Best North Carolina Beaches for a Day Trip
By Kimberly Graf. Published on July 14, 2021
Every year, millions of sunseekers make their way to the coast of North Carolina for a world-class beach vacation. Although each state in the Southeast has its fair share of wonderful seaside destinations, North Carolina still manages to set itself apart from its neighbors because of its hundreds of miles of beaches. Below, you'll find the best North Carolina beaches for a day trip, the very places you should focus on when planning your first visit to this beautiful state.
Bald Head Island
If you're looking for a more remote and back-to-nature kind of beach destination in North Carolina, Bald Head Island would be a spectacular choice. Reachable only by ferry from Southport, this is as idyllic an island as it gets. Private and rental homes dot the island while large numbers of sea turtles make their nests on its empty beaches. Go to there for contemplative strolls on the beach, solitude and a visit to the state's oldest lighthouse, Old Baldy Lighthouse.
One of the five communities of the Bogue Banks on the Crystal Coast of North Carolina, Atlantic Beach is a fantastic destination for both beach-goers and history buffs. This wide and shallow sand beach boasts crystal-clear water—the namesake of this stretch of coastline—and is a great place for children to run around and play. The main historic claim to fame of this area is that the flagship of notorious pirate captain Blackbeard stranded here. You can learn more about this event and piracy in general at the North Carolina Maritime Museum, located a short drive away in the town of Beaufort.
When it comes to kid-friendly beaches in North Carolina, Carolina Beach tops the chart. Numerous rides and attractions line the beach' charming boardwalk while restaurants and bars offer a wide variety of food and drinks. This is definitely one of the best North Carolina beaches for a day trip, just because of its plethora of activity options—from surfing and fishing to swimming, enjoying live music and sampling fresh seafood.
With its laidback vibe and multitude of rentable beach houses, it's no surprise that Topsail Beach is one of the most popular North Carolina beaches. The beach is ideal for sunbathing, surfing, standup paddle boarding and fishing, and Nearby Surf City has great restaurants and evening entertainment. This peaceful stretch of golden sand is a preferred nesting place for loggerhead turtles, too, which has proven to be a major touristic drawcard.
Part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore, Shackleford Banks is one of the best—if not simply the best—nature destinations in this list of the best North Carolina beaches for a day trip. Its coastline home to semi-wild horses that occasionally show up on the beach, this calm seaside village is a phenomenal place for coastal camping. If you’re not sticking around, however, you can still go shelling, fishing and scalloping, and grill your catch of the day back home or at your accommodation somewhere else in the state.
The star in the crown of North Carolina's Crystal Coast, Emerald Isle is part of the Bogue Banks, situated between the Atlantic Ocean and the Bogue Sound. Its calm and shallow waters are home to bottlenose dolphins and perfect for wading. This makes it a great destination to take the kids to. Wild ponies roam the dunes on these barrier islands, only adding to the area's scenic appeal.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
This sensational 70-mile-long stretch of coastline is one of the greatest anywhere in North America. Unlike the rest of this list, this one consists of numerous beaches and several different towns. There's no need to cover them individually, though, as the Cape Hatteras National Seashore can be explored by car on a long, fun-filled day trip. This section of the Outer Banks is characterized by photogenic lighthouses, striking stilted beach houses, wide sandy beaches, world-class seafood and lots of wildlife. Make sure to stop by the Wright Brothers National Memorial on your way into these beautiful barrier islands—it's the very location of the first manned flight ever.
This overview of the best North Carolina beaches for a day trip is not exhaustive by any means. There are many other awesome seaside getaways along this expansive beach-lined coast. The beaches featured here, however, are those you should try to focus on if your time is limited. They’re truly the cream of the crop.