Published by Christina Riley. Last Updated on December 1, 2023.
With 322 miles of ocean shoreline, we have plenty of NC beaches for vacation! After years of traveling up and down our coast, NC Tripping has narrowed it down to the 20 best beaches in North Carolina.
If you disagree with our picks for the best beaches in NC, 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
Map of NC Beaches
You can visually plan your next NC beach adventure with the following maps:
List of the Best Beaches in North Carolina
These North Carolina beaches are listed from north to south, from the Outer Banks down to Brunswick County.
- Outer Banks North Carolina Beaches
- Kitty Hawk
- Nags Head
- Cape Hatteras National Seashore NC Beaches
- Pea Island
- Ocracoke Beach
- Cape Lookout National Seashore NC Beaches
- Crystal Coast North Carolina Beaches
- Atlantic Beach
- Emerald Isle
- Onslow County, North Carolina Beaches
- Hammocks Beach State Park (Bear Island)
- Topsail Island North Carolina Beaches
- North Carolina Beaches Near Wilmington
- Wrightsville Beach
- Masonboro Island
- Carolina Beach
- Kure Beach
- Fort Fisher State Recreation Area
- Brunswick County Beaches in North Carolina
- Bald Head Island
- Oak Island (Caswell Beach)
- Holden Beach
- Ocean Isle Beach
- Sunset Beach
Outer Banks North Carolina Beaches
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.
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.
Duck is among the most family-friendly North Carolina beaches 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.
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.
If you know Kitty Hawk, what’s yours?
Nags Head is one of the busiest beaches in NC, 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.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore NC Beaches
South of Nags Head and Kitty Hawk is a much quieter stretch of beaches that make up the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. If you are looking for an unspoiled and undeveloped beach, this is where you want to be.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore is also known for the historic black and white lighthouse built in 1870. It’s about 200 feet tall, and you can even climb to the top for sweeping views of the coast.
Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
It’s definitely worth a stop for the short walk, with tons of bird-viewing opportunities and beautiful views awaiting.
Thanks to a lack of parking and being in the middle of Pea Island, the beach doesn’t get nearly as crowded as others.
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.
Ocracoke Beach is on Ocracoke Island in the far south of the Outer Banks. It’s a very quiet and relaxing beach, but there are still a few shops and restaurants in the village if you don’t want to be completely off the grid.
You have to take a ferry to reach the island, but you can take your vehicle onto the ferry in order to get around after you arrive.
Luckily, the ferry is free. Just be prepared to wait a little while to load.
Another popular thing at Ocracoke is driving your vehicle on the beach. Be aware that to do this, you need to obtain an ORV permit, and it’s only safe to do with a 4WD vehicle.
Cape Lookout National Seashore NC Beaches
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.
The Seashore is claimed by the Outer Banks and the Crystal Coast, so we’ll settle the dispute by giving Cape Lookout its own section in this guide.
Regardless of whose territory it falls under, 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 that 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
Crystal Coast North Carolina Beaches
The Crystal Coast is a stretch of barrier islands that starts with Cape Lookout National Seashore and ends at Emerald Isle.
This vintage three-story hotel is family-owned, and when you stay here, you can enjoy its private stretch of 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 County, North Carolina Beaches
Onslow County and Pender County share some of the most popular parts of the North Carolina coast, also known as Topsail Island. In this section, we’ll focus on Onslow County and focus on Topsail next.
Bear Island is one of the best state-managed beaches across the Bogue Inlet from Emerald Isle.
Hammocks Beach State Park (Bear Island)
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.
You can also paddle over to the island with your 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 teeth!
The boats begin to arrive around mid-morning or lunchtime, especially during the busier summer months.
Topsail Island North Carolina Beaches
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 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.
North Carolina Beaches Near Wilmington
The next collection of beaches in NC is those near Wilmington.
Read More: The Best Day Trips from Raleigh
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.
You can take a boat from Wrightsville Beach to Masonboro Island Reserve, an isolated and protected beach. It’s one of the most beautiful beaches along the North Carolina coast.
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 what North Carolina’s beaches must have looked like at one time.
Carolina Beach might be the most popular NC beach mentioned in this guide.
Outdoor adventures await at Carolina Beach, whether you’re out on a boat, or a kayak, biking along the Greenway, or hiking at Carolina Beach State Park.
Read More: Things to Do in Wilmington
The always popular Carolina Beach, Wrightsville Beach, and Masonboro Island are great places to visit, but we keep returning to Kure Beach when staying there.
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. Pastel-colored homes and the oldest fishing pier on the Atlantic Coast complement its relatively less crowded 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 borders the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape Fear River.
You can access a beach 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 enjoy a day at the beach even more.
Fort Fisher is also the closest beach to the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher. We enjoy being close to the aquarium and visiting marine life every time we are there.
Brunswick County NC Beaches
Brunswick County runs south of Wilmington all the way to the North/South Carolina border. Here are our favorite beaches in the area.
Read More: The Best Day Trips from Fayetteville
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 in style.
Bald Head Island is a carless community of luxurious beach houses and soft wide sand. When brainstorming our favorite beach vacation in North Carolina, Bald Head is the first place to come 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, you’ll find yourself on the beach with hardly anyone else around!
While on Bald Head Island, visit Old Baldy, North Carolina’s oldest lighthouse. It has withstood the devastation and destruction of many hurricanes and provides epic views from the top.
Oak Island (Caswell Beach)
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.
We’ve been saying that Holden Beach is our favorite for a quiet NC beach 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.
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 compared to its noisy neighbors. You’ll see many people (including us!) starting days with bike rides and 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 is open throughout the year, in case you visit during the off-season.
Ocean Isle Beach
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 driving 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. They range from the adventure-friendly Swamp Park to Ocean Isle Beach Park and Town Center Park playgrounds.
Endangered sea turtles also call this place “home,” and the OIB Sea Turtle Protection Organization watches over the nesting and hatching seasons.
Sunset Beach is the southernmost beach of our barrier islands in North Carolina. You can spend all day (or year) relaxing on the beach, 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.
There are some great golf courses to play on the mainland, 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.
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 NC Beaches (More Travel Guides)
We’ve created many more travel guides that include these amazing beaches along the North Carolina coast. Here are a few of them.