When you think about North Carolina, you might think of the South, the Wright Brothers, and maybe barbecue. But beaches should be on your list. North Carolina has some of the best beaches on the East Coast, yet its beaches often go underrated compared to other states such as Florida or New Jersey.
There’s plenty to see in North Carolina, so you definitely need to plan your visit. Make sure you schedule a few beach days while you’re there. To help you narrow down your options, we’ve compiled this list of the best beaches in North Carolina.
Map of the 16 Best Beaches in North Carolina
The 16 Best North Carolina Beaches
1. Atlantic Beach
As the most picturesque of the communities on Bogue Banks, Atlantic Beach is a premier spot for people who want to imagine they’re in a summer feel-good movie while on the sand. The water is sparking and clear year-round, and the sand is nice and soft.
Sunrise is particularly beautiful. You can get up early and sit on the beach to watch daylight break over the horizon before you spend the rest of the day splashing around.
The town is also the oldest in this area. You can practically feel the town’s culture and history seeping through the sand. You can also enjoy long stretches of coastline perfect for walking. Or you can just take advantage of all the room to make sure you scope out the perfect place to set up for the day.
2. Bald Head Island
Bald Head Island deserves particular attention. Initially, the area was known as Smith Island, and it’s found on the east side of Cape Fear River. Though that name might be intimidating, there’s nothing to be afraid of here except falling in love with the beach.
What makes Bald Head Island so special is that its beach offers visitors the comforts of a safe beach experience without feeling like they’re in the middle of a tourist trap.
The island is pretty remote, so the beach never gets too full. You’ll mostly be sharing the sand with locals who are there all year. The sand is soft, and the beach landscape is pretty even, so it’s perfect for taking walks. The water starts warming up in the spring, but it hits its perfect temperature around July.
3. Brunswick Islands
North Carolina’s Brunswick Islands are a collection of small towns on 5 different islands. Each one of these beautiful little getaway spots could deserve a place on this list, but we’ve grouped them together for now.
The 5 islands are Sunset Beach, Ocean Isle Beach, Holden Beach, Oak Island, and Bald Head Island. These islands are also called the barrier islands because they form a wall between the North Carolina mainland coast and the open Atlantic Ocean.
Oak Island is the largest and most popular, but all the beaches have the same sort of ambiance. They’re calm and fairly quiet even during the spring and summer months when more tourists visit.
The beaches are highly recommended for families because they offer safe swimming and splashing around. So if you want to avoid dealing with crowds and have children who aren’t in school, come in late spring or early fall.
4. Cape Hatteras
The Cape Hatteras National Seashore is another point of local pride for people in North Carolina. It not only regularly ranks as one of the best beaches in the state, but as one of the best in the entire country.
That’s all thanks to the wide, flat land and soft sand you’ll find along the shores. Since it’s a nationally protected area, there aren’t as many amenities right on the sand, so it tends to draw fewer crowds. That means you get to enjoy the natural beauty of the area without fighting for a spot.
Even though there may not be too many visitors, it’s still perfect for people of all ages and activity levels. If you want adventure, you can kayak or windsurf. If you want to relax, you can sprawl out on the sand or wade in the clear water.
5. Cape Lookout National Seashore
If you’re looking to escape the mainland for a beach day, head to the Cape Lookout National Seashore. Located just 3 miles off-shore, you can reach the island by boat. You can rent your own boat, but there are also services available that will ferry you to and from the seashore.
The seashore is part of the Outer Banks, also called the Crystal Coast, and it’s one of the state’s most prized natural areas. The seashore is considered a national park, so the area is protected.
You can visit all year, but for the best experience, try to go between April to September. This is the high season when the water is warm, so the park is ready for beach-goers. During this time, you can book a cabin or you can spend your nights camping on the beach. Just make sure you bring your own gear with you.
6. Crystal Coast
Some people consider the Crystal Coast of North Carolina to be part of the Outer Banks. However, it’s diverse enough to be considered its own region of the state. The coast is made up of 85 miles of land that spans the territory between the Cape Lookout National Seashore and the New River.
The Crystal Coast is home to some of the best and most picturesque shorelines on the entire eastern half of the U.S. That’s in part because much of the coast is nationally protected, so it can’t be developed or damaged the way other more commercial beach areas can be.
There are tons of activities available for guests during the high season. Boats are available for rent or charter and you can camp, go kayaking, or just enjoy the clear water.
7. Currituck Beach
Currituck Beach is the pride and joy of Corolla and Currituck County. Flanked by the Currituck Sound and the Atlantic Ocean, the island is completely surrounded by beautiful water. Currituck Beach is about 20 miles long, so there’s tons of space available for you to find the perfect spot to set up for your beach day.
The beach is also wide in some spots. It can even reach up to 1.75 miles in width between the water’s edge and the end of the sand in some places. The beach is in pristine condition without looking too commercial.
Even though you’ll never be too far from stores and restaurants, you’ll still feel far removed from the day-to-day stresses of the city while surrounded by the natural flora and fauna of the beach.
It may have a simple name, but Duck (also called Duck Island) is one of the best beach spots in North Carolina. What was once a duck-hunting spot has reinvented itself to be a premier beach-going location. Duck isn’t just a fun name for kids — the entire beach area is considered one of the most family-friendly coastal spots in the U.S.
The beaches are wide with soft, white sand as far as the eye can see. There are waves, but they’re gentle and rolling. You don’t have to worry about them crashing violently or frequently creating dangerous swimming situations.
The beach is also near tons of shops and restaurants, so there’s plenty to do if you decide to take a little break from the sun and water. Even in the winter when the water is cold, you’ll enjoy the beach views.
9. Emerald Isle
On North Carolina’s Crystal Coast, you’ll find Bogue Banks Island. Since it’s separate from the mainland and surrounded by water, it’s a popular destination for fishing, water skiing, and of course, going to the beach.
The most popular beach on the island belongs to the town of Emerald Isle. The beaches have white sand and some of the clearest blue water you’ll find anywhere in the continental U.S.
The beach also has a little something for everyone. Some areas are more manicured and give off the typical beach town vibe, while others are a little more tucked away and natural.
The water is pretty calm and stays shallow for a while, so it’s perfect for families, even those with young swimmers. The best time to visit the beach is during the summer. There are more crowds, but you’ll also find more open businesses and lifeguards on regular duty.
10. Hammocks Beach State Park
Nature lovers who want to spend some time at the beach need to plan a trip to Hammocks Beach State Park. Covering 1,611 acres of land, the beach offers a lot of space to explore and feel like you’re experiencing the coast the way nature intended.
Hammocks Beach State Park is located on Bear Island, so you need to take a boat or ferry to get there. Once on the island, you’ll find designated picnic areas and blue water to swim in.
You can swim all year round, but it’s not necessarily recommended. From October until April, the water gets cold, so you need a wetsuit to be comfortable.
Also, there usually aren’t lifeguards on duty after Labor Day.
Hot Tip: For the best swimming experience at Hammocks Beach State Park, visit during the summer.
11. Nags Head
Nags Head is the perfect beach spot for people seeking adventure. The town’s beach is known for its tall sand dunes, which are perfect for people of all ages.
Little kids will love running around and playing pretend on this novel landscape, and older visitors can rent dune buggies to use in certain areas of the beach. The beach is pristine yet natural, thanks to the pride the state takes in maintaining it.
It’s also a great place if you want to make sure you’re always within walking distance of whatever you might need. There are tons of beach amenities, from restaurants to shops, so you’ll always be able to get whatever comforts or necessities you’re looking for. However, during the winter months, the island is mostly closed and becomes more deserted because it’s too cold to swim.
12. Ocracoke Island
There are plenty of reasons to visit Ocracoke Island. Its lighthouse dates back to 1823 and it has a museum for history buffs who want to learn about the island. Still, one of the top reasons to visit the island is to spend a few days on the beach.
The beach sets itself apart from many others in the state for the wide variety of shells you can find on the shore. From whelks to moon shells, you’ll be able to hunt for these natural souvenirs for hours.
If you’re lucky, you might even run into a Scotch bonnet, the official state shell of North Carolina. Even if you don’t want to add to your shell collection, you’ll be able to spend days relaxing on the beach or playing in the water while you fall in love with Ocracoke Island.
13. Outer Banks
Though we’ve already mentioned a few specific beaches on the Outer Banks, the entire area is worth considering if you’re looking to spend beach days in North Carolina. Locals highly recommend planning an entire vacation purely around the shores of these barrier islands.
From windsurfing to kayaking to simple walks on the sand, you’ll find a spot fit for whatever type of beach-goer you are.
Not many people outside of the East Coast know about the Outer Banks, so while there are still tourists during the high season, it’s not as crowded as other beaches in the Carolinas. If you head to one of the shores during the early-mid spring or early-mid fall, you’ll have the place mostly to yourself.
Definitely ask around for some of the best places to hit the beach. Locals might have a few secret spots for you.
14. Sunset Beach
If you’d prefer to stay on the mainland of North Carolina for your beach adventures, look no further than Sunset Beach. This little town comes up to the border with South Carolina. In fact, it’s part of the Myrtle Beach area.
However, while Myrtle Beach gets packed with people, especially during the spring and summer, Sunset Beach is a lot more laid back. It still gets tourists, but most of them flock further south, so you’ll have a more local experience when you visit.
Since it’s not quite as crowded or chaotic as Myrtle Beach, Sunset Beach is a lot more family-friendly than many of the other beaches in the area. You can relax and enjoy some peace and quiet on the sand, especially in the early morning or dusk.
You can also rest easy knowing you’re under the watchful eye of a lifeguard.
If you look up Topsail, you might be surprised that a town with a population of fewer than 500 people can manage to have one of the best beaches in the state. However, its coast is a hidden jewel most people don’t know about.
Since Topsail isn’t as busy as some of the state’s other beaches, it’s also a sanctuary for sea turtles. If you’re lucky, while you visit, you might catch a glimpse of one. You may even come across a mother laying her eggs.
You won’t find much in the way of exciting activities on this particular beach, but that’s precisely why it deserves to be on this list. It sets itself apart from many other beaches because it offers a truly relaxing experience. Whether you’re a nature lover or you just want to kick back a while, heading to Topsail might be perfect for you.
16. Wrightsville Beach
If you want to spend your beach vacation somewhere with vibrant nightlife so you can be entertained at all hours of the day or night, Wrightsville Beach is the place for you.
While the beach is still considered family-friendly, people who want to dance and have a good time at a beach party after sunset won’t be disappointed. Since the beach is suitable for people of all ages, it’s considered one of the best vacation spots in the state.
Despite the parties, the beach is also very clean and pristine. The city likes having fun, but it takes pride in its coastal preservation. You’ll also enjoy the small-town vibes the beach and surrounding area give off during the day. It’s the perfect place to relax, unwind, and let your hair down.
North Carolina is a beach lover’s dream spot and you have plenty of options to choose from. Picking a single place to visit can be near impossible. Hopefully, this list has helped you get an idea of which beach you should plan to visit first.