14 Top-Rated Beaches in North Carolina

Written by Lana Law and Michael Law
Updated May 16, 2023

Author Michael Law is an avid kiteboarder and enjoys visiting the beaches of North Carolina every chance he gets.

North Carolina beaches have been a top destination for families since the 1930s. People come to the coast and rent cottages or stay in beachfront resorts to escape the heat, frolic in the Atlantic waters, enjoy the ocean breezes, and generally have a good time with friends and family.

Beach at Salvo
Beach at Salvo | Photo Copyright: Michael Law

Beaches come in many shapes and sizes, but a majority of them are on sandy barrier islands, with limited development behind them. This tends to create a relaxed, small-town feel, even though hundreds of thousands of people descend on these areas in the peak season.

Regardless of what you're looking for in a beach vacation, whether it's walking, swimming, shelling, trying your luck with some of the best shore fishing along the Eastern Seaboard, surfing, kiteboarding, or just sitting in a beach chair watching the waves roll in, you can find it on North Carolina's beaches.

If you are traveling with your furry, four-legged friend, you will be pleased to know that dogs are allowed on a majority of the Outer Banks beaches, and in some cases do not even need to be leashed.

To help plan your trip, have a read through our list of the best beaches in North Carolina.

1. Atlantic Beach

Atlantic Beach
Atlantic Beach

Highlights: Soft sand and small waves, one of the few North Carolina beaches with sunsets over the ocean.

Located on the state's famed Crystal Coast, Atlantic Beach is one of the more popular destinations, owing largely to its location and the fact that it faces south, protecting it from the wind and waves of the Atlantic Ocean.

The soft-sand beach is wide and backed by shopping and dining options that range from burgers right through to top-end restaurants. For time away from the beach, be sure to check out one of the four Walk Atlantic Beach loops. Each one takes you through different areas of town.

If fishing is your pastime, the Anchorage Marina has an excellent ramp, a good ship store, and lots of parking for your rig and trailer. You can access the beach at any of the 44 well-marked access points with parking nearby.

Off the beach, you'll find a bustling downtown with beach-themed shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues. For a bit of Civil War-era history, swing by Fort Macon State Park. This stone fort is perfectly restored and is a great place to explore, with old cannons, stone ramparts, and dark passageways. A rainy-day attraction located nearby is the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores with its 306,000-gallon ocean habitat, the largest in the state.

Atlantic Beach has a long history as one of the top beach destinations on the entire coastline with great accommodation options.

2. Wrightsville Beach

Surfing at Wrightsville Beach
Surfing at Wrightsville Beach

Highlights: Five miles of golden sand with ample opportunities for action-packed water sports.

People love Wrightsville beach because of the stunning blue ocean and captivating Intracoastal Waterway. It's a sunny and warm spot, making it easy to enjoy the sun, sand, and waves. Surfing, paddleboarding, e-foiling, sailing, and boating, are all popular pastimes, and rentals are readily available on the island.

The sunrises are too good to miss. Beach walkers are out every morning enjoying five miles of golden sand lapped by crystalline waters. Off the beach, biking, walking, jogging, one-wheeling, or skateboarding are all popular pastimes on the island's pedestrian-friendly sidewalks and trails.

The local restaurant scene is exceptional; you'll be treated to creative menus featuring the freshest ingredients prepared by the hottest local chefs. Head home early after a tough day on the beach or, if you are a night owl, stay up late and enjoy the live music scene, which keeps the vibe going well into the evening.

Wrightsville Beach is a short drive from Wilmington, NC.

3. Nags Head Beach

Jenette's Pier on Nags Head Beach
Jenette's Pier on Nags Head Beach | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Highlights: Great surfing, swimming, shore fishing, and Jenette's Pier.

Nags Head is known for its wide-open beaches with golden sands and crystal-clear water, perfect for swimming. It was originally settled in 1830 and has been a popular beach destination attracting visitors for decades. Today, you can find plenty of accommodation in the form of hotels or rental homes.

Beach walkers will appreciate the 12 miles of beach. You will likely run out of energy before you run out of real estate. Located on the beach is the 1,000-foot-long Jenette's Pier, a local fishing hot spot. If you didn't bring your own fishing gear, you can rent from the shop on the pier. Also located on the pier is an aquarium. There is a small fee to walk the pier and an additional charge for fishing.

Nearby is Jockey's Ridge State Park with large sand dunes and the Bodie Island Lighthouse, dating from the early 1870s. Invest the effort to climb the stairs to the top for incredible views up and down the coast.

Read More: Best Coastal Towns in North Carolina

4. Carova Beach

Wild horses on Carova Beach
Wild horses on Carova Beach

Highlights: An undeveloped stretch of beautiful sandy shoreline and dunes with free-roaming wild horses.

If you have a 4WD vehicle and are looking for a completely different beach experience, head out to Carova Beach. This beach is most famous for its wild horses but is also popular for its huge, soft-sand beaches.

You can drive on the beach and go as far as you want to find your own piece of beach paradise. This is also a great area for bird-watching and wildlife spotting, and it's one of the best spots for shelling in the Outer Banks. No services are available out here, so be sure to bring all your supplies with you.

You do not need to have a beach driving permit to drive on the sand here, unlike the national park beaches farther south. However, for the Memorial Day Long Weekend through to Labor Day, a parking permit is required.

5. Carolina Beach

Carolina Beach
Carolina Beach

Highlights: A perfect family beach with a fun boardwalk and midway that kids will love.

Easily accessible from Wilmington, Carolina Beach is right near the mouth of the Cape Fear River. The beach is backed by a historic wooden boardwalk lined with restaurants and beach shops. The area also has a permanent midway with a Ferris Wheel and other kinds of fun rides for the kids.

If you aren't up for a swim, you can find plenty of other fun things to do here. Grab an ice cream and stroll the boardwalk while gazing out at the Atlantic Ocean, or rent a bike and go for a ride. If you do want to get out on the water, this is a great spot to get an introduction to the sport of stand up paddleboarding.

Dog owners should be aware that dogs are not allowed on the beach from 9am to 5pm and are not allowed on the boardwalk at any time. Camping for tents and RVs is available nearby at Carolina Beach State Park.

6. Beaches on Topsail Island

Sunrise on Topsail Beach
Sunrise on Topsail Beach

Highlights: Almost endless beaches with clear waters and soft sands, a historical pier, and turtle nesting sites.

With over 26 miles of beach and three towns on the island - Topsail Beach, North Topsail Beach, and Surf City - you can choose to be either in the center of the action or out on your own. This is one of the few places that has exceptional beaches on the sound side, as well as the Atlantic side. This means you can find shallow, warm, calm waters that are ideal for families with small children.

On the Atlantic side, beach walkers can enjoy seemingly endless stretches of sand, and shell seekers will be rewarded with some of the best finds on the North Carolina coast. Swimmers can enjoy the waves and rolling surf.

One of the main attractions is the 937-foot-long Surf City Pier. Here, you'll find a popular restaurant and a friendly atmosphere. Typical fish caught here include mullet and king mackerel.

7. Emerald Island

Beach umbrellas on Emerald Island
Beach umbrellas on Emerald Island

Highlights: Incredible sunsets and sunrises, golden sands, clear waters, and nature trails.

Emerald Island or Emerald Isle, depending on who you talk to, has The Point, one of the best spots to catch a spectacular sunset along the entire coastline. This is a family-friendly beach destination with things to do for all ages on and off the beach, including the Bogue Inlet Fishing Pier, extensive walking and biking trails, a waterslide park, and mini-golf courses.

Emerald Island was named for the green maritime forest that covers the area. To experience this firsthand, take a walk along one of several nature trails that wind their way through the forest.

Accommodation here is plentiful, with an extensive selection of rental homes, cottages, and condominiums either right on or just back from the beach.

8. Beaches of Bald Head Island

Aerial view of the beach on Bald Head Island
Aerial view of the beach on Bald Head Island

Highlights: Fourteen miles of lightly developed beaches perfect for swimming and walking.

The beautiful beaches of Bald Head Island are reached via a 20-minute passenger ferry from the Deep Point Marina in Southport. Bald Head Island does not allow cars, the only mode of transport is via a tram or golf carts. The tram is free if you are renting a beach house. If you are only day-tripping, golf carts can be rented at the ferry terminal.

Alternatively, bring your bicycle and pedal your way along the 15 miles of trails. The 14 miles of soft-sand beach is definitely the main draw here, but you'll also find a range of activities available, including an exceptional 18-hole golf course, hiking trails, and kayaking, or for those with less active agendas, a day at the spa or shopping at the cute boutiques in town.

9. Kitty Hawk

Kitty Hawk Beach
Kitty Hawk Beach | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Highlights: Almost unlimited beach walking in either direction and easy access from the Wright Memorial Bridge.

The golden sand beach at Kitty Hawk runs for miles. It's easy to find your own patch of sand and set up your beach outpost. Parking is relatively easy at one of the many beach access points. Kitty Hawk is the first town you come to when arriving from the north after you cross the long bridge on Highway 158 across Currituck Sound.

One of the great advantages of Kitty Hawk is the accessibility and availability of service. Along the four-lane highway, you'll find a great variety of restaurants, grocery stores, and interesting retail shops selling everything you could ever need for your beach outing. Kitty Hawk is also home to the Wilbur Wright Memorial, ideal for an outing on a cloudy or rainy day.

10. Corolla Beach

Corolla Beach
Corolla Beach

Highlights: A low-key, undiscovered beach with amazing white sand.

Corolla Beach has always flown under the radar as a popular beach destination in the Outer Banks and those in the know would probably prefer that it stays that way. A bit of everything can be found here: stunning white beaches with miles of untracked sand, a historical lighthouse for something to do off the beach, and a wide array of easily accessible services nearby.

Located near the northern end of the Outer Banks, Corolla Beach is located just north of the fun and funky town of Duck. As the beach is near the Currituck National Wildlife Reserve, you may find you are sharing your perfect patch of sand with a few wandering horses who have made their way down from farther north.

The town of the same name just back from the beach is an interesting mix of Outer Banks casual and high-end luxury. Easygoing restaurants or white-tablecloth fine dining, funky beach shops or the latest designer threads — the choice is yours.

11. Beaches in the Tri Villages: Rodanthe, Waves & Salvo

The beach at Salvo
The beach at Salvo | Photo Copyright: Michael Law

Highlights: Long stretches of undeveloped white-sand beaches and large dunes, plus the beaches on Pamlico Sound are a hot spot for kitesurfing.

The beaches at these three cities meld into one another as you head down the Atlantic coastline. Like many of the other beaches along the Outer Banks, the beach along the Atlantic is wide and backed by dunes. These beaches are perfect for those looking for a little solitude and seclusion. The farther south you go, the less development you'll find, as the beaches are managed by the National Parks Service.

Kitesurfing is also a big deal in this area of the Outer Banks, primarily on the sound. The main location for kiteboarding is in the towns of Salvo and Waves. Here, you'll find excellent facilities to learn, buy gear, or just access the water. If it's windy, don't miss out on seeing something unique. Head over to REAL Watersports in Waves and grab a table on the patio at Waterman's Grill and watch the kiters zipping across the calm waters of the sound.

If you are a fan of Richard Gere or Diane Lane, the famous beach house used in the movie Nights in Rodanthe, moved just inland off the beach in 2010 due to erosion, can be seen off Highway 12 on Beacon Road.

Beach and pier at Rodanthe
Beach and pier at Rodanthe

The Tri Villages have the best commercial campgrounds of the Outer Banks, and if you are towing an RV, this is where you'll likely find yourself set up.

In addition to camping, the local realty agencies have an extensive selection of cottages for rent.

12. Holden Beach

Holden Beach
Holden Beach

Highlights: One of the most southerly beaches in the state, and a hot spot for shelling.

Holden Beach is one of the best family beaches in North America. Generations of families return year after year to this little slice of paradise. Located in the Brunswick Islands, Holden Beach has a wonderful long stretch of sand facing out to the Atlantic, perfect for swimming, shelling, and strolling.

If you work up an appetite, just head over to the other side of the island where waterfront restaurants look out over the Intracoastal Waterway. Holden Beach is only 35 minutes south of Wilmington, making it a nice day-trip destination. If want to stay in this area, you may want to consider renting a beach house or set up in Wilmington for a bit more city action and culture.

This area has a very relaxed feel and look. Local building regulations state that no structure can be higher than 35 feet.

13. Avon Beach

View from the Avon Pier over the beach
View from the Avon Pier over the beach | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Highlights: A long stretch of golden sand backed by dunes, and a historical fishing pier.

Avon is a small town with little tourist-focused development. You won't find mini putts, a Ferris wheel, or hotels here. You will find a few local restaurants, a decent grocery store, and miles of beaches.

Long stretches of sand backed by rolling dunes describe the beaches of Avon. Except for only the tallest houses, other developments are hidden behind the dunes, so as you walk along the beach, it can feel remote. The beaches at the north end of Avon are wider, with big dunes backing them; the beaches to the south are a bit narrower, and the dunes are smaller.

The main gathering place along this stretch is the famous Avon Fishing Pier. Here, you'll find a convenience store, tackle shop, and everything you'll need for fishing. For a small fee, you can walk out on the pier.

Accommodation here is in the form of beach homes, and the listings and availability are managed by the local real estate companies.

14. Beaches of Ocracoke Island

Fishing on the beach on Ocracoke Island
Fishing on the beach on Ocracoke Island

Highlights: Isolated and pristine white-sand beaches perfect for getting away from it all.

If you truly want to get away from it all, head to Ocracoke Island. As you drive off the ferry, you'll feel your heart rate slow as the relaxed island vibe hits you. Although it's only a 25-minute ferry ride from Hatteras Island, you'll feel far from civilization.

The island is small, but the beaches are wide and unpeopled. A funky little town with a variety of restaurants and services rounds out the experience. Accommodation options range from a national park campground to traditional hotels, beach houses, and bed-and-breakfasts

Local legend is that the pirate Blackbeard called Ocracoke home. Getting to the island is easy. Car and passenger ferries run on a regular basis from Hatteras Island and Cedar Island to Ocracoke Ferry Terminal. The crossing from Hatteras Island to Ocracoke is free.

Best Time to Visit North Carolina's Beaches

The best time to visit North Carolina's beaches is in the summer months of June, July, and August. At this time, the sun is shining, the ocean has warmed up (especially in August), and the beaches and resort towns are packed with people having fun.

The months of May, September, and October are also great times to visit. The days are warm and the beaches less crowded, but keep an eye out for wayward hurricanes in the fall.

April and November are true shoulder season months, with changeable weather and cooler temps, but you will truly have the places to yourself. If you seek good deals and long, quiet walks on the beach, this is the time to come.

Map of Top-Rated Beaches in North Carolina

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