With approximately 322 miles of ocean shoreline stretching from the southernmost South Carolina border through the northern rings of the Outer Banks, North Carolina boasts some of the prettiest and most pristine beaches in the country. An added bonus? The Tarheel state also has an additional 12,000 miles of estuarine coastline due to its numerous barrier islands, which offer plenty of scenic views, unspoiled forests, close-up encounters with wildlife, and recreational activities for visitors.
Whether you're looking for a family-friendly getaway, a sporty vacation, or a quiet, remote island retreat, the state has a variety of options for your next beach trip.
From the laid back Bald Head Island to the surfing enclave of Wrightsville Beach, here is a guide to the 10 best beaches in North Carolina.
Bald Head Island
For a laid back getaway, leave your car and cares behind and head to Bald Head Island. Located on the east Cape Fear River just south of Wilmington, the 12,000-acre retreat is accessible only via a ferry, which departs every hour on the hour from Deep Point Marina in Southport. Once you arrive, you'll be greeted with 14 miles of pristine beaches and well-preserved forests. Spend your days hiking through Bald Head Woods Maritime Forest Preserve, take a guided nature tour or scout for sea turtles with the Bald Head Island Conservancy, rent a kayak or surfboard, or enjoy 18 holes of golf at the scenic Bald Head Island Club. Don't miss the opportunity to visit Old Baldy, the state's oldest standing lighthouse, and climb the 108 steps to the top for stunning views of the palm trees, sandy beaches, and the ocean below.
Located five miles east of Wilmington, this low-key beach town is the perfect spot for those seeking an active getaway. From deep-sea fishing excursions to world-class surfing to standup paddleboarding, kiteboarding, and more, the five miles of coastline and Intercoastal Waterway offer plenty of water-based fun. Also, the ocean's clear waters provide scuba divers with perfect viewing for the nearly 200 sunken wrecks lying on the ocean floor.
Learn more about the area's past at the Wrightsville Beach Museum of History, whose permanent exhibits include an extensive local shell collection, early city maps, and a scale model of the town. The Fred and Alice Stanback Coastal Education Center, housed in a historic beach cottage, is also worth a visit for community programming and events like Touch Tank Tuesdays when visitors can get up close and personal with hermit crabs, sea stars, and other aquatic creatures.
This remote island is located 18 miles off the coast of mainland North Carolina in the southernmost tip of the Outer Banks. Accessible only via private plane or ferry, the journey is worth the destination: 16 miles of gorgeous, unspoiled beaches, local restaurants, and eclectic shops as well as fishing, boating, hand gliding, and other outdoor fun. The area teems with wildlife, like its famed herd of wild ponies, dozens of species of migrating birds, and nature trails as part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
Ocracoke is also where the notorious pirate Blackbeard lost his life, and legend has it that his final prayer gives the island its name.
Bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the south and the Bogue Sound to the north, this 12 mile stretch of islands in the southern Outer Banks provides a relaxing, family-friendly getaway. The calm waters are ideal for kayaking, paddle boarding, or fishing off the iconic Bogue Inlet Fishing Pier. Explore the area's past with a guided tour at historic Fort Macon, visit the wild horses found on Shackleford Banks Island, or spend time at a local outpost of the North Carolina Aquarium. Dedicated to the state's marine habitats, the exhibits include native creatures like stingrays, sea turtles, sharks, and river otters as well as replicas of the infamous Blackbeard's ship and a German U-352 submarine.
This relaxed island is located 30 miles south of Wilmington and just north of Myrtle Beach, SC. Highlights include quiet, tree-lined streets, local boutiques, two fishing piers, 60 public beach access points, and plenty of local seafood restaurants like the Island Way, which serves up crab cakes and other fresh fare along with stellar ocean views.
Other points of interest include the tri-colored Oak Island Lighthouse, built in 1957, and Fort Caswell, which played a strategic role in both the Civil War and World War II.
One of North Carolina's most popular and densely developed beaches, Atlantic Beach is located on one of the barrier islands along the Bogue Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. In addition to miles of trails for hiking and birdwatching, the area has an extensive network of kayaking routes, including a launch just off the Hoop Pole Creek Nature Trail.
Another can't miss spot is Fort Macon State Park, which includes a restored Civil War-era fort, ranger-led hikes, walking trails, live music, and other special events, and beachfront access for fishing, swimming, and other activities. Other area attractions include the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center, Atlantic Beach Town Park, and the North Carolina Maritime Museum, which has exhibits dedicated to lighthouses, sailboats, the state's seafood industry, and more.
This barrier island to the south of Camp Lejune and northeast of Wilmington gets its moniker—pronounced "Tops-el"—from tales of pirate ships hiding in its inlets, with only their topsails visible. North Topsail Beach, Surf City, and Topsail Beach are the three beaches along the 26 mile-long strip, all of which are ideal for swimming, fishing, kayaking, and other outdoor activities.
Kids will enjoy a trip to the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center to learn about the rehabilitation and release of these native creatures. At the same time, adults will want to sample local brews at Salty Turtle Beer Company or stroll through one of the island's many art galleries. Don't miss the sunset over the iconic Surf City Pier.
For a vacation spot that has it all, head to this popular destination along the Outer Banks. One of the northernmost beaches of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Nags Head is most notable for its towering dunes, the most extensive active system in the country. See them at Jockey's Ridge State Park, which also has an on-site museum, a 360-foot boardwalk, nature trails, as well as hand gliding lessons by appointment and beach access for paddling, strolling, or just setting up a chair and relaxing for the day. Don't miss catching stunning views of the shore from the 19th-century era Bodie Island Lighthouse, fishing from the Nag's Head Fishing Pier, or strolling through the forests of the Nags Head Woods Preserve. Then take a trip to the nearby Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kitty Hawk to learn about the pioneering aviation duo and see the location of the world's first powered airplane flight.
Come for the views—like hiking Carolina Beach State Park's sandy trails to stunning views of the Cape Fear River below—and stay for the wealth of activities for the whole family. The beach's vintage boardwalk is dotted with vendors serving everything from ice cream to hot dogs, plus shops, swings, and even carnival-style rides during the warmer months. From miniature golf to biking, surfing, and kayaking, outdoor adventures abound. Other family-friendly highlights include an outpost of the North Carolina Aquarium and the Fort Fisher State Historic Site and Museum. After hours, adults will want to check out the Fat Pelican, Good Hops Brewing, or the Ocean Grill & Tiki Bar, one of the country's best beach bars.
This seaside town is located in the southern part of the state, just northeast of Myrtle Beach in Brunswick County. From fishing charters to the scenic and challenging Lockwood Folly Country Club golf course to tubing, zip-lining, ATV rentals, and Magic Mountain Fun Park, this barrier island is full of adventures. For a more subdued vacation, try finishing at the island's pier, a picnic at Ferry Landing Park, or lounging at the beach by Sailfish Park.