North Carolina

Try Crystal Coast in North Carolina for active family vacations

Last updated 19th November 2022

The Crystal Coast of North Carolina has 86 miles of beautiful beaches. Kids love the incredible land and water activities here, as well as the pirate history and free-roaming wild horses. A natural barrier island system made up of small beach communities like Emerald Isle, Pine Knoll Shores and Beaufort, it’s only a three hour drive from Raleigh in North Carolina. And because there’s so much space, it’s never crowded – another great reason why Crystal Coast is exactly the right family vacation mood for summer 2021.

1/9 See wild horses on Shackleford Banks

Crystal Coast family vacations 2021

If you only do one thing during your visit to the Crystal Coast, go see the wild horses! A group of about 100  horses roam free on the shores of Shackleford Banks, living entirely off the small island. This area is only accessible by boat or ferry and the land is protected to let the wild horse population thrive.

Tip: Be sure to bring shoes that you don’t mind getting wet. You’ll get off the boat in very shallow water, then take an easy hike to get a peek at the horses. The ground is a little muddy and the shrubs are a little prickly, so flip flops are a no-go. The banks themselves are very flat and easy to navigate, so even little ones will be able to see the horses.

2/9 Climb “Diamond Lady” for views of the Crystal Coast

Crystal Coast family vacations 2021

Cape Lookout is right next to Shackleford Banks on the Crystal Coast. A national seashore with 56 miles of protected shoreline, Cape Lookout is a beautiful, nearly untouched beach perfect for swimming, shell collecting and getting the best view of the coast from the top of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse.

Called the “Diamond Lady” for the black and white diamond pattern painted on the side, the Cape Lookout Lighthouse has 207 steps and an unbeatable view. It is a climb, so it’s not suitable for very young children or people not up for climbing the equivalent of 12 stories. But, the steps are not as forbidding as they seem and if you’re up for a little adventure, it’s well worth the effort. Be sure to buy tickets in advance, where you’ll be given a specific time to ascend the steps (and a complimentary history lesson).

Tip: The easiest way to get to both Shackleford Banks and Cape Lookout is through the Island Express Ferry Service. The ferry takes you to both destinations and has easy pickup times and locations.

Book your stay in Harkers Island

3/9 Kayak to the Rachel Carson Reserve

Crystal Coast family vacations 2021

There’s nothing like cruising the beautiful waterways of the Crystal Coast by kayak. At Beaufort Paddle, they include a safety briefing and quick lesson before you hit the water, so the whole family will feel comfortable navigating in their kayaks. A guide will also help you paddle to the Rachel Carson Reserve, where you’ll encounter a variety of birds, plant life, and maybe even a wild horse or two.

Tip: Be sure to bring sunscreen! The cool breeze off the water feels great (and you can swim on the beaches of Carrot Island if it gets toasty), but you will burn in summer without a little extra SPF.

4/9 Bike through charming Beaufort on the Crystal Coast

Crystal Coast family vacations 2021

The town of Beaufort is adorable and ripe for exploring by bike. From the Victorian style homes and rows of delightful shops to the Maritime Museum which explores the seafaring history of this part of the Crystal Coast, you’ll be immediately charmed by the community.

Tip: Bike rentals are available all throughout the area and the flat landscape makes it an easy ride for all ages.

5/9 Fish off the pier or offshore on the Crystal Coast

Crystal Coast family vacations 2021

Due to the warm currents of the Gulf Stream, you can fish year-round along the Crystal Coast. It’s easy to charter a boat to try your luck catching a big bluefin tuna, or you can opt for a more relaxed fishing adventure off the Oceanana Fishing Pier in Atlantic Beach. The 1,000-foot long pier juts out into the Atlantic, making it an ideal place for dropping your line.

Tip: The Oceanana Pier House has all your fishing equipment needs, so you won’t have to haul rods and tackles all across the beach. Even if your family doesn’t fish, the pier is a great spot to enjoy the ocean views and take in a spectacular sunset.

Book your stay in Atlantic Beach

6/9 Do sun salutations on a Crystal Coast Beach

Crystal Coast family vacations 2021

After all the Crystal Coast fishing, boating, hiking, and wild horse adventures, it can be great to stretch your body and relax with some beachside yoga. NC Coastal Life offers private and group classes right on the beach. If you have a large family gathering, or just want some private yoga coaching, NC Coastal Life can also cater classes to the needs of the group.

Tip: One of the perks of beachside yoga is if kids decide they’d rather run around than find their zen, it’s no problem.

Book your stay in Cary

7/9 Spot sea turtles at the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores

Crystal Coast family vacations 2021

Perfect for a rainy day on the Crystal Coast – or for the otter lover in your family – the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores is a lovely afternoon activity. The aquarium has a living shipwreck exhibit, a loggerhead sea turtle viewing area, and the adorable North American River Otters are always on display.

Tip: The aquarium is small and can easily be viewed in 1-2 hours. There’s a talking sea turtle puppet show and other activities to keep the littlest kiddos in your crew entertained.

Book your stay in Pine Knoll Shores

8/9 Search for treasure on a Crystal Coast pirate cruise

Crystal Coast family vacations 2021

Though Beaufort is an idyllic small town, it’s also home to a real-life history of Crystal Coast piracy. Black Beard’s infamous ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, was wrecked just offshore here.

Tip: Incorporating the actual pirate history with playtime pirate fun, the Pirate Treasure Cruise is perfect for all the little plunderers in your family. During the 90-minute cruise, kids get a bandana, a sword fighting lesson and witness a water cannon battle while on the hunt for great treasure. Parents can join in on the fun or relax and enjoy the scenery.

9/9 Cool off with sweet Crystal Coast treats

After all that activity, you’ve earned a scoop of ice cream…or two! The General Store in Beaufort is a cute shop that features homemade fudge, local gifts and 32 different flavors of ice cream to choose from, there’ll definitely be something for every sweet tooth.

Book your stay in Beaufort

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