20+ of the Best Beaches in North Carolina (+ Our Personal Tips)

Last Updated on June 12, 2022

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With 322 miles of ocean shoreline, we have quite a few beaches to explore! After years of traveling up and down our coast, we at NC Tripping have narrowed it down to the 20 best beaches in North Carolina.

We’ve geographically organized this guide from north to south to include the following?

  • The Outer Banks
  • The Crystal Coast
  • Onslow County and Pender County (Topsail Island)
  • Beaches near Wilmington
  • Brunswick County Beaches

If you don’t agree with our picks for the best beaches in North Carolina, that’s okay because your secret is safe for now!

So pack your bags with enough sunscreen, sand toys, and cool drinks (no glass) for a fun trip through our favorite spots.

Read More: Unique Things to Do in North Carolina

The Best Beaches in North Carolina (Outer Banks)

The Outer Banks were the first beaches in North Carolina that we experienced. There are so many things to do on these barrier islands that we keep coming back.

You can see multiple lighthouses, learn about the Wright Brothers, fly a kite at Jockey’s Ridge, and more popular attractions.

That also includes some of the best beaches, even if the Atlantic Ocean is a bit rougher here. Here are a few places to go along the Outer Banks, starting in the north.

Corolla

Things to Do in Corolla NC Beach OBX

Many OBX beach lovers choose Corolla in the north and we can see why.

A lot of people first come here to join a wild horse tour, or simply stay somewhere where these beautiful animals roam. The wide-open beaches here are pretty amazing, especially if you’ve got your own 4-wheel drive vehicle to claim a spot.

There are beach accesses before the 4-wheel drive portion begins, so you don’t need to air down your tires or bring a shovel when enjoying Corolla’s beaches.

Read More: Currituck Beach Lighthouse on the Outer Banks (How to See It and Climb to the Top!)

Duck

Outer Banks Sunrise Duck NC Beach

Duck is one of the most family-friendly beaches in North Carolina and the entire United States. The Outer Banks town‘s beach access points do not have public parking, so you’ll need to book a place close by.

If you’re able to get out early, Duck is possibly our favorite spot to catch the sunrise in NC.

No matter when you make it to the beach, you’ll be greeted by a serene patch of sand and gorgeous water. The beach here is full of shells to collect, too.

Kitty Hawk

Best Beaches in North Carolina Kitty Hawk OBX

Known for the place where the Wright Brothers first took flight (that’s a fact!), Kitty Hawk is also one of our best beaches. The waves here are fun for surfers, but can also be enjoyed by everyone on calmer days.

You won’t find a shortage of places to eat or shops in Kitty Hawk. We love OBX Trio and I Got Your Crabs, but everyone’s got their place.

If you know Kitty Hawk, what’s yours?

Read More: Outer Banks Towns to Make Your Perfect Vacation

Nags Head

Jennettes Pier Nags Head OBX Small Towns

Nags Head is one of the busiest beaches in North Carolina, and not just because it’s the first town after Whalebone Junction. Its gorgeous wide spaces, the iconic Jennette’s Pier, and the waves are a few more reasons to visit Nags Head.

The Eastern Surfing Association also likes the waves here, and hosts its Mid-Atlantic Regionals each year in Nags Head. 

Waveriders Coffee, Deli, & Pub in Nags Head mixes terrific food, drinks, and fun in a community-building and welcoming space.

Pea Island

Pea Island Beach OBX NC

After Bodie Island Lighthouse, the nearby Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is one of our favorite places to visit along the Outer Banks Scenic Byway portion of US-12.

It’s definitely worth a stop for the short walk, with tons of bird-viewing opportunities and beautiful views awaiting.

Across the road from the visitor center is one of our favorite beaches in North Carolina. Thanks to a lack of parking and being in the middle of Pea Island, the beach doesn’t get nearly as crowded as others.

Read More: 20 of the Best North Carolina Road Trips (Scenic Byways and Highways)

Buxton

Best Beaches in North Carolina.

Keep driving down US-12 and you’ll reach Hatteras Island.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a quieter stretch of beach on the Outer Banks than that around Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in Buxton.

Because of all the attractions in and around the northernmost towns, you’ll find more people. Buxton and its surroundings in the south are harder to reach, which is why you’ll typically find fewer people.

Read More: Eastern North Carolina (and 100+ Awesome Places to Visit)

Crystal Coast Beaches in North Carolina

The Crystal Coast refers to a stretch of barrier islands that starts with Cape Lookout National Seashore and ends at Emerald Isle.

Cape Lookout

Cape Lookout Lighthouse

Composed of barrier islands south of Cape Hatteras, Cape Lookout National Seashore makes up a 56-mile stretch of beach. There are beaches on the Atlantic Ocean side and on the inlet/sound side.

All of this is within a boat ride from Beaufort, Harkers Island, and other coastal spots.

The iconic Cape Lookout Lighthouse draws many people here, as do all the fishing and camping opportunities await.

We think the beaches on either side are amazing, including the one at Shackelford Banks across the inlet. Speaking of the Shackleford Banks, this is where you’ll find some more of North Carolina’s wild ponies.

Read More: National Parks Sites in North Carolina

Atlantic Beach

Atlantic Beach Best Beaches in North Carolina

Emerald Isle is the most popular of the beaches in North Carolina’s Bogue Banks, but we’ve grown fonder of Atlantic Beach over the years. Our favorite place to stay on the island is Atlantis Lodge.

This vintage three-story hotel is family-owned and when you stay here, you can enjoy their private stretch of beach.

Of course, multiple public accesses await at Atlantic Beach, but it’s hard to top the quiet found around Atlantis Lodge and other properties nearby.

Some great restaurants sit just down the road, including the Shark Shack. We’re also big fans of Crystal Coast Brewing, a newer brewery with taps and cans for you to take on the beach.

Emerald Isle

Big Oak Drive In Atlantic Beach

Of course, we can’t leave out Emerald Isle when talking about the best beaches in North Carolina. This awesome coastal town sits at the western end of Bogue Banks, opposite Atlantic Beach, and next to Indian Beach.

Since this is one of our most popular beaches, EI can get very busy in the summer.

Of course, its shops and restaurants are ready to handle the traffic.

You can always drive toward Atlantic Beach and grab a shrimp burger from Big Oak Drive-In & Bar-B-Q in Salter Path. Just saying.

Cap’n Willis Seafood Market has all you need if you want to cook at home, too.

Onslow and Pender County North Carolina Beaches

Onslow County and Pender County share some of the most popular beaches in North Carolina, on our wonderful Topsail Island. That’s why we’ve grouped them together here.

Across the Bogue Inlet from Emerald Isle is Bear Island, one of the best state-managed beaches we have. Keep moving south and you’ll reach Topsail, which ends at the acclaimed Serenity Point.

Read More: How to Explore the NC Oyster Trail (10+ Adventurous Ways!)

Bear Island

Bear Island Best Beaches in North Carolina

Bear Island is one of our favorite beaches in North Carolina that’s only reachable by boat. It’s the only one that’s publicly managed, as it’s part of Hammocks Beach State Park near Swansboro and Jacksonville.

The easiest way to reach Bear Island is to hire a boat (Marsh Cruises) or via the State Park’s ferry when it’s in service.

You can also paddle over to the island, either with your own boat or a tour from Hammocks Beach with Paddle NC.

If you arrive in the morning, you may have the island mostly to yourself. That’ll give you plenty of time to search for shells, sand dollars, and shark’s teeth!

The boats begin to arrive around mid-morning or lunchtime, especially during the busier summer months.

Read More: Restaurants in Jacksonville and Onslow County

Topsail Island

Things to do on Topsail Island Jolly Roger Pier

Topsail Island is home to some amazing stretches of beaches in North Carolina’s Pender and Onslow counties.

It includes North Topsail, Surf City, and Topsail Beach and serves as a sea turtle sanctuary. 

If you love these marine animals, visit the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center on the mainland side of Surf City. They are doing wonderful things.

With 26 miles of coast, Topsail Island is a popular spot for shelling and shark teeth. This is also one of our favorite places to enjoy the sound side of North Carolina’s beaches.

The sound side of Topsail is wonderful. With many of the houses sitting right along the sleepy water adjacent to the waves, it’s relaxing to stare at. 

The water is calm and gentle and perfect for boating or fishing. So get the best of both worlds and cross the street for the beach. 

Read More: 15 of the Best Topsail Island Restaurants (Great Food for All!)

North Carolina Beaches Near Wilmington

The next collection of beaches in North Carolina is those near Wilmington.

Read More: The Best Day Trips from Raleigh

Wrightsville Beach

Things to Do with Kids in Wilmington NC Johnnie Mercers Pier Wrightsville Beach NC
Johnnie Mercer’s Pier.

Wrightsville Beach is home to pretty water, great surf, and five miles of wide, sandy beach. Surfing, paddleboarding, and fishing are some of the most popular activities here.

Even if you’re not casting a reel from Johnnie Mercer’s Pier, you’ll enjoy a stroll on the only concrete fishing pier in North Carolina.

Masonboro Island

Masonboro Island near Wilmington NC

From Wrightsville Beach, you can take a boat to Masonboro Island Reserve, an isolated and protected beach. It’s one of the most beautiful beaches in North Carolina, in case you were asking.

Completely undeveloped with more than 5,600 acres of beach, salt marsh, and tidal flats, the wildlife viewing opportunities here are absolutely incredible.

Go shelling, search for dolphins and ghost crabs, or just sit in the sand. This isolated beach is the perfect way to reconnect with the outdoors and how all of North Carolina’s beaches must have looked like at one time. 

Carolina Beach

Things to do in Carolina Beach go to the Beach

Of all the beaches in North Carolina, Carolina Beach might be the most popular.

The Boardwalk is home to endless food stands, including the North Carolina institution we know and love—Britt’s Donuts.

Outdoor adventures await at Carolina Beach, whether you’re out on a boat, a kayak, biking along the Greenway, or hiking at Carolina Beach State Park.

Read More: Things to Do in Wilmington

Kure Beach

Kure Beach Best beaches in North Carolina

Wilmington is blessed with a wonderful downtown, family-friendly activities, incredible restaurants and breweries, and some of the best beaches in North Carolina.

The always popular Carolina Beach, Wrightsville Beach, and Masonboro Island are great places to visit, but we keep coming back to Kure Beach when staying in the area.

Kure Beach (pronounced cure-ee) is a relatively quiet, family-friendly beach town that’s still close enough to enjoy all of the fun of Wilmington. Its relatively less crowded beaches are complimented by pastel-colored homes and the oldest fishing pier on the Atlantic Coast.

Read More: Amazing Beaches Near Wilmington (and Which One is Best?)

Fort Fisher State Recreation Area

Wilmington NC Beaches Fort Fisher State Recreation Area

Fort Fisher State Recreation Area is part of a collection of protected lands, including the State Historic Site nearby. The NC State Parks-managed portion of this land borders the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape Fear River.

There’s a beach you can access from the visitor center on foot, and a seasonally open section that requires a 4-wheel drive permit to enter.

You’ll see people surf fishing but even more just enjoying a day at the beach.

Fort Fisher is also the closest beach to the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher. We really enjoy being close to the aquarium and visiting marine life every time we are in the area.

Read More: Fort Fisher State Historic Site (20+ Facts and How to Visit)

Brunswick County Beaches in North Carolina

Many spots in Brunswick County could easily top all beaches in North Carolina. Here are our favorites in the area.

Read More: The Best Day Trips from Fayetteville

Bald Head Island

Best Beaches in North Carolina Bald Head Island

Hop on a ferry boat from Southport in Brunswick County and leave your car behind for Bald Head Island. If you aren’t staying on the island, you can rent a golf cart or bicycle and travel around the island in style.

Bald Head Island is a carless community of luxurious beach houses and soft wide sand. When brainstorming the best beaches in North Carolina, Bald Head first came to mind.

Wide stretches of white sand and gentle waves make this an incredible spot for everyone, including families. And because of its relative difficulty to reach, you’ll find yourself on the beach with hardly anyone else around! 

Old Baldy Bald Head Island

While on Bald Head Island make sure to visit Old Baldy, North Carolina’s oldest lighthouse. It has withstood the devastation and destruction of many hurricanes and also provides epic views from the top. 

Oak Island (Caswell Beach)

views from the boardwalk at Oak Island Lighthouse

Oak Island is the perfect spot for a getaway, especially at Caswell Beach. It’s a nice place to enjoy the day and stare out at the water and Bald Head Island across the channel.

To get a nice panoramic view of the area, visit Oak Island Lighthouse and show off even more to friends and family.

Holden Beach 

Holden Beach North Carolina bridge

We’ve been saying that Holden Beach is our favorite for a quiet vacation spot.

It sits between Bald Head Island and Oak Island to the east and Ocean Isle Beach and Sunset Beach to the west, but it still stands out in our minds.

This wonderful place is known as the “family beach of North Carolina,” largely because it’s among the least commercial and mostly a collection of homes.

Even during peak beach season, it is still fairly quiet in comparison to its noisy neighbors. You’ll see many people (including us!) starting days with bike rides along with the “Olden Holden” Trail before heading to the closest beach access.

During the season (typically March to October), you can grab food at a few restaurants near the bridge. Surfer’s Cafe (great burgers!) is next to the Food Lion over the bridge and open throughout the year, in case you visit during the offseason.

Ocean Isle Beach

Ocean Isle NC

Ocean Isle Beach is usually the first beach that people will claim is the best beach in North Carolina. All you have to do is read the comments on this guide.

It’s hard to argue with them, though, especially when you first drive in. The canals that you see are enough to keep you hooked on this place.

Along with an excellent beach strand, there are great parks here. The range from the adventure-friendly Swamp Park to the playgrounds at Ocean Isle Beach Park and Town Center Park.

Endangered sea turtles also call this place “home,” and the OIB Sea Turtle Protection Organization watches over the nesting and hatching seasons.

Sunset Beach

Sunset Beach NC

Of our barrier islands, Sunset Beach is the southernmost beach in North Carolina. You can spend all day (or year) relaxing on the beach, of course, but a walk on the Sunset Beach Pier is worth moving for.

The salt marsh and tidal creeks of Bird Island are a beautiful reason to visit Sunset Beach. Educational walks are offered throughout the summer, and there’s also the Kindred Spirit Mailbox—similar to the one found on Wrightsville Beach.

The Ingram Planetarium is another thing that makes Sunset Beach stand out, with exhibits and programs awaiting.

You can also learn about the history of Sunset Beach (and its future) at the Swing Bridge & Museum. This place honors the swing bridge that previously linked the barrier island to the mainland from 1958 to 2011.

On the mainland side, there are some great golf courses to play, and we also enjoy Sunset Beach Park.

Sunset Beach is also close to Calabash. If you know about the amazing seafood that awaits there, you’ll agree that it’s worth a trip from any of these beaches in North Carolina’s southeast corner.

Read More: Famous North Carolina Foods

What Are Your Favorite Beaches in North Carolina?

Suppose you disagree with our picks for the best beaches in North Carolina, good! We’d love to hear more about your picks in the comments section.

Of course, we’re always revisiting places throughout North Carolina, so our opinions might change. In the meantime, we’d love to know about your favorite spots.

Beyond the Best Beaches in North Carolina (More Travel Guides)

36 thoughts on “20+ of the Best Beaches in North Carolina (+ Our Personal Tips)”

  1. You should check out the Point at Emerald Isle, NC. Beautiful open beach with hundreds of yards of sand and dunes between the end of the road and the edge of the water. The biggest drawback is that the only public parking for this location is a small public lot about 5 blocks away. There are times you just won’t be blessed with an open parking spot.

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  2. You really need to visit Ocean Isle Beach. I recently talked with a visitor that had always vacationed at Emerald Isle and he said OIB is a hidden “gem”. I have to agree. OIB is a beautiful beach within 15 minutes of Calabash and 25 minutes of NMB. We have a Museum, Putt-Putt, Sunset Slush, restaurants, beach shops, a marina, beach rentals, a beautiful park with a concert venue, playground and splash pad all on the island…all within walking or biking distance. We are a Sea Turtle Sanctuary with active sea turtle nesting. You need to check us out…Sunset Beach is within sight and can be visited from OIB at low tide.

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    • I’m seeing a lot of votes for OIB. Definitely gonna have to give it more thought when we return to Brunswick Co soon! Thanks, Harriet!

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  3. Ocean Isle Beach is WAY better island and beach than Holden. No comparison. The beauty of the island and it’s canals stands alone. Way more good restaurants to choose from. Take a look for yourself

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  4. Plans are in the works now to destroy and over populate Brunswick County. Hundreds of acres are to be turned into high density housing inn the very areas mentioned in this article. Wetlands drained and destroyed by redistricting. The peaceful cleanliness will be gone.

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  5. Oak Island is the best. Has 3 beaches, Caswell, Yaupon and Long Beach. Been going there for 33 years. Finally bought a home there because like it so much. Family beach!

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  6. Born and raised in North Carolina, I have been to almost all of the NC beaches. Although the mountains are my favorite place, Bald Head Island is my second most favorite place on Earth. Beach, forest, marsh…all are there. Add a mountain and it would be heaven. So glad you listed BHI as one of the top.

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  7. Ocean Isle Beach is the best! I agree it is a hidden gem. We’ve had ocean front homes there since the early 70’s & it has never been more charming. Great family beach with restaurants, great golfing, & shopping close by & North Myrtle is just 15 minutes away.

    Reply

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