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NORTH CAROLINA
NORTH CAROLINA

The 15 best beaches in North Carolina

Have a whole lot of fun in the sun when visiting the best beaches in North Carolina. Beach bliss awaits.

By Jason Frye
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The beaches in North Carolina are magnetic. Blackbeard was drawn here, calling coastal towns his home and making a haven for his pirate brethren on Ocracoke Island. The Wright Brothers felt the pull and came to the Outer Banks where they tested their astounding flying machine. Generations of wild horses live among the dunes and maritime forests. And sun-loving, surf-happy beachgoers come every year to find their perfect patch of sand. With 300 miles of coastline that ranges from uninhabited beaches to family-friendly seaside towns, from the first National Seashore in the USA to exclusive islands you can only reach by boat, from secluded state parks to hot surf spots, finding the best beaches in North Carolina is no small task. But we’ve taken the work out of it for you, making planning your escape to your ideal beach getaway and things to do along the way almost as easy as working on your tan. You’re very welcome.

Best beaches in North Carolina

Wrightsville Beach
Photograph: Courtesy Yelp/Jason S.

1. Wrightsville Beach

Where: New Hanover County

Head to Wrightsville Beach and you'll encounter swathes of surfers who love this beach for its consistent waves. Bring your board or if you're not into watersports, enjoy a gentle swim, paddle or total splash-fest as a lifeguard watches on. Prefer a more chilled out afternoon? Take a stroll along the sand and you'll find beach glass, sharks teeth and half-a-hundred kinds of shells. Thanks to its classic appeal, Wrightsville Beach is pretty popular – and while that means it draws in the crowds, there's no need to worry about being stuffed up next to someone else's towel. With such a vast space on offer, there's room enough for everyone. Some extra good news? Wilmington’s breweries, restaurants and airport are only 15 minutes away.

 

 

Ocracoke Island
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/bobistraveling

2. Ocracoke Island

Where: Outer Banks

At the southern tip of the Outer Banks sits Ocracoke Island (pronounced like the southern vegetable and the cola), a onetime pirate haven that’s one of North Carolina’s premier beaches. Blackbeard and his boys hid out and partied on the beaches here and if you don’t mind a ferry ride, you yourself can play pirate for a week. Find stress-free beaches and locals who don’t mind sharing their turf. After bicycling from your cottage to the heart of the village for dinner and drinks every night, you may actually decide to stick around.

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Topsail Beach
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Russell Harrison Photography

3. Topsail Beach

Where: Pender County

Topsail (pronounced in a lazy, charming Southern way: top sul) Beach is one of three beaches on Topsail Island, a narrow barrier island that’s home to the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, where staff and volunteers treat and rehab injured sea turtles then hold huge public releases throughout summer. It’s got all the throwback charm you hope to find in the South, from rows of cottages and modest beach houses to free on-street parking (making drops in easy for day trippers).

Nags Head
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/James Willamor

4. Nags Head

Where: Outer Banks

The heart of the Outer Banks, Nags Head is home to a trio of must-sees: Jockeys Ridge State Park, Jennette’s Pier and Sam & Omie’s Restaurant. Forget the beach sand for a minute and head to Jockey’s Ridge, a state park with a 100-foot sand dune where you can go hang gliding (for real). After that, hit the shore at Jennette’s Pier where you can fish, watch the waves or catch a talk by a NC Aquarium staff member before getting in some beach time. When you’re hungry, head to Sam & Omie’s, a restaurant that’s been dishing up food for locals and visitors since the 1930s.

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Bald Head Island
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Tim Engleman

5. Bald Head Island

Where: Brunswick County

Car-free Bald Head Island is just three miles off the southeastern coast but it feels much further away. Maybe it’s the 20-minute ferry ride, the untouched preserve of maritime forest, the oldest lighthouse in the state or the slow, golf-cart-only pace but, when you arrive, you’ll instantly feel on vacation. There are 14 miles of beach on Bald Head Island and South Beach is, hands-down, the favorite. Once you've enjoyed soaking up the sun, join the Bald Head Island Conservancy for talks on sea turtles and, if you’re lucky, watch a loggerhead lay her eggs or see a nest hatch.

Cape Lookout National Seashore
Photograph: Courtesy Yelp/Joe P.

6. Cape Lookout National Seashore

Where: Carteret County

One of North Carolina’s most secluded shores, Cape Lookout National Seashore offers 56 miles of unspoiled, uninhabited beach. At the northern end is Portsmouth Village, a one-time whaling village turned historic site; at the southern end stands Cape Lookout Lighthouse; between is nothing but beach. Take a ferry over for a neighbor-free beach day or a weekend (or more) of camping, fishing and surfing. Climb the lighthouse. Bring your dog. Bring your truck (driving on the beach is permitted here). Just don’t forget to take plenty of water and sunscreen along for the trip.

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Corolla
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/dmitri_66

7. Corolla

Where: Outer Banks

While it may be slightly surprising, you'll see herds of Banker Ponies, wild horses descended from Spanish mustangs at Corolla. Supposedly these magnificent creatures arrived rather unceremoniously – via shipwreck. Whether that's true or not hardly matters, though, especially since this is last remaining wild heard in the world. If you want to learn more, jump on a beach tours, where you'll go in search of the Banker Ponies. Even better? If you rent a beach house—4WD accessible only, naturally— the herd may come as close as your adopted back yard.

Carolina Beach
Photograph: Courtesy Yelp/Jeremy H.

8. Carolina Beach

Where: Pleasure Island

Families flock to Carolina Beach, where a boardwalk, wooden pier and bevy of carnival games and rides deliver that old-school beach getaway vibe. Along the boardwalk, don’t miss Britt’s Donuts, a summer-only donut dive that’s been making them one way—glazed—since 1939. Weekly fireworks and free outdoor movies add to the family fun of Carolina Beach. And as if that wasn't enough, the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher is only a few minutes away and at Carolina Beach State Park you can find Venus Flytraps in their native habitat. (Just don't pop your finger in there, ok?) x

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Kill Devil Hills
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/County of Dare

9. Kill Devil Hills

Where: Dare County

The Wright Brothers selected Kill Devil Hills as the proving grounds for their revolutionary flying machine because the steady winds made achieving lift a breeze here (no pun intended). Go visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial and retrace the flight path of their first successful tests, climb the dune hill to the monument for fantastic views and, of course, hit the beach with a kite from Kitty Hawk Kites to do a little flying of your own.

Hatteras Village
Photograph: Courtesy Yelp/Sanjay G.

10. Hatteras Village

Where: Dare County

The southernmost town on Hatteras Island and one of the few villages in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore (the first National Seashore in the United States), Hatteras Village is home to the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum (the waters here have historically wreaked havoc on ships) and some of the finest seafood on the coast. Vacation homes range from cozy to ostentatious, but they all cater to the surfers, anglers and sun-lovers that visit. A few miles up Highway 12 is Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, a photogenic, black and white spiral that you may recognize from cameos on The Weather Channel.

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Sanderling Resort
Photograph: Courtesy Yelp/Sanderling Resort

11. Duck

Where: Dare County

Named after the favorite quarry of hunters—ducks, who just so happen to love the broad, shallow Currituck Sound—Duck sits on the northern end of the Outer Banks and its pet-friendly beaches and top-notch shelling draw visitors year round. Stay in a sound-side cottage, oceanfront house or at the swank Sanderling Resort (which happens to be home to a fantastic restaurant or two). A long boardwalk runs alongside Currituck Sound for the length of the town and pockets of shopping help retain the town’s close feel and homey charm.

Waves
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Zach Frailey

12. Waves

Where: Dare County

The final Outer Banks beach on this list, the appropriately-named Waves is the place to go if watersports are your thing. Situated on the pencil-thin Hatteras Island, Waves offers exceptional surfing, paddleboard surfing and kite surfing opportunities, and all the kayaking, flatwater standup paddleboarding and kiteboarding you could ask for. REAL Watersports caters to novices and pros with lessons, clinics, rentals and excursions for watermen (and women) no matter the sport.

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Sunset Beach
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Liz Lawley

13. Sunset Beach

Where: Brunswick County

The southernmost beach in North Carolina is one of the state’s many South-facing beaches. At times during spring and fall, you can watch the sun rise and set over the water. Wide, flat beaches make cycling on the sand a favorite pastime. If you pedal or walk a mile beyond the final point of access, you’ll find the Kindred Spirit Mailbox, which contains notebooks for visitors to record notes and observations and mark their visits to the spot. Stop and read a few, then leave your own note for the rest of us to find.

Hammocks Beach State Park
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Chris Ballance

14. Hammocks Beach State Park

Where: Onslow County

Featuring few amenities save primitive campgrounds, potable water and a tiny concession and picnic area, Hammocks Beach State Park offers one of the best beaches in North Carolina. You’ll reach Bear Island—a three mile long undeveloped barrier island—by paddling out, cruising out in your power boat or by taking the park’s ferry service. Once there, you’ll have miles of paddling trails to explore as well as unsullied maritime forests, massive dunes and beaches you’re just about guaranteed to enjoy all to yourself.

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Masonboro Island
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/N.C. Coastal Reserve

15. Masonboro Island

Where: Wilmington

The largest undisturbed barrier island in southern North Carolina, the 5,600-acre Masonboro Island is a nature preserve and a favorite of surfers, artists, anglers and those craving a little beach solitude. It’s boat access only and you’ll have to bring everything you’ll need for the day (or longer—locals camp here) and take a boat, kayak or paddleboard over. Trust us when we say that having your private slice of beach and surf break or finding that perfect marsh creek to fish in makes the effort worth it. Wrightsville Beach is the next island up, and Wilmington is only five miles away. So, when you’re ready to rejoin civilization, it’ll be right there waiting for you.

Planning a trip to North Carolina?

Blue Ridge Parkway
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Matthew Paulson

14 awesome things to do in North Carolina

Things to do

Hike in the most popular National Park, play a round at a legendary golf course, see where the Civil Rights Movement’s sit-in protests were born, have a pulled pork barbecue sandwich and watch a nest of sea turtle eggs hatch, spend entire days at the beach—you can do all this and plenty more in North Carolina. 

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