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The Best Beaches in North Carolina

By AFAR Editors

Sep 17, 2020

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North Carolina is bordered by miles of deserted sand.

Photo by Jeremy Tyree / Shutterstock

North Carolina is bordered by miles of deserted sand.

Whether you’re looking for a family-friendly spot to lay down your towel or an empty sand dune-fringed stretch for long walks, we’ve got you covered.

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With 300 miles of coastline featuring rugged sand dunes and numerous estuaries, North Carolina is ripe for a beach vacation with some serious seaside exploring. 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 further 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 northwards into the bottom corner of Virginia. So we’re starting our rundown of 11 great beaches with those. From north to south, our favorites include Duck Beach, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Nag’s Head.

Socially distanced hiking options abound on North Carolina’s beaches.

Duck Beach

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 is a free one-day event worth hooking an off-season trip around. It’s postponed for 2020 but promises to return in 2021. Why the name? It’s down to the ducks, of course. They’ve been there since the 1800s.

Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills 

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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.

Nag’s Head

Another famous stretch of fine sand bordered by wild dunes, Nag’s 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. 

Okracoke

The southernmost spot on the Outer Banks, Okracoke sits on an island accessed by a couple of ferries 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 Okracoke Village and the state’s oldest operating lighthouse.

North Carolina’s coastline is characterized by long spits and inland waterways.

Emerald Isle

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Famous humorist David Sedaris recently 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.

Surf City

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.

Topsail Beach

Further 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

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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. 

Sunset Beach

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.

>> Next: The Best Small Beach Towns in the United States

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