep is elusive.
- Where to Stay: As long as you don’t mind no-frills accommodations, you probably won’t be priced out of anywhere on South Padre Island. Even along the most built-up stretch of beaches, three-star hotels run in the $50 to $60 per night range during all but the busiest times of year (spring break and summer holidays). Tent camping is actually fairly limited in the area, though RV hookups are available at Andy Bowie Park, Isla Blanca Park, and the South Padre Island KOA.
- How to Get There: South Padre Island is fairly isolated – it’s closer to Monterey, Mexico, than to Houston or Dallas. Unless you live in southern Texas, flying in to Brownsville South Padre Island International is probably your best option. Flights from cities in Texas and the rest of the southern U.S. start at about $175 and run north of $300. Flights from northern cities typically start around $300, depending on the season.
- What to Do: Like Myrtle Beach’s seemingly endless stretch of sand, South Padre Island’s beach promises a bounty of free, healthy fun. Spend time walking the beach, exploring the occasional dune complex or pocket estuary. Isla Blanca and Andy Bowie Parks are both worth half- or whole-day visits in nice weather. If you have children, check out the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center or the Schlitterbahn Waterpark & Resort ($50 for a day pass – certainly worth it if the kids need a break from the beach).
- Special Events and Seasonal Attractions: Weekends mean farm-fresh produce at the South Padre Island Farmers Market, which takes place at the Namar Event Center beginning in February. The South Padre Island Convention Center, near the northern edge of the built-up area, hosts rotating sculpture exhibits throughout the year. If you’re a fan of live music, Clayton’s Beach Bar hosts Bands on the Beach, a music and fireworks celebration, every Friday evening from early April through late October.
6. San Juan, Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico is the best-known U.S. territory in the Caribbean, a tropical island that draws millions of tourists per year from the U.S. mainland and around the world. The city of San Juan is a modern, thriving metropolis that also happens to be one of the oldest European settlements in the Western Hemisphere – an incredible mix of Old World architecture, high-end creature comforts, authentic street life, and, of course, marvelous beaches.
Most international and mainland-U.S. traffic to Puerto Rico enters the territory through San Juan, so the city is a natural starting point for your affordable beach vacation. But there’s much more to see outside the island’s biggest urban area, from lush forests and bioluminescent bays (Mosquito Bay, on the island of Vieques) to nearly deserted beaches (the beaches of Culebra, a nearby island, are an absolute must-visit) and working coffee plantations.
And since Puerto Rico is part of the U.S., you don’t have to worry about remembering your passport or dealing with currency conversions, as with most other Caribbean destinations. Brushing up on your Spanish is recommended, but certainly not necessary.
- Beach Fees: The beaches around San Juan, Culebra, and Mosquito Bay (on the island of Vieques) are all free to access and use, though public toilets may set you back $0.25 to $0.50 per use. In San Juan, your best bet is just to walk to the beaches and save on street parking fees, which vary by neighborhood and proximity to the beach. To get to the beach at Culebra, you do have to take a ferry – $2.25 each way.
- Best Time to Visit: Puerto Rico has a bona fide tropical climate with distinct wet and dry seasons. June through November can be extremely rainy, though precipitation varies considerably across relatively short distances on the island. Unless you want to experience a real tropical rainy season, steer clear during this period. Conversely, the Puerto Rican winter is pleasant and largely dry – but it’s also thick with American snowbirds and students. The sweet spot is April and May, when precipitation is moderate and crowds are thin.
- Where to Stay: If you’re heading to Culebra, you’re going to be camping. It’s worth it: Campsites are within sight of Playa Flamenco, meaning you wake up to expansive water views. Sites run $30 per night, and you can rent tents for $10 to $15 per night if you don’t want to weigh down your carry-on. In San Juan, location is everything. The Old City is beautiful but pricey, with rooms starting around $150 per night (more in winter). Outlying towns and neighborhoods, such as Levittown and Carolina, stretch your dollar twice as far – and taxis are both affordable and plentiful.
- How to Get There: San Juan has a major international airport. Most major eastern seaboard cities, and some as far west as Texas, have direct flights there. Rates start around $250, depending on the season. If you’re planning to stay in one place the whole trip, look into whether your hotel or resort offers travel packages, which could save you hundreds of dollars off the total cost of lodging and transportation.
- What to Do: In San Juan, spend time strolling the Old City before heading to the shore at Escambron Beach (within walking distance of the city’s oldest structures) or Playa Pena. After you’ve gotten enough sun, hit El Fuerto San Felipe del Morro, a 16th century fort that attracts more tourists than any other Puerto Rican attraction. Just southeast of San Juan, El Yunque National Forest – showcasing a tropical rainforest unlike anything on the U.S. mainland – is a must-visit for anyone with a remote interest in outdoor activity. It’s free to enter. Farther east, the island of Culebra offers a more laid-back beach experience and stunning shoreline landscapes.
- Special Events and Seasonal Attractions: In June, SoFo Culinary Week – a must-try for foodie types – takes over the Old City, offering a surprisingly affordable smorgasboard of classic Caribbean and European foods. Lent kicks off with the Carnaval de Ponce, a party to rival Mardi Gras, in February or March. (Ponce is located on the southern coast of Puerto Rico, a few hours from San Juan.) In January, the San Sebastian Street Festival showcases traditional Puerto Rican culture in San Juan’s historic district.
7. Western Michigan
Michigan proves that saltwater isn’t a requirement for world-class beaches. From Sleeping Bear Dunes in the north to the Indiana border in the south, the state’s west coast is a nearly uninterrupted stretch of white- and yellow-sand beach sprinkled with otherworldly dune ecosystems, lush forests, and picturesque harbor towns like South Haven and Saugatuck. Everything fronts on vast Lake Michigan, a freshwater sea that stretches more than 300 miles from top to bottom.
Much of Michigan’s shoreline is protected from intensive development, so campgrounds and bed-and-breakfasts are more common than high-rise hotels. Still, there are plenty of places to stay for far less than the cost of a hotel room in Chicago or Detroit, and plenty to do in any season. And if you’re looking to add an urban component to your trip, Chicago is within easy driving distance.
- Beach Fees: City beaches along Michigan’s west coast are generally free to enter, though larger towns may charge for street or lot parking. For instance, the city of South Haven charges $1 per hour for street parking or $7 for a daily permit. State and national park beaches may charge an entrance fee that includes the cost of parking. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore charges $10 per vehicle entry, good for seven days.
- Best Time to Visit: Thanks to Lake Michigan’s moderating influence, Michigan’s west coast is a bit more temperate than its interior. Summer – roughly Memorial Day through Labor Day – is a true treat here, with temperatures rarely exceeding 90 degrees and humidity kept in check by onshore breezes. That said, summer time can still get cool with overcast days and strong enough winds to require a light jacket. Crowds are rarely overwhelming, but you’ll bump fewer shoulders if you can avoid holiday weekends and, if possible, the entire month of August. Crowds pick up again in early to mid-October for foliage season, but the sights may be worth the crush. Most of the coast is in a lake effect snow belt, so if you like winter sports and lots of snow, late November through early February is a great (and cheap) time to visit, though most campsites are closed for the cold season.
- Where to Stay: There are dozens of cute, largely affordable towns on or near the lake here. In southwestern Michigan, Benton Harbor, South Haven, and Saugatuck feature basic motel rooms starting in the $50-per-night range (more on summer weekends, and many close in winter). If you’re camping, hit Van Buren State Park (sites range from $18 to $30 per night, depending on amenities) in the south and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (Platte River Campground sites range from $21 to $24 per night).
- How to Get There: If you live in the Great Lakes region, driving is the most cost-effective way to get here. From farther afield, fly into Chicago or Detroit, both of which have major international airports with direct connections to most sizable U.S. cities. From either city, you can either take a train ($50 to $100, depending on the destination), Greyhound bus ($30 to $75), or rent a car (cost varies). By car, most western Michigan beaches are one to five hours from Chicago and two-and-a-half to five hours from Detroit.
- What to Do: See at least one set of dunes while you’re here: Saugatuck Dunes State Park is the best choice in the south, while Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is the obvious choice in the north. There’s plenty of shoreline and inland hiking at Sleeping Bear too. Also, the Leelanau Peninsula, near Sleeping Bear and Traverse City, is probably the best wine-producing area in the Midwest, and tastings are usually free or cost a nominal fee. For a feel of the region’s nightlife, head inland to Grand Rapids, which has a vibrant cultural scene and a beautiful (and free) river walk.
- Special Events and Seasonal Attractions: If you come in early July, don’t mind crowds, and love tart cherries, head up to Traverse City for the National Cherry Festival, a celebration of the region’s principal agricultural product (besides wine grapes). In September and October, the month-long ArtPrize exhibition essentially turns Grand Rapids into an outdoor art museum.
8. Cannon Beach, Oregon
Beautiful as they are, Portland’s broad, lazy Willamette and Columbia Rivers don’t quite count as beachfront real estate. For that, you need to head to Cannon Beach, arguably Oregon’s most popular and iconic stretch of sand.
Cannon Beach is just 80 miles west of the Rose City, roughly 90 minutes (traffic permitting) by car or bus. Even if you’ve never been here, you’ve likely seen pictures of the towering stone columns, shaped and hewn by wind and waves over millennia, that litter the beach and its shallows (the best-known of these is Haystack Rock). And wildlife abounds: Sea lions and seals frolic in the waves, the occasional whale spouts just offshore, eagles and ospreys soar overhead. You can walk for miles along this rugged beach, and the Oregon Coast Trail – one of the Pacific Coast’s premier long-distance hikes – isn’t far off either.
A word of caution: Cannon Beach isn’t a tropical paradise by any stretch of the imagination. Its climate is heavily influenced by the Pacific Ocean and the mountains just inland, meaning cool (sometimes cold) fogs and heavy downpours are possible at any time of year. Still, its unforgettable beauty, manageable crowds, reasonable lodging options, and occasionally picture-perfect weather make it well worth the trip.
- Beach Fees: There aren’t any beach access fees or public parking fees in Cannon Beach, though the area’s beachfront state parks charge daily access fees ($5 to $15, depending on season and vehicle type).
- Best Time to Visit: If you’re not comfortable with the threat of rain, don’t visit Cannon Beach – even during the somewhat dry summer season, showers and thunderstorms can pop up with little warning. The best time for beach weather is June through September, though the ocean remains uncomfortably chilly year-round. Of course, summer is also the busiest season here – to avoid crowds, consider postponing until late September or early October.
- Where to Stay: The supply of hotels in and around Cannon Beach is a bit tight, which translates to higher prices – particularly in the high season. Still, it’s possible to find rooms starting at $70 per night outside the busiest times of year. (Keep in mind that some local hotels close during the winter.) To save money and broaden your range of potential lodging sites, consider camping. Oregon’s permissive laws permit beach camping wherever there aren’t private homes within sight or postings explicitly forbidding the practice. For campsites with running water, check out Nehalem Bay State Park (tent sites starting at $11 per night, depending on season).
- How to Get There: If you live in the Pacific Northwest, you can easily drive to Cannon Beach: Portland is about 90 minutes away by car, while Seattle is less than four hours. From farther afield, consider flying into Portland International Airport (direct flights from major West Coast cities from $125, and direct or one-stop flights from other parts of the country from $200) and either renting a car or taking the Northwest POINT bus ($17) to the town of Cannon Beach.
- What to Do: Aside from the beach itself, which lends itself to hours of photography, leisurely strolling, and (weather permitting) sunbathing, the town of Cannon Beach is definitely worth a couple hours of your time. Walk up and down Hemlock Street and Spruce Street, noting the cute houses and eclectic storefronts. Nehalem Bay State Park, Ecola State Park, and Hug Point State Park are all worthy destinations for hiking, bird-watching, and picnicking. Though the water is cold enough here that you probably won’t be tempted to swim, be very careful if you are: Oregon’s northwestern coast is notorious for rip currents and “sneaker waves” that can sweep you off your feet when standing in the shallows.
- Special Events and Seasonal Attractions: Early May brings the free Spring Unveiling Art Festival, when Cannon Beach’s numerous independent galleries open their doors to show what they’ve been working on over the winter. The Cannon Beach Sandcastle Contest, held in late June for the past 50-plus years, is wildly popular with local families. It’s free to attend as a spectator, though sandcastle-building contestants need to pay a registration fee ($5 to $20, depending on age).
9. Ogunquit, Maine
Nestled along Maine’s bustling southern coast, Ogunquit Beach is one of Maine’s longest sand beaches – which isn’t actually saying much in a state known for its rugged, rocky coastline. Still, Ogunquit is a popular warm-season destination for sun-starved New Englanders. It’s convenient to Boston and the charming seaside towns of Portland, Maine, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, offering the possibility of a multistage trip for folks hailing from outside the region.
Like Cannon Beach and the beaches of western Michigan, Ogunquit isn’t the warmest, driest place in the world. Summer does bring plenty of hot days appropriate for sunbathing and swimming, but you should definitely make plans for cool or rainy days, no matter when you come. Fortunately, the Ogunquit area has plenty of onshore activities to keep you busy, from long hikes through the forest, to window shopping in the towns of Ogunquit, Wells, or Portland.
- Beach Fees: There aren’t any fees to step onto Ogunquit Beach, but parking in town can be pricey: up to $4 an hour, and $25 on central streets and lots during the high season. (Parking is no more than $20 per day during the spring and fall shoulder seasons, and free during the winter.)
- Best Time to Visit: The high season is roughly Memorial Day through Labor Day, peaking in late July and August. Depending on the severity of the preceding winter, the water is generally warm enough to swim in by early June, so that month probably offers the best mix of reasonable crowds, nice weather, and favorable swimming conditions. Foliage season (early to mid-October) is another great time to visit, though prices can be higher and you shouldn’t expect to be able to swim.
- Where to Stay: There are plenty of independently owned hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, and motels along this part of the Maine shore, though not all stay open year-round. Room rates start around $50 during the shoulder seasons and $75 to $100 during the high season (possibly higher on summer holiday weekends). Camping opportunities abound within easy driving or trolley distance. In nearby Wells, Riverside Park Campground‘s tent sites start at $25 per night.
- How to Get There: Ogunquit is a little over an hour north of Boston in perfect traffic conditions, which can be rare during the high season. (Speaking from personal experience, summer weekend traffic – “beach traffic,” as locals call it – on I-95 through northern Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and southern Maine can be a nightmare, easily adding two to three hours to a journey.) Flying into Boston’s Logan International Airport (flights as low as $125 from major U.S. cities) and renting a car is definitely an option. So is avoiding traffic by taking the Amtrak Downeaster from Boston’s North Station to Wells ($18 to $30, depending on timing and fare class), then hopping the seasonal Ogunquit Trolley ($2 one way, early June through early September) from Wells to Ogunquit proper.
- What to Do: Ogunquit locals know to savor nice weather when they have the chance. You should do the same: If it’s sunny and warm, particularly early in your trip, soak up some rays on the town beach and dip a toe or two in the water. If the weather isn’t so great, window shop on the area’s charming main drags – not just Ogunquit, but Wells and York too. Portsmouth and Portland are great day trips, with cheap seafood galore and lots of historic (and free) structures. For a non-sandy outdoor experience, take a hike in Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge – an excellent place to see coastal birds in their native habitat.
- Special Events and Seasonal Attractions: Ogunquit’s July 4th fireworks display is among the best-attended on the Maine coast. It’s free to attend, though donations are welcome. In mid-April, the town’s Patriots’ Day celebration features a parade, street vendors, historic building tours, and other family-friendly activities. In October, OgunquitFest draws thousands for a classic car show, scarecrow-building contest, and mini-film festival.
I’m guilty of equating the idea of a beach vacation with the sort of cheesy, all-inclusive tropical resort or cruise packages we all see incessantly advertised on TV and in print media. But in truth, you can easily structure your next beach vacation as an outdoor adventure vacation – no unwanted inclusions or cramped sleeping quarters required. In fact, avoiding flashy resorts and well-heeled crowds is a sure way to reduce the cost of your next trip, perhaps paving the way for another getaway faster than you ever thought possible. It’s also likely to enrich your experience: Years after your trip, you (and especially the kids) may be more likely to remember a teeming tidal pool than a teeming mass of scantily clad humanity.
Are you a beach person? What’s your favorite affordable beach destination?