From action-packed adventures to lazy days in the sun, North Carolina's beaches offer something everyone ©
From action-packed adventures to lazy days in the sun, North Carolina's beaches offer something everyone ©

Top 12 beaches in North Carolina

TripFalcon March 09, 2021

Last Update: 2024-01-04 00:17:22

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 action-packed adventures to lazy days in the sun, the region offers something everyone, young and old alike. Here's a dozen of the best beaches in the state. 

Emerald Isle

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, and a bit more upscale, with art galleries, boutiques, and fine-casual dining. The town 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 that helps drivers beat the cross-island traffic. 

Atlantic Beach

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 accessible option for a weekend getaway or a longer escape. With a boardwalk, a fishing pier, wide sandy beaches, and offshore activities like parasailing, kite-boarding, jet-skiing, and kayaking, not to mention kitschy souvenir shops and restaurants galore, it’s no wonder the place garners so much attention. 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, and lifeguards on duty. 

Bald Head Island

A secluded, car-free retreat between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean, Bald Head Island can only be reached by ferry, and 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 and maritime forests as well as 14 miles of beaches – remain pristine and untouched. The Bald Head Woods State Preserve is a prime spot for birdwatching, and the Kent Mitchell Nature Trail has paths suitable for a range of abilities, while the Bald Head Island Conservancy offers guided kayak tours, tidal-pool explorations, sea-turtle tutorials, and more. Sea turtles – mostly loggerheads – nest here from June to August, and the beaches are great for shelling, especially around low tide. 

Ocracoke Island

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 lowkey 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, and 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 also warmer here than it is further north, thanks to the Gulf Stream off the coast. 


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. It’s also the only place in the region that allows the four-wheel-drive crowd to drive their vehicles directly onto the beach year round, fee-free. Interestingly enough, the 4x4 beaches are also where you’ll find Corolla’s best-known attraction: the wild horses, descended from Spanish Mustangs, that 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. 

Wrightsville Beach

Across the Cape Fear River from the port city of Wilmington, Wrightsville Beach is a great option for winter and shoulder-season travel, 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, or 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.


Barely 15 miles south of Corolla, the resort town of Duck has just 500 permanent residents, but its numbers swell during the summer season, and 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, and 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 a fledgling jazz festival on Columbus Day (aka Indigenous Peoples' Day) weekend, and its beaches are private and well-kept.

Topsail Island

North of Wrightsville in Onslow County, the 26-mile-long Topsail (pronounced TOP-sul) was once another rumored hideaway for the pirate Blackbeard, and 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 2000. 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 500-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.

Carolina Beach

Nestled on the aptly named Pleasure Island between Wrightsville Beach and Bald Head Island on the Atlantic coast, Carolina Beach is an epicenter of family fun. Its boardwalk is often called one of the best in the US, and 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, beach, and more; it’s also a native habitat for the Venus flytrap, and the wheelchair-accessible half-mile Flytrap loop provides a look at the carnivorous plants in the wild.

Nags Head

One of the best-known towns in the Outer Banks, Nags Head is a destination for spring-breakers and multi-generational families, and thanks to its location on Bodie Island, a few miles south of Kitty Hawk and the Wright Brothers National Memorial, it draws aviation buffs as well. During the summer, it can get very crowded, so it’s almost better to visit during the off season, when you’ll have the place more or less 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, or simply taking a wintry walk on the beach – average temperatures don’t usually dip below 50 degrees, so you shouldn’t have to bundle up much.

Bear Island

Accessible by ferry and private boat only, with primitive camping and virgin beach, Bear Island is at the heart of Hammock Beach State Park, a peaceful and secluded respite from the modern-day beachgoing throngs. The four-mile barrier island is heaven for beachcombers and birdwatchers, home to shore birds and tidal pools teeming with life; there’s marshland to explore via paddling trails, and kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards available to rent. The oceanfront campsites are open year-round except during king tide events, so you can sleep beside the dunes and under the stars any time you choose.

Lake Lure

The North Carolina coast is a beachy bonanza, but those who prefer freshwater excursions have options as well – chief among them Lake Lure, less than 30 miles from Asheville in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The manmade lake and the surrounding area served as the backdrop for Dirty Dancing, that ‘80s classic starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, and you can recreate your favorite moments from the film with a stay in a themed cabin or a photo shoot at one of the movie’s exterior locations. (Superfans should visit in September, when the Dirty Dancing Festival is underway.) 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. 

Source: lonelyplanet