List of 10 best beaches in US gets funny NASA makeover — using only satellite photos

The Ocracoke area of Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina ranks among the nation’s best beaches.

The Ocracoke area of Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina ranks among the nation’s best beaches.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore photo

A recently compiled list of the nation’s 10 best beaches — including three in the Carolinas — got a scientific remake this week, when NASA experts released their own version using satellite images rather than scenic shots.

That means no sunsets, no rolling waves, no couples holding hands as they walk along the shore.

The end result is not very romantic, but we’re talking about a bunch of rocket scientists here, so romance is a relative term.

Among the highly praised beaches are two on the Outer Banks that made the Top 5 and one on Kiawah Island in South Carolina. It came in at No. 9. Florida and Hawaii also have multiple beaches on the list.

NASA describes its version of the list as a “tour” of the beaches as seen by Landsat, a program that is collecting a “global record of the Earth’s surface as observed from space.”

Credit for creating the list goes to Dr. Beach, also known as Dr. Stephen Leatherman, who has created an annual Top 10 beach list for the past 30 years.

Leatherman is a Florida International University professor and coastal geomorphologist, and he creates the list scientifically, by rating beaches on a lengthy list of criteria that includes water color, water temperature, sand softness, wave size and wind speeds.

Here’s NASA’s satellite photo list, starting from the 10th-best beach:


Coast Guard Beac_fitted.jpeg

10. Coast Guard Beach, Cape Cod, Massachusetts

“This beach is located at the point where the glacial sea cliffs transcend into a barrier beach (e.g., sand spit) that provides protection for the lagoon and development of lush salt marshes. The inlet is not navigable except with small boats and changes it orientation and even position over time as clearly shown on Landsat imagery,” NASA says. “Landsat 8 collected this image of Coast Guard Beach on May 1, 2021.”

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9. Beachwalker Park, Kiawah Island, South Carolina

“This barrier island in the Charleston area is 10-miles long and features a fine grained, hard-packed beach that can be traversed easily by bicycle,” NASA reports.

“This Landsat image shows a huge accumulation of sand as a series of shoals on the south end of the island, which can be reached from Beachwalker Park. These sandy shoals will eventually coalesce, becoming an extension of the sand spit that is the south end of Kiawah Island. … Landsat 8 collected this image of Beachwalker Park on April 9, 2021.”

Coronado Beachnas_fitted.jpeg

8. Coronado Beach, San Diego, California

“The harbor serves as a major port for the Navy’s Pacific fleet, the home port for several aircraft carriers. The docks and the crossing airplane runways for the Naval base are visible in this Landsat image,” NASA says. “Landsat 8 collected this image of Coronado Beach on April 23, 2020.”

Caladesi Island State Parknas_fitted.jpeg

7. Caladesi Island State Park, Dunedin/Clearwater, Florida

“Caladesi Island State Park is located in the small town of Dunedin on the Southwest Florida coast. … While island is still in the Park’s name, Caladesi is no longer a true island as shown on the Landsat image — it is now connected to Clearwater Beach,” NASA says. “Landsat 8 collected this image of Caladesi Island State Park on April 9, 2021.”

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6. Duke Kahanamoku Beach, Oahu, Hawaii

“Duke Kahanamoku Beach is named for the famous native Hawaiian who was a big-board surfer and introduced surfing as a sport to mainland Americans and indeed the world,” NASA says.

“One of the prominent features on this Landsat image is Diamondhead with its circular shape near the coast. This large cone of an extinct volcano provides the iconic backdrop for photos of Waikiki Beach. … Landsat 8 collected this image of Duke Kahanamoku Beach on May 17, 2020.”


5. Lighthouse Beach, Buxton, Outer Banks of North Carolina

“Lighthouse Beach in the village of Buxton is located at Cape Hatteras, the most northern cape in the Outer Banks of North Carolina,” NASA says. “The Landsat image shows the seaward growth of south flank of Cape Hatteras as evidenced by the parallel lines of beach ridges,” NASA says. “Landsat 8 collected this image of Lighthouse Beach on May 3, 2020.”

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4. St. George Island State Park, Florida Panhandle

“In this Landsat image, St. George can be seen north of the bridge that links this barrier island to the mainland. The enclosed bay behind St. George Island is fairly shallow and the water much less clear as shown on the Landsat image, but it is not polluted,” NASA says. “Landsat 8 collected this image of St. George Island State Park on October 13, 2020.”


3. Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach, Outer Banks of North Carolina

“Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach at the southern end of Cape Hatteras National Seashore was the first seashore to be incorporated into the National Park Service system,” NASA says.

“The Landsat image shows Ocracoke to the north as separated by an inlet from Portsmouth Island. The village of Ocracoke was built at the wide area of the island where it was protected from oceanic waves during coastal storms which include both winter nor’easters and hurricanes. … Landsat 8 collected this image of Ocracoke Lifeguard Beach on May 3, 2020.”

Coopers Beac_fitted.jpeg

2. Coopers Beach, Southampton, New York

“This Landsat image shows the fairly large coastal pond named Mecox Bay to the east with Shinnecock Inlet and Bay also displayed to the west. Coopers Beach is hundreds of yards wide, made of grainy white quartz sand and is backed by large sand dunes covered by American beach grass,” NASA reports.

“Landsat 8 collected this image of Coopers Beach on August 30, 2019.”


1. Hapuna Beach State Park, Hawaii Island, Hawaii

“Hapuna and the other pocket beaches appear as an oasis in this otherwise fairly bleak landscape except for the areas irrigated as prominently shown on the Landsat imagery by the green vegetation,” NASA says. “Landsat 8 collected this image of Hapuna State Park on January 5, 2021.”

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

Mark Price has been a reporter for The Charlotte Observer since 1991, covering beats including schools, crime, immigration, LGBTQ issues, homelessness and nonprofits. He graduated from the University of Memphis with majors in journalism and art history, and a minor in geology.

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