With over 300 miles of shoreline, North Carolina is home to dozens of beaches, so finding the right one for a trip can be a challenge when each beach offers its own charm. For families especially, the decision can be hard because families have more needs to accommodate than individuals.
When you’ve got a family, you have more than just your own safety and enjoyment to look out for and the last thing you want to do on your getaway is to constantly worry about whether everyone is okay or struggle to keep kids entertained. Fortunately, many family-friendly beaches offer fun and relaxation for everyone.
If you want to know, “What are the 10 best beaches in North Carolina for families,” you’ve come to the right place. You’ll discover affordable, safe, and fun locations for exactly the kind of adventures you and your family have been craving.
For all families looking to get away, it’s time to discover the best NC beaches for families that are sure to appeal to both your family’s oldest and youngest members. Read on to learn more about what beaches are the best for families and how to determine which one is best for your family.
Our Methodology for Selecting the Best Beaches for Families
With so many great beaches in North Carolina, creating a list of just ten of the best family-friendly beaches wasn’t easy, so we had to be diligent about ranking beaches based on a range of features. Ten beaches have been chosen to offer valid options for families with a range of interests, needs, and priorities. While what qualifies a family-friendly beach can vary, our methodology included some of the most prominent concerns parents have about beaches, such as safety, affordability, and amenities.
The following are the key categories we used to determine which beaches were best for families.
- Safety: Beach and ocean safety is one of the most important factors when it comes to ensuring a safe environment. While learning beach safety is a discussion that parents must always have with their kids, different beaches offer different levels of safety features. When looking for family beaches, we considered features like visibility, general water conditions, and lifeguards on duty.
- Beach design: Each beach was designed differently, and that’s mostly due to nature, but how humans built around the beaches also impacts the overall layout of the beaches and how they are better or worse for families. Beaches that tend to be steeper or have rougher waters may be less appealing to families. Some beaches may also be more prone to overcrowding, which can make it harder to look after your kids.
- Activities: Each beach will offer different activities, and having activities for kids and other family members can make the difference between an okay trip and a great trip. When determining which beaches would make the list, we looked for beaches that had a balance of activities that can appeal to various members of your family.
- Nearby Amenities: If you’re planning a beach vacation, you’ll spend much of your time on the beach, but most families also want to know that there are eateries and other amenities that will be good for their families, so nearby amenities are a major factor in determining which beaches were better for families.
- Accommodation: You need to know you have a good place to stay when you are visiting. Beaches with a variety of accommodation options were prioritized. We made sure that places on the list had hotels, rentals, or other accommodations that would not only work for families but would give families access to extra perks and resources they would need. Some family-friendly accommodation amenities that families may need include highchairs, strollers, appropriate beds for children, and first aid.
- Affordability: The beaches that were selected have a range of price points, but in our research, we knew that affordability matters a lot to families. Even the more expensive beaches on the list have only been added if they offer economic advantages and lifestyle perks that balance out the cost. No beach was chosen based on prestige alone.
Crucially, this list was not created by just subjective measures, and while the nature of such a list means some subjective judgment is involved, the decisions were informed by objective measures, such as demographics, crime rates, cost analysis, water quality and roughness monitoring, and related data. The objective facts were aided by reviews and feedback from real families, which allows the results to be data-driven while still speaking to hard-to-quantify factors that do influence how much a family enjoys or doesn’t enjoy an experience.
Family-Friendly Beaches in North Carolina
Beach trips are good for your family, and research suggests that kids who spend time on beaches or near lakes tend to have better mental health as adults. Thus, beach trips are not only fun but they help your kids learn to decompress and learn vital skills, such as swimming, exploration, and self-discovery. But you want to choose the right beach for you and your family to explore safety.
The following ten beaches give you a good blend of features that are sure to keep your family healthy and happy. Different features may appeal to you more than others, but each beach will offer families a good balance of things they will love.
10. Carolina Beach
A three-mile beach with 20 lifeguard stands, Carolina Beach offers families peace of mind and is known for its boardwalk, which Food & Wine Magazine ranked as one of the top 10 boardwalks in the United States.
- Location: Carolina Beach is located in the town of the same name, about fifteen miles from Wilmington.
- Parking and Cost: Carolina Beach has a range of parking options. During off-months, parking is free. During busier months, you can pay using the parking app, but two parking lots will offer free two-hour parking throughout the year. During peak months, parking costs $5 per hour or $25 per day.
- Atmosphere: Carolina Beach is a hot and humid beach in the summer, and it can get quite busy because it is a popular vacation location for families.
- Amenities: lots of activities, food, and rides; lifeguards from Memorial Day through Labor Day; water sports like surfing; and soft sand.
- Things to Do: Swimming, learning to surf at the surf school, finding shells, checking out the boardwalk
- Pet Policy: Pets are allowed at certain times as long as they are leashed. Please see Carolina Beach’s pet rules for more info.
Whether you’re looking for a rental or hotel, Carolina Beach offers a lot of family-friendly accommodations because families are some of the most common visitors to the area. You can get family accommodation as low as around $80 a night, but the exact cost will determine how close you want to be to the beach, how many people will be attending, and the kind of amenities you need.
Carolina Beach is so good for families because it is so close to many nearby attractions and activities that appeal to families. Many of these activities are made to entertain children, such as boardwalk rides, ice cream parlors, and carnival games.
9. Sunset Beach
Sunset Beach has been named one of National Geographic’s 21 Best Beaches in the World for its tranquility and breathtaking views.
- Location: Sunset Beach is located in Brunswick County, North Carolina, and is in the Wilmington Metropolitan area.
- Parking and Cost: Sunset Beach is one of the few beaches in its area to offer free parking. If you plan to park at the pier, you can expect to pay $10 per day.
- Atmosphere: Families are welcomed to Sunset Beach
- Amenities: You will have access to restrooms, picnic shelter, brick walkways, and a fishing pier.
- Things to Do: One attraction in this area is the Kindred Spirit Mailbox on Bird Island, where people share their dreams, thoughts, and wishes by putting them in a mailbox. You may also want to check out the Sunset Beach Waterfront Park or the Ingram Planetarium.
- Pet Policy: Leashed dogs are welcomed on the beach after. Between Labor Day and the day before Memorial Day, they are not allowed on the beach during daytime hours between 8:00 AM to 6 PM.
If you’re looking for a place to stay, you can choose from rentals, hotels, and resorts based on the kinds of amenities that you prefer. Check out rental listings to see some of the great vacation homes available in the area.
There’s no doubt that families love Sunset Beach. With free summer concerts, kid-friendly activities, and plenty of relaxation options for parents, Sunset Beach blends different activities so everyone can get the most out of the vacation.
8. Cape Hatteras National Seashore
For those who want to see sea turtles, birds, and other wildlife, Cape Hatteras offers a spot for kids and adults to explore and embrace nature.
- Location: Cape Hatteras is located in Buxton, North Carolina, and it is in the Outer Banks.
- Parking and Cost: You can find parking outside the cape, but you can get an ORV permit to drive on the beach in Hatteras under select conditions.
- Atmosphere: Cape Hatteras is designed to help preserve nature, and that mission shows in the natural beauty of the beach and the rustic experiences available.
- Amenities: With campgrounds available and included amenities like bathrooms, showers, and laundry, you can get a well-rounded experience at this beach.
- Things to Do: Partake in natural activities like swimming, surfing, surfing, fishing, or birding.
- Pet Policy: Pets are permitted on a 6-foot leash. Pets are not allowed on swim beaches. You can even ride horses in certain areas.
Lodging doesn’t have to be anything fancy at this location. Many visitors like to use the campground for affordable and natural experiences. There are four campgrounds in the park you can choose from. You can reserve a spot online.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore is nestled in the renowned Outer Banks, which has been ranked as the #13 spot in the United States for Best Family Vacations. Of course, while the beach itself is the main point of attraction and is one of the most scenic of all beaches in North Carolina, there are a lot of nearby attractions that will make for great excursions. Roanoke Island’s North Carolina Aquarium is perfect for families. Jockey Ridge State Park is also home to the Atlantic’s tallest living sand dune!
7. Corolla Beach Public Beach
One of the best spots in the Outer Banks is Corolla Beach Public Beach, which allows you to see wild horses while enjoying all the classic fun of beaches.
- Location: Located in the Northern Outer Banks, Corolla Beach has 24 miles of beach.
- Parking and Cost: Parking is competitive and can fill up as early as 10 AM during busy times. Learn more about parking areas here.
- Atmosphere: Pet-friendly and full of natural charm, Corolla Beach can help you discover some of the best the Outer Banks has to offer.
- Amenities: With amenities like handicap access, seasonal lifeguards, abundant parking, restrooms, and bike racks, it’s easy for families to come to this beach without worry.
- Things to Do: There’s no doubt that when you visit the beach, you’ll also want to see the horses, which came with Spanish explorers and are a species that can only be found in the Outer Banks because they are extinct in their native habitat. You may also want to check out the Currituck Beach Lighthouse or one of the many family-owned restaurants.
- Pet Policy: Dogs are permitted all year, but they must be on leashes at all times.
If you want to visit the Outer Banks, Corolla Beach will offer you a great location. You can choose accommodations, such as beach homes, oceanfront rentals, and hotels. Families will love the many offerings they can choose from.
Families are fond of Corolla Beach because it is set apart from the business of city life and has all the incredible sights of the North Outer Banks, including Wild Spanish Mustangs, horses that have been in the area for centuries. Of course, you have to be careful around wildlife, but kids are always excited to see horses and then hit the beach.
6. Cape Lookout National Seashore
Cape Lookout National Seashore is known for its black and white striped lighthouse— what’s more beachy than that? As part of the National Park Service, you can embrace not just the beach itself but learn about the nature surrounding you.
- Location: Cape Lookout is located in Harkers Island. It requires you to take a ferry from Beaufort, NC.
- Parking and Cost: There are no paved roads at this location, and you must take a ferry to reach the location. This area is more for those who want a more natural experience.
- Atmosphere: Cape Lookout gives you a secluded experience and while it requires some more self-sufficiency, this type of living can be a great adventure for kids and help them learn to respect nature.
- Amenities: Amenities like year-round camping, family-friendly hiking trails, and scenic viewpoints will make you want to come year after year.
- Things to Do: Cape Lookout helps families get in touch with nature. You can climb the steps to the lighthouse, or park ranger programs and tours are ideal ways to get kids engaged and learning about the natural beach around them.
- Pet Policy: Leashed pets are allowed on a six-foot and as long as they are well-controlled.
For those looking for a one-of-a-kind experience, Cape Lookout offers one of the best camping experiences you will ever have and is full of potential adventures. From whale watching to lighthouse tours, there’s something for everyone.
5. Fort Fisher State Park Beach (Kure Beach)
Fort Fisher State Park Beach may not have the most shoreline with only 5 miles, but with its soft sand and turquoise water, it’s a great place to sunbathe, picnic, or enjoy water activities.
- Location: Fort Fisher is 18 miles south of Wilmington in New Hanover County.
- Parking and Cost: You may find free parking, but generally, parking will be $5 per hour or $20 per day. Handicap parking is always free.
- Atmosphere: This beach has a lively atmosphere and encourages kids to learn about wildlife and how to better care for the earth.
- Amenities: You have the option to use four-wheel drive beach driving, hiking trails, classrooms, and foot rinse stations.
- Things to Do: People who visit this location take advantage of activities like picnicking, paddling, fishing, swimming, and hiking. Birdwatches and photographers love to capture the wildlife activities.
- Pet Policy: You can bring pets to the park on a leash, but pets are not allowed in buildings or at the swim beach.
Fort Fisher State Park Beach is surrounded by amazing natural life, which kids and adults alike are sure to love exploring. This location combines natural wonder with history, including both a historic fort and the Atlantic Ocean’s oldest fishing pier. Kids can combine learning and play and parents can relax without stress.
4. Topsail Island Beaches
Each of the Topsail Beaches could stand on their own on this list, but North Topsail, Topsail, and Surf City have been combined because there’s no reason you cannot visit them all one trip. These beaches are known for their starfish, dolphin, and pelican populations, which kids are sure to love.
- Location: Topsail Island is located between the Crystal Coast islands and Cape Fear beaches, and it is a little South of Jacksonville, North Carolina.
- Parking and Cost: Parking is available and costs $25 per day or $5 per hour.
- Atmosphere: Topsail beaches are not lethargic, but they are relatively calm, so you’ll never feel overly rushed or overstimulated.
- Amenities: With many access points and 26 miles of beach, there are plenty of places to settle down.
- Things to Do: You’ll want to take advantage of sunset walks. Activities like swimming, surfing, and just relaxing are common.
- Pet Policy: From Memorial Day to Labor day, pets must be on beaches, but during off-times, voice-commanded pets may be off leashes as long as they are well-controlled. For more information, check out the entire pet policy.
Top Sail offers two resorts, Villa Capriani, and St. Regis, but it also offers a range of hotels and rentals that you can choose from based on your budget. For an affordable option, try out the Loggerhead Inn and Suite in Surf City.
The beaches at Topsail Island are relatively tame, but this beach may not be as desirable for families with young kids. North Topsail, Topsail, and Surf City beaches all lack lifeguards, so you’ll want to be extra cautious with little ones; however, the wildlife available at this beach means that families can still have a lot of fun at one of Topsail Island’s beaches as long as they proceed with extra caution.
3. Emerald Isle
If you’re looking for a beach that is known for being among the best, Emerald Isle has been voted as the top North Carolina Beach by the U.S. News & World Report and the USA Today Readers’ Choice Awards. It’s beloved for its miles of gorgeous beaches and seafood.
- Location: Emerald Isle is located on the Crystal Coast on Bogue Banks’ western end. It is about a 2 ½ hour drive from Raleigh.
- Parking and Cost: Parking costs a maximum of $16 a day and anywhere from $2 to $4 per hour. To learn more, check out the official parking rates.
- Atmosphere: Because it is so picturesque, beachgoers love to bring their families to this location to soak up the sun while being close to family-friendly lodging.
- Amenities: Emerald Isle has amenities like picnic pavilions, playgrounds, volleyball courts, and boat and kayak launches. You can also access
- Things to Do: You can partake in outdoor activities like boating, paddleboarding, hiking, or fishing. There are many natural trails and bike paths not to mention the sandy beaches. Within a family-friendly beach town, there are lots of attractions designed to accommodate families.
- Pet Policy: Emerald Isle is known as one of the most dog-friendly beaches because leashed dogs are always allowed on the beach based on current regulations.
Getting a place to stay isn’t too hard for families looking for accommodations to match their needs. Check out some of the best rentals and hotels in the area.
If you want your family beach trip, Emerald Isle has soft sand, perfect for playing and sandcastles. There are also opportunities for flying kites, biking across town, or fishing. If you want your family to taste some of the best East Coas seafood, Emerald Isle is sure to deliver.
2. Wrightsville Beach
Although Wrightsville Beach is perhaps most known for being a great surfing location, it also has a lot of activities and amenities that make families love it.
- Location: Wrightsville Beach is in New Hanover County. It is East of Wilmington.
- Parking and Cost: Parking costs $5 per hour or $25 per day. It is enforced seven days a week from 9:00 AM to 7:00 PM from March through October. However, certain lots will have exceptions. Beyond in-lot options, there are also some on-street parking choices.
- Atmosphere: Wrightsville Beach is an easy-going beach perfect for surfers and those who want to learn to be at home in the water.
- Amenities: Public restrooms, 7 ADA-accessible access points to the beach, spacious beach space, and a variety of wellness activities in the area.
- Things to Do: Wrightsville is a great place for families that like to surf or do other water activities like paddleboarding, scuba diving, or kayaking. Boat tours and shopping at local stores are also popular.
- Pet Policy: Dogs are allowed on beaches from October 1 to March 31, but they must always be on the leash. Waste bags and disposal cans are provided for pet waste. There are also water fountains designed for dogs. Check out the pet flyer to learn more.
When choosing accommodations, you can choose from hotels or rental houses. There are also several resort options that will give you fuller services and have activities like kids’ camps. It’s recommended that you stay on the island at one of many options.
Wrightsville Beach is full of fun and adventure. As the hub of east coast surfing, families who want a little adventure will be right at home at this beach. But Wrightsville offers more than just adventure and with many resort options, you can relax as much as you participate in intense activities.
1. Oak Island
Filled with nostalgic charm, Oak Island is an ideal place for families to make memories that will last for years to come, and even in the summer, this beach remains relatively quiet.
- Location: Oak Island is located at the southern part of North Carolina’s coastline.
- Parking and Cost: There are 65 public access points, and 1,250 parking spots available. The parking program is paid, with enforcement from April 1 to September 20 between 9:00 AM and 5:00 PM. Current rates are $5 per hour, $20 per day, or $80 per week.
- Atmosphere: Because the beach faces south, the views are incredible and whether you want to enjoy sunrise or sunset, you are sure to get a picturesque experience. The pace is slower than some of the other options on the list.
- Amenities: With more access points than other Island communities, Oak Island is great for beachgoers. Lots of parking spots, restrooms, shower stations, and water fountains are all great amenities for families.
- Things to Do: The beach will offer hours of fun, but you can also take trips around Oak Island. Oak Island Nature Center is perfect for seeing the natural sights of the island. For the adventurers, skydiving is an option. Locals are friendly and have many welcoming eateries and shops.
- Pet Policy: Oak Island has strict regulations on pets to provide a safe environment, but there are periods when leashed dogs are permitted on beaches. There are also two dog parks available.
Getting the right accommodation for your family isn’t too much of a challenge on Oak Island. You can check out available rentals and lodgings. Your options tend to offer cozy rentals that make you feel like you’re part of the community.
Families love to come to Oak Island, and for many, visits become a yearly tradition. With a relaxing environment, Oak Beach isn’t flashy, but it’s an ideal place to create lasting memories. Oak Beach offers a quintessential vacation for any type of family.
If you want the best beach trip possible for your family, you aren’t alone. You may still have a lot of questions regarding where you want to check out. Read these FAQs to gain clarity based on what other families like you ask before booking their North Carolina beach trips.
Carolina Beach is known as one of the best locations for families because it offers a combination of activities that keep the whole family entertained. Young kids can enjoy spending time in shallow parts of the shoreline, learning to get used to the water, while older kids can enjoy the many water sports and natural activities that Carolina Beach also offers. Carolina Beach’s boardwalk is a great way to have some extra fun after hitting the sand.
Beach lovers know that beauty depends on the kind of beach that appeals to you. If you like clear, blue water Shackleford Banks is known for its gorgeous water, but if you like white sand, Cape Hatteras National Seashore or Emerald Isle are excellent choices. Each North Carolina beach offers pretty charm, so the best way to discover what beach is prettiest to you is to explore as many as you can!
This list has given you a lot of options for family-friendly beaches in North Carolina, and all of the options listed can give kids great experiences. Remember that storm activity and weather conditions can change the steepness and waves of a beach, which means that while Topsail beaches, for example, tend to be quite calm, there’s no guarantee of how the beach will be when you get there.
While understanding the general steepness of beaches or the roughness of their waters can give you a good baseline of where to go, it’s generally better to focus on areas that have good family amenities and a good climate. Southern beaches will tend to have warmer water and areas like South Brunswick and Wilmington have many opportunities for families who want to do fun activities when they aren’t at the beaches.
Written by Allen Lee
Read more posts by Allen Lee