I have heard about certain cases involving the public trust doctrine. There have seemingly been cases where lakefront property owners are trying to change the law in the U.S. to have their property expanded. My understanding is as of now property owners own the land down to the high water mark (in most states. Some states seem to have different definitions of this while still asserting public use). The beach or seashore between high and low water marks belongs in public trust.

So basically the public has the right to access the beach between high and low water marks. For example, according to Wikipedia Massachusetts and Maine allow the public to access the seashore between the low and high tide lines for "fishing, fowling and navigation."

If this applies to all the shoreline in the U.S., given that the laws haven't been changed in states, why are there still "private beaches"? Are properties labeled as "private beaches" not accessible to the public? Or should the question be: Is there such a thing as "private beach"?

  • Some properties entirely enclose the body of water, so while you could use it, there is no way to access it without trespassing.
    – Ron Beyer
    Apr 4, 2019 at 11:59
  • @RonBeyer I imagine in that case there would be an issue of easement.
    – Eddie Kal
    Apr 4, 2019 at 12:02

2 Answers 2


Having owned property that abutted federal waters, I can tell you it matters whether the waters are federal or state. The Army Corps of Engineers provides a definition based on the Code of Federal Regulations. It includes waters subject to the ebb and flow of the tides, waters historically used for interstate transportation, and waters connected to those up to the first barrier to navigation.

For example, I used to live on a river that lead to Lake Champlain. Lake Champlain is used for interstate transportation. The first dam was upstream of my property, so my property touched federal waters.

The line of federal interest will be different on a lake or river than the seashore because of the lack of tides on most lakes and rivers.

  • The term "navigable waters" is used to describe most of the bodies of water subject to federal maritime law. This question is further complicated between it is at the intersection of land governed by state law and water governed by state or federal law depending upon the nature of the water involved.
    – ohwilleke
    Apr 4, 2019 at 22:30

It depends on the state and the nature of the waterway. In my state, Montana, if your land abuts a navigable river, stream, or lake, and there is public access to that waterway, the public has the right to access the sides of the waterway between the current water flow and the high water mark. In other states (like Virginia) this is not the case: beachfront is considered part of the property that abuts it.


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