With 300 miles of barrier-island beaches and innumerable coastal towns waiting to be explored, North Carolina’s shoreline attracts millions of visitors each year – and it’s not hard to see why.
From romantic escapes to kid-friendly family vacations, and action-packed adventures to lazy days in the sun, the region offers something for everyone. Here are a dozen of the best beaches in the state.
Best beach for day trip from Raleigh
Just 150 miles southeast of Raleigh on North Carolina’s Crystal Coast, Atlantic Beach is an easy drive from the state capital, and it can draw a crowd in the peak summer months.
Located on Bogue Banks, a small barrier island tucked between Bogue Sound and the ocean, it’s the first stop off the causeway from Highway 70, making it an easy option for a weekend getaway or a longer escape.
With a boardwalk, a fishing pier, wide sandy beaches and offshore activities like parasailing, kiteboarding, jet-skiing and kayaking, it's no wonder the place garners so much attention. And let's not forget the kitschy souvenir shops and restaurants galore,
At the island’s eastern point is Fort Macon State Park, and the eponymous fort saw action in the Civil War. Tour the premises, then settle on the beach, a beautiful stretch of sand with a bathhouse, concessions, wheelchair-accessible areas and lifeguards on duty from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Best beach for upscale crowds
Not 15 miles west of Atlantic Beach is Emerald Isle, a bit sleepier than its neighbor, with fewer hotels and more condos, cottages and houses. The town is a bit more upscale, with art galleries, boutiques and fine-casual dining.
Emerald Isle may be on the quiet side, but there’s plenty to do on and off the 12 miles of beach, especially for families – everything from putt-putt and disc golf to paddleboarding, surf lessons and fishing off the pier. It’s also easy to reach from Raleigh, with its own causeway to help drivers beat the cross-island traffic.
Bald Head Island
Best beach to escape the crowds
A secluded, car-free retreat between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean, Bald Head Island can only be reached by ferry or private yacht. Once you’re onsite, bikes and golf carts are the only means of transportation.
As a result, the vast majority of the island's 12,000 acres – including salt marshes, maritime forests, and 14 miles of beaches – remain pristine and untouched. For a solitary escape à deux, it's tough to get better than this.
The Bald Head Woods Coastal Reserve is a prime spot for birdwatching and the Kent Mitchell Nature Trail has paths suitable for a range of abilities. The Bald Head Island Conservancy offers guided kayak tours, tidal-pool explorations and birding tours. Sea turtles – mostly loggerheads – nest here from June to August. The beaches are great for shelling, especially around low tide.
Best places to visit in North Carolina
Best beach for shelling
Once a hideout for the infamous pirate Blackbeard and the site of his death in 1718, Ocracoke Island is known today for its natural beauty and low-key vibe.
Located on the southern end of the Outer Banks, most of the island is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore – protected land administered by the National Park Service. Its beaches are stellar spots for shelling, with beachcombers turning up conchs, sand dollars and Scotch bonnets on a regular basis.
The waves can be turbulent this close to Cape Hatteras, but the water is warmer here than it is further north, thanks to the Gulf Stream off the coast.
Best beach for families with young kids
Just below the Virginia border on the Outer Banks, Corolla (pronounced “kuh-RAH-luh”) is a go-to choice for families with young kids, thanks to its gentle waves and 24 miles of wide, white sand.
Corolla is the only place in the region that allows four-wheel-drives directly onto the beach year round, fee-free (though you'll need a permit if you want to park).
Interestingly enough, the 4x4 beaches are also where you’ll find Corolla’s best-known attraction: wild horses. Descended from Spanish Mustangs, these horses have had the run of the place for hundreds of years. It’s illegal to come within 50ft of the horses, but a handful of tour operators can get you close enough for a photo opp.
Best beach to visit all year round
Across the Cape Fear River from the port city of Wilmington, Wrightsville Beach is as solid an option throughout the year, thanks to a winning combination of urban attractions and outdoor adventures.
The mild weather and sprawling sands attract families, retirees and college crowds, while activities like surf camp, sailing school and diving classes keep them busy both on and off the water.
Get up early to catch the sunrise over the Atlantic, hit the Oceanic Pier for a magic-hour stroll, and in the summertime, catch an outdoor concert at the park. Head over the causeway for dinner at one of the city’s top-rated restaurants, followed by a show or movie at the historic Thalian Hall – a 19th-century theater on the National Register for Historic Places.
Best beach for families with teens
Barely 15 miles south of Corolla, the resort town of Duck has just 500 permanent residents, but its numbers swell during the summer season. It’s a hugely popular destination for families, especially those with teens.
On the eastern ocean-facing side of town, shops and restaurants are clustered around a six-mile-long trail with sidewalks and bike lanes.
On the western side, Duck Town Park covers 11 acres of greenspace, with a playground, a public canoe and kayak launch and a mile-long boardwalk that winds along the Currituck Sound. The town plays host to an annual jazz festival – in 2022, scheduled for October 8 and 9 – and its beaches are private and well-kept.
Best beach to observe sea turtles
North of Wrightsville in Onslow County, the 26-mile-long Topsail (pronounced TOP-sul) was once another rumored hideaway for the pirate Blackbeard. Today, its beaches are laidback and family-friendly, with waters conducive to fishing any time of the year.
Surf City is the island’s commercial hub, with well-kept beaches and a year-round population of nearly 3500. To the north is North Topsail Beach and Ocean City, a quiet community established in 1949 as the first beach destination on the Atlantic where Black people could own property, and to the south is Topsail Beach, a town with 400-some year-round residents and zero high-rise development allowed.
The island is fertile ground for nesting sea turtles, and the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue & Rehabilitation Center offers educational programs and public releases of the loggerheads its staff has nursed back to health.
Best beach for boardwalk fun
Carolina Beach is an epicenter of family fun, nestled on the aptly named Pleasure Island between Wrightsville Beach and Bald Head Island on the Atlantic coast.
Its boardwalk is often called one of the best in the US. It lives up to the buzz with rides and arcade games, bike rentals, restaurants and concessions, and weekly fireworks during the summer.
On the Cape Fear side of the island, Carolina Beach State Park boasts 761 acres of nature trails, campsites and beach. It’s also a native habitat for the Venus flytrap. The wheelchair-accessible half-mile Flytrap loop provides a look at the carnivorous plants in the wild.
Best beach for hang-gliding
One of the best-known towns in the Outer Banks, Nags Head is a destination for spring-breakers and multi-generational families. Its location on Bodie Island, a few miles south of Kitty Hawk and the Wright Brothers National Memorial, makes it a draw for aviation buffs.
It can get very crowded in the summer, so it’s almost better to visit during the off-season. Less crowds mean more space to yourself for fishing off the pier, hang-gliding at Jockey’s Ridge – a state park with the tallest natural sand dune system in the eastern US.
Average temperatures don’t usually dip below 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 Celsius), so a wintry stroll on a beach wouldn't be too uncomfortable.
Best beach for beachcombing and bird watching
Accessible by ferry and private boat only, with primitive camping and virgin beach, Bear Island is at the heart of Hammocks Beach State Park – a peaceful and secluded respite from the modern-day beachgoing throngs.
Home to shore birds and tidal pools teeming with life, the four-mile barrier island is heaven for beachcombers and birdwatchers. There’s marshland to explore via paddling trails for kayaks, canoes and paddleboards (available to rent in season).
The oceanfront campsites are open year-round, so you can sleep beside the dunes and under the stars practically any time you choose.
Best beach for Dirty Dancing recreations
The North Carolina coast is a beachy bonanza, but those who prefer freshwater excursions have options too. Chief among them is Lake Lure, located less than 30 miles from Asheville in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The manmade lake and the surrounding area served as a backdrop for Dirty Dancing, that ‘80s classic starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. Recreate your favorite moments from the film with a stay in a themed cabin or a photoshoot at one of the movie’s exterior locations. (Superfans should visit in September for the Dirty Dancing Festival).
If that’s not your idea of fun, you can still have the time of your life fishing, boating and swimming at Lake Lure or hiking and rock climbing at nearby Chimney Rock State Park.
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