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9 Best Beaches in North Carolina

North Carolina is home to some of America’s most beautiful beaches. Whether you’re looking for a beach that offers scenic beauty along with lots of things to do, or simply an ideal spot for soaking up the sun and the sand, these beaches are for you.

Holden Beach Holden Beach
Credit: Holden Beach by Bigstock.com

Holden Beach

Why Come Here: For its family-friendly setting, sea turtle sightings, and endless outdoor activities.

Holden Beach is an ideal destination for families, as one of five barrier islands that make up the Brunswick Islands off the North Carolina coast. While the pristine sands are uncrowded, even on busy summer days, visitors can enjoy a host of activities. It’s an ideal launching point for kayaking, fishing, sailing, and surfing, and makes a perfect getaway for families who want to spread out the beach blanket, pop up the umbrella and kick back to take in the scene. Watch the shrimp boats that travel up and down the waterway, look for dolphins that play in the surf, and keep an eye out for the endangered loggerhead sea turtles that frequent the area.

Shackleford Banks Shackleford Beach
Credit: Shackleford Beach by Bigstock.com

Shackleford Banks

Why Come Here: It’s a top-rated beachcombing destination with a chance to see wild horses.

Shackleford Banks, a 9-mile ribbon of silken sands, is popular for shelling as one of the East Coast’s best destinations for beachcombing, but the most unforgettable part of a visit here is the horses that race along the sands.  An entire herd of them roam wild, and it’s said they’ve been here for 400 years. The herd is made up of some 225 horses that are the only inhabitants of this southernmost of the Outer Banks barrier island chain. Visitors can also enjoy close encounters with an albino sea turtle and playful otters at the Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, then enjoy a night under the stars with a camping adventure at Cape Lookout National Seashore nearby.

Coquina Beach Coquina Beach, North Carolina
Credit: Coquina Beach, North Carolina by © Sherryvsmith | Dreamstime.com

Coquina Beach

Why Come Here: You can enjoy unspoiled landscapes at one of the best beaches in the Outer Banks.

Part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Coquina Beach is totally unspoiled and undeveloped, offering a tranquil experience, yet it’s close enough to the towns of Nags Head and Kitty Hawk that visitors will have easy access to a variety of amenities, including restaurants, bars, and shops. Considered by locals to be the most beautiful beach in the Outer Banks, it’s also home to the 1921 shipwreck, Laura Barnes, and a few pieces of the ship still remain. It’s a popular beach for swimming, and especially for surf fishing, with a good chance of reeling in a bluefish, mullet, or other local catches. Surfing and bodyboarding is excellent following an offshore hurricane or nor’easter, which produces a local swell.

Wrightsville Beach Wrightsville Beach
Credit: Wrightsville Beach by James Willamor via Flickr

Wrightsville Beach

Why Come Here: A surfer hotspot with plenty of water and land adventures available.

Wrightsville Beach is made up of two islands that are easily accessible from the mainland. Especially popular with surfers, Wrightsville was named one of the best surf towns in the world by National Geographic. If you want to learn how to ride the waves,  you’ll have access to some of the best pro instructors in the world. With water temperatures in the summer typically idyllic, in the low 80s, you won’t even need a wetsuit, and the waves are outstanding for those just getting the hang of the sport. If a surfboard isn’t your thing, you can explore Intracoastal Waterway on a standup paddleboard or book a boating adventure to Masonboro Island. On land, you might bike the Wrightsville Beach Loop Trail or explore the town on foot, checking out the surf shops, open-air villages, and boutiques.

Bald Head Island Aerial view Bald Head Island, Brunswick Islands, North Carolina
Credit: Aerial view Bald Head Island, Brunswick Islands, North Carolina by Bigstock.com

Bald Head Island

Why Come Here: For its uncrowded shoreline, nearby golf courses, and deep-sea fishing excursions.

Bald Head Island is a 20-minute ferry ride from the mainland town of Southport and feels as if it’s light years away from the “real world.”  With 14 miles of uncrowded, pristine stretches of sand, it is the ultimate spot for a relaxing vacation destination. It’s the perfect place to forget about your worries, enjoy lounging in the sun, or participate in outdoor adventures and recreational activities like golfing on a seaside course, paddling hidden creeks in a kayak or surfing, paddle boarding, or sailing in the surrounding waters. Deep-sea fishing is outstanding too. People get around by golf cart rather than cars, which makes the roads perfect for biking and walking too.

Carolina Beach Carolina Beach, North Carolina
Credit: Carolina Beach, North Carolina by © Brooke Becker | Dreamstime.com

Carolina Beach

Why Come Here: Kids will love the boardwalk attractions and scenic beach trails.

Carolina Beach offers an old-fashioned beach vacation with its vintage boardwalk that hosts live music, an arcade, several eateries, ice cream stands, gift shops, and rides and games along the strip during the summer. Visitors can cast a line from the wooden pier, hike beach trails, ride the waves on a surfboard, or get out on the water on a stand-up paddleboard. Carolina Beach hosts frequent music festivals on the sand and is also close to the Fort Fisher State Historic Site and Civil War Museum, two of the state’s most visited attractions. Those who want to party will have plenty of options too, including local favorites like Fat Pelican, named one of the top dive bars in the nation, as well as The Ocean Grill & Tiki Bar, named one of America’s best beach bars.

Ocracoke Beach Ocracoke Island
Credit: Ocracoke Island by Bigstock.com

Ocracoke Beach

Why Come Here: To see the picture-perfect lighthouse and colorful seashell treasures along the shoreline.

Ocracoke Island, the outermost island in the Outer Banks, is home to 16 miles of undeveloped wild beaches as part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The island attracts those who are seeking wide-open spaces for relaxing as well as for enjoying activities like boogie boarding, surfing, kite flying, and sandcastle building, as well as wildlife viewing, with the beach and surrounding area home to a wide range of wildlife, including over 400 species of birds and wild ponies. The Ocracoke Lighthouse is one of the island’s most popular attractions – the oldest operating lighthouse on the east coast and the second oldest in the nation. If you’re into shelling, head to North Point, where everything from Scotch bonnets and sand dollars to tiny, butterfly-like coquinas can be discovered.

Topsail Beach Topsail Island
Credit: Topsail Island by © Patricia Shrout | Dreamstime.com

Topsail Beach

Why Come Here: It’s a laid-back getaway perfect for nature lovers.

Topsail is a long, thin stretch of land just south of Camp Lejeune. Its shape means the beach is on both sides, so you can enjoy the warm Atlantic waters on one, ideal for swimming or splashing around with the kids, or the calmer inlet side for kayaking and fishing. While Topsail is filled with enticing activities for everyone, it also has a wonderfully laid-back atmosphere. When you want to take a break from the beach, you’ll find the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center housed here. You can also check out the island’s past as a test rocket launching site at the Missiles and More Museum and enjoy the outstanding local nightlife at popular beach bars and lounges.

Emerald Isle Beach Emerald Isle Beach, North Carolina
Credit: Emerald Isle Beach, North Carolina by Bigstock.com

Emerald Isle Beach

Why Come Here: A quiet beachside setting with tons of family-friendly attractions for kids.

Part of the Crystal Coast located on the Bogue Banks, Emerald Isle Beach does have several homes and a few condos on its oceanfront, but there are no hotels, so it has a quieter, more family-friendly feel. Mostly protected from outside development, there is an abundance of flora and fauna that thrives here, and it’s fabulous for enjoying a host of activities, from kayaking, fishing, paddle boarding, and diving to golfing and scenic nature hikes. There are several museums nearby, along with a wealth of attractions for the kids, including Water Boggan, Playland, and Emerald Forest Putt-Putt.

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