State of the Beach/Beach Indicators/Beach Access

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Beaches are one of the most popular public resources. Because individuals need access to beaches in order to enjoy them, beach access is probably the most important indicator in determining the number of people who can enjoy beaches. In nearly every state, some portion of the beach is public land, which means that all members of the public have the right to use that portion of the beach. The ability to walk along the beach is often referred to as "lateral beach access". Because much of the land between where people can park and where they can enjoy the beach is privately owned, their ability to enjoy beaches often depends on the quality and availability of access between roads and parking lots and the beach. This type of access is referred to as "vertical beach access". It is simply not equitable for only some people to have access to the ocean and beaches, which are public resources.

In our report, we try to quantify the amount of public access in each state and also evaluate the quality of access provided. Another important consideration in beach access is balancing public use with resource protection. Fortunately, many beach access projects that improve the quality of beach access also increase resource protection. Examples include dune walkovers and regulations that reduce multiple user conflicts while also protecting sensitive habitat.

Quantity of Access

When possible, the report uses the following statistics to quantify the amount of public access:

  • Miles Per Access Point: This statistic gives the average number of miles between access points. This figure gives a rough idea of public access availability, but it can conceal certain areas with poor access. A few towns with a high number of access points can make up for areas with little or no access, and on average the state will appear to have a fair amount of access.
  • Percent of Publicly Owned Coastline: Many of the states that do not have data on the number of public access points have data on the percentage of publicly owned coastline. This statistic indicates the amount of coastal land owned by the local, state, or federal government out of all of the state's coastal land. In some instances, this statistic can be deceiving. For example, a state that has a small percentage of publicly owned coastal land but also has many small street-end access points or trails to the beach may have excellent beach access.

In many places beach access differs greatly depending on the season. This is due to enforcement of laws, the amount of available parking, and other factors that often restrict public access during the summer season. Due to the complexity of data associated with seasonal changes in access this is a factor that we did not always include in our assessment.

Quality of Access

To assess the quality of public access, the report breaks down the amount of public access by the types of access provided and the amenities offered at access points. To the extent allowed by readily-available information, the report compares the following different types of access points:

  • Public Parks: Public parks tend to provide the highest quality public access. They usually have large parking areas, restrooms, and an expanse of land with associated opportunities to access the beach. Because of these conveniences, parks usually provide the best access for traveling visitors. However, many parks charge entrance and/or parking fees, which can discourage people from using them as an access point.
  • Street-end: These access points are generally a trail or staircase down to the beach located at the end of a street in a local neighborhood. The parking at these access points is generally limited and sometimes totally restricted. For these reasons, street-end access points tend to be more convenient for local beach access than for visitors.
  • Walkways: Many areas have walkways or boardwalks that run parallel to the beach and have staircases that lead down to the beach. These access points generally provide high quality access to a large portion of beach, but like street-ends, they are limited by the amount of nearby parking and public facilities like bathrooms. Walkways often have the additional benefit of providing habitat protection for dunes, wetlands and other sensitive habitats.

Read a more extensive summary of beach access laws, policies and conditions in the United States.

State Beach Access Reports

Select a state from the list below to view the Beach Access indicator page for that state: