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A wild expanse on North Carolina’s Outer Banks has earned the top spot on an annual list of America’s best beaches.
Ocracoke Island’s Lifeguarded Beach is the No. 1 stretch of sand for 2022, according to coastal scientist Stephen Leatherman, also known as “Dr. Beach.”
Leatherman, a professor and director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University, has been ranking America’s best beaches since 1991.
He uses 50 criteria to evaluate 650 public beaches in the US. The criteria include beach width, sand softness, water temperature and color, wildlife and more.
The Lifeguarded Beach on Ocracoke Island rose to No. 1 this year from its No. 3 ranking in 2021. The beach is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and is operated by the National Park Service.
“I like this area because it has the three things that you must have to make a great beach: clean sand, clean water and beach safety,” Leatherman told CNN Travel Wednesday morning from the shores of Ocracoke, where it was windy with a small surf.
Ocracoke Island’s 16 miles of undeveloped coastline make it “a little rough around the edges,” its tourism organization says, “in the best possible way.” The island also has ties to the infamous pirate Blackbeard.
Ocracoke is only accessible via private plane or boat and ferry service, which accommodates cars and RVs.
Some of the country’s wildest beaches are found here, according to Leatherman. He cautions that families with children might want to visit earlier in the summer as late summer brings big surf.
“Don’t expect to play golf or stay at the Ritz; the main pursuits are swimming and beachcombing as well as exploring the historical village,” Leatherman said in the beach’s description on his annual list.
What NOT to pack? Golf clubs and high heels, Visit Ocracoke says. “This is an island, but it’s not a resort,” its website says. Walking to dinner in casual attire – even for Ocracoke’s most upscale eateries – is encouraged.
Beachfront accommodation is limited to one National Park Service campground, so most visitors stay in the village a couple miles from the beach.
More of the top US beaches
A second Outer Banks beach, Lighthouse Beach in Buxton on Hatteras Island is No. 6 this year. This beach was the site of the old spiral-striped Cape Hatteras Lighthouse until erosion prompted its move about 3,000 feet inland in 1999.
So how did North Carolina secure two of the top 10 slots this year?
Leatherman gives extra credit for no smoking and both of the Outer Banks beaches prohibit smoking, he said. “And also beach safety is very important. The biggest hazard on beaches is rip currents. Both these beaches have really good lifeguard programs.”
The No. 2 beach for 2022 is Caladesi Island State Park in Dunedin/Clearwater, Florida, with its crystalline quartz sand and clear waters on the Gulf Coast. It’s accessible by ferry or private boat.
“You come in by the ferry and go through the mangroves, so there’s a lot of bird life there, great fishing there as well,” Leatherman said.
The water at Caladesi tends to be much calmer than at No. 1 Ocracoke. One thing to watch out for: stingrays.
“Just shuffle your feet and they take off,” Leatherman said.
Coopers Beach, backed by sand dunes and extravagant mansions in Southampton, New York, takes the No. 3 spot.
St. George Island State Park on the Florida Panhandle (No. 4) and Duke Kahanamoku Beach in Oahu, Hawaii (No. 5) round out the top five.
Beaches in California, South Carolina and Massachusetts appear in the second half of the rankings.
“We’re lucky, here in the United States we really have hundreds of beautiful beaches … and these are just the top 10,” Leatherman said.
Here’s the full Top 10 list:
Top 10 beaches list for 2022
1. Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach, Outer Banks of North Carolina
2. Caladesi Island State Park, Dunedin/Clearwater, Florida
3. Coopers Beach, Southampton, New York
4. St. George Island State Park, Florida Panhandle
5. Duke Kahanamoku Beach, Oahu, Hawaii
6. Lighthouse Beach, Buxton, Outer Banks of North Carolina
7. Coronado Beach, San Diego, California
8. Wailea Beach, Maui, Hawaii
9. Beachwalker Park, Kiawah Island, South Carolina
10. Coast Guard Beach, Cape Cod, Massachusetts