From Sunset Beach to Duck, these are the best North Carolina beaches.

By Elizabeth Rhodes
Updated June 23, 2020

Editor’s Note: Travel might be complicated right now, but use our inspirational trip ideas to plan ahead for your next bucket list adventure.

With 300 miles of pristine coastline, it’s no wonder North Carolina is one of the nation’s top beach destinations. From quiet barrier islands to lively coastal cities and family-friendly destinations, North Carolina’s beaches are perfect for your next summer vacation (though its sandy stretches are beautiful at any time of year). These spots offer stunning white-sand beaches, of course, but they’re also home to historic sites, diverse wildlife, beautiful golf courses, and exciting water sports. We’ve rounded up the 10 best beaches in North Carolina for your next trip to the Tar Heel State, from Sunset Beach to Duck.

Although beaches are open, some attractions and restaurants are still closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so be sure to double check that everything you want to do is open before you plan your getaway.

1. Cape Lookout National Seashore 

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With 56 miles of beach across several barrier islands, Cape Lookout National Seashore has a ton to offer visitors. Shackleford Banks is ideal for swimming and lounging on the beach, and the island is home to over 100 feral horses. During the summer, visitors can climb the diamond-painted Cape Lookout Lighthouse. Take a ranger-guided tour, explore the islands from the water on a canoe or kayak, or go birding to learn a little more about Cape Lookout and its wildlife. Plan an overnight stay at one of the park’s beachfront cabins or campgrounds to soak up even more of this seashore’s undeveloped, natural beauty.

2. Nags Head

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Located in the central Outer Banks north of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Nags Head offers a range of unique experiences that everyone will love. This area is perhaps best known for the Jockey's Ridge State Park, which has the tallest living sand dune on the Atlantic coast. Here, you can walk along a boardwalk, go hang gliding, and explore a nature trail. Nags Head is also very close to the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, where the famous aviators took off for the first successful airplane flight. Of course, Nags Head also offers beautiful beaches bordered by hotels, restaurants, bars, and shops, too.

3. Duck

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Located on the northern stretch of North Carolina’s barrier islands, Duck offers something for everyone. You can book a stay at Sanderling Resort and enjoy family-friendly activities, multiple pools, and a spa, or take a day trip to nearby Corolla to ride on the beach in a four-wheel drive for a chance to see a wild horse or two. Nearby golf courses and water sports make this an ideal destination for visitors who want to get out and enjoy nature.

4. Hammocks Beach State Park 

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Like a few other barrier island destinations, Hammocks Beach State Park’s Bear Island is accessible only by ferry or boat, so it’s perfect for people looking for a quiet, relaxing beach. You won’t find rows of restaurants or beachfront bars along this largely undeveloped beach, which is exactly why people love it. You can rent canoes, kayaks, or paddleboards to explore the marshes, Bear Island, and Huggins Island, or take time to learn about the park’s wildlife. Bear Island hosts a number of campsites, too, so you can extend your stay at this state park.

5. Carolina Beach 

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Just a 20-minute drive from historic Wilmington, you’ll find the popular Carolina Beach, with its family-friendly beaches, boardwalk, and other attractions. The Carolina Beach Boardwalk is a classic American promenade featuring bars, restaurants, arcades, and places to rent bikes and surfboards. Nearby Carolina Beach State Park offers more outdoor recreation, with plenty of hiking trails like the Flytrap Trail, where you can spot the native Venus flytrap plant. If you’re staying in Wilmington, this is a perfect day trip destination. Otherwise, book a room at one of the hotels or rent a beach house and enjoy your oceanfront escape.

6. Ocracoke

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Hop on a ferry from Hatteras, Swan Quarter, or Cedar Island and head to this quiet island. Spend your days lounging on 16 miles of white-sand beaches or fishing, kayaking, sailing, and surfing. Rent a boat or golf cart to explore the island, or check out one of the trails for a peaceful nature walk. At the end of the day, take in the sunset over Silver Lake Harbor — there are a number of shops, restaurants, and inns located along this harbor.

7. Atlantic Beach

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Located on North Carolina’s Crystal Coast across the causeway from Morehead City, Atlantic Beach is perfect for families. Whether you want to build sandcastles on the beach or go for a chartered fishing trip, there’s an outdoor activity for you. Atlantic Beach is also a popular destination for sea turtles looking for a place to nest — every year, from May through October, sea turtles lay their eggs in this area. You can learn more about the region’s marine life at the nearby North Carolina Aquariums at Pine Knoll Shores, located a 10-minute drive away from Atlantic Beach.

8. Wrightsville Beach 

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Find a mix of surfing, shopping, dining, and nightlife in and around Wrightsville Beach. Located just a short drive from Wilmington, this is a great destination for people hoping to explore the area during their beach vacation. Adventure seekers will want to scuba dive and visit one of the sunken ships located off the coast, or take surfing lessons to learn how to catch some waves.

9. Sunset Beach

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On North Carolina’s southern shore close to the South Carolina border, you’ll find Sunset Beach. Discover why this spot got its name while visiting the south-facing beaches — from late fall through early spring, you can actually see the sun rise and set over the water, making for a uniquely picturesque experience. Nearby Bird Island has beautiful beaches, too, but it’s best known for the Kindred Spirit Mailbox, where people write their wishes, prayers, thoughts, and dreams.

10. Bald Head Island 

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No cars are allowed on Bald Head Island, which can be accessed by ferry from nearby Southport. Instead, get around this peaceful island via golf cart, bicycle, or foot. Go for a round of golf or try your hand at croquet at the Bald Head Island Club. Of course, with 14 miles of beautiful beaches, you’ll also want to spend some time soaking in the sand and surf or looking for seashells.