There are so many amazing beaches to visit in North Carolina, it’s hard to choose just one favorite! North Carolina boasts 322 miles of shoreline along the Atlantic and more than 25 different beaches offering stunning views and unique experiences. From the vast, sandy shores of Outer Banks to the secluded coves and inlets of the Crystal Coast, there’s something for everyone.
I don’t live at the beach and have never found a beach I didn’t enjoy. As I tell my friends, my favorite beach is the one I’m currently visiting. In May, three other travel writers and I visited the Outer Banks. We talked to a lot of the locals and enjoyed the area.
The best time to visit is late spring through fall. September and October are great if you want to avoid the summer crowds.
Here is a list of my favorites, based on my experiences and those of some close friends. The beaches are listed north to south according to their location.
The Outer Banks Visitors Bureau hosted our visit. All opinions are my own.
1. Corolla Beach
Corolla Beach is a perfect choice if you desire a secluded beach. It is located on the Outer Banks’s northern coast, sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the Currituck Sound.
Wide beaches are the main attraction; you can drive on this beach with your four-wheel-drive vehicle. There is a historic district and a lighthouse to explore. On a rainy day, you can visit the Wild Horse Museum while in Corolla or visit the red lighthouse. One of the highlights of this area is the wild Spanish Mustang horses roaming the island.
Pro Tip: Horses are wild. Please do not attempt to feed or touch them. If you want to be sure and see them, sign up for a guided tour.
A small, upscale beach town just south of Corolla, Duck attracts many visitors each year to enjoy the 7 miles of gorgeous sandy beaches, exceptional dining, and a shopper’s paradise.
Due to rain, we were only able to visit during the evening, so we didn’t get to see as much as we would have liked, but we loved the water’s edge boardwalk and can’t wait to return to this fun little beach town.
If you visit Duck, you will want to be sure to enjoy a Duck Donut. The line may be long, but getting one of these nationally famous donuts from the original location is worth it.
Rental properties are abundant for your stay, but there are few hotels.
Bathhouses and free parking are available at the public beach access points along Highway 12.
3. Kitty Hawk
When arriving from the north on Highway 158 across the Currituck Sound, Kitty Hawk is the first town you come to. This historic coastal town has fabulous beaches in the Outer Banks. Low-rise buildings dot the town, and a rustic vibe helps maintain its unique character. You will have no trouble finding your spot on the beach to enjoy the sunshine and the ocean.
You can also kayak or hike the marine forest reserve.
The Wright Brothers National Memorial in neighboring Kill Devil Hills is a fun activity for a less-than-perfect weather day. It is the site of the first successful motor-operated flight in 1903.
Visitors to Kitty Hawk enjoy a large variety of restaurants, grocery stores, and shops. Free parking lots and public beach access points are available along Highway 12.
Pro Tip: Kitty Hawk welcomes dogs year-round.
4. Nags Head
Boasting summer fun for the whole family, Nags Head is one of the most popular Outer Banks beaches, with wide golden sand beaches and crystal clear water. There is easy access and a wealth of amenities to enjoy.
We visited in May and found the area to be delightful and full of fun things to do for the entire family. Besides hanging out on the beach, you can parasail, play mini-golf, fish, eat delicious food, visit a lighthouse, and enjoy some unique ice cream treats.
The beach is pet-friendly, so bring Fido along on vacation. As you travel Highway 12, free parking and public beach access points are available.
There are 12 miles of beach to walk, so be sure to bring your walking shoes, unless you are like me and prefer to walk barefoot in the sand.
If you get tired of the beach, visit the Bodie Island Light Station. You will find spectacular views up and down the coast when you climb to the top. Tickets must be purchased online.
Walk down to the 1,000-foot-long Jennette’s Pier, a local fishing hot spot. There is a fee to walk the pier or to fish, but we enjoyed walking under the pier and taking photos. If you don’t bring your fishing equipment, you can rent it from the shop on the pier.
Nearby is Jockey’s Ridge State Park, an excellent place for hiking, flying kites, and taking a hang-gliding lesson with Kitty Hawk Kites. The four of us took a lesson, climbed the vast sand dune, and tried our luck at hang-gliding. What fun! It is a fantastic beach activity that doesn’t involve water.
There are a variety of hotels, beach cottages, and vacation rentals available. When we visited, we stayed at the Whalebone Cottages by Kees Vacation Rentals, Building E. It was a two-story, four-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bath home with free parking under the house. We were steps from the ocean and in an excellent location for all the things to do in the area.
Pro Tip: Four-wheel-drive vehicles can drive on the beach only during the off-season (October to April).
5. Coquina Beach
This beach was one I hadn’t heard of until we visited. When we talked with the locals about their favorite beaches, they kept mentioning Coquina Beach — so we set out to see it for ourselves.
We found it just south of Nags Head and understood why everyone was raving about it. The beach was a wide and secluded undeveloped shoreline. There is a boardwalk to part of the beach area, we didn’t notice that until after we visited and climbed over sand dunes to get to the beach.
There were only a few other people and lots of shells.
6. Cape Hatteras
The Cape Hatteras National Seashore is beautiful, with miles and miles of unspoiled beaches and a striped lighthouse. You will have the beach primarily to yourself, and off-road vehicles are permitted on the beach.
You might find some sea turtles during nesting season if you are lucky.
The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is beautiful and worth the time to visit. (At present, due to ongoing restoration efforts, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is not available for climbing, but it is still a great visit and an Instagramable site.)
7. Ocracoke Island
I didn’t get to visit Ocracoke Island, but from what everyone has told me, it is the place to go to get away from it all. Even more remote than the Cape Hatteras Seashore, you can only access it by riding the 25-minute ferry from Hatteras Island. You can take your car on the ferry with you.
We ran out of time and weren’t able to make the trip. While a bit harder to reach the beach, I’m told it is worth the extra effort, and we have it on our list for the next visit.
Ocracoke Island is small and full of history. It is thought to be the home of the pirate Blackbeard. The beaches are wide, and the people are sparse on Ocracoke Island. It is a unique town with some restaurants and services. There are national park camping, hotels, and beach houses.
8. Atlantic Beach
Part of North Carolina’s Crystal Coast, Atlantic Beach is a favorite family destination. Famous for its crystal clear waters and easily accessible walking trails, they have many fun activities, including swimming, fishing, biking, water sports rentals, and other attractions.
There are many eateries, the North Carolina Aquarium, and some boutiques. Fort Macon State Park offers a bit of Civil War-era history. To help visitors explore the area on foot, there are four marked walking trails around the city as part of the Walk Atlantic Beach initiative.
For accommodations, you can find just about everything from the large chain hotels to comfy vacation rentals.
Parking lots along the beach are for a fee and are charged by the hour (credit cards only — no cash).
9. Emerald Isle
Rated the top North Carolina Beach by U.S. News, Emerald Isle offers 12 miles of clean wide beaches, a fishing pier, and a relaxed atmosphere.
You will often see a dolphin or possibly even a wild horse on the beach. There is plenty to do on Emerald Isle with mini-golf courses, a waterslide park, biking trails, a fishing pier, and more.
“The Point” is an ideal spot for catching a spectacular sunset.
Lodging is primarily vacation rentals on and off the beach with only one oceanfront hotel, the Islander Hotel & Resort.
Some access points have free parking and a few charges on weekends only.
10. Topsail Beach
Located on the southernmost end of Topsail Island, Topsail Beach has fantastic sunset views. Pronounced “Tops’l,” it is a small, quiet beach community focused on conservation efforts and preserving the natural environment.
Topsail is the place for a tranquil beach getaway in a vacation rental in a peaceful, non-commercialized environment. There are no high-rise condos.
The beach is excellent for gathering shells and participating in water sports. You have exceptional beaches on both the Atlantic and Sound sides of the island.
Public parking lots are available at beach access points.
11. Wrightsville Beach
Wrightsville Beach is in the Wilmington area and is a favorite among people of all ages. People travel from around the U.S. to visit because of its deep blue sparkling waters and wide sandy beaches.
Wrightsville Beach alone has 44 public access points.
Thought to be the birthplace of surfing on the East Coast, Wrightsville Beach is also a popular spot to catch some waves and a prime location for kiteboarding and stand-up paddleboarding.
Nearby you will find golf courses and jogging trails.
Wrightsville Beach offers a mix of short-term vacation rentals, oceanfront hotels, and resorts.
Pro Tip: Surfing is strictly forbidden in front of the lifeguard stands.
If you’re looking for a relaxing beach vacation, North Carolina is the place to be. With miles of coastline and plenty of beaches to choose from, you’re sure to find the perfect spot to relax and enjoy the sand and surf. So pack your sunscreen and swimsuit and head to North Carolina for a beach getaway in the Tar Heel State that you won’t forget!