The Best Beaches in North Carolina

By: Jason Frye

March 25, 2015

Summer in North Carolina means one thing: it’s time to hit the beach. With 320 miles of beaches in North Carolina, you’ll have no problem finding the perfect patch of sand for your blanket – it’s just a matter of deciding where you want to go from Raleigh. This quick guide to North Carolina’s three distinct beach areas””the Outer Banks, Crystal Coast, and Cape Fear“”will help you decide where you should work on your tan this summer.

Outer Banks

The northernmost of North Carolina’s beaches are known as the Outer Banks. A pencil-thin strip of islands, the Outer Banks (often abbreviated to OBX) are home to busy beach towns and quiet villages. To get here, hop in your car and head east on Interstate 540, then U.S. 64, and you’ll have your toes in the sand in just a few hours.

The Best Beaches in North Carolina
Hang gliding on Jockey’s Ridge is a beach experience you can only get on the Outer Banks of North Carolina © Jason Frye

For beach towns packed with activities head to Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, or Nags Head. But for beach solitude, look north to the village of Duck or south, along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Make time to climb the lighthouses on Bodie Island (pronounced “body”) and Cape Hatteras. If you’re feeling daring, try your hand at hang gliding on Jockey’s Ridge, the largest sand dune on the east coast, with Kitty Hawk Kites. And don’t miss the Wright Brothers National Memorial, the sight of the first successful airplane flight in 1903.


Crystal Coast

The Best Beaches in North Carolina | Crystal Coast Sunset
Because Atlantic Beach and Emerald Isle face south, you can watch the sun rise over one tip of the island and set over the other © Jason Frye

Just three hours to the southeast is the Crystal Coast, so called for its clear waters. Follow Interstate 40 east to U.S. 70 east to Atlantic Beach, a great central spot for exploring the region.


The largest set of beaches here can be found in the Cape Lookout National Seashore, a 56-mile collection of barrier islands and pristine beaches. Here you can climb the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, spend a day swimming or beachcombing, or take a tour of the Shackelford Banks where herds of wild horses roam freely, descended from shipwrecked Spanish Mustangs.

The Best Beaches in North Carolina | Horse LighthouseOn the Crystal Coast, the Banker Ponies roam the islands around Cape Lookout and the iconic Cape Lookout Lighthouse © Jason Frye

On Atlantic Beach and nearby Emerald Isle, you’ll find south-facing beaches with surfing-friendly waves. Take a surfing lesson, or, if you’re nervous about surfing but want to get on the water, try a day kayaking or stand up paddleboarding in the ocean or inland waters.


In the inland towns of Beaufort and Morehead City, you’ll find some excellent dining options and the Arendell Room, a top-notch cocktail lounge.


Cape Fear

The Best Beaches in North Carolina | Wrightsville Pier
Along the Cape Fear Coast, the beaches are wide and the water inviting © Jason Frye

The beaches around Wilmington and the Cape Fear River are the easiest to reach from Raleigh. Simply follow Interstate 40 east for two hours and you’re there. Wrightsville Beach has stunning blue water and wide, flat beaches, ideal for a day sunning and splashing. To the north, Topsail Island has similar white sand beaches and crystalline waters, but a small town feel.


Whichever beach you visit, head into Wilmington for drinks and dinner. The growing city’s food scene is expanding and you can find a great bite of anything from fine dining to classic coastal cuisine.


Connecting you a wide range of destinations across the United States and Canada, our partnership with Delta makes booking a trip to North Carolina simple.


What are your best beaches in North Carolina? Let us know in the comments section below.


Written by Jason Frye


Jason Frye

Driven by his need to know what's around the next turn, Jason Frye became a travel and food writer. He is the author of two travel guides - Moon North Carolina Handbook (2014) and Moon North Carolina Coast Handbook (2014) - and is a food blogger, columnist, and frequent contributor to publications across the Southeastern United States. He lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, with his wife, Lauren.

Categories: Our Places