North Carolina contains around 300 miles (480 km) of barrier island beaches along its rugged coastline. These award-winning beaches in North Caroline draw visitors from all over to explore the pristine, windswept shores of this state. One of the biggest draws is the Outer Banks Region, where Cape Hatteras National Seashore is a collection of barrier islands spread out along the coast that is protected and managed by the National Park Service. Because of their efforts, the beaches along this 70-mile stretch are clean, natural areas where visitors are permitted and encouraged to get up close to nature.
Other popular North Carolina beach regions are the Crystal Coast Region, the Brunswick Islands, as well as the Topsail and Wilmington areas, all containing beautiful beaches and shorelines well worth exploring. Here are the best North Carolina Beaches to visit.
- 20 Best Beaches In North Carolina
- Outer Banks North Carolina Beaches (Cape Hatteras National Seashore)
- North Carolina Beaches – Crystal Coast
- Beaches in North Carolina – Wilmington and Topsail
- North Carolina Beaches – the Brunswick Islands
Top 3 Beach Experiences
- Outer Banks Wild Horse Tour – 4WD off-road tour to see wild horses along the sand dunes and ocean with access to the Wild Horse Conservation Area.
- Manteo Historic Walking Tour – after a day at the beach, explore the incredible history of Manteo by candlelight.
- Kitty Hawk Maritime Forest Kayak Tour – explore the calm waterways on a small group paddling excursion.
20 Best Beaches In North Carolina
Outer Banks North Carolina Beaches (Cape Hatteras National Seashore)
1- Corolla Beaches
The beaches of Corolla are a spectacular feast for the eyes.
The small-town feel of this beach location and its pristine shoreline make it one of the most popular beaches of the Outer Banks in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
This part of the Outer Banks is less commercialised than the rest, and you can unwind away from the larger towns and villages.
Children will enjoy spotting the wild Spanish mustangs that roam the beaches of this area.
You can rent remote beach homes along this stretch of sand.
Pack up your 4WD and traverse the sand and dunes, looking for an ideal picnic spot on the beach.
Explore the Currituck Beach Lighthouse and the Whalehead Club Mansion, as well as wander through the historic village of Corolla.
Small, local shops and family-owned restaurants add to the small-town vibe that exists in Corolla.
End your day admiring the sunset on a kayak tour while paddling around Currituck Sound. Tours depart from Corolla. Find out more here.
2- Duck Beach
Duck is the first town you drive past as you travel south along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
The name of this town comes from being a premier duck-hunting location.
Guides are available for visitors who wish to try hunting ducks in season, but the beaches of Duck are the biggest attraction for visitors.
The golden-sand beaches are only available to Duck residents and guests staying at luxury resorts, hotels or rental vacation homes.
This keeps the beaches from getting crowded in summer and creates a more family-friendly vibe.
A mile-long boardwalk connects shopping and restaurants along the Sound.
Stop by the famous Duck Donuts and try a few of the fresh, warm, custom-made doughnuts.
3- Kitty Hawk Beaches
Kitty Hawk’s beaches offer plenty of fun.
With dozens of places allowing beach access and lifeguards patrolling those beaches, the waves at Kitty Hawk provide a fun, safe place for families to enjoy the ocean. But Kitty Hawk has a lot more to offer than just the beaches.
The inaugural flight of the Wright Brothers occurred in Kill Devil Hills, to the south of Kitty Hawk.
Many acres of protected maritime forest exist within the Kitty Hawk Woods Coastal Reserve, and you can hike, bike, kayak or paddleboard your way through the preserve, exploring its natural resources.
Book your adventures here:
- Standup Paddle Adventure – a small group tour with a guide.
- Kitty Hawk Maritime Forest Kayak Tour – paddle through the Kitty Hawk Woods Coastal Reserve.
Kitty Hawk has plenty of rental vacation homes, hotels and bed-and-breakfast places that provide options for various budgets.
There are many restaurant options in town and several places to shop for beach supplies and souvenirs.
4- Nags Head Beach
Nags Head Beach is the most famous beach along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, drawing visitors from all over who want to see the giant dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park.
These sand dunes provide the perfect place for sand boarding and kite flying.
Lifeguards patrol most of the beautiful sand beaches at Nags Head.
Jennette’s Pier, rebuilt by the North Carolina Aquarium, juts out 1,000 feet (304 m) into the Atlantic Ocean and provides an excellent place to drop a line for fun fishing.
The town offers hotels, motels, rental homes and bed-and-breakfast places.
Ample shopping is available at the outlet mall, surf shops and specialty stores, while various restaurants and historic snack shacks offer a wide range of delicious seafood and grill options.
Manteo is a small village on Roanoke Island, one of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore islands.
While Manteo does not have a traditional beach with sand and seashells, it does have an extensive marsh that runs along the shoreline.
Visitors to this lovely town can explore the seashore from the water with the help of kayaks and standup paddleboards. Or rent bicycles or walk the footpaths to explore the shoreline from land.
Many quaint inns have rooms to rent, several of which even provide rental equipment to guests.
With so much history and mystery tied to the Lost Colony of Roanoke, Manteo is an excellent place to visit for a unique beach vacation in North Carolina. Join this Manteo historical walking tour to learn about pirates, the Underground Railroad, the Wright Brothers and more.
6- Rodanthe Beach
Rodanthe is one of three Hatteras Island villages, often called the Tri-Villages.
The village of Rodanthe is the perfect place for anglers and surfers.
People flock here during the summer and stay in one of the many vacation rentals found in Rodanthe or the nearby villages of Salvo or Waves.
The Rodanthe Fishing Pier is one of the few remaining wooden fishing piers on the North Carolina Coast.
Visiting anglers fish from the pier for their dinner or bragging rights.
A lot of history is found in this village, and you can explore the origins of this beach town while enjoying the soft-sand beaches.
Rodanthe became a popular place for visitors after starring as the location in the book and the movie, Nights in Rodanthe.
From Rodanthe, for a relaxing time, paddle out onto Pamlico Sound on this guided kayak tour to explore nature.
7- Avon Beach
Avon is at the centre of long, skinny Hatteras Island and home to chain stores and chain fast food restaurants.
Despite the commercialisation of this small town, you can still find charming local shops, boutiques and restaurants here.
The pristine beaches attract people from all over who want to swim, kite surf, or relax on the sand.
The North Carolina beaches along this shoreline are perfect for shelling and surf fishing.
The Avon Pier allows fishing all day and late into the night.
Kure Beach Club in Avon is an excellent place for visitors to hear live music all summer. During the day, they offer kid-friendly activities for families who need a break from the beach.
Avon offers various restaurants for every budget and many shops to explore.
8- Lifeguard Beach
Okracoke Island is the most remote island in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and is only accessible by boat or small plane.
A car ferry to Okracoke Island leaves from Hatteras Island, Swan Quarter and Cedar Island, providing easy, affordable access.
You can rent golf carts and boats on the island, so you won’t have to bring a vehicle to explore.
One of the best beaches in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore is Okracoke’s Lifeguard Beach.
With room to spread out, everyone can enjoy a clean, safe beach with excellent amenities even during the busiest parts of the summer.
Beach fires are popular and only require a permit from the National Park Service.
Aside from the award-winning beach, Okracoke was once part of the historic stomping grounds of Blackbeard the Pirate and you can explore the area to learn more about Blackbeard’s infamous activities.
North Carolina Beaches – Crystal Coast
9- Emerald Isle
Emerald Isle contains 12 miles (19 km) of beautiful, clean beaches along North Carolina’s Crystal Coast.
While many visitors to Emerald Isle enjoy swimming and surfing at this North Carolina beach, it also attracts those who want to paddleboard and fish.
Paddleboard tours through Bogue Sound’s estuaries and marshes provide a way to explore the natural areas and see wildlife.
The maritime forest contains hiking trails that allow you to explore this emerald-coloured landscape of dunes and trees.
Fishing charters and boat rentals offer the chance to get out on the water to catch some sportfish or watch dolphins.
Boutique shopping, excellent restaurants, golf courses, and more provide many opportunities for everyone to enjoy their beach vacation in various ways.
10- Atlantic Beach
Atlantic Beach has received awards for its fantastic amenities and activities.
Visitors often choose this beach over others because accommodation choices suit a variety of budgets and there are plenty of restaurants catering to a range of tastes.
The pristine beach can be accessed from several points, making it easy for visitors to secure a spot on the sand without being crowded.
Fort Macon State Park is one of the more popular access points for its lifeguard-patrolled beach and picnic areas.
Hike or bike the park’s trails and, during the summer, enjoy the frequent Civil War reenactments.
11- Hammocks Beach State Park
Hammocks Beach State Park is on a small barrier island called Bear Island, which is four miles (6.4 km) long and has a small campground with primitive campsites close to the beach.
Bear Island, with its pristine maritime forest, can only be reached on water, so you can take a ferry or use a kayak or paddleboard to get to the island.
You can rent kayaks, canoes and paddleboards from the park’s visitor centre and follow the paddle trail to explore the island’s marshes.
Home to nesting shorebirds and other wildlife, interpretive programs help educate visitors about the endangered species that call Bear Island and the surrounding marshes home.
Bear Island provides a quiet place to enjoy the beach away from the crowds found at other beaches along the Crystal Coast.
12- Cape Lookout National Seashore
Cape Lookout National Seashore is at the southern end of the Outer Banks region.
This national park consists of three undeveloped barrier islands – North Core Banks, South Core Banks and Shackleford Banks, all managed by the National Park Service.
The beaches on the barrier islands are fun, adventurous places to go shell hunting, fishing, hiking, swimming and camping.
The island’s beaches, historical sites and natural areas can be explored on foot, by ATV or by driving a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
A landmark to look out for is the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, one of the most famous lighthouses in the Outer Banks, with its black-and-white diamond pattern on South Core Banks.
Wild Spanish mustangs are found on South Core and Shackleford Banks.
The only way to reach those islands is by boat and ferry services are available to transport pedestrians and 4WD vehicles to the islands.
Beaches in North Carolina – Wilmington and Topsail
13- Carolina Beach
Carolina Beach is in the Wilmington coastal area of North Carolina, south of the Outer Banks region.
This beach offers a vintage beach vibe with beautiful, wide sand beaches and a charming seaside boardwalk.
You can enjoy traditional beach activities and attractions like swimming, surfing, and shell hunting.
Nearby arcades and an amusement park keep families entertained; the Ferris wheel at the midway provides lovely views of the town and beach.
Hiking the Carolina Beach State Park trails is a great way to explore nature. And a favourite trail to follow is the Flytrap Trail, where you can observe Venus flytraps in their native wetland habitat.
The Carolina Beach Music Festival takes place here each year, drawing crowds to the largest beach music festival in the state.
14- Wrightsville Beach
Wrightsville Beach is one of the top surfing destinations on the East Coast.
Visitors to this beach in North Carolina can easily find surf lessons and practice new skills with the easy waves found here.
Kiteboarding, standup paddleboarding, and kayaking are popular activities at Wrightsville Beach.
Masonboro Island offers a nearby place for hikers to explore an untouched wilderness area and birdwatch.
Fishing off the Johnnie Mercers Pier or chartering a boat are fun ways for anglers to catch their dinner.
The vibrant nightlife of Wrightsville appeals to people of all ages with restaurants, taverns and live music.
Activities and events occur year-round in this fun town.
Wrightsville Beach is the place for those seeking an action-packed beach vacation in North Carolina.
15- Kure Beach
Kure Beach provides a slower-paced, more relaxed beach vacation than the Carolina or Wrightsville beaches further up the coast.
This beach offers a family-friendly beach vacation where kids can swim, body surf and boogie board among gentle waves.
The Ocean Front Park playground area is an excellent place for families to hang out, where kids can swing and play next to the beach.
Standup paddleboarding, kayaking and surfing are also popular activities at Kure Beach.
A famous landmark is the oldest fishing pier on the Atlantic Coast, open to the public for fishing.
Another attraction is the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, which is one of the best in the country and offers some fantastic aquatic wildlife encounters.
For some historical fun, check out the site of the largest Civil War land-sea battle at Fort Fisher State Historic Site.
16- Topsail Beach
Topsail Island has 26 miles (41 km) of beaches split into three sections – North Topsail Beach, Surf City and Topsail Beach.
Two bridges connect this island to the mainland across the Intercoastal Waterway.
Topsail Beach is the furthest beach from the island access points, so it has a more relaxed vibe than the other two sections.
The Atlantic and Intercoastal Waterway beaches are excellent places to hang out and spend the day.
On the Atlantic side, shell hunting and surfing are better, while families with small children often prefer the Intercoastal Waterway beaches because the waves are gentle.
Kayaking and standup paddleboarding are popular activities on the calm waters of the Intercoastal Waterway.
Loggerhead sea turtles can sometimes climb up the beach to lay their eggs.
The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Surf City is where you can learn more about sea turtles and the preservation and conservation efforts to save them.
North Carolina Beaches – the Brunswick Islands
17- Holden Beach
Holden Beach is in the North Carolina Brunswick Islands area, near the South Carolina border.
With its small-town vibe, this charming beach attracts families who return here year after year.
The Atlantic side of this beach offers an excellent place for people to hunt for shells during the day and ghost crabs at night.
Swimming, surfing and beach strolling are popular activities on both sides. And visitors can rent gear for kayaking, surfing, biking and jet skiing.
At low tide, tidal pools that contain interesting creatures can be found along the beach.
It’s easy to see why return visitors believe that this it’s one of the best family beaches in the country, as Holden Beach provides a relaxing place for families to connect in a fun way.
With many local seafood restaurants and beautiful vacation rentals, families can enjoy a relaxing vacation at Holden Beach.
18- Oak Island Beaches
Oak Island is a family-friendly and pet-friendly beach destination.
The golden sand beaches are accessible from more than 60 access points, so there’s plenty of room for visitors to enjoy a slice of paradise.
10 of these public access points are handicapped-accessible, making it easier for people of all abilities to enjoy the beach.
The beach offers a beautiful place to hunt shells, swim and surf. Anglers enjoy catching fish like mullet from one of the two fishing piers.
The Oak Island Nature Center contains exhibits that educate visitors about the native wildlife and fossils found in the area.
For a stunning view, climb to the top of the Oak Island Lighthouse.
19- Sunset Beach
Sunset Beach is just across the border from South Carolina.
Because this beach faces the south, fall through spring, the sun rises and sets over the water.
This south-facing position creates many opportunities to experience the glorious sunrises and sunsets for which this beach is named.
Sunset Beach has stretches suitable for surfing, shell hunting, biking, swimming and boogie boarding.
The Kindred Spirit Mailbox is one of its most famous attractions.
A collection of notebooks within the mailbox allows anyone to write down their thoughts, dreams, poems, prayers, wishes and stories.
Sunset Beach is also the closest beach to Calabash, where shrimp boats land with their catch, and you can buy fresh shrimp right off the pier or enjoy fresh seafood at one of the restaurants there.
20- Bald Head Island
Bald Head Island is a unique vacation destination because cars are not permitted on the island; visitors and residents use golf carts and bicycles to get around.
This peaceful island contains miles of pristine beaches, salt marshes and maritime forests to explore.
Other favourite activities at South Beach are shell hunting, swimming, and lounging on the sand.
The Bald Head Island Club provides an excellent place to golf or croquet while looking out over the ocean.
Make it a point to visit Old Baldy, the oldest lighthouse in North Carolina, and climb to the top to see a spectacular vista.
There are plenty of vacation rentals, restaurants and shops on the island, making this an excellent getaway spot. Access the island by ferry from Southport.
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