Ultimate Carolina Beaches Guide

2024 Carolina Beach Vacations Guide

The North and South Carolina coast covers a broad sweep of parks, islands, forts, history and more just waiting for you to explore. Carolina Beaches are some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Miles and Miles of National seashore await your visit. The Carolinas have beaches suited to every taste, whether you enjoy sunbathing, water sports, boating, surfing, fishing, climbing lighthouse towers, bird watching or diving among the shipwrecks. The highways in the Carolinas are in excellent condition, which will make your vacation a nice, smooth ride.

myrtle beach shoreline
Myrtle Beach – Atlantic Shoreline

North Carolina Coast Beaches

North Carolina boasts long stretches of secluded, pristine beaches near the Outer Banks and, luckily, you can drive the length of the Outer Banks on North Carolina Highway 12, also called the Virginia Dare Trail and Beach Road. On this mostly two-lane highway, you`ll enjoy incredible views of the Atlantic Ocean while riding past many miles of unspoiled coastline and traveling through charming beach towns. This route starts near the old Currituck Beach Lighthouse and notable stops include Kitty Hawk, where Wilbur and Orville Wright made the world`s first powered flight.

Kitty Hawk beach
Kitty Hawk – North Carolina beach

Along the North Carolina shore, discover miles of beautiful National Seashore untouched by man, protected for you and your grandchildren to enjoy. Take a ferry to Cape Lookout or one of the many islands that make up the NC outer banks. Enjoy the ride and pay attention. If you look close enough you may see wild horses swimming in the surf or dolphins playing in the ocean waves. Cape Lookout is a wonderful place to relax, look for seashells, walk in the surf and get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. It’s just you and your family. No cars, no buses … just nature at its finest. Plan to spend the day and bring your lunch. Be sure to bring your camera to take pictures. If you like to fish, don’t forget to bring your fishing gear. The North Carolina coast offers the finest fishing in the world. Hook into a Blue Marlin and find out.

Favorite Carolina Resorts in NC: Brunswick Islands, Cape Hatteras, Duck, Kill Devil Hills, Kitty Hawk, Nags Head, Ocracoke, and Roanoke Island

Read more about NC Southern Coast Beach Guide, NC Outer Banks Beaches

South Carolina Coast Beaches

Consider South Carolina beaches for your next vacation. Hilton Head SC is thought by many to be the best beach in South Carolina. Hilton Head Island offers a wide pristine beach, parasailing, kayaking, island cruises, wildlife refuges, championship golf courses, and more family vacation fun. With mild temperatures all year round, Hilton Head is an all-season resort. It is a quiet town more geared for a relaxing vacation. You can rejuvenate and relax in the sun. Many couples get married and take their honeymoon in Hilton Head. Read about my visit to Hilton Head Beaches. In contrast, Myrtle Beach offers an active nightlife, a boardwalk, amusement parks, water parks, NASCAR and lots of entertainment. The pavilion is world-famous. Myrtle Beach is where college kids go for spring break. So, you can see, the South Carolina coast offers a wide variety of vacation possibilities. It just depends on what you want in a vacation.

Hilton Head Island Visitors Guide
Beach @ Hilton Head, SC

Best South Carolina Beach Resorts

  1. Folly Beach
  2. Hilton Head Island
  3. Huntington Beach State Park
  4. Isle of Palms
  5. Kiawah Island
  6. Murrells Inlet
  7. Myrtle Beach
  8. Pawley’s Island
  9. Sea Islands

Read more about: South Carolina Beaches

Best Beaches in the Carolinas

If you want to take a relaxing driving vacation, consider cruising your way through ‘The Carolinas‘. North and South Carolina both offer you the opportunity to see some of the most breathtaking ocean views and visit some of the oldest beach resorts in the United States.

U.S. Highway 17, also called the Coastal Highway and the King`s Highway, runs through both of The Carolinas, traveling close to the Atlantic Ocean for much of the way. In South Carolina, Highway 17 travels through Atlantic Beach and North Myrtle Beach, both fabulous driving destinations for some old-fashioned fun in the sun.

Atlantic Beach is the oldest resort in this region. Founded in 1887, this beach town started with just one small pavilion, a few changing stalls, and a refreshment stand. Today, you can enjoy various beach activities, including swimming, windsurfing, fishing, parasailing, and sunbathing.

Myrtle Beach offers a 60-mile stretch of gorgeous, white sandy beaches. This beach town is known for offering some of the best inshore and deep-sea fishing in the region. You can also visit two Oceanside state parks, take island cruises and perfect your golf or tennis game with an Oceanside view.

Myrtle Beach
Myrtle Beach

Continue your driving vacation on Highway 17 by cruising into Wilmington, North Carolina, where surfing is the name of the game. Right across the peninsula is Wrightsville Beach, where you can take a leisurely ride on the beach or relax on a harbor cruise along the Intercoastal Highway. You can then take a side trip on Highway 421 to Carolina Beach, which offers an old-time boardwalk complete with ice cream stores, a pier and an arcade.

You shouldn’t visit the Outer Banks area without visiting the islands themselves. Stretching over 130 miles in length and surrounded by 900 miles of ocean, these islands have some of the most pristine beaches in the world. The ferry system of the Outer Banks gives you a fun way to island-hop. You can visit Hatteras Island, where the dreaded pirate, Blackbeard finally met his end, Ocracoke Island and Roanoke Island, also called ‘The Lost Colony‘ because approximately 120 people disappeared without a trace over 400 years ago.

The North and South Carolina coast contain some of the oldest seaside resort areas in America. Historic Wilmington NC and Charleston SC have a history that dates back well beyond the Revolutionary war. Fort Sumter, located in Charleston’s harbor, fired the first shots of the Civil War. Both cities have historic districts well worth the visit. Tour one of the Ante Bellum Plantation homes in the area. These homes have beautiful gardens, antiques, and a story to tell. Take a haunted tour of the city for some really exciting stories. Enjoy fresh seafood at one of the area’s outstanding restaurants. Take a culinary tour or a harbor cruise.

Listen to the sound of the surf as it tells the story of past explorers, pirates and buried gold. Listen closely, as the sea whispers the stories of ships that have sunk and joined the graveyard of the Atlantic along the NC Outer Banks. Sir Walter Raleigh, Blackbeard the Pirate, Calico Jack, and other legends have walked these shores. Spend the day soaking in sun rays and relaxing on the beach.

NC Carolina Lighthouse Locations

There are 8 total lighthouses on the Carolina Coast.

  1. Bodie Island Lighthouse – built 1872 located North of Hatteras Island on the Oregon Inlet
  2. Bald Head Lighthouse – located on Smith Island, 1st in NC, Built 1795. rebuilt 1817 – guides ship around Cape Fear and Frying Pan Shoals.
  3. Cape Hatteras Lighthouse – built 1870, covers the area around Cape Hatteras and Diamond Shoals
  4. Currituck Lighthouse (Whalehead) – built 1875 located on the Currituck sound at Corolla, covers the coastline between Cape Henry Lighthouse VA and Bodie Island Lighthouse.
  5. Ocracoke Lighthouse – built 1823 on Ocracoke Island, one of the oldest lighthouses still operating in the US,
  6. Oak Island Lighthouse – built the 1950s, brightest lighthouse in the US, near Southport NC
  7. Prices Creek Lighthouse – built 1848, no tours, 2 miles from Southport, covers the Cape Fear River area,  it has been inoperable since the second battle of Fort Fisher during the Civil War.
  8. Cape Lookout Lighthouse – built 1859 on the Core Banks, covers the Lookout Shoals area. take a boat from Harkers Island, Morehead City or Beaufort.
Carolina Beach
Carolina Beach, NC

Beach Camping

North and South Carolina are popular destinations for beach campers in the United States. Both states have shorelines ideal for a family trip or beach adventure and each state`s coast is known for its beaches, fed by the vast Atlantic Ocean. If you are planning a beach camping in North or South Carolina, you have many state and private campgrounds to choose from.

beach camping nc

Ocracoke Island Campground

Accessible only by ferry, the Ocracoke Island Campground in North Carolina is a solid choice for campers who want water nearby. The island is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and preserved in its natural state. The campgrounds are only separated from the Atlantic Ocean and beach by dunes. Boat rentals are available in the Ocracoke Village and campers can kayak on the Pamlico Sound side of the island.

Ocean Waves Campground

Part of the Outer Banks, a string of barrier islands off the North Carolina coast, on Hatteras Island, the Ocean Waves Campground is a scenic oceanfront camping site. Both fishing and surfing are popular activities along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. With less than 70 full sites, Ocean Waves provides a quieter, less busy beach camping experience. Both double-width concrete pad sites and water and sewer facilities are available to campers, as well as hot showers, running toilets and a local camp store.

Huntington Beach State Park

Located in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, a fishing village near Myrtle Beach, the Huntington Beach State Park is right by Grand Strand Beach. Both tent and RV sites are available, with some sites capable of accommodating RVs up to 40 feet long. Restrooms and hot showers are near all campsites and all sites except tent sites have electrical and water hookups. Tent campers can rent a site that has electricity and water. Some sites also have sewer hookups available. Huntington Beach State Park does allow leashed dogs in the camping areas and on the south end of the beach.

Ocean Lakes Family Campground

Ocean Lakes Family Campground is a resort campground in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Spanning over 300 acres on the oceanfront, Ocean Lakes has over 800 camping sites and a recreation area and it can accommodate trailers and recreation vehicles on some of the sites.

Hammocks Beach State Park

Part of Bear Island in Swansboro, North Carolina, Hammocks Beach State Park is a must for those looking for an unspoiled beach. The campground is open year-round but only reached by ferry or private boat from the mainland. The beach and campgrounds are free of commercial buildings and only accommodate tents. The island does have a restroom facility and water available during the main camping season.

Beach Camping Tips

Beach camping is not the same as traditional forest camping. You`ll need longer tent pitches and a tent that is resistant to strong winds. A dome tent, with a series of crossing poles, is self-supporting and often easier to pitch in the sand. Bring empty plastic bags just in case you experience very strong winds. You can fill the bags with sand and use the sandbags as weights for the tent`s guylines.

As you`ll be in open areas and won`t have trees to provide shade, you will need extra sunscreen and beach umbrellas. Mosquitoes might be even more of a nuisance if you are camping on a beach in hot weather, as water is a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Bring insect repellent products for yourself and your family and make sure your tent`s insect netting is in good condition.

Blowing sand will get into nearly every surface. Bring a broom to sweep out your tent or RV as needed and keep bags in a sealed tent or RV at all times. Have old towels handy and wipe off feet and shoes before going into your tent or RV so you don`t bring sand in.

If you can`t get to these camping sites in North and South Carolina because of reservation problems or travel concerns, there are other options. Recreational parks offer the best of camping in the United States without the long travel time.

Look for a park that has the same features you were looking for in your preferred Carolina beach campsite and don`t forget to check reviews before you go.

Carolina Beach Hiking Trails

Hiking is more than just a form of exercise; it`s also a type of exploration. When you go for a hike at a North or South Carolina beach, you never know what you`ll see or where you`ll ultimately end up. Each trip is an adventure in itself whether it`s for several miles or only down the nearest coastline.

North Carolina beaches offer a unique look at nature that many hikers will have a difficult time rivaling. Cape Lookout is a majestic island that has scenery that you won`t find anywhere else. A trip down the beach may turn into a journey of wonder as you watch wild horses swimming just off the shore or see dolphins playing in the water.

For many, hiking is a solitary experience. It`s a time to reflect on life while sticking your toes deep into the sand. If you need privacy, you`ll find it in the 300 miles of beach coastline that North Carolina offers. If you come to the beaches during the summer, you can find 1,000 sea turtles laying their eggs on some of the many banks. Who knows what type of animal you may see when you trek along the coastline or on one of the many islands such as Bald Head Island or Roanoke Island.

They may not be part of the NC mainland, but the beaches on these islands are pristine and nearly untouched by civilization. A hike down the coast will show you many local wonders from lighthouses to a myriad of seashells and local fauna.

North Myrtle Beach, SC
North Myrtle Beach, SC

When most people think of South Carolina beaches, their mind travels to Myrtle Beach because it`s one of the state`s biggest tourist attractions. There are countless sights and sounds to discover on the historic Myrtle Beach during your hike, but the state also offers many lesser-known spots that can give you a little more privacy.

Folly Beach is called the “Edge of America” by the local residents. If you grab your poles before leaving on your hike, you can stop and do some fishing or visit the Morris Island Lighthouse. Hunting Island has five miles of beach and is a natural wonder where you can find marshes, lagoons, and ocean inlets while you`re out and about. South Carolina beaches offer a unique view of the world when you`re out on a hike, whether you are on the crowded banks of Myrtle Beach or the posh Hilton Head.

History of Carolina Beaches

The Winyaw and Waccamaw Indians used the Myrtle Beach SC area as a part-time residence. They called the area Chicora or the land.

The Spanish were the first Europeans to settle the Carolina Coast. They established a settlement in the Cape Fear region in 1520. The Spanish settlers numbered around 500. Because of disease, they relocated to South Carolina. In the new settlement, disease broke out again. Their numbers dwindled to about 150. The settlement was abandoned in 1526.

The first recorded exploration of the NC coast was in 1524 by the explorer Giovanni Verrazano who detailed the exploration from Hatteras to Cape Fear. The report was published in 1582 by the Englishman Richard Hakluyt.

Sir Walter Raleigh petitioned for rights to establish a colony in the area. He was granted these rights in 1584 by Queen Elizabeth 1. The expedition led by Sir Walter Raleigh landed on Roanoke Island in 1584. Sir Walter Raleigh named the area Virginia after Queen Elizabeth 1st who was often referred to as the Virgin Queen.

roanoke island
Roanoke Island Festival Park, North Carolina

The first child born in the Carolina colony was Virginia Dare.

North and South Carolina were one prior to the late 1600s when King Charles II divided the colony so it would be easier to manage.

In the early 1700s, Pirates Stede Bonnett and Blackbeard (Edward Teach) terrorized the NC coastline. The many coves and treacherous waters made it ideal for hiding out. Blackbeard’s flagship was called Queen Anne’s Revenge. It was sunk around Ocracoke Island where Blackbeard was reported killed. Blackbeard had a house in Bath and a wife. The house is supposedly haunted by Blackbeard’s spirit. The flagship has recently been thought to have been found in Beaufort Inlet.

The town of Bath was established in 1706, New Bern 1710 and then Beaufort in 1763.

In colonial days, the main road through North Carolina near the coast was called the Kings Highway now it is US 17.

Wilmington was established as a deep water port in 1732. Morehead City was another deepwater port.

The Palmetto tree was used to build Fort Moultrie in 1776. It was built to guard against British Attack. The Palmetto tree is softwood and absorbed the bomb shelling of the British during the American Revolution. The tree saved Fort Moultrie from being captured by the British. The state adopted the tree afterward. The Palmetto tree is the motto and state emblem of South Carolina

South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860. Fort Sumter fired the first shots of the Civil War on April 12, 1861. General Beauregard was the commander of the Confederate Troops. Major Anderson was the commander of the Union troops at Fort Sumter. The Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter for 34 hours until Major Anderson surrendered on April 13. The Fort was decommissioned in 1947 and put into the Park Service. There are a self-guided tour and a museum with Civil War artifacts. The Fort is only accessible by boat as it is in the Charleston harbor.

During the Civil War, the area around Wilmington and Morehead City was taken by Confederate troops. Fort Fisher was built to guard the port of Wilmington against Union troops. Fort Macon was built in the 1830s. Robert E. Lee was in charge of building the Fort. It guarded the Morehead City area. In 1862, Union ships began blockading the NC coast. Because of the coves, inlets and treacherous waters, blockade runners were still able to smuggle arms and other commodities into NC. Cape Hatteras was taken early in the war by Union troops.

nags head nc
Beach @ Out Banks Nags Head NC

The Outer Banks is known as the graveyard of the Atlantic because countless ships have been sunk here. In 1874, the US government established the US life-saving service. They also began improving the lighthouses on the NC coast.

In 1903, the Wright Brothers flew the first airplane glider at Kill Devil Hills. They sent a telegraph from Kitty Hawk telling of the flight. That’s why most everyone thinks the first flight took place at Kitty Hawk. The Wright Brothers were from Ohio.

In 1942, German U boats attacked Merchant shipping off Cape Hatteras. It was nicknamed Torpedo Junction. There is a British cemetery on Ocracoke Island where British sailors are buried. These sailors were from a British ship that was torpedoed during WWII.

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