With 322 miles of coastline, a pleasant climate and ample charm, North Carolina is a haven for beach lovers. The mix of mainland and barrier island beaches provide plenty of choice for travelers, locals and families. You can decide between popular spots laden with amenities, or chase the quiet at one of the many undeveloped beaches.
Beachgoers will have the choice of facing out towards the Atlantic Ocean, where the sunrise is spectacular and the surf rolls in. Or turn their heads to the sounds and the Intracoastal Waterway where the calm and warm waters are great for young ones and the sunsets make for a memorable end to the day.
But as you’ll soon find out, there’s much more to the best beaches in North Carolina than just sun, surf and swimming.
14. Wrightsville Beach
Known as the beach where surfing became popular in North Carolina, Wrightsville Beach remains as popular as ever. Minutes from Wilmington, beachgoers will find ideal waves for breaking out the surfboard plus consistent winds for kiteboarding.
Owing to its history, you’ll also be able to get surf lessons or rent a board on the beach to join in on the fun. Surfers and swimmers are separated, allowing the rest to enjoy the crystal clear, jade-blue waters in peace under the watchful eye of the resident lifeguards.
To switch things up, get your hand on a fishing reel and head to one of the beach’s two fishing piers.
13. Cape Hatteras
Stretching for 70 miles, Cape Hatteras features a series of pristine beaches that comprise the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The impeccable stretch of sand is laden with nature and history with a trio of visitor centers spaced out to help tell the story.
Your time here won’t merely be about swimming, surfing and sunbathing. It’s a chance to explore untouched nature and get to know the region’s past. The visitor centers and local museums tell the tale of shipwrecks sunk right off the coast. Then there’s the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the tallest in the United States and one that you can climb.
12. Topsail Island
South of Jacksonville, Topsail Island has an immense 26 miles of wide open sand. The endless beach isn’t just great for a peaceful day of sunbathing and reading. In the summer months, you’ll spot loggerhead turtles wandering ashore to lay their eggs.
After admiring the beautiful turtles from afar, go for a swim or surf while keeping your eye out for long-lost treasure. Topsail Island was once a pirate haven.
The beaches on the Atlantic side can have some great surf if you’re up for the challenge. However, families love the protected side that faces the sound, with calm, shallow waters to enjoy.
11. Kitty Hawk
If you’re heading to the Outer Banks from the northern end, Kitty Hawk is the first beach you’ll come across. With soft golden sand that runs forever and free parking, you’ll need no excuse to stop for a day at the beach.
Some believe Kitty Hawk to be the spot where the Wright brothers embarked on that first flight (Kill Devil Hills was the actual location) but there’s much more to it than that. The surrounding town has that patented Outer Banks charm and is teeming with delicious down-home restaurants and ice creameries.
Just behind the beach, you can explore Kitty Hawk Woods Coastal Reserve and one of the biggest maritime forests in the region.
10. Hammocks Beach State Park
With no restaurants, bars and few amenities, Hammocks Beach State Park remains untouched. For those that visit often, they wouldn’t have it any other way.
A great day at this beach begins with loading the cooler full of snacks, lunch, and drinks before jumping on the ferry. You’ll soon be swept away by the beauty of nature as you set up shop on the golden sand.
To further explore the state park, you can rent kayaks or paddleboards and make your way through the nearby marshes or even venture over to the neighboring islands. One of those is Bear Island, where you can camp under the stars.
9. Oak Island Beach
Thirty miles from Wilmington, Oak Island Beach is a sleepy beach town that offers plenty of nostalgia. Also known as Long Beach, you’ll find a delightful mix of laid back beach days and plenty of nearby activities to keep the entire family entertained.
There are over 60 access points along the 10 miles of powdery sand. With plenty of room, it’s easy to enjoy a day with just you and yours. Along the shoreline are two marinas, multiple fishing piers and boat ramps. This makes it easy to cast a reel from the shore or venture out on your boat.
To enjoy a break from the sun, you can explore the lighthouse, nature center or visit Southport where numerous Hollywood flicks were filmed.
8. Atlantic Beach
Facing south, Atlantic Beach is sheltered from the effects of the Atlantic Ocean. The peaceful water and lack of wind have helped it become one of the most popular beaches in the state.
Despite the crowds that often converge on Atlantic Beach, the wide expanse of sand leaves plenty of room for everyone. After some swimming, head to the beachfront restaurants that range from laid back affairs to upscale dining.
If at any point you want to stretch your legs and explore the area around Atlantic Beach, then walk along any of the four Walk Atlantic Beach loops. This will guide you from the beach to all parts of town.
7. Currituck Beach, Corolla
With the Atlantic on one side and the Currituck Sound on the other, the town of Corolla is neatly tucked away on the northern end of the Outer Banks. Because of this, Currituck Beach is a must-visit.
There are so many layers to the beautiful Currituck Beach that you’ll want to stay nearby. The 20 miles of shoreline has multiple access points where you can park and walk to the beach. Or, if you have a 4WD, continue driving.
The four-wheel-drive section of Currituck Beach is also where you’ll find the resident and wild Colonial Spanish Mustangs. It’s a unique element to what is already a spellbinding location.
After, park the car and go about your beach day or climb to the top of the historic Currituck Beach Lighthouse.
6. Holden Beach
On Brunswick Islands, Holden Beach is a great spot for families. The water is welcoming, the shelling is exciting and the morning strolls on the sand are memorable.
With no highrises, Holden Beach has a natural, small town charm. To arrive, you can drive over the bridge or kayak across to Intracoastal Waterway, with rows of beachfront vacation homes to choose from.
Your day at Holden Beach can be as relaxing or exciting as you like. You can rent jet skis, kayaks and surfboards or trade your time between sand and sea. Whenever you’re feeling peckish. Wander behind Holden Beach where you’ll be met with a series of delicious seafood restaurants.
5. Nags Head
One of the first beaches that come to mind when thinking about North Carolina is Nags Head. In the heart of the Outer Banks, Nags Head is an adventure paradise complete with the Atlantic Coast’s tallest sand dunes.
Visitors to this breathtaking destination will have their work cut out enjoying the scenery, action, culture and even the region’s history. Spend your mornings out on the golden sand beach where the deep blue Atlantic rolls in. You can walk as much of the 12 miles of sand as possible before resting and enjoying the views from Jenette’s Pier, which is 1,000 feet long.
Afterwards, explore the sand dunes and lighthouse within Jockey’s Ridge State Park and the nearby spot where the Wright brothers first flew.
4. Ocracoke Island
There are few better places to go in the Tar Heel State to relax and unwind than Ocracoke Island. Like many of the state’s barrier islands, you’ll need to first catch a ferry, either from Hatteras, Cedar or Swan Quarter islands. But as soon as you arrive, Ocracoke Island’s laid back nature washes over you.
Now, you’re ready to explore the island’s 16 miles of effervescent white sand, complete with soft morning waves and endless water activities. Sunbathing and wading in the Atlantic aren’t the only two ways to enjoy the beaches on Ocracoke Island. Visitors can rent kayaks, small sailboats or surfboards and get out on the water.
After a day of revitalization, attention turns to the restaurants in the west-facing Silver Lake Harbor for golden hour.
3. Carolina Beach
Just a brief drive from the charming (and historic) town of Wilmington, is Carolina Beach. It’s a beach that effortlessly blends nature and humanity, where attractions and restaurants stand alongside nature trails and coastal dunes.
Carolina Beach is a popular spot on a sunny summer’s day. Locals and travelers alike converge on the golden sand beach from the surrounding regions. Sometimes arriving early enough to watch the sun poke its head out from behind the horizon.
The beach is manned by lifeguards and comes complete with a beautiful boardwalk that meanders between the soft sand and a row of restaurants, shops, and bars. The beach runs down the coast until it meets the Carolina Beach State Park and mother nature takes the reins.
2. Emerald Isle
On Bogue Banks Island, Emerald Isle is a part of North Carolina’s Crystal Coast. The isle features a dozen miles of snow white sand, with its sparkling and clear water living up to its name.
Beachgoers will love setting up the beach chairs and umbrellas before taking in the views and the sounds of nature. The latter is best experienced on the North Carolina Birding Trail within the Emerald Isle Woods Park.
But the Emerald Isle is most known for its fishing. Charters are found in abundance, both near-shore and deep sea adventures. There’s also the beloved Bogue Inlet Pier, which opens every year in the spring. After your day exploring, fishing, swimming and relaxing, kick back at one of the several beachfront restaurants for a gorgeous sunset.
1. Bald Head Island
Devoid of traffic, with the light rumbling of golf carts, Bald Head Island is a tranquil paradise. Only accessible by boat, travelers will have 14 miles of serene beachfront, where you can sunbathe, swim, surf and hunt for seashells.
For most, the journey to Bald Head Island begins in Southport. From the dock, you can catch a regular ferry to the island. After twenty minutes, you’ll be on the barrier island, where you can rent a golf cart or take a free “tram”, but only if you’ve rented a vacation home.
However, the best way to experience the island and see its majestic coastline is to bring a bike. The island has 15 miles of walking and bike trails that take you to wide open expanses of golden sand.