NC Coast & Beaches
Must-See Coastal Attractions
All along North Carolina’s coast you’ll find exciting places to visit and things to see. From museums celebrating our maritime past to historic lighthouses to up-close-and-personal experiences with sea turtles, you’ll find one-of-a-kind North Carolina experiences aren’t far away.
Take Your Time with Turtles
Did you know that every summer nearly 1,000 sea turtles visit North Carolina’s coast to lay their eggs on our beaches? Huge Loggerhead sea turtles, Green turtles and the tiny Kemp’s Ridley turtle all return to the beach of their birth to lay their eggs, and every beach from the Outer Banks to the Brunswick Islands is in on the action. No matter where you are on the coast, chances are a sea turtle has nested nearby.
On the Outer Banks, the Network for Endangered Sea Turtles (NEST) protects and preserves nests and areas prone to nesting. They monitor nests and, with the help of North Carolina’s aquariums, rescue and rehabilitate injured turtles.
The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center – affectionately known as the Topsail Turtle Project – monitors and protects sea turtle nests along Topsail Island and works to rehabilitate injured or endangered turtles.
On Bald Head Island, the Bald Head Island Conservancy (BHIC) holds “Turtle Walks” during the height of nesting on the island, giving Conservancy members the chance to learn about sea turtles and possibly see one lay her clutch of eggs. Volunteers serve as nest monitors, watching nests close to hatching. When it’s time for a nest to “boil” and hatch, volunteers, BHIC staff, island residents and visitors watch the hatchlings make their first journey to the sea.
See Under the Sea at North Carolina’s Aquariums
Each of North Carolina’s aquariums – on Roanoke Island, at Pine Knoll Shores and at Fort Fisher – participate in sea turtle rehabilitation programs and give visitors a chance to see a turtle up close and personal, but that’s not all they have to offer.
At the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island (on the Outer Banks), you can see the largest collection of sharks in the state and touch a variety of aquatic and semi-aquatic creatures in the Close Encounters exhibit.
The North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores’ exhibits lead you from the mountains to the sea as you follow a stream’s journey to the ocean. See river otters play, discover the fish found in our rivers and the reptiles in our marshes, then make your way to the open sea. While you’re there, don’t miss the white sea turtle and hear its story.
At the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, climb into the replica jaws of the Megalodon, a prehistoric shark the size of a bus that lived right off our coast. Time your visit to see the alligator feeding, or get to know Luna, the albino alligator, anytime.
For another aquatic experience on the coast, visit Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head. The pier was recently rebuilt and now hosts a variety of education programs from fishing lessons to kids’ science camps to cooking classes, and, of course, a great opportunity for fishing.
Get a View from the Top at One of Our Historic Lighthouses
North Carolina’s coast is home to nine lighthouses, many of which are in operation today. Climb to the top of three lighthouses – the tallest lighthouse, the oldest standing lighthouse and the only one to operate during the day.
On the Outer Banks, climb to the top of the 200-foot high Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, made distinct not only by its height, but by its black and white spiral stripe. In 1999, the lighthouse was moved to protect it from a rapidly eroding beach. Don’t miss the Hatteras Island Visitor Center and Museum of the Sea in the former lighthouse keeper’s quarters.
Cape Lookout Lighthouse, located at the southern end of the Outer Banks, is best known for its black and white diamond pattern. The lighthouse stands 163 feet high and is open for tours Wednesday through Saturday from mid-May to mid-September. Cape Lookout is the only lighthouse in North Carolina to operate during the day, keeping sailors safe around the clock.
Old Baldy, located on Bald Head Island, is North Carolina’s oldest standing lighthouse. Built in 1817, this 110-foot lighthouse was commissioned by Thomas Jefferson. The nearby Smith Island Museum, home of the Old Baldy Foundation, gives insight into the lives of lighthouse keepers.
See the Banker ponies of the Outer Banks and Crystal Coast
Head up to Corolla or down to Shackleford Banks to see the Banker ponies. These wild horses are descendents of Spanish mustangs that arrived here more than 400 years ago and are the state horse of North Carolina. Guided tours will take you up-close-and-personal with these horses (but not too close, you have to maintain a 50-foot distance for your safety and the horses’) and give you insight into how they came to be here. In Corolla, stop by the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, a nonprofit that has been helping the horses since 1989, and take one of their members-only tours for unprecedented access to the herd. On Shackleford Banks, take a guided tour with Shackleford Wild Horse & Shelling Safari, and explore the island where the horses are the only full-time residents.
Man Your Battle Stations Aboard the Battleship USS NORTH CAROLINA
Board the USS NORTH CAROLINA and explore the decks where 2,500 sailors and marines fought in every major naval offensive in the Pacific theatre during World War II. Brought to Wilmington in 1961 as the state’s World War II memorial, she’s seen hundreds of thousands of visitors cross her decks. Take in the view of Wilmington from the fantail, climb into the massive 16’ gun turrets and imagine your life below decks as you tour the living quarters of the men who called her home.
All Hands on Deck at North Carolina’s Maritime Museums
Along North Carolina’s history-rich coast, three museums dedicated to our maritime heritage give you a view of the people and events that played key roles in shaping our storied past. The North Carolina Maritime Museums at Hatteras, Beaufort and Southport tell the tales of pirates, blockade runners, German submarines in World War II and the importance of the modern-day fishing industry through exhibits and interactive programs for adults and kids.
The coast of North Carolina is known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, and at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras, you can learn more about the hundreds of shipwrecks – from colonial ships to Civil War submarines to World War II threats – that line our coast.
Did you know that Blackbeard’s flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, was sunk in the Beaufort Inlet more than 270 years ago? At the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort, you’ll find out more about North Carolina’s pirate history through displays of artifacts from the Queen Anne’s Revenge.
At the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Southport, learn more about the impact the Cape Fear River has on our seafaring history. Find out about Brunswick Town, one of the most important colonial ports in the region, and learn about the role played by the Cape Fear River and surrounding barrier islands during the Civil War.
By Jason Frye
By Jason Frye
added: February 27, 2012
updated: February 29, 2012