Corolla is one of the most popular North Carolina beaches for one special reason: the 4×4 area, slightly to the north, known as Carova! If you have a vehicle equipped to take advantage of this opportunity I would highly recommend it as part of your Outer Banks vacation experience. Enjoy the sunshine, play in the waves, and possibly see the famous wild horses!
For the Outer Banks, with its reputation of soft sand and beautiful beaches, there is an obvious question. “Which Outer Banks Beach Is The Best Beach?”
Obvious question—yes. Obvious answer—no.
The best beach isn’t just a set of scientific criteria. Dr. Beach, Dr. Stephen Leatherman of Florida International University, has done that and his annual list of the 10 Best Beaches is widely anticipated. And Outer Banks beaches tend to do quite well in the rankings.
Best, however, is a somewhat subjective term.
Coquina Beach, as an example, on the south end of South Nags Head is a wonderful beach. Soft sand, wide area between the dunes and ocean, the facilitates, parking lot and beach are maintained by the National Park Service. But for a family of four with a toddler and a six-year-old, it may not be the best beach; the nearest restaurants and stores are five miles north around Jennette’s Pier.
Recognizing that best is based on what is best when it is being used, we have come up with our own Outer Banks Blue best beach list, based on who is using the beach and how it is being used.
In ranking our rankings, we are only looking at public access beaches. Duck and Southern Shores have some of the best quality sand and a wonderful atmosphere. However, both are reserved for residents and property owners of the town and their guests.
It’s also important to note that because of beach nourishment, all Outer Banks beaches are wide with ample room between the dune line and surf. Beach nourishment is done to protect infrastructure, property and the shoreline. A happy byproduct is a wider, better beach.
Best Beach for a Family with Children
Ocean Bay Drive Beach Access, Kill Devil Hills & Jennette’s Pier, Nags Head
Everything a family with young children could want is within quick walking distance to the beach at both locations. There’s good parking—with a slight nod to Jennette’s Pier, the beach is wide and the sand is soft. The showers, changing facilities and restrooms are very well-maintained by the towns.
What really sets these two locations apart, though, is the easy access to two iconic Outer Banks convenience stores that carry everything from sunscreen to sandwiches. At Jennette’s Pier it’s Cahoons which has been in business for more than 55 years. In Kill Devil Hills the Stop N Shop has been just across the Beach Road from the Beach Access has been supplying beach goers for almost 30 years.
Honorable Mention goes to the Kitty Hawk Beach Access. Like Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head, the town does a great job of maintaining their facilities. KDH and Nags Head get higher marks because there are convenience stores right there. Neither place, though, has burgers, fries, dolphin boats and milkshakes as good as John’s Drive-in. A bit too far to walk from the access, but the one minute car ride is worth the experience.
Best Beach for a Couple
Coquina Beach, Nags Head & Currituck County Southern Beach Access
In the summer, couples hoping to get away from the crowds will find it challenging. Not impossible, but the most popular time of the year to visit the Outer Banks is the summer, and there are a lot of people here.
Our suggestion—Coquina Beach and the Currituck County Southern Beach Access are the southern most beach entry points in their areas. Turn right—south—when your feet hit the sand, and the crowds will thin a bit. They won’t go away, but there will be a somewhat more space for time with a special someone.
Not quite as busy as July or August, the shoulder seasons are also an option. September through early October especially, daytime temperatures are still warm and the ocean water temperature ideal.
Best Beach to See Something Different
Where else can you swim in the surf with wild horses 75 or 80’ away? Yes, there really are wild horses in Carova—horses that have been shown through genetic testing to be descendents of the Spanish Mustangs of the Conquistadores.
No one is sure about the exact number, but the herd seems to be between 100-120. During the summer, when it gets hot, they go to the beach for the same reason humans do…to cool off.
There are some really important things to know about Carova and the horses.
First—these are truly wild horses. Local law and common sense dictates staying at least 50’ away from them.
About the Carova Beach—The beach going to Carova, which is on the North Carolina, Virginia state line, is a wide, wonderful beach. Or it would be if it wasn’t also the road to Carova.
The paved road ends 11 miles south of Caova. The only access is along the beach in a 4WD vehicle. In the summer especially, it gets very busy. The speed limit is 25mph—not everyone obeys that.
Best Beach with the Softest Sand
Any Corolla Beach & Coquina Beach
In Corolla there should be no problem finding a place to park and get to the sand. Currituck County has eight public access parking lots with plenty of parking available.
Coquina Beach is the happy byproduct of beach nourishment. It is a wider, better beach. On a warm summer day with the sound of the surf rolling in, the sand on every Outer Banks beach will be perfectly soft.
Best Beach for a Picnic
For basic orientation, the string begins in North Carolina at Carova to the north and ends at Okracoke Island and Portsmouth Island to the south. If you look at an Outer Banks map you’ll notice how far the islands extend into the Atlantic Ocean. In part due to the separation from the mainland, and in part due to the unique history and geography, each of the barrier islands has its own culture.
Carova, Corolla, and Knotts Island
The northernmost section of the OBX is Carova. This area includes beautiful and secluded Carova Beach, Corolla, and Knotts Island. Carova and most of Knotts Island can only be accessed by boat or four-wheel drive, making it the perfect spot for those who really want to get away.
Carova has stunning ocean views and luxury beach rentals. There is a sense of isolation, but you’ll also have easy access to Carolla’s grocery store, restaurants, and gear rental agencies. Keep your binoculars handy if you’re hanging out on the beachfront patio – you may spot the famous wild mustangs having a sunset stroll. Though legally you’re required to stay 50 feet away from the wild horses, many visitors have reported horses nosing around their yards and front porches.
If you have come to the Outer Banks to see the famous wild horses, stay in nearby Corolla and plan a day trip to Carova. Corolla is best for beginning surfers and beach lovers, and has a few restaurants and shops. Love the idea of the simplicity of times gone by? Stay on the northern islands.
Bodie Island has changed over time into a peninsula due to years of shifting beaches, but it has retained it’s originally name for the area. It includes the notable towns of Duck, Southern Shores, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Nags Head.
If you’ve come for history or watersports Bodie Island will keep you as busy as you want to be. Duck is a quaint “new” town built mostly to accommodate vacationers, and it’s a no-fail choice for first timers. Duck will keep you happily diverted with cultural events, high-end restaurants, shopping, and a scenic boardwalk.
The rest of Bodie Island is famous for its place in aviation history and the busy Jockey’s Ridge State Park. Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Nags Head have a variety of restaurants and shops, ample beach parking, and bathhouses near some boardwalks. For kite boarders and windsurfers Jockey’s Ridge is a pilgrimage. Even if you’re not that daring it’s fun to see the giant sand dunes and watch the more adventurous zip across the waves.
Bringing your dog? Duck and Nags Head have the most dog-friendly beach rules.
Roanoke Island includes the small towns of Manteo and Wanchese. These villages are pedestrian-friendly and offer watersport gear rentals, events, restaurants, and wonderful, wide beaches. Roanoke Island has a legendary history that you’ll feel immersed in it as soon as you arrive. It is also a good midway point if you want to take in both the north and south islands of the Outer Banks chain.
Hatteras Island encompasses the vacation-friendly towns of Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, Frisco, and Hatteras. Several towns (Rodanthe, Waves, Frisco, Avon, and Salvo) are small with basic provisions nearby and Nags Head just a short drive for anything more you might need.
If you’re looking for a quiet place to unplug, Rodanthe is the place to do it. Buxton is also low-key and is the home of the famous Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. If you surf, the Atlantic side of Buxton and Hatteras has the biggest waves in the Outer Banks. The sound side of Hatteras Island is a haven for other watersports. The larger town of Hatteras has the most activities and rentals for vacationers, and is a popular destination for anglers.
What Ocracoke Island lacks in square mileage it makes up for in history. Remote and reachable only by ferry, private boat, or private plane, visitors to Ocracoke Island will find there are enough restaurants, shops, and activities to make a nice vacation. History lovers will appreciate the British cemetery, the old fort, and a visit to the site of Blackbeard the pirate’s last stand.
Even though roads connect the islands of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, each has managed to develop it’s own culture. No matter which one you choose, you’re sure to enjoy your foray into the fascinating history and unspoiled beauty of this special place.
#1 – Corolla and Carova Beach
With the exception of a few million-dollar mansions and the homes of residents, the town of Corolla is the last glimpse of civilization before reaching Carova Beach. Truly a spot for locals, this area has unspoiled dunes, pristine beaches, wild Spanish mustangs roaming free and, well, that’s about all.No paved roads. No stores. No trash pickup. No gas stations. Just nature and locals.It’s a little slice of paradise that offers a view rarely seen by most and absolutely worth the trip. If you aren’t driving a four-wheel-drive vehicle during your stay, you’ll want to stop in Corolla and rent an ATV or two. Most two-wheel cars get stuck in the sand. Some goodhearted natives usually stop and pull visitors out, but this is not the way you want to spend your day.
#2 – Daredevils Baseball
While vacationing at the beach is a big draw for U.S. families, baseball is absolutely America’s favorite pastime. Here’s a great Outer Banks vacation tip: combine the two!The Outer Banks Daredevils play every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights at 7:05 p.m. (during season). In addition to a fabulous game, you and the family can also enjoy on-field kids’ games and exceptional concessions from popular restaurants such as Mulligan’s Raw Bar & Grill. Every game raises awareness and funds for local charities.
#3 – The Salt Box Café (and other local restaurants)
Nothing against the national food chains, but when you’re in the Outer Banks, there are so many exceptional local restaurants that it’s a shame not to try as many as possible. The Salt Box Café is a great example.Owned by classically trained chef Randolph Sprinkles, this charming cottage-style restaurant features local seafood, meat and other ingredients. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, you’ll find five-star cuisine at very affordable prices for the adults and a fun menu for the kids.The Salt Box Café is just one of many local restaurants that do the Outer Banks proud. The Blue Point, Ocean Boulevard, High Cotton Barbecue, Awful Arthur’s Oyster Bar, The Colington Café (hailed by Southern Living magazine), Outer Banks Brewing Station and too many others to name all offer a delicious way to explore the region.
#4 – Festivals
Street fairs and festivals are as much fun for locals as they are for visitors. Plus these events offer a wonderful way to discover plants, people and food you might not otherwise have seen.Here’s a vacation tip for you: plan your stay around one of the fun festivals that happen practically year round.Just a few of the most popular events include the Food and Wine Festival (March), Outer Banks Beach Music Festival (May), Faire Days Festival (May – September), Ocrafolk Festival (June), Rogallo Kite Festival (June), Under the Oaks Art Festival (June), Watermelon Festival (August), Outer Banks Bluegrass Festival (September), Duck Jazz Festival (October) and Seafood Festival (October).
#5 – National Parks
In addition to national parks, the Outer Banks also has a national seashore at Cape Hatteras. According to the National Parks Service, “Cape Hatteras National Seashore is a major resting and feeding grounds for migratory birds.” Here you’ll find lots to do including surf-fishing, kiteboarding, surfing, swimming, windsurfing, crabbing, shell-collecting, sightseeing and more. There’s also Jockey’s Ridge State Park with some of the tallest sand dunes on the Atlantic coast. Sandboarding, kiteboarding, hang gliding and picnicking are popular pastimes for local families and visitors. What else do locals love? The beaches! An early morning jog, a leisurely breakfast overlooking the shore, an afternoon stroll and fishing/shrimping for your dinner… it’s a lifestyle everyone should experience. Even if you are only a temporary visitor who comes once a year, we invite you to enjoy everything we cherish about this area.