Top Family-Friendly Beaches
Along the shores of breathtaking oceans and lakes, create lifelong memories.
The beach can be one of the happiest places on Earth. There’s no sense of time, and the water and sand offer an abundance of outdoor entertainment. The famously beautiful shorelines of the East Coast and West Coast draw plenty of attention, and rightfully so, but the U.S. also is home to scenic lake beaches.
Here are three beach towns where your family can make memories on your next vacation.
Sleeping Bear Dunes, Michigan
The towering sand dunes on Lake Michigan’s eastern coastline make this national lakeshore a top attraction for families. The famous “dune climb” is the Everest of sand mountains, perfect for climbing up and rolling down. While the ascent to the top can be overwhelming for families with small children, there’s plenty of playing and digging to be had at all levels of the dune. Make sure to pack lots of sunscreen, and don’t forget to jump in the lake to rinse off and cool down afterward.
Pack a picnic lunch and take a drive around the 7-mile Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive that loops through beech-maple forest and sand dunes, providing spectacular overlooks of the Glen Lakes, Sleeping Bear Dunes and Lake Michigan. There are 12 designated stops along the loop, but the Glen Lake Overlook is the best place to snap a family picture.
Burn off any extra energy with a bike ride on the 27-mile Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail. The 4-mile ride from the Dune Climb parking lot into Glen Arbor has an ice cream stop along the way. If you’re worried about making a round trip, use the local Bike-n-Ride program to pedal the paved trails one way and ride the bus back to your car.
Monterey Bay, California
Spot sea otters bobbing up and down the coastline and bring your binoculars to whale-watch from shore. White plumes of water can be seen on the horizon year-round from humpbacks, blue whales and gray whales that call the Monterey Bay home. The best way to experience this marine sanctuary is a guided kayak tour. Monterey Bay Kayaks offers guided tours of the harbor or nearby Elkhorn Slough, where you can view sea otters, harbor seals, sea lions, shorebirds and sea stars. No experience is necessary, and families can take advantage of free rentals after the tour.
A trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium is a great way to learn more about the animals you encounter. Discover why sea otters cling to kelp beds or witness a sea star “arm-wrestle.” The aquarium is packed full of exhibits, daily shows and feedings.
Nothing ends a sun-kissed day like a beach bonfire. Just a 20-minute drive from Monterey Bay, Carmel Beach is the perfect place to watch a sunset. Wood-burning fires are permitted in city-owned containers along the beach from dusk to about 10 p.m. Bring s’more supplies and a blanket to relax and end a fun-filled family night.
Sanibel Island, Florida
Practice the “Sanibel Stoop” in one of Florida’s most beautiful and secluded beaches. Located 25 miles south of Fort Myers, Sanibel Island is considered the best shelling spot in North America. So many people go shelling when visiting the Gulf Coast island that the bent-at-the-waist stance of those retrieving seashells has been named the “Sanibel Stoop.”
Scooping rakes are sold at the local hardware store, and some hotels offer rooms equipped with special sinks and worktables for cleaning and packing the day’s yield. Low spring tides and full and new moons after Gulf storms are the best times to visit, as seashells are more exposed.
If you need a break from the beach, head to the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum to see exhibits about the Calusa Indians, who built canals and used tools made from various shells. On Mondays, a longtime museum volunteer puts her personal collection on display. The museum also offers extensive information on how and where to shell on Sanibel and nearby Captiva.