Best Beaches in North Carolina for Families
By Emily Caffrey
Ah, it’s finally here! That vacation you’ve been daydreaming about during your workday. The energizing waves, the warming sun, the rejuvenating feeling that only salty air can give you—North Carolina is calling. Will you answer?
North Carolina offers some of the best beaches and tourism along its 300 miles of barrier island coastline. And what’s more? A barrier island gives you water access both oceanside and sound side—the body of water between the barrier island and mainland North Carolina.
Double the water access means double the fun! You can count on a vacation that offers up activities for even your most stubborn traveler. But still, how do you choose? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.
Let’s get our toes sandy!
Look no further than the Outer Banks
Out of that 300 miles of barrier island coast, 175 of them are deemed Outer Banks beaches! The small local population booms to a whopping 40,000 in the summer high season.
There is a reason for all the hype—the Outer Banks has something for every single person in your crew.
Sunny beaches, water sports, camping, shopping, dining, live music, lighthouses, museums—you name it!
Outdoor activities aside, North Carolina holds some of the most abundant histories of any beach destination, making it anything but ordinary. World Wars, pirates (yes, pirates!), and colonial settlement jam-pack this destination with a curious lure like no other.
We’ll explore the best beaches in North Carolina from north to south Outer Banks!
1 – Corolla Beach
Starting at the best beach furthest north, you have Corolla. If you’re looking for a high-end area with large vacation rentals, this is the spot for you. The wide, private beaches are a prime location to soak up the sun and play in the waves.
For those nature-fanatics, your family can experience wild horse tours oceanside or kayak tours sound side. Wild horses have been roaming in Corolla since the 16th century!
Kayak tours will immerse you in the salt marshes, getting a look at coastal birds and beautiful views from the water.
For those wanting the action, Corolla holds many locations to parasail and jet ski in the sound.
Don’t worry, history buffs have a place here, too. Take a climb up Currituck Beach Lighthouse to get a bird’s eye view of Corolla’s ocean and sound.
2 – Nags Head
If you’re looking for a beach that has it all, put Nags Head at the top of your list. This town is the main hub of the Outer Banks with activities for everyone, including:
- Water Sports: jet skiing, surfing, kayaking, and paddleboarding
- Local restaurants
- Mini golf
- Fishing piers
- Bodie Island Lighthouse
- Scuba Diving
- Hiking in Nags Head Woods and Jockey’s Ridge State Park
- And, of course, lounging on the beach
And that’s just the shortlist! Day or night, there’s an activity in every inch of Nags Head.
If your vacation crew loves staying busy, Nags Head is definitely the beach town for you.
Make it a point to visit the sand dunes, Jockey’s Ridge State Park, for the sunset. It’s a must-see and easily one of the best coastal parks in North Carolina!
3 – Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
Imagine walking down a wide shell-filled beach, with only a few others in sight! A beachcomber’s paradise, a birder’s outlook, a kayaker’s oasis—Pea Island gets you up-close and personal with nature without crowding from beachgoers.
A quick skip across the street from the Pea Island Visitor Center will put you on a wide beach full of sea glass, seashells, driftwood, and prime shore-fishing territory.
If you hang on the sound side, the area is teeming with migratory birds including egrets, herons, and waterfowl. Be sure to bring binoculars!
Pea Island is one of the only places that you can watch the sunset sink directly over top of the water, making it a great place for a kayak trip. The water can be quite shallow, so pay attention to the tides and the creatures you may see below your kayak including rays, crabs, clams, and small fish!
This is a fabulous day trip for a breath of fresh air away from the hustle and bustle of the tourism areas!
4 – Cape Hatteras National Seashore
If the privacy of Pea Island appeals to you, Cape Hatteras National Seashore provides a quaint experience with a lot to offer, making it one of the best coastal parks in North Carolina. Its 70 miles of the beach remains rather undeveloped compared to the northern beaches. Low-key vibes.
Fewer distractions, more relaxation.
When you’re feeling replenished enough to venture out, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is an impressive sight to see.
Want more of that “off the grid” feeling? Reserve a camp-site at one of the many oceanside campgrounds.
As if Cape Hatteras wasn’t secluded and small-town enough, you can catch a ferry over to Ocracoke Island from the point. This is a fabulous day trip if Cape Hatteras is your vacation destination.
North Carolina isn’t only for the above-water crew, submerge yourself underwater in the Graveyard of the Atlantic!
I know, Graveyard of the Atlantic definitely sounds daunting. This is a nickname given to the Outer Banks because of the 2,000+ shipwrecks lying underwater! These wrecks are a fantastic attraction for scuba divers to see a large amount of history and marine life.
Why are there so many wrecks, you ask? The Outer Banks is a perfect storm for changing sands, winter storms, fall hurricanes, and of course those world wars and pirates we mentioned earlier! All play a role in claiming these wrecks.
What starts as a tragic story of a sunken ship, ends up a beautiful scene. These wrecks provide habitat and refuge for marine animals to thrive on! North Carolina waters are mostly sandy bottoms, so the wrecks are a huge bonus for these ecosystems to thrive.
If scuba diving isn’t your thing, you can enjoy the underwater wonders from the NC Aquarium on Roanoke Island or the NC Maritime Museum, called Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, in Cape Hatteras.
Keeping the beaches in North Carolina beautiful
While the North Carolina coastline is nicknamed the Graveyard of the Atlantic for the litter of sunken ships, it’s vital that we keep actual litter out of its waterways!
These beaches provide so much serenity not only to vacationers and locals but to the wildlife that inhabits them.
It’s our duty to give back to the ocean.
And it’s easy, too!
Our actions are impactful, no matter how small. Picking up just one piece of trash while you take your peaceful beach walk can make a difference! This leaves the beach a little more beautiful than how you found it.
Why should you? Well, that trash ends up in the ocean. Marine life, like your favorite seafood and more, may mistake trash and plastics for food.
And if you are a seafood lover, you might just end up eating that trash and plastic.
Say no to that pollution! Say yes to a healthy ocean!
Start cleaning with Ocean Blue Project
Clean-ups are one of the simplest ways to give some love back to your favorite beaches. Take a look at Ocean Cleanup to make your favorite beach more beautiful.
Each beach clean-up contributes to Ocean Blue’s commitment to remove 1 million pounds of litter from the ocean by 2025. And you get to be a part of it!
If we all picked up 3 pieces of litter every day, how much could we keep from flowing downstream to our one world Ocean? Post photos of you picking up 3 pieces every day wherever you’re at and use #Cleanup3ForTheSea. We’re moved by your do-good photos!
Even if you don’t have that sort of time to commit, you can help by ditching single-use plastics. Grab a reusable water bottle from the Ocean Blue Store to keep your drinks cool and keep your beaches clean!
We love your commitment to a healthy ocean and Ocean Blue Project is committed to sharing environmental content with you through our newsletter. Be sure to sign up! Sponsor a beach cleanup?
Author Bio: Emily Caffrey is a copywriter living in Baltimore. She loves scuba diving, kayaking, and creating ocean-inspired artwork.
The best beaches in North Carolina are found in the Outer Banks, a large barrier island between the ocean and sound waterways for vacationers to enjoy.