North Carolina beaches are one of the most popular beach destinations on the East Coast. Home to such famous mountain ranges as the Appalachian Mountains and the Great Smoky Mountains, the state also features over 300 miles of coastline. The shores of North Carolina have seen its fair share of history — from pirates to shipwrecks — and of course, one of the first flights in world history.
The beaches of North Carolina have long been visited by both locals and tourists on holiday. Facing the Atlantic Ocean, North Carolina beaches boast some of the best sunrises, fishing, water sports, and sunbathing around.
The beaches of North Carolina offer fun and unique experiences for anyone visiting its shores for a beach vacation. In addition to exciting activities, North Carolina is home to all sorts of wildlife, like sea turtles, Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphins, alligators, red wolves, brown pelicans, and the great blue heron amongst plenty of other native animals.
Here are 16 sensational North Carolina beaches you need to visit this summer!
BALD HEAD ISLAND
Bald Head Island, previously known as Smith Island, is only accessible to the public by ferry. The 20-minute ferry ride takes you to one of North Carolina’s most pristine barrier islands.
The name “Bald Head” refers to the natural erosion of the dunes that now resemble a bald head.
This small town is the quintessential beachside resort. There are no cars allowed on the island — instead, people get around by renting a golf cart, by foot or bike, or by making reservations on the tram.
The island is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape Fear River with three lighthouses. Old Baldy, which is the oldest standing lighthouse in North Carolina, is one of the most popular places to visit on the island.
The island is also famous for its nesting loggerhead sea turtles. These turtles come back every year to the same island to lay their eggs. If you happen to be there during nesting season, from mid-August to late September, you can take a Turtle Walk tour and get a chance to see hatching sea turtles, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The island is also ideal for surfing, paddleboarding, kayaking, and bird watching. Golfing and fishing are also popular pastimes on Bald Head Island. The Bald Head Woods Maritime Forest Preserve has several walking and hiking paths that wind through the trees if you need a day out of the sun.
Ocracoke Island is notoriously known for Blackbeard the Pirate and his crew. Pirates were all over the island in the 1600s and 1700s, making it one of the most popular pirate destinations in all the Caribbean. Today you still go to some of the pirate’s most infamous spots like Teach’s Hole and Springer’s Point.
This is another island that is only accessible by ferry. You can drive on this one, but many people still prefer to bike or drive golf carts. There are only 1,000 yearly residents and the locals have their own dialect known as “Ocracoke Brogue.”
Ocracoke Island is a popular spot for seashell hunters and surf fishing. The island also has a high number of art galleries and a great selection of restaurants, pubs, and cafes.
Springer’s Point Preserve has several walking tracks and plenty of opportunities to spot local wildlife. This is the last untouched spot on the island and is now protected by the Coastal Land Trust. Ocracoke is also home to the country’s second-oldest lighthouse still in operation.
On the island, you can also find the legendary Ocracoke Ponies. These are direct descendants of horses that were stranded on the island after a shipwreck hundreds of years ago. These ponies are super unique because they have a different number of vertebrae and ribs than other horses. You can tell these ponies from others because of their distinct shape, posture, color, and size.
Ocracoke is one of the more secluded of North Carolina Beaches and is a great island to visit if you’re looking for peace and quiet.
CAPE HATTERAS NATIONAL SEASHORE
Cape Hatteras National Seashore protects three islands that make up some of the most beautiful beaches in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. This includes Bodie Island, Hatteras Island, and Ocracoke Island. The waters just off these beaches are known as “The Graveyard of the Atlantic,” with well over 600 shipwrecks either caused by storms, human error, war, or pirates.
The stretch of beaches is known to have some of the best surfing around, especially when there is a storm sitting off the coast. Swimming, fishing and crabbing, kayaking, snorkeling, stand-up paddleboarding, windsurfing, and kiteboarding also make the national seashore a top destination for water sports enthusiasts. In fact, Canadian Hole is a world-famous windsurfing spot that you can find within the National Seashore.
There are three designated hiking trails within the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. These are the Buxton Woods Trail which is a loop and less than a mile. There is the Open Ponds Trail which is 9 miles out and back. The last trail is called the Hammock Hills Trail which is also less than a mile. Horseback riding is another exciting way to explore the seashore and its surrounding areas.
Nags Head Island is famously known for having the largest natural sand dunes on the east coast. They are located in Jockey’s Ridge State Park, where you can go sandboarding, hang gliding, and hiking. There are also picnicking areas where you can sit, eat, relax and observe other park goers.
Nags Head is ideal for families with kids. They have mini golf courses, go-karts, arcades, and small amusement parks. Surf lessons and parasailing are also popular with families. There are shopping outlets, ice cream stands, fishing piers, and dolphin tours. And if you’re looking for something slightly more exciting, you can even go sky diving.
Kitty Hawk is one of the more famous islands of the North Carolina Beaches. This is where the Wright Brothers made the first flight with a controlled powered airplane, back in 1903. The area has been home to humans since before the 1500s. It was home to a Native American tribe well before the European settlers came in.
Though the island can get crowded in the summer, much of it is protected and quiet. You can wander around the Kitty Hawk Woods Coastal Reserve or relax on the beaches. Where the island has been developed, there is a golf course and a water park, restaurants, surf and sailing schools, and a fishing pier. You can rent jet skis, paddleboards, and kayaks or go parasailing.
Kitty Hawk also has great nightlife. You can find bars that are open late and plenty of live music for dancing and a fun night out.
Local legend likes to say that Topsail Island got its name because pirate ships hid behind the island but their topsails were visible from the sea rendering the hiding place useless. The island is known for its 26 miles of pristine beaches and protection of sea turtles.
At Soundside Park you can find walking tracks, a playground, and picnic areas. Another great spot for a picnic with incredible views is the Kenneth D. Batts Family Park which has a boardwalk that takes you over the marsh and is especially nice at sunset.
Topsail is a very tranquil island where you can find it easy to relax with not many people around. There are great seafood restaurants all over the island and the local brewery called Salty Turtle Beer Company.
Topsail Island is also a great place to hunt for sharks’ teeth. You can even find fossilized megalodon teeth if you’re super lucky.
Oak Island has dog-friendly beaches! Need to know more? The beaches are ideal for hunting seashells, taking walks, or just soaking up the sun with a good book.
If you need some time off the beach, you can visit the Oak Island Nature Center or the Oak Island Lighthouse. If you like to shop, the area of Southport is lined with locally-owned shops, art galleries, and a few museums. Fort Caswell is an interesting place to visit where you can see gun mounts, slit trenches, and old batteries from the early 1800s.
Fishing is a favorite pastime here. You can fish along the beaches, on Oak Island Pier or Ocean Crest pier or you can charter ocean trips!
Exploring the coast on kayaks or paddleboards is a wonderful way to see the island from another perspective.
This upscale island with gated communities is an intriguing getaway where luxury backs up to rugged and isolated areas only accessible with a 4×4. Quiet and relaxing, Corolla is a small beachside community with a history steeped in duck hunting, shipwrecks, and wild horses.
You can climb to the top of Currituck Beach Lighthouse for endless views of the surrounding areas, or check out the Whalehead Historic Museum for all the fun history of Corolla. The island is most famous for its wild horses. Kept on protected land to keep them from getting hit by cars, the horses are a big draw to the island.
Biking is another popular thing to do in Corolla, with a paved bike trail from tip to tip. You can also partake in all sorts of classic water activities like swimming, surfing, and sailing as well as rent jet skis, kayaks, and paddleboards.
The beaches are wide and soft where you can find your own quiet spot and melt away.
Emerald Isle is another sanctuary for nesting sea turtles and has a copious amount of other sea life. Fishing and snorkeling are popular reasons people come and visit The Crystal Coast. The Bogu Island Fishing Pier is open from March to November and is a great spot to cast the rod.
Emerald Isle is the quintessential small beach town, with friendly, laid-back vibes. There are dozens of locally-owned shops with unique clothing, jewelry, and artwork. You can rent kayaks, paddleboards, pontoon boats, jet skis, surfboards, and other beach treats. There is also a water park!
From Emerald Isle, you can take a trip to Bear Island. This island doesn’t have anyone living on it but it’s home to Hammock Beach State Park. The island gives you a remote but tranquil feel. You can camp overnight or hike around and head back to Emerald Isle. You can only reach Bear Island by ferry or kayak, making it even less crowded than the main beach.
Fort Macon State Park is another popular attraction for Emerald Isle. The park is home to a reconstructed fort that was originally built in the 1820s. The park does Civil War reenactments, has guarded beaches, walking trails, and fishing spots.
Wrightsville Beach is a hotspot if you are hunting for sharks’ teeth and maybe ironically, is one of the top surf destinations of North Carolina beaches. It’s actually recognized as the birthplace of North Carolina surfing. It is popular for all watersports including bodyboarding, sailing, SCUBA diving, and kayaking.
With its laid-back surf town vibe, Wrightsville Beach is a great destination if you’re looking to relax and unwind by the sea. If you need some time off the beach, Wrightsville has plenty of activities for that too. You can visit the Wrightsville Beach Museum of History, shop the local storefronts, fish off the Johnnie Mercers Pier, take a chartered fishing trip, or take a sunset cruise along the intercoastal waterway.
Carova is a small quiet island that only has about 300 year-round residents. It is considered to be one of the most desolate islands off the North Carolina coast. The island doesn’t have paved roads so a 4×4 is required to access this gem. Carova is one of the only islands where horses still roam totally free and most of the island is protected land that won’t ever see development.
Currituck National Wildlife Refuge and Currituck Banks National Estuarine Preserve encompass a majority of the island and have been largely untouched. Hiking through the parks, you’ll encounter many different landscapes including marshlands, maritime woods, mudflats, and grassy dunes. There is an abundance of wildlife around including water birds, horses, fish, frogs, turtles, and many more.
Kiteboarding, surfing, hiking, biking, fishing, and crabbing are all popular things to do when visiting Carova. This island is also an incredible spot to find shells, because of its remoteness, not many people have combed the beaches yet.
This barrier island is the only black-owned island in the entire country and is known for its expansive beaches and sparkling waters. One of the more culturally diverse of the North Carolina islands, Atlantic Beach is great for fishing, boating, surfing, crabbing, scuba diving shipwrecks, and relaxing.
Atlantic Beach is home to Fort Macon State Park and Rachel Carson Reserve where you can walk around and commune with nature. There is also a skate park, splash pad, and mini-golf to keep the kids busy.
Kure Beach is a small, family-friendly beach along the Atlantic coast. Time slows down on Kure Beach, nature is untouched and is described as a “natural playground.” Family-friendly events are always held in the parks, including free concerts.
Kure Beach is home to the oldest fishing pier on the Atlantic coast aptly named, Kure Beach Fishing Pier. North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher is a great rainy day activity or if you just need a time out of the sun. The aquarium has live alligator feedings and has all sorts of sharks, rays, and eels as well as otters! This aquarium has been named one of the best in the country by the Travel Channel.
Fort Fisher is another place to visit, especially if you’re a history buff. This is the site of the largest land-sea battle during the Civil War.
Best known for fishing and shell hunting, Carolina Beach is a great beach getaway. The beach is mostly rugged and you’re allowed to camp overnight right along the coast, making for the perfect sunrise. Everything is easily accessible on this small island and most people choose to bike around town. There is a bike path connecting things around the island.
Carolina Beach also has a boardwalk along its shores as well as an active nightlife. Live music and free concerts are plentiful as well as other festivals that are put on throughout the summer months.
Carolina Beach State Park has one of the best views overlooking Cape Fear River where you can also paddleboard, kayak, and swim.
LAKE LURE BEACH
Lake Lure Beach has a totally different vibe than most beaches in North Caroline. This beach is surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains. You can float around the lake, kayak, or take guided tours. Water skiing and wakeboarding are among the favorite activities to do on the lake.
Here in the mountains, there is plenty of hiking, biking, and even rock climbing! Lake Lure offers a very unique North Carolina beach experience. There are loads of mouth-watering restaurants, pubs, and cafes.
Harkers Island is known for Cape Lookout National Seashore and Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center. This small, quiet island is home to the Shackleford Banks where you can watch the horses roam and feed on the dune grass.
Fishing and boating are a big part of island life here. The beaches are warm and quiet where you can fully relax and unwind.
MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP TO NORTH CAROLINA:
- YOUR NORTH CAROLINA VACATION
- GREENSBORO: 14 Family-Friendly Things To Do In Greensboro NC
- CHEROKEE: 15 Things To Do In Cherokee NC That You Can’t Miss
- EMERALD ISLE: 12 Absolute Best Things To Do In Emerald Isle NC
- NC DAY TRIPS: 23+ Incredible Day Trips in NC for Every Style of Traveler
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