by Laury Coleman

Life-giving sun. Pounding surf. Sand in your butt crack.

The beach at Mohegan Bluffs, Block Island.

Rhode Island's rugged coast and white sand beaches inspired the Vanderbilts and Astors to build summer "cottages" in Newport in the late nineteenth century, thus beginning the great Ocean State summer tradition of going to the beach house—one's own, or a rental. Every summer, families from "the city"—which includes any part of Rhode Island more than fifteen minutes from the southern shores—pack up and relocate. Less fortunate residents who can't arrange for a beach house endure long lines of traffic or employ a strategic back-road route to their favorite shoreline spots.

How to get there from here

Beach traffic in Rhode Island can be a nightmare wait of as long as two hours in scorching heat traveling from Providence to Narragansett. It is possible to avoid beach traffic, but it requires some flexibility. Traffic jams on hot weekend days happen all along Route 1 and across Aquidneck Island from as early as 9am on. To avoid them you might plan your arrival before 9am. However, you will get a monster dose of sunshine and possibly sunburn that way, or even hit an icy morning fog depending on the whims of the weather. Unless you are very careful and have an excellent book to read, it is unlikely you will last the entire day at the beach. Then, when you leave at mid-afternoon, you will get caught in the mirror afternoon traffic jam heading north.

Instead, consider going in the afternoon. Do another activity in the morning, eat a leisurely lunch, and pack your supper in your cooler. Plan to leave Providence between 1 and 2pm, adjusting your time according to whether you're heading south or north. You will most likely not only sail straight to the beach, but the early birds will now be burned a brilliant lobster red and vacating the parking spaces in the front rows. Stay until sunset, which in Rhode Island happens as late as 8:20pm in June or as early as 7:10pm on Labor Day. Dusk lingers here, and many won't leave the beach until 9pm. Parking fee collections end between 3:30 and 4pm, so if you are particularly frugal, that should be your arrival time. But the biggest advantage, besides missed traffic jams, is that the heat of the city lingers quite late. Those heading north at 3pm can be heading straight into an oven. You, on the other hand, will arrive back in the city after the temperature has dropped ten or more degrees from its afternoon peak, cool and refreshed and ready for a good night's sleep.

A second strategy is to plan your trip to Rhode Island for June or September instead of July and August. September in particular is a wonderful time to visit Rhode Island beaches. The air is still warm, especially during the first two weeks of September (although we often have beach days that extend into early October). The water is also wonderfully warm, in the 70s throughout most of September. In June the water is just warming up, and will range from the low 50s to the low 60s, cold enough to cause most people to run screaming the other way. The only downside to shoulder-season visits is that the beaches are unguarded then. Attendance at Rhode Island beaches drops off sharply the day after Labor Day regardless of weather. Consider a visit then.

Cost, gear, and customs

Rhode Island's beaches are a big part of why people live and visit here. Once you cough up the money for your season beach pass ($60 per year for a resident, $120 for a non-resident in 2015), going to the beach is an economical way to spend a family day. Even if you pay as you go, the most a day will cost you is $28 for a non-resident, $14 for a resident, plus provisions. (You can purchase a season beach pass at the entrance booth of any state beach during operating times, or at the Division of Parks and Recreation Headquarters located at 1100 Tower Hill Road, North Kingstown, Monday through Friday 8:30am to 4pm during the summer season).

Visitors often ask what they should bring to the beach. The short answer is as much as you can carry. Start with a comfortable chair, preferably one of those low, lightweight sand chairs. Add a blanket if you want your backside to match your front when you're done spending a day in the sun. Don't forget sun block and a cover-up garment to protect you from both the sun and cool ocean breezes. You will need a cooler, at least for drinks, although true Rhode Island tradition calls for packing a full Sunday dinner, plus snacks and a light supper. Food is sold at many of the beaches, but you'll definitely want a cold drink handy. You might also want a book, a hat, sunglasses, an umbrella for shade, boogie boards for the kids, pails, shovels, binoculars, and your camera to capture the fun as Dad struggles with it all across that soft, deep sand heated by the sun to 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Some bring radios, but we won't talk about those heathens and their unfortunate taste in music.

Alcohol is illegal at Rhode Island state and town beaches, and all flotation devices except boogie boards are banned at life-guarded beaches. We also have a policy known as "Carry In/Carry Out," which always seems to shock the younger crowd: You're expected to remove your own trash from the beach. This cuts down on the cost of maintenance as well as serving to keep the beaches cleaner. The reason forgoing trash cans actually keeps the beach cleaner is because the seagulls' favorite sport is dumpster diving. As fast as people can put trash in a can, gulls pull it out and make a big mess.

If you think the worst crime you can commit on a Rhode Island beach is to get drunk, don water wings, throw trash on the ground, or play bad music loudly, you have never tried to feed the gulls. Politely put, feeding the gulls makes them rambunctious. More to the point, you cause large numbers of them to glide over your fellow beach patrons, fully loaded and ready to let loose on innocent heads. Note that locals refer to seagulls as "rats with wings." You wouldn't feed the rats at home for fun, would you? Resist the urge to share your picnic with the friendly seagulls, no matter how hungry they may seem. If you see someone else doing it, take cover.

Now that you're armed with history, customs, and your beach gear, you're ready to go. Go where? That is the question. Rhode Island has quite a few beaches. Many of those beaches also have more than one name, thanks to our politicians' refusal to understand the state's steadfast adherence to tradition. It's tough to say which beach is absolutely the best, but here is a short list of category leaders.

Best Beach for Children: Galilee aka Salty Brine State Beach, Narragansett

Galilee, located in a small, picturesque fishing port, has everything a visitor with children could want in a beach. There are few things more thrilling than watching the fleet of trawlers and yachts return with the day's catch, passing within yards of where you're swimming at the beach. You can fish from the rocks (although you'll never catch anything except bait fish), then walk down to the docks to see the day's catch unloaded and processed. The beach is located inside the Harbor of Refuge, so the surf, if any, is very gentle, the slope is gradual, and the sand is soft, yet firm. There are restrooms and a couple of outdoor showers. Food can be purchased at Champlin's, George's, or other less famous eateries in the village. The only downside is that parking is very limited and the beach is often crowded. Be prepared to pay for a private parking lot and have a long walk to reach the beach. Just drop your gear off before you park, and it will be worth it.

Another option is to park at Sand Hill Cove (aka Wheeler State Beach) just to the east, and enjoy one of Rhode Island's best beach walks to visit Galilee. Sand Hill Cove has great facilities, including indoor showers, a playground, and children's educational exhibits.

Best Beach for Teenagers: Scarborough State Beach, Narragansett

Whether this is a recommendation or a warning will depend upon your age. Scarborough is famous for hordes of teens, although families have taken back a good portion of the beach. Teens are drawn here by good surf and a long boardwalk that's excellent for people-watching. Scarborough is also a great beach for walking. To the north lies scenic Black Point, a short walk. The only downside to Scarborough is the sewage treatment plant located to the south of the beach. If the wind is blowing from that direction, horrible odors can detract from your day at the shore. It's an unfortunate location for that facility, because otherwise Scarborough is a wonderful swimming beach.

Best Beach for Beating the Crowds: East Beach, Charlestown

East Beach has no nearby parking areas and has only a tiny parking lot of its own that holds 100 cars. You must arrive ridiculously early, get lucky, walk far, or go late. Attendants will not allow anyone to wait for a parking space to open up, but arriving after 3pm (after 4 on Sundays) will usually get you a spot. Once inside, you're in for a treat. East Beach is part of a beautiful, three-mile-long barrier beach that protects Ninigret Pond from the Atlantic Ocean. While it is fantastically scenic and secluded, it's not really good for swimming or fishing; the surf is often brutal, the drop-off is steep, and the sand is coarse and pebbly below the surf line. Footing is uncertain, and it's hard to get out of the water.

If you have children, instead of heading to the beach itself, walk to the opposite end of the parking lot to the shore of Ninigret Pond. There is another small beach there, although unlike East Beach, there are no lifeguards. The pond is shallow—only a couple of feet deep as far as 100 feet from the shore—and the water is warm. Ninigret is chock-full of sea life, especially crabs, shellfish, small jellyfish, bait fish, and birds. Kids love this pond and will stay entertained for hours. The hike with gear is very short here as well, and involves no soft sand. This is important because there are no facilities other than a handful of port-a-johns back at East Beach. A well-packed cooler is a must. Finally, the pond has a western view, one of the few over the water in Rhode Island, making it one of the best places in the state to watch the sun set.

Best Beach for Party Animals: Misquamicut State Beach, Westerly

Misquamicut is the closest Rhode Island approximation of the famous boardwalks on the New Jersey shore. The beach itself is nice enough, with the distinction of being the only major Rhode Island beach without flush toilets, using a state-of-the-art composting system instead. The surf tends to be big with a strong undertow, so this beach is not a good choice for those with young children, unless you want to shell out lots of money for the amusements that line the beach road. There are water slides, a carousel, restaurants, shops, and arcade games. For young adults there is the option of enjoying music at the several bars that line the beach. In the past, personal watercraft (jet skis) could be rented and launched from the private stretches of sand here, but they are now in the process of being regulated out of business in Rhode Island. This means more peace and quiet, but fewer thrills.

Most Scenic Beach: Goosewing/South Shore Beach, Little Compton

Goosewing is a Nature Conservancy property, a farm that sweeps down a hillside to the sea. There are coastal ponds flanking either end, making it one of the top birding spots in the state. Goosewing can be accessed only through South Shore Beach, Little Compton's adjoining town beach. A big advantage to South Shore is that you can back your car right up to the beach itself, walk over a five- to six-foot strip of large beach stones, and plunk all your gear on the sand. The sand is generally only wide enough for one blanket, so you won't have anyone in front of you or behind you. This is great for watching children play in the water. Footing across the rocks is tricky, but it's less grueling than the usual haul across yards of soft sand. There are no facilities other than port-a-johns, so a cooler is required if you want food or drink. Swimming is usually excellent at South Shore. The sand is generally firm, the slope is gradual, rocks are here and there, and overall it's very pleasant. The surf varies from moderate to mild, and the water is usually clear. The only downsides are that it's difficult to find and, since it's a town beach, the price for nonresidents is steep.

Best Beach for Walking: Narragansett Town Beach

Narragansett Town Beach also doubles as Best Beach for Surfing. You can even take surfing lessons here, or a Sunday morning yoga class if that's more your style. The walkable portion extends from the mouth of the Pettaquamscut River to the north to the wall of Narragansett Pier to the south. It's a long, flat, smooth crescent of sand. Although it passes private beach clubs and homes, in Rhode Island all land below the mean high tide line is public land. Just look for the line of seaweed on the sand, and keep to the ocean side of it. If you're walking on the firm damp sand along the water's edge you can be sure you're on public land. There is much to look at while walking this beach, from the surfers along the pier side to the Rhode Island celebrities that might be spotted on the sand at The Dunes Club. You can watch ships enter the bay or admire the beautiful architecture that lines the shore. It's also a great beach for swimming.

The Best Overall Beach If You Can Get There: Fred Benson Town Beach/Crescent Beach, Block Island

If we had to choose just one beach as the best, this long, perfect sweep of sand just outside Old Harbor would be a worthy choice. The surf ranges from modest to magnificent. The sand is white powder, silk underfoot, both on the beach and in the water. At one end of the beach is a picturesque, Victorian-era seaside town. At the other are dramatic bluffs. Along the back of the beach are classic New England sand dunes. The water is usually crystal clear, and it's less crowded than most other Rhode Island beaches. That is because of the big downside: getting there. Block Island is twelve miles offshore. If you forgot to bring your own boat, the "Block Island Boat" is a pleasant cruise from Galilee—a worthwhile day trip. The ferry ride is beautiful and a Rhode Island summer tradition. The walk from the dock to the beach can be a bit much if you're hauling gear, but there are plenty of taxis at the dock to take you there for a small fee. Fred Benson and Crescent Beaches are free. There is a bathhouse with showers and concessionaires provide a good selection of food.

A Handy Link

Rhode Island Department of Health Beach page

Laury Coleman is a native Rhode Islander who grew up a few blocks from the beach in Warwick. Eventually that beach was discovered to be so polluted it was closed to swimming and shell fishing, two frequent pastimes from her childhood. She has traveled extensively throughout Rhode Island; her classic Yankee-mobile has 120,000 miles on it, but the turn signal has never been used. She, her husband Bill, and her Shih-tzu Rambo, are currently pursuing the great Rhode Island dream of living in South County.

This article last edited May 17, 2015

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