It’s no secret that there are some stunner North Carolina beaches. Many always ask what the best North Carolina beaches are, and the truth is it’s hard to narrow them down. There are so many beaches in North Carolina well worth a visit.
Spending time at a beach is one of the best things to do in North Carolina. To feel the sand between your toes, smell the salty air, and hear the ocean waves is one of life’s great joys. To help you do that we’ve covered the best beaches in North Carolina, from southern NC, to the Outer Banks, in no particular order.
The Best North Carolina Beaches
For a beach vacation like no other, take the ferry to Ocracoke, North Carolina. Separated by the rest of the outer banks by a (free!) one-hour ferry ride, Ocracoke houses a small, resilient beach community where visitors have their run of the whole island.
There are typically more golf carts than cars on this slight stretch of land, and the outskirts of the town are entirely untouched patches of sand. The island has borne the brunt of several large hurricanes, and the fact that the city remains so strong is a testament to its value.
The jewel of North Carolina’s mainland coast, Emerald Isle, is a large-scale tourist destination that has something for everyone. Scenic Bogue Inlet fishing pier stretches out to sea; a plethora of dining options allow you to spend your entire week vacation without having to figure out how to turn on the oven, and various adventure parks fill your days with amusement.
Check out The Point for one of the best sunsets on the east coast, and take walks through the maritime forest that shades the island in green. Its central location on the coast also makes it a remarkable home base for further exploration.
Close to the border with South Carolina, this stretch of vacation homes has everything you need to spend a week on the island, while also being close enough to both states’ major hubs to always be within reach. Oak Island is a thriving area with fresh seafood and quirky privately owned homes are abundant. Make sure to stroll through charming Southport after your visit to the beach.
Just across the bridge are the North Carolina Aquarium, and easy access to Myrtle Beach and inland airports. If you pack a bike, you won’t have to get back into the car for the duration of your stay.
If you are looking for quiet beaches in North Carolina look no further. Bear Island is a bring-your-own hammock establishment only reachable by boats, and the four-miles of pristine barrier island are scattered only with primitive campsites. Brave travelers can paddle their kayaks to the island shores, and the parks service also offers a ferry service.
Once on the island, you’ll find yourself surrounded by natural elements in the untouched maritime forest. Programs and exhibitions of the natural features of the park scatter themselves across the shores, as well as one visitor center.
If you’re looking for a North Carolina beach destination that gets you out into nature, Bear Island could be the stop for you.
Stretches of sand mix with rolling dunes to create a stunning backdrop to this beach in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The area developed consciously, meaning there aren’t big resort hotels or large buildings obscuring your view of the Atlantic Ocean. Each day, you’ll find yourself walking through pathways carved out in the dunes to get to the shoreline.
On the inland side of the dunes, a nice mix of local restaurants and bars coalesce around the Avon Fishing Pier. A pier like this one marks the center of most of North Carolina’s beaches, and if you’re looking for vacation activities, the pier is a great place to start.
A small slice of Topsail Island, waves are constantly crashing into the piers at Surf City. The area isn’t trying to be anything it’s not; simply offering a quiet vacation space with plenty of local restaurants and shopping choices. There are no grandiose amusement parks or adventure lands here, just unspoiled beaches and plenty of accommodation options.
Sandwiched between the Atlantic Coast and the Intracoastal Waterway, some houses in surf city have docks that lead straight into the body of water, allowing you to send out your kayaks from the comfort of your own home. For a great embodiment of North Carolina Beach life that doesn’t try to do too much, head to Surf City for a relaxing visit.
Visit this stretch of sand at the right time of year, and you can start your day catching the sunrise and end it underneath a beautiful sunset. The south-facing beaches are surrounded by water on both sides, leading to a unique opportunity.
A lack of development achieved these double sunset views. You won’t find any boardwalks or high-rises here, just unfettered marshland surrounded by sand.
Walk far enough down Sunset Beach’s shores, and you’ll find the Kindred Spirit Mailbox. Sunset Beach invites you to share your experiences and reflection in the notebooks enclosed. The beach encompasses so much wonder that it was featured as one of National Graphics’ best 21 beaches in the world.
Rodanthe has embraced the Outer Banks’ laid-back charm to offer a great stop as you head down this unique section of the Atlantic Coast. Full of outdoor activities and nature preserves, Rodanthe is one of the best OBX beaches and allows you to explore everything the beach offers within walking distance of plenty of accommodation options.
Most Outer Banks visitors don’t make it this far down the peninsula, giving you more freedom to roam across the unique beachfront. National Wildlife Refuge is home to over 400 bird species, inviting visitors to wander in a natural beach refuge.
With the Atlantic ocean on one side and the Pamlico Sound on the other, a week spent in Rodanthe allows you to explore it all.
Holden Beach promises to be one of the best beaches in North Carolina and honestly one of the most family-friendly beaches in the US. A slice of the Brunswick Islands provides wide-open spaces, calm waters, and tranquil sandy shorelines.
Local building regulations have kept a small-town feel to this beach paradise. You’ll find no skyscrapers here, only family homes available for rent, and quirky restaurants across the water.
It’s a quick trip from Wilmington, one of the largest metropolitan areas along North Carolina’s coast, so a stay here will ensure you aren’t too far away from the action and delicious Wilmington restaurants. For families that want a peaceful place to rest their heads but plenty of enticing options to fill their days with activities, Holden Beach offers it all.
Just north of the Outer Banks National Seashore is Nags Head. It’s an incredibly developed area of the Outer Banks, giving you a plethora of dining and accommodation options. The town does all this without sacrificing beauty, and each home embracing the shorefront has its unique colors and design to create a wonderful backdrop for a day at the beach.
Larger-than-life dunes await your family next door at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. Visitors can spend a day wandering through the area that feels like a desert next to the sea.
Some avid fans of Cape Lookout swear there’s nothing else like it in the US. Cape Lookout is not an easy place to get to. There are no bridges to the island; the only way to access the barrier islands is by ferry, from near the coastal town of Beaufort. That doesn’t mean there is nothing on the island. Park rangers have erected cabins and accommodation options, and the whole area is open to primitive camping.
A stay in Cape Lookout brings visitors away from any signs of their life back at home. There are 56 miles of wild beach to explore, and the only marker of humanity is the Cape Lookout Lighthouse.
Feral horses roam the area, and there are more animal species than human residents on its shores. Cars can drive on the beaches here, and there are plenty of options for fishing or just relaxing on the beach.
On the Northern Stretch of the Outer Banks, Corolla is one of the most charming OBX towns and combines views of the Atlantic Ocean with the Currituck Sound, to provide visitors with a beach that has a lot more than hot sand on offer.
Various bars and restaurants tuck themselves away inside the dense maritime forests that surround the island. With a large swath of full-time residents, this vacation destination feels like home.
Various high-class resorts and accommodation options exist right off the beach, but visitors still manage to find plenty of seclusion in this area. Corolla marks North Carolina Beaches’ end and ensures that the coastline stretch goes out with a bang full of historical significance and natural wonders.
The highlight of Cape Hatteras is a candy-striped lighthouse that marks the Eastern Most point in North Carolina. Seventy miles of untouched beaches circle the lighthouse, and camping options exist on the oceanfront throughout the area.
Its eastern location makes it a frequent target for solid surf and high winds, resulting in a unique geographical landscape and a resilient local population.
Natural beauty coexists with vacationers across the beaches, and sea turtles head right under the Lighthouse when it’s nesting season. The lighthouse opens itself up on full moons, and visitors can head straight to the top to howl at the moon.
Known more for its sea turtle residents than human inhabitants, Topsail Beach is home to the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehab Center. Visitors can cheer on the rehabilitated turtles as they head back to sea. Stay at one of the locally owned Topsail Beach beach rentals that offer beachfront views to stay in the mix throughout your stay.
Every fall, the beach celebrates the end of the high season with an art crawl. Local artists flock from across the state to display the best of art beach life has to offer. A public marina and fishing pier provide even more options for entertainment.
Wrightsville Beach is one of the most popular beaches for locals from across the state and has one of the best North Carolina beach towns. It’s only a two-hour drive from Raleigh, North Carolina’s capital city, making it one of the most popular day trip destinations state-wide.
Intrepid explorers can take a quick paddle across a channel to Masonboro Island, a wildlife reserve adjacent to Wrightsville beach’s southern shore. This island is a vast open chunk of untouched beachfront and one of the best Wilmington beaches. You can set up camp across the area and enjoy a night under the stars with no one else around.
If you want to get close to the action, Atlantic Beach has it all. One of the most developed beaches in North Carolina, the area has marked out walking trails, aquariums, and a plethora of equipment rental options to provide something for everyone, making it one the best beaches in North Carolina for families.
It’s close to all other beaches on the Crystal Coast, but with everything, there is to do in Atlantic Beach, you could spend a week here without ever leaving. If you do hop in the car, you’ll be close enough to Fort Macon State Park and Pine Knoll Shores to see both sights in one day and still be back in time to enjoy some local seafood for sunset.
Atlantic Beach encompasses 85 miles of pristine shoreline in what is sometimes referred to as the Southern Outer Banks. On one side are the warm salty waters of the sea and the other is the calm clear expanse of the Bogue Sound. It’s a great family friendly destination, or a place to spend a romantic weekend away eating at one of the best Atlantic Beach restaurants.
If you’ve seen horse on beach photos, it might be from here as Carova is a well known wild horses North Carolina beach. Be sure to check your tires before you head to Carova Beach, a completely different beach experience where you’ll see more wild horses than buildings. Catering for four-wheel-drive vehicles, you can drive across this vast, sandy beach to pick your perfect spot for picnic lunch.
If you want to drive along the beach but came down to North Carolina in a Prius to save on gas, nearby areas offer plenty of 4WD vehicles to rent for a day to roam the open shoreline.
Waves is an apt name for this outdoor activities hub on the Outer Banks. The water and wind combine here to provide endless entertainment, as long as you’re ready to get wet. Flanked by a sound, first-time windsurfers can learn the sport’s ins and outs in safe conditions before heading out to the Atlantic Ocean.
It’s far enough from the North Carolina beaches’ main tourist hubs to offer up a more local flavor, and most of the people you’ll meet here live in the area year-round. Choosing to spend your vacation in Waves will help you get a feel for what life is like in the Outer Banks.
The home of flight is on the North Carolina Coastline at Kitty Hawk. The Wright Brothers were right to choose the area for its miles of open beaches and a gentle onshore breeze for their experiments, and the town has not forgotten its history as it has developed.
A national memorial to the brothers’ efforts is central to the city, and surrounding it are golden sand beaches and plenty of dining options.
There are plenty of public beach access points here, and if you want more options on your vacation, Kitty Hawk also offers extensive dune areas ripe for exploration. Its central location in the Outer Banks allows you to explore a plethora of nearby beaches, enjoy fantastic OBX restaurants, while still being back from sunset.
Bald Head Island
What makes Bald Head Island genuinely unique is the fact that no cars are allowed on its shores. Once you take the ferry to the island, the only traffic you’ll run into are golf carts, typically hopping from the beach to the golf courses, to one of the fantastic dining options on the island.
There are 12,000 acres on this island, and developers have committed to leaving a large majority untouched, giving any trip here access to pristine natural settings.
If you don’t want to spend your vacation in traffic, leave the keys on the mainland and enjoy a different vacation experience.
Shackleford Banks act as an eight-mile barrier between Beaufort and the Atlantic Ocean. The banks protect Beaufort from the Atlantic Ocean’s full brunt and protect various plant and animal species, some of whom wound up on its shores in shipwrecks.
The island is open for anyone to roam but is only accessible by boat. If you make the journey, you will find pristine beaches and the widest variety of seashell activities in North Carolina.
Outside of Wrightsville Beach, the next most conveniently located beach to the city of Wilmington is Carolina Beach. Carolina Beach is connected to the rest of Wilmington via Snow’s Cut Bridge.
Carolina Beach is an island between the Cape Fear River on the west and the Atlantic Ocean on the east.
While many consider nearby Wrightsville Beach to a bougie, affluent beach, Carolina Beach has a much more laid-back and relaxed vibe. Here you’ll see brightly colored pink and yellow buildings, tiki bars, and more golf carts on the roads than convertibles.
If you really want to feel like you are in an All-American beach town, consider booking a Carolina Beach vacation rental and staying here for the week. Get ready to walk during your trip and make it a requirement to stroll the boardwalk. The boardwalk is where you’ll find plenty of Carolina Beach restaurants, bars, and even an amusement park in the summer.
A 10 minute drive past Carolina Beach is the much quieter Kure Beach, one of my favorite Wilmington beaches. So if you arrive in Wilmington and check out Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach and decide the crowds are too much, continue driving down Fort Fisher Blvd to Kure Beach.
Here you can enjoy all the beautiful sand, water, fishing, and boardwalk that you can at other beaches, without the amusement park rides and busy tiki bars. Kure Beach has a much more laid back attitude and brings you back to what North Carolina beaches are all about. Walk the Kure Beach Pier and watch the fisherman wrangle one in, this 711-foot-long pier is one of the oldest on the Atlantic Coast.
If you want to fish yourself, you can easily rent a rod and get some bait and tackle from the shop at the pier – with a small fishing admission fee, your fishing license on the pier is included in the rate. Don’t miss getting a reservation at Freddie’s; it’s one of the best restaurants at Kure Beach!
Ocean Isle Beach
Less than an hour away from Wilmington is Ocean Isle Beach, just south of Holden Beach but north of Myrtle Beach and the South Carolina border.
Ocean Isle Beach sees a fraction of the visitors of other nearby North Carolina. This small seaside beach is family friendly and great for those that want a bit of relaxation with some things to do for the kiddies. Go zip lining at The Swamp Park, or enjoy a kayak in the marsh!
There are plenty of beach restaurants, and even a brewery! Makai Brewing Company has all the best tropically flavored IPAS!
Best Beaches in North Carolina Map
Best Beaches in North Carolina Quick Questions
- What is the prettiest beach in North Carolina? We get asked this question often, and while everyone’s opinion differs, our favorite beaches are along the 85 Miles of Coastline that make up the Crystal Coast. Most notably, Emerald Isle Beach, which is a quiet beach and sees lower tourism numbers compared to other beaches in North Carolina.
- What is the clearest beach in North Carolina? While you won’t find clear beaches like in the Mediterranean, there are areas of North Carolina that are exceptionally clear. Most notably, the Shackleford Banks in the Cape Lookout National Seashore! It’s here you can find the clearest water in North Carolina. This area is also home to over 100 wild horses!
- What is the least crowded beach in North Carolina? One of the most overlooked beaches in North Carolina is Holden Beach on the southern coast of North Carolina. It’s a true escape from the rest of the world with very few commercial properties and businesses. If you want go get away from the business of the Wilmington area head here!
- Are there white sand North Carolina beaches? If you come to North Carolina looking for sand that you get in the Maldives you’ll be disappointed. Nevertheless, Carova is where you will find the whitest sand in North Carolina.
- Can you swim in these North Carolina beaches? You can swim in any of the waters around the NC coast. The best months for swimming are July, August, and September when the air is warm and dipping in the ocean is refreshing. If you are not a strong swimmer best to stay close to shore as rip currents are the leading surf hazard for all beachgoers. According to The U.S. Lifesaving Association percent of all surf rescues are related to rip currents.
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