Photo Essay

The Sunny Dreams And Sandy Realities Of The Great American Beach Vacation — In Photos

From the Oregon coast to Atlantic City, the great beach destinations have a story to tell about leisure time, equality, and the shared American experience.

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Some families load up the minivan for camping trips to the beach, others jump on planes and jet to Florida beach resorts, while others make their way to historic amusement parks built on boardwalks above the sand like the Steel Pier in Atlantic City and California’s Santa Monica Pier. But we all do it. The beach vacation is as American as tater tots — and the variations on it are endless.

More than the surf or storms, winds or tides, the force that most shapes American beaches is access. Of the 95,471 miles of coastline in America, less than half of 1% are National Seashores, a designation you probably weren’t even aware was a thing. The largely privatized American beach experience has had huge ramifications throughout history and shapes the way we experience the sand and surf today.

Take Bruce’s Beach in Los Angeles County. During a time when racial segregation kept Black families from enjoying most beaches in the area, Charles and Willa Bruce opened the beach resort in 1912 for Black families in the area to enjoy.

Black families flocked to Bruce’s Beach, but in 1924 the City of Manhattan Beach Council used eminent domain to close it down with supposed plans to redevelop the area as a “public” park. Instead, it became a de facto move to strip beach access from Black families.

Packaged as paradise, sold as freedom, in reality beaches have been a battleground of the constant struggle for access and equality for all families. The five famous beaches outlined here tell their own stories of development, ownership, and local vision shapes a beach’s story. It’s all part of the dreams and pursuit of the Great American Beach Vacation

Cannon Beach, Oregon: Public Beach Access Since 1913

In 1913, a push by one progressive governor set the path for the entire Oregon coast to be accessible to all, from the water to the vegetation line.

The result: Destinations like Cannon Beach, one of the most popular tourist beaches on the Oregon coast.

This place is remarkably chill in nearly every way imaginable. Shoot, even the local coffee roaster is called The Sleepy Monk. A cool climate and water temperatures that tend to be at least 10 degrees lower than those in Southern California keep Cannon Beach busy but uncrowded. Even in the summer months, beachgoers sport hoodies and fleeces most days — many walking the wet sand portion of the beach and those who don’t mind numb extremities braving the Pacific Ocean’s chilly waters.

Low tide at Cannon Beach temporarily unveils tidepools, captivating kids with a display of starfish, anemones, coral, sponge, and other sea life. And it also makes it possible to walk right up to the iconic Haystack Rock, where One-Eyed Willy was said to have hidden his pirate treasure in the 1980s blockbuster The Goonies.

Today the entire Oregon coast remains accessible thanks to the 1967 Oregon Beach Bill, which established public ownership of all land along the Oregon coast.

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Two kids play on Cannon Beach in 1989.

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A view of parked automobiles and people driving on the sand at Cannon Beach, Oregon around 1915.

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Broad public desire for a proper road for easier beach access led to the construction of what would become the Oregon section of U.S. Route 101 that now spans more than 1,500 miles from Los Angeles to Tumwater, Washington.

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One of the things that keeps Cannon Beach — and the rest of the Oregon coast for that matter — so pristine and laid-back is a relative lack of development near the shoreline, even when the town is packed with people enjoying the many local shops and restaurants.

Former Oregon Gov. Oswald Wes resolved to protect public access to the state’s beaches in the 1910s when property owners began fencing off sections of the shoreline for private use. West convinced the Oregon Legislature to designate the state’s 362 miles of wet sand coastline as a public highway. It wasn’t as long of a reach as one might imagine since car owners had taken to driving along the packed wet sands since passable roads to and from the beach were a rarity then.

Broad public desire for a proper road for easier beach access led to the construction of what would become the Oregon section of U.S. Route 101 that now spans more than 1,500 miles from Los Angeles to Tumwater, Washington.

Today, you’ll find about as many cars on Cannon Beach as you will pirate ships. Driving is now allowed only along about a quarter of Oregon’s beach line. But the entire Oregon coast remains accessible to the public despite losing its highway designation thanks to the 1967 Oregon Beach Bill, which established public ownership of all land along the Oregon coast from the water to the vegetation line.

Atlantic City, New Jersey: Rising Above The Sand

Before Atlantic City’s casino glow-up of the 1980s and subsequent gross-out in the 1990s, it long held a reputation as a wholesome family beach destination.

The crown jewel of southeastern New Jersey’s Absecon Island, as early as 1870 Atlantic City was an incorporated resort town boasting beautiful ocean views. But the one rub was that visitors did not care for sand. Thus was born the first iteration of the famous Atlantic City boardwalk, providing proximity to ocean waters without the perceived inconvenience of finely crushed rock — paving the way for countless other beach towns to develop similarly, above the sand but in view of the surf.

At that time, the boardwalk wasn’t accessible to everyone. Starting around 1900, Black beachgoers began congregating on a stretch known as Chicken Bone Beach just south of downtown Atlantic City as hotel owners pushed them out of areas directly in front of their properties.

The Boardwalk and Steel Pier from the Breakers Hotel in Atlantic City in the 1930s.

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The crowds in Atlantic City in the 1980s.

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A crowded beach in Atlantic City in the 1940s with the Boardwalk and Old Time Hotels in the background.

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Beach dwellers in front of the Showboat Atlantic City hotel and the Ocean Casino Resort on May 22, 2021.

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A family in the early 1950s at “Chicken Bone Beach,” the then-segregated section for African Americans on Atlantic City's beach area.

John W. Mosley Photograph Collection, Charles L. Blockson Afro- American Collection, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA.

It was at Chicken Bone Beach that Black Cool made Atlantic City an entertainment destination. Sammy Davis Jr., Jackie “Moms” Mabley, the Mills Brothers, Louis Jordan, and the Club Harlem showgirls all made their way to Atlantic City during the summer to entertain both locals and visitors.

But Atlantic City started to fall on hard times in the 1960s following desegregation, the beaches were opened to everyone, Chicken Bone Beach disappeared, and tourists started to find other, perhaps less developed beach destinations.

Much like Las Vegas, Atlantic City experienced a casino boom followed by an era of seediness that kept it from reaching its potential as a family beach destination for nearly half a century. And while it hasn’t been able to reinvent itself quite as fully as its kindred spirit in the desert, the Steel Pier Amusement Park keeps the good times rolling on the old boardwalk with 1,000 feet of carnival midway fun extending over the boardwalk for those who love the ocean but don’t care for the feel of sand between their toes.

Martha’s Vineyard: A Community Hidden In Plain Sight

We all think we know the story of “Martha’s Vineyard.” This is an oasis for the wealthy and powerful. Beyoncé and Jay-Z have vacationed there, as have Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, and the Clintons. The owners of a 6,892-square-foot house that sits on nearly 30 acres, the Obamas are free to come and go at their pleasure. You can nab a nondescript three-bedroom there these days for a cool $1.5 million.

But the money covers the deep history that still resides in the vineyard. While it’s estimated that some 11% of the island’s year-round residents are black (some 700 people), Martha’s Vineyard has remained a popular destination for Black families for more than 100 years, as it now welcomes an estimated 100,000 people of color each summer.

The island’s status as a summer sanctuary for Black families dates back to 1912 when Charles Shearer — the son of an enslaved woman and an enslaver — opened Shearer Inn in the Oak Bluffs neighborhood, which at the time was one of the limited lodging options for Black travelers. Since 1947, Ebony magazine has drawn attention to the Black history and sense of inclusion at the island, declaring it “a vacation mecca” in 1989.

An illustration of Oak Bluffs in Martha's Vineyard.

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An Oak Bluffs beach crowd in 1973.

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Taylor family members on the beach on Martha's Vineyard in the 1950s.

National Museum of African American History & Culture

Danae Holmes ,8, uses a vegetarian meatball as bait to fish the jetty in the section of beach historically referred to as the "Inkwell" in Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard.

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As the area became increasingly popular among Black travelers, a real sense of community arose amongst the tourists as they returned summer after summer. Even today, a daily morning swim circle known as the Oak Bluffs Inkwell Polar Bears continues nearly 75 years after visiting swimmers first started the ritual as a safe space for Black swimmers.

To some Polar Bears participate in a water aerobics class, though others join the circle simply to casually float with others while accomplished swimmers make their way to the area to warm up for more strenuous swims.

To brave those chilly morning waters is a baptism of sorts — into the rich history of Black pilgrimage, an ever-extending family, and the feelings of freedom and connectedness that keep people coming back for more.

Southern California: Driving To The Beach

A drive to the California beach may be the quintessential American vacation. For much of the country, there’s always been something enticing about heading west; crossing the mountains; and arriving in the land of sun, surf, and palm trees.

Since the rise of the automobile, it’s a trip that’s been packaged as both exotic and attainable. I Love Lucy included a multi-episode California road trip arc in 1955, The Beach Boys pioneered the California Sound pop genre that got California surf culture tunes stuck in everyone’s heads. Baywatch eventually beamed a version of California beaches as a place so glorious that time nearly stood still onto every television in the country.

U.S. Highway 101 was established in 1926, making travel to Southern California’s beaches relatively easy for any family on the West Coast with a car. The Pacific Coast Highway, as it’s now known, begins near Seattle and extends 1,650 miles south to the United States-Mexico border, and it simply provide a route to the beach but it provides a drive along the coastline, complete with some of the most beautiful road trip pit stops around.

A group beach-goers (and their surfboards) gather round a Ford Mustang on the beach, 1964.

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Surfers watch a ceremony to return ownership of Bruce's Beach to the descendants of a Black family who had the land seized from them through eminent domain a century ago on July 20, 2022 in Manhattan Beach, California.

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A couple laughs in the surf on Bruces Beach, part of Manhattan Beach, California.

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The Ferges family of stunt performers balancing at Muscle Beach, Santa Monica, California in 1956.

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Triston Gailey, 3, surfs a few waves with the help of his dad Todd in Morro Bay, California, 2013.

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Businesses have chased this hallowed shoreline road. From Disneyland, just 20 miles from the Pacific Coast Highway, to the San Diego Zoo, an easy and magical detour for beachgoers can be found all along the Southern California coast.

If nothing else, the Southern California beach vacation felt firmly within the construct of the American middle-class dream. You didn’t need a passport to get there. You just needed a car. And there was always the dream of bumping into someone famous. Or at the very least, someone who looked famous.

All of which isn’t to say Americans have abandoned California beaches. Plenty of them still make the trip to try their hand at surfing, watch folks play volleyball, and lay out on the same beaches they’ve seen on screens big and small for all those years. It’s just not the only place to park your car and have some fun anymore.

Cedar Point Beach: Amusement On The Shore

A landlocked lake beach simply isn’t going to have the same allure as its coastal counterparts. Let’s just concede that point up top. But the fine people of the upper Midwest are an industrious bunch and not ones to give up without making the best of their situation.

Ohio’s Cedar Point Beach is a prime example.

The shores of Lake Erie don’t provide optimal surfing conditions. The logical solution? A waterpark built right on the shoreline that includes an attraction that opened as the tallest and fastest water ride in the world in 1993, with a drop of 80 feet. Surf that, you coastal elites.

But believe it or not, the Cedar Point Shores waterpark is only a sideshow to the amusement park it accessorizes. Opened in 1870, Cedar Point is the second-oldest operating amusement park in the United States. With the park’s 15 world-class roller coasters, visitors can get tossed and turned until they cannot distinguish where the waters of Lake Erie end and the horizon begins.

A life guard a sits under a striped umbrella at Cedar Point, Ohio in 1925.

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Riders on Cedar Point’s Magnum XL-200 roller coaster in Sandusky, Ohio.

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From about 1914 to the 1930s, the Sea Swing was a popular attraction at Cedar Point. The ride operated like a Merry-Go-Round, and the riders dipped into the water as the swing went around.

Sandusky Library Archives Research Center

Swimmers in 1954 congregate on the beach and in the water at Cedar Point.

Columbus Metropolitan Library

It’s a far cry from Cedar Point’s humble beginnings in 1870 as a public sunbathing beach. It was a bit of a trek, however, requiring a steamboat ride from Sandusky to the peninsula. To up the entertainment value, Louis Zistel, a Sandusky cabinetmaker who also operated the Young Reindeer steamboat, opened a small beer garden, complete with a dance floor, a bathhouse, and children’s activities on Cedar Point.

And from there, it was off to the races as Cedar Point constantly grew and evolved to maintain its reputation as the go-to beach vacation spot in the Midwest. Shortly after the turn of the century, it was home to the 600-room Hotel Breakers, which at the time was one of the largest hotels in the region. A new midway would soon follow, featuring rides, games, a skating rink, shops, and a massive Coliseum that functioned as a concert hall, theater, and convention center.

Many of Cedar Point’s historic structures and rides still stand today amidst the modern resort amenities, well-maintained beach, and cutting-edge roller coasters. For instance, the Coliseum houses the largest amusement park collection of vintage arcade games and pinball machines. And it’s now possible to drive out to Cedar Point, though there are also still options to boat to the peninsula for the classic beach vacation experience.

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