The North Carolina coastline stretches for over 300 miles, from the Outer Banks, where wild horses still roam, to 45 miles of south-facing beaches on the Brunswick Islands. In between, there are vintage boardwalks, pirate legends, fishing piers, lighthouses and gigantic sand dunes. It’s a captivating coast for family vacations, but where do you begin if it’s your first time? Start with seven of its best beaches for kids.
1/7 Corolla Beach: Stomping ground of the wild Bankers horses
The northernmost beaches of the Outer Banks are white sand for mile after mile. One beach seems to drift into another, they’re all enormous and almost never busy. They’re also the stomping ground of wild Bankers horses, descended from the Spanish mustangs which crossed the Atlantic with 16th century explorers. Corolla Beach, is particularly stunning, easily reached from Corolla village, and top spot for seeing wild horses.
What families love about Corolla Beach
- Wild Bankers Horses, and Wild Horse Adventure Tours in Currituck Banks Reserve.
- The Wild Horse Museum, and surfing lessons at Corolla Surf Shop.
- Views from the top of Currituck Beach Lighthouse.
- Parasailing, SUP, tubing or kayaking.
- Cycling round historic Corolla village.
How to get there: Corolla Beach is four hours drive east of Raleigh Airport (RDU)
2/7 Kill Devil Hills Beach: The Wright Brother’s legend
Kill Devil Hills is where the Wright Brothers launched the world’s first, successful manned flight in 1903. But, even if it wasn’t the most historic runway on earth, the area has a perfect family beach, from colorful waterfront houses to giant dunes, acres of smooth sand, watersports, and fun kids’ activities, on and off the beach.
Why families love Kill Devil Hills North Carolina
- Standing on the ‘take off’ spot at the Wright Brothers National Monument Memorial.
- Learning to soar at Kitty Hawk Kites: the world’s largest hang-gliding school.
- Sand dunes at Jockey Ridge State Park: tallest in the Eastern US.
- Sea kayaking, boogie boarding, surfing and SUP.
- Biking round local villages like Kitty Hawk, Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills.
How to get there: Kill Devil Hills is just over three hours’ drive east of Raleigh Airport (RDU).
3/7 Ocracoke Island: Pirate haven on Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Families feel instantly at home on Okracoke. From its historic village and quaint harbour to 16 unbroken miles of pristine ocean beach, this unique island at the northern end of the Outer Banks couldn’t be more welcoming. And you’re not the first to be charmed. Back in the day Ocracoke was a haven for none other than Blackbeard, the real life Pirate of the Caribbean, who fought his final battle here in 1718.
Why kids love Ocracoke Island, North Carolina
- Dolphin spotting on the ferry crossing from Hatteras Island.
- Ocracoke Beach on Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
- Walking in the footsteps of Blackbeard the pirate.
- Adventuring round the island on family golf carts or bikes.
How to get there: Hatteras Island is 4 hours, 40 minutes drive east of Raleigh Airport (RDU). The ferry from Hatteras to Ocracoke is free, and the crossing takes 1 hour.
4/7 Atlantic Beach: One of the best beaches in North Carolina
Atlantic Beach is one of the Crystal Coast’s most popular resorts, and its long, ocean beach regularly ranks in the top 20 best US beaches. Teens love the classic wooden boardwalk and enormous fishing pier (1000ft long to be exact). The sea’s watersport heaven, and calm enough for safe paddling. And, as an added bonus, Fort Macon State Park, the most visited in North Carolina, sits on the eastern end of the sands here.
Why families love Atlantic Beach, North Carolina
- Oceanana fishing pier and tours of Fort Macon State Park.
- Cycling along the classic seaside boardwalk.
- North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores.
- North Carolina Maritime Museum in nearby Beaufort.
- Sailing from Beaufort to Cape Lookout National Seashore.
How to get there: Atlantic Beach is two hours, 40 minutes drive east of Raleigh Airport (RDU).
5/7 Topsail Beach: Come to see the nesting sea turtles
Teenagers might find Topsail too quiet – although the lively city of Wilmington is less than an hour’s drive away. Younger kids, on the other hand, love the freedom of enormous Topsail Beach (stretching almost the entire length of the island). Spotting nesting sea turtles at the right time of year is magical, and visits to the local sea turtle sanctuary are just as enchanting.
What families love about Topsail Beach
- Guided tours of the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre.
- Kayaking and canoeing on the Intracoastal Waterway.
- Freshly caught seafood in restaurants along Topsail Beach.
- Friendly local festivals throughout the summer months.
- South facing Topsail Beach for sunrises, and sunsets, over the Atlantic.
How to get there: Topsail Beach is just over two hours drive east of Raleigh Airport (RDU).
6/7 Carolina Beach: Stroll along the oldest boardwalk in North Carolina
Tucked between Cape Fear River and the Atlantic, Carolina Beach has the state’s oldest and liveliest boardwalk, along with classic funfairs, and acres of sunny sands. North Carolina families have vacationed here for generations, attracted by traditions like Britt’s Donuts, cycling on the boardwalk, live music, fresh seafood, and vintage seaside character.
Some of the best things about Carolina Beach
- Food & Wine Magazine rate Carolina Beach boardwalk as one of the US Top Ten.
- Learning to surf, SUP, kayak, sail or surf fish off the enormous beach.
- Days adventuring round 11-acre Carolina Beach Lake Park.
- Cape Fear Serpentarium, and North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher
- Jungle Rapids Family Fun Park, and touring Battleship North Carolina
How to get here: Carolina Beach is just over two hours drive east of Raleigh Airport (RDU).
7/7 Sunset Beach: the North Carolina home of the Kindred Spirit Mailbox
Sunset Beach is a miracle of white sands and blue seas, south facing for the finest sunrises and sunsets, serene enough to be chosen by Loggerheads during nesting season, and still manages to be exciting for families too.
What families love about Sunset Beach
- Walking over to Bird Island and leaving messages in the Kindred Spirit Mailbox.
- Fishing on Sunset Beach Pier – the most southerly in North Carolina.
- Ziplining and eco-cruising at The Swamp Park on Shallotte River.
- Visiting the Museum of Coastal Carolina & Ingram Planetarium.
- Kayaking the Intracoastal Waterway at Sunset Beach Town Park.
How to get here: Sunset Beach is two hours, 40 minutes’ drive east of Raleigh Airport (RDU).
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