Dreaming of a family beach vacation in North Carolina? With its more than 300 miles of coastline stretching from the famous Outer Banks in the north to the coastal reserves of the south, North Carolina offers some of the East Coast’s best family beaches. Check out these 10 wonderful North Carolina beaches for splashing in the surf, playing in the sand, and soaking up that warm Southern sun (don’t forget your sunscreen!). Head to any of these spots for a perfect family beach trip.
A beloved family vacation spot for North Carolinians, Topsail island offers big sandy beaches (common throughout North Carolina) and a quiet, family-friendly vibe. Topsail isn’t the place for high-energy fun or commercial strips; instead, the 26-mile barrier island favors the simpler pleasures of swimming, surfing and water sports, digging in the sand, and relaxing in the sun. (Just be aware that beaches aren’t lifeguarded.) Comb the beach for seashells and see how much wildlife you can find: Topsail Island is a hot spot for starfish, dolphins, and pelicans—and sea turtles come here to build their nests. At the volunteer-led Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center [note: currently closed due to Covid-19], visitors can meet rescued sea turtles and learn about efforts to keep them safe.
Close to the Virginia border, Corolla is a laid-back Carolina beach destination at the northern end of the Outer Banks (OBX). Kids of all ages will love off-roading in an open-air vehicle to see majestic Spanish Mustang horses roaming, as they’ve done for centuries, in grassy dunes and on the sand. Keep the horse theme going at the Wild Horse Museum [note: currently closed due to Covid-19], a non-profit dedicated to protecting the herd. Let your kid in on The Chill Spot’s “secret” menu, which includes strawberry ice slushies and the cherry-topped Blackbeard’s Flame brownie sundae. Other Corolla activities include spiraling up the 220 steps of historic Currituck Beach Lighthouse, time-tripping at the wonderfully restored 1920s Whalehead mansion (where a humpback whale skull is on display), and strolling the wooden boardwalk through maritime woods at Currituck Banks.
- Corolla Hotel Pick: Hampton Inn & Suites Outer Banks / Corolla
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Wrightsville Beach is a local fave for an affordable and easily accessible beach getaway in North Carolina. Things are a little livelier here than many NC beaches; along the main drag of town, there are surf shops, dive bars, supply shops, and water-sports outfitters every which way. Even though this is one of the most popular East Coast beaches for day trips, there is plenty of space for beachgoers to spread out on the sand. People of all ages splash in the surf, watch for dolphins, and hunt for shells and sand dollars. When lunch time rolls around, do as long-time Wrightsville fans do and stop by Trolly Stop for hot dogs, fries, and a scoop of ice cream. With its pretty Riverwalk, boutique shopping, and many festivals, the port city of Wilmington makes a great day trip.
- Wrightsville Beach Hotel Pick: Blockade Runner Beach Resort
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Parents will love the remote feel, natural beauty, and late 19th-century architecture of Nags Head. And kids will love zipping around Jockey’s Ridge State Park, site of the tallest sand dunes on the East Coast. (Intrepid families might even brave beginner hang-gliding lessons launching off the dunes.) More Nags Head must-dos are Nags Head Woods Preserve and the Bodie Island Lighthouse [note: currently closed due to Covid] (pro tip: it’s pronounced “body”), an 1872 light station whose light still beams out over the Atlantic every night. No family trip is complete without going to Jennette’s Pier, a historic fishing pier and aquarium featuring native marine life. Some Nags Head beaches have bathhouses and lifeguards (Memorial Day through Labor Day), but not all.
- Nags Head Hotel Picks: Surfside Hotel, Pelican Cottages
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Another popular OBX town, Duck boasts seven miles of spacious beaches—lifeguarded during the summer season. Strolling the mile-long boardwalk along the Currituck Sound and shopping at shady Scarborough Lane Shoppes are big parts of the Duck experience. When you’re ready to take your sea legs out for a spin, the town has no shortage of methods: kayaking, canoeing, sailing, tubing, and chartered fish trips, to name a few. Or see it all from above in a parasail soaring through the air. The original Duck Donuts deserves a spot on every family to-do list. Kids love picking their coating (think cinnamon sugar, peanut butter icing), topping (rainbow sprinkles, chopped bacon), and drizzle on top (hot fudge, salted caramel) to create their own very special doughnut.
Emerald Isle offers mile after mile of sugary white beaches accessed by wooden walkways. Favorite spots include the Bogue Inlet Fishing Pier and The Point, an enormous beach at the southern tip where the ocean and sound meet. (Go at sunset.) An Emerald Isle itinerary involves little more flying kites and playing in the waves, though other things to-dos could be kayaking on the sound, biking around town, or even renting a pontoon boat for island exploration. The Salty Pirate Water Park [note: currently closed due to Covid] is a fun place for zipping down water slides and splashing in wading pools. The kid-friendly Crab Shack on Bogue Sound in an Emerald Isle institution for fresh-from-the-sea crabs and oysters.
Kill Devil Hills/Kitty Hawk
Located between Duck (to the North) and Nags Head (to the South) on the same barrier island, the adjacent villages of Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk make an excellent home base for a family vacation. Like most of the best North Carolina beaches for families, this is a quiet coastal retreat where simple beachy pastimes are the name of the game: swimming, biking, fishing. See where the Wright Brothers first took off at the Wright Brothers National Memorial. For dinner, pick up a heaping family meal of pork, ribs, fried chicken, and fixings from High Cotton NC BBQ and a pint of homemade ice cream from American Pie. Venture onto the beach after dark to search for Atlantic ghost crabs and see the stars, planets, and Milky Way in the nighttime sky.
- Kill Devil Hills Hotel Pick: Outer Banks Beach Club I & II
- Kitty Hawk Hotel Pick: The Saltaire Cottages
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Hatteras Island may be rustic and relaxing, but it has some major draws up its sleeve for adventurous families. At Cape Hatteras National Seashore—the longest undeveloped seashore on the East Coast—you can find excellent surfing and kiteboarding. For less intense activities, try kayaking through grassy marshes, windsurfing in the Pamlico Sound, and horseback-riding on the beach.
The famous Cape Hatteras Lighthouse stands guard over the Atlantic, warning ships of the treacherous Diamond Shoals. (If your kid’s interest is piqued by the thousands of shipwrecks off the Outer Banks, follow up at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum [note: currently closed due to Covid]). Families who love fishing will be in heaven here: the barrier island gets close to the area where the Gulf Stream and Labrador Current meet, so fishing trips often yield marlin, tuna, or other big game fish. Hatteras Island is a great place for family camping—there are several family-run or NPS-managed campgrounds for both tents and RVs across the island.
- Hatteras Island Hotel Picks: Cape Pines Motel
- Hatteras Island Campground Picks: Cape Hatteras KOA Resort, Frisco Campground
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Bald Head Island
Even in a state lined with dreamy beach destinations, Bald Head Island is easily one of the prettiest and most peaceful. Nearly all of the island is designated nature preserves, and the soft family friendly beaches are nothing short of pristine. The fact that it’s car-free and reachable by ferry or private boat only adds to the sense of escape. And getting from point to point via golf carts is a kick for little kids. Like Figure Eight, Bald Head is on the posh side, and most vacationers stay in rental houses, not hotels (though Bald Head does have a couple to its name). The island is home to Old Baldy [note: currently closed due to Covid], North Carolina’s oldest standing lighthouse, and the Bald Head Island Conservancy, where you can learn about the loggerhead sea turtles who descend upon the island each summer. Otherwise, it’s is all about beach walks, sunsets, board games, ferry rides, pirate tales, and family dinners on the deck on this natural island.
Bonus: Figure Eight Island
Just north of Wrightsville is the whisper-thin Figure Eight, so-called for the creeks zigzagging through the salt marsh. Figure Eight isn’t the place for go-Karts, putt-putts, or even grocery stores. It’s a commerce-free private island, where the only way over its guarded swing bridge is to rent (or own) a vacation house. There are no day-trippers, no restaurants or shops, and relatively few residents—at the peak of summer—so renters have the spectacular and vast beaches practically to themselves. Not only are the best beaches often empty, but their white sand is silky soft and their waters mild, courtesy of the Gulf Stream. And during low tides, they fill with vast networks of sun-warmed tide pools that are perfect for small children. For families looking for total peace and quiet, renting at Figure Eight is a good way to go.