With 300 miles of coastline, rugged sand dunes and countless estuaries, North Carolina is ripe for a beach vacation. Throw in a bunch of idiosyncratic towns, a smattering of maritime history (including several pirates and early aeronauts), as well as untold miles of fairly quiet hiking, and you have a perfect region for a week or two by the ocean. Many of these beaches are just a four- or five-hour drive from Charlotte, which is home to the state’s largest airport for those arriving from farther afield.
Some of the finest beaches in North Carolina are spread out along the Outer Banks, a 200-mile collection of spits and barrier islands that stretch north into the bottom corner of Virginia. So we’re starting our rundown of 11 of the best beaches in North Carolina beaches with those. From north to south, our favorites include Duck Beach, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Nags Head.
Why the name? It’s down to the ducks, of course. They’ve been there since the 1800s. Duck itself is a tiny resort town of some 500 lucky residents on a long, thin stretch of coastline sandwiched between Currituck Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. Visitors here spend their days combing the sand for shells or kayaking in the gentler waters to the west. The October Jazz Festival, back in 2022, is now a two-day event worth hooking an off-season trip around, starting with a Concert on the Green–style event on October 8 and followed by a full-day free festival on October 9.
Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills
Eight or nine miles south is the seafront town of Kitty Hawk, with Kill Devil Hills just below. Kitty Hawk beach is a rugged stretch of sand with mellow waves set to a backdrop of a maritime forest for peaceful meandering. Kill Devil Hills, meanwhile, is celebrated among the surfer community for its friendly boarders, with decent breaks either side of the pier.
Kitty Hawk also owes its name to feathered fowl; its original Native American name was Chickahawk, meaning “a place to hunt geese.” There’s history here, too; the Wright Brothers took their first flight in a powered vehicle in 1903, and the Wright Brothers National Monument tells the story. So raise a Bloody Mary to those guys next time you’re being whisked somewhere distant at 35,000 feet.
Another famous stretch of fine sand bordered by wild dunes, Nags Head beach is a quintessential North Carolina beach. The long pier, the “tallest living sand dune on the Atlantic coast” (Jockey’s Ridge State Park), and Bodie Island Lighthouse are all decent diversions when you’re done chilling on the sand. There are plenty of hang gliding opportunities here, too.
The southernmost spot on the Outer Banks, Ocracoke sits on an island accessed by ferry, private boats and air, and is steeped in pirate history; Blackbeard had his head lopped off somewhere around these parts. Today, though, the beaches (part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore) bring less nefarious voyagers for their secluded charms. There are also plenty of independent restaurants in Ocracoke Village and the state’s oldest operating lighthouse, built in 1823 (make time for the Ocracoke Preservation Society Museum). Enjoy sunset from the docks before heading to Ocracoke Oyster Co. for dinner. Order the famed oysters and sip on an oyster stout beer, made in part from oyster shells.
Famous humorist David Sedaris bought a beachfront home here (he mentions it a lot in Calypso) and it’s easy to see why. The long stretch of sand backed by more tufty dunes is perfect for inspiring strolls and contemplation—whether you’re a navel-gazing writer or not. Its south-facing location, on the barrier island of Bogue Banks, attracts big crowds in the summer, but the windswept region is equally beguiling off season.
The title of “surf city” is usually disputed between two California coastal cities (Huntington Beach and Santa Cruz), but this NC spot of the same name also offers decent surfing, swimming, and sunbathing—with none of the crowds of its West Coast namesakes. Positioned north on Topsail Island, another long (26-mile) barrier island, it’s a small settlement of some 1,800 people, meaning plenty of room on the sand.
Farther down Topsail Island, Tops’l (to give it its phonetic name) is historically another place haunted by the ghosts of fearsome pirates. Look down from an aerial perspective and you can see why; the area is riddled with channels and coves perfect for hiding and ambush. Nowadays, visitors prefer to swim oceanside, kayak, or fish in the protected waters to the west, and look for—and protect—the area’s turtle population.
Carolina Beach, with its white sand, gentle surf, and wooden pier perfect for anglers looking to hook a flounder or a mackerel, has plenty to offer. But beyond the beach, the eponymous State Park entices travelers with miles of hiking trails, a couple of campsites, and a marina—a perfect jumping-off point to discover the length and breadth of the Cape Fear River.
Bald Head Island
Accessed by ferry from nearby Southport and almost car-free (residents drive golf carts instead), Bald Head Island is everything you want from an unplugged and relaxing retreat. Like much of the North Carolina coastline, it’s fairly undeveloped, so don’t expect big hotels; instead, opt to explore the maritime forest, salt marshes and freshwater lagoons, and miles of sand across its three distinct beaches.
Our journey south through the best beaches in North Carolina ends in Brunswick County, around four hours by car from Charlotte. Here, the usual sand-and-sun draw is augmented with several recreational opportunities, including birding, sunset kayak tours, and several golf courses. The Museum of Coastal Carolina and Ingram Planetarium, meanwhile, includes an aquarium and displays of local maritime and Native American history. As you’d expect, the sunsets aren’t bad either.
This article was originally published in 2020. It was updated May 28, 2022, with the latest information.