Last Updated on August 17, 2022
Last Updated on August 17, 2022
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)
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Of all the beaches in North Carolina, Carolina Beach might be the most popular.
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
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.
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.
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
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!
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)
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 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 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.
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.