10 Best Family Beaches in North Carolina

These North Carolina family beaches are perfect for splashing in the surf, playing in the sand, and soaking up that warm Southern sun.
Dusky sky in the Outer Banks (Photo: @tginfl via Twenty20)
Dusky sky in the Outer Banks (Photo: @tginfl via Twenty20)

With more than 300 miles of coastline stretching from the Outer Banks in the north to the coastal reserves of the south, the best family beaches in North Carolina are some of the best beaches anywhere on the East Coast, period. And family beach vacations in North Carolina are among the best family vacation ideas anywhere in the U.S. for sun-loving kids and parents.

The Best Beaches in North Carolina for Families

For splashing in the surf, playing in the sand, and soaking up that warm Southern sun (don’t forget your sunscreen), these North Carolina beaches are among the best family vacation spots in the U.S. for a trip to to the beach.

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1. Topsail Island, North Carolina

beach chairs and umbrella on great North Carolina family beach at Topsail, North Carolina
Topsail Island is a beloved family vacation spot for North Carolinians (Photo: @MargJohnsonVA via Twenty20)

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, digging in the sand, and relaxing in the sun. (Just be aware that these North Carolina beaches aren’t lifeguarded.)

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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, visitors can meet rescued sea turtles and learn about efforts to keep them safe.

Where to Stay in Topsail Island

Stay in the heart of the island at The Island Inn, which is located directly across from a family-friendly beach and also has a pool for a pre- or post-beach dip. The inn is walking distance to the island’s pier, marina, shops, and restaurants. It’s even a pet-friendly hotel for very small breed dogs.

2. Corolla, North Carolina

best family beaches in North Carolina: horses on the beach at Corolla
Corolla is a laidback North Carolina family beach destination (Photo: @nikkijamesmedia via Twenty20)

Close to the Virginia border, Corolla is a laidback North 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.

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Keep the horse theme going at the Wild Horse Museum, 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

Where to Stay in Corolla

The Hampton Inn and Suites Outer Banks / Corolla is an ideal place to stay with kids in Corolla. Book an oceanfront room or suite that overlooks the dunes. Centrally located for an Outer Banks beach vacation, the kid-friendly hotel also has a pool and lazy river for those in-between times when you’re not exploring the North Carolina beaches.

3. Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina

birds and sky at great North Carolina family beach Wrightsville Beach
Wrightsville is one of the most popular family beaches in North Carolina (Photo: @celestialfaces via Twenty20)

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.

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Even though this is one of the most popular beaches for both day trips and East Coast family vacations, there’s 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 lunchtime rolls around, do as the longtime 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 nearby port city of Wilmington makes for a great day trip excursion from your family beach time.

Where to Stay in Wrightsville Beach

Splurge a little on your North Carolina family beach getaway with a stay at Blockade Runner Beach Resort, a luxury resort steps from the sand with all waterfront rooms overlooking either the Atlantic Ocean or Banks Channel Sound. A supervised hotel kids club program called “Sandcampers” will keep the kids busy when the adults need a little time to themselves.

4. Nags Head, North Carolina

Aerial view of North Carolina family friendly beach Nags Head
Nags Head has of the some of the tallest sand dunes on the East Coast (Photo: @ccm31185 via Twenty20)

Parents love the remote feel, natural beauty, and late 19th-century architecture of Nags Head. Kids will love zipping around Jockey’s Ridge State Park, site of the tallest sand dunes on the East Coast. And kids and parents alike may enjoy family travel adventures like beginner hang-gliding lessons launching off the dunes.

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More Nags Head must-dos include Nags Head Woods Preserve and the Bodie Island Lighthouse (it’s pronounced “body”), an 1872 light station whose light still beams out over the Atlantic every night. No family trip to this North Carolina beach destination is complete without going to Jennette’s Pier, a historic fishing pier and aquarium featuring native marine life.

Note that some Nags Head beaches have bathhouses and lifeguards (Memorial Day through Labor Day), but not every beach does.

Where to Stay in Nags Head

Visiting families should consider a stay at Surfside Hotel, which as the name implies is located right on the Atlantic shore in the heart of Nags Head and close to Outer Banks attractions, shopping, and dining. With an indoor pool, and outdoor, and a hot tub, plus free Continental breakfast, there are plenty of perks included.

5. Duck, North Carolina

Best family beaches in North Carolina: Duck
The seven miles of beaches in Duck are patrolled by lifeguards in the summer (Photo: @JBLeePhotography via Twenty20)

Another popular OBX beach town, Duck boasts seven miles of spacious beaches that are lifeguarded during the summer vacation season. Strolling the mile-long boardwalk along the Currituck Sound and shopping at shady Scarborough Lane Shoppes are big parts of the Duck experience.

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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.  

Where to Stay in Duck

The casual but classy Sanderling Resort has a spa for the adults and a boisterous pool for the entire family. Guest rooms come with decks, and the resort’s restaurant has some of the finest food in the Outer Banks.

6. Emerald Isle, North Carolina

best family beaches in North Carolina: Emerald Isle
The sugary white sand beaches of Emerald Isle (Photo: @annalise17 via Twenty20)

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 for unbeatable views.

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An Emerald Isle itinerary involves little more flying kites and playing in the waves, though other things to do could be kayaking on the sound, biking around town, or even renting a pontoon boat for island exploration.

The Salty Pirate Water Park is a fun place for zipping down water slides and splashing in wading pools. The Crab Shack on Bogue Sound in an Emerald Isle institution for fresh-from-the-sea crabs and oysters.

Where to Stay in Emerald Isle

Stay at the Islander Hotel and Resort, a relaxing and kid-friendly beach resort with ocean views, beach access, and a pool.

7. Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk, North Carolina

best family beaches in North Carolina: Kitty Hawk and pier
Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills share the same barrier island as Duck and Nags Head (Photo: @g8rsig via Twenty20)

Located on the same barrier island as Duck (to the north) and Nags Head (to the south), the adjacent villages of Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk make an excellent home base for a North Carolina 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.

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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. 

Where to Stay in Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk, North Carolina

In Kitty Hawk, stay at the semi oceanfront Saltaire Cottages, which have welcome families to North Carolina’s OBX beaches since 1955. Cottages range in size from one bedroom to four, so they can easily accommodate multigenerational vacations and large families. Each cottage has a full kitchen and a screen porch, and there’s a central pool with elevated sundecks for those moments between beaches. Private beach access us directly across the street,

8. Hatteras Island, North Carolina

best family beaches in North Carolina: Hatteras Island
The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse stands guard over the Atlantic (Photo: @jward726 via Twenty20)

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.

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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.) Families who love fishing will be in heaven here: This 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.

Where to Stay on Hatteras Island

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. Cape Hatteras KOA Resort and Frisco Campground are two great options for camping families. For a moderately priced hotel, stay at pet-friendly Cape Pines Motel, which offers everything from simple motel rooms to large suites with living rooms.

9. Bald Head Island, North Carolina

best family beaches in North Carolina: Bald Head
Bald Head is one of the most peaceful North Carolina beaches for families (Photo: @vopainter via Twenty20)

Even in a state lined with dreamy coastal destinations, Bald Head Island is easily one of the prettiest and most peaceful North Carolina beaches for families. 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.

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The island is home to Old Baldy, 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 all about beach walks, sunsets, board games, ferry rides, pirate tales, and family dinners on the deck on this natural island.

Where to Stay on Bald Head Island

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).

10. Figure Eight Island, North Carolina

Just north of Wrightsville Beach is the whisper-thin Figure Eight Island, 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.

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There are no day-trippers, no restaurants or shops, and relatively few residents even 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. 

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Anne Bauso
Anne is a New York-based writer, editor, and e-commerce expert with a focus on travel and hospitality. A former editor for travel sites Oyster and What to Pack (part of Tripadvisor), she has written for and appeared in Travel & Leisure, USA Today, Fashionista, Jetsetter, SmarterTravel, ABC News, Allure, Zagat, Time Out New York, and NYMag.com, among other publications.

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