It takes more than surf and sand to make a great beach, says Walter McLeod , founder of the Clean Beaches Coalition , which 15 years ago developed the first eco-certification for U.S. shorelines. "You have to have great management in place, limiting development and access. People have to understand that a beach is a natural resource to be respected and protected." He shares some top naturally preserved shorelines with Larry Bleiberg for USA TODAY.
Point Reyes National Seashore, Calif.
Although not far from the busy San Francisco Bay area, this beach has a wild, untamed appearance, making it one of McLeod s favorites. "You essentially have 80 miles of spectacular native beaches," he says. It has waterfalls and elk, and hiking trails pass through fern-shaded valleys that lead to stunning ocean views.
Bucket list tip: Visit in winter to see elephant seals, who spend the season here. "It's amazing to see them cavorting around. You can almost go right up to them."
THE BUCKET LIST: More must-see destinations
Gulf Islands National Seashore, Florida and Mississippi
These undeveloped beaches and barrier islands are known for their temperate water and brilliant sand. "The beaches there are among the whitest and softest in the United States," McLeod says. The quartz beaches owe their distinctive look to erosion from the Appalachian Mountains over millions of years. Japanese visitors sometimes call it singing sand because of the high-pitch noise that can be heard when walking on it, he says. Visitors come to camp, fish, hike, explore Civil War era forts, and, of course, swim.
Bucket list tip: While on the Florida side, take a detour and visit nearby Seaside, the planned New Urbanism beach community featured in the film, The Truman Show.
The largest island on the Georgia coast preserves marshes, forests, herds of wild horses — and wild beaches. The island is only accessible by a 45-minute pedestrian ferry from the town of St. Marys. Once on shore, visitors can rent bicycles, hike and camp in developed and wilderness sites. There aren't even trash cans on the island – travelers are required to carry out everything they bring in.
Bucket list tip: The island was home to a unique community of African slaves that kept their native dialect and customs. "It's almost like a time capsule of culture," McLeod says.
Some of the newest beaches on the planet form at this constantly evolving park on the Island of Hawaii. McLeod says the sight of lava flowing out into the ocean is breathtaking, although the timing can't be predicted. "It's an eerie, awesome thing." The beaches vary from black to white sand to a light brown peat-like material. "You have this tremendous geologic cornucopia of beaches that are really not found anywhere else in the world."
Bucket list tip: Explore the park above the beach for lava viewing and to visit the historic Volcano House hotel.
Assateague Island National Seashore, Md. and Va.
While famous for its wild ponies, this 40,000 acre protected area is also the major national seashore for the mid-Atlantic region. Thousands come for the annual pony round-up and swim -- the last Wednesday of July this year -- but visitors can also enjoy the beach and see the horses year-round. "You can pitch a tent on the beach and spend the night. It's an amazing experience," McLeod says. "We go at least twice a year to see the horses in the wild."
Bucket list tip: Don't forget the crustaceans at dinnertime. This region is famed for its tasty blue crabs and crab cakes.
Cape Cod National Seashore, Mass.
The nation can thank President Kennedy for creating this haven, which preserved 40 miles of Atlantic beachfront from development. "It was right next to their family compound. It's the most pristine coastline in that part of New England in stark contrast with Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, the resort islands," McLeod says. A century ago, the area inspired 19th century poets like Henry David Thoreau. Now it includes bike trails, ponds, dunes, and a cell phone interpretation program, providing recorded commentary on the area's natural and human history.
Bucket list tip: Visit the Old Harbor Lifesaving Station in Provincetown, an 1897 building where the park service runs demonstrations of buoy rescues.
These largely undeveloped barrier islands can only be reached by ferry, and visitors must bring their own water and supplies. Once on land, they'll find a natural setting with little more than dunes, forest and sea oats. It's also a great surfing beach, McLeod says. "If you want to surf in isolation, it has tremendous surf. You don't have to compete for the waves."
Bucket list tip: Get a bird's-eye beach view from the top of the 157-foot Cape Lookout Lighthouse, which can be climbed from mid-May through mid-September.
Fire Island National Seashore, N.Y.
This 26-mile section of the barrier island offers visitors New Yorkers a beach getaway not far from the city. And while other parts of the island are developed, the park has plenty of room to spread out. "It's a spectacular beach. There's nothing even close to it near New York," McLeod says.
Bucket list tip: Visit the island's Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness area, which is only accessible by foot. "If you like to beach hike you can see some of the most beautiful coastal birds. You can put your towel down and you will have the entire coastline essentially to yourself."
There's no need to head to the east or west coasts to find great beaches. Michigan's Great Lakes strands are just as beautiful, McLeod says. Sleeping Bear, which stretches 35 miles along Lake Michigan, includes two islands. "It's an absolutely fantastic freshwater lakeshore. Some of the sand bluffs are over 450 feet tall. They feel more like mountains," McLeod says.
Bucket list tip: Take a ferry to the Lakeshore's South Manitou Island, home to shipwrecks and a museum. Sign up for a tour on a specialized Dunesmobile.
Virgin Islands National Park, St. John, Virgin Islands
From tropical forests to an underwater snorkeling trail, this 19-square-mile park offers visitors a chance to explore one of the Caribbean's best-preserved natural areas. The park covers more than half of the island, and includes the popular Trunk Bay and Cinnamon Bay beaches, which rent water sports gear, and have guest facilities. Elsewhere there's kayaking, sailing, hiking and camping.
Bucket list tip: For a splurge, book a stay at the luxury Caneel Bay Resort, which is surrounded by the park. It was developed by Laurance Rockefeller, who donated land for the park in the 1950s.