The Crystal Coast is a breathtakingly beautiful region making up the southern part of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. It is renowned for its pristine beaches, clear waters, and abundant wildlife. From exploring the Atlantic Ocean to hiking through lush forests and wetlands, there are countless ways to get closer to nature and experience the Crystal Coast’s beauty. This guide takes a closer look at some of the top Crystal Coast activities that will allow you to immerse yourself in the natural wonders of this stunning coastal region.
Beaufort is a charming coastal town located in North Carolina, known for its picturesque waterfront, maritime history, and laid-back atmosphere.
The town is home to many historic landmarks and buildings, including the beautifully restored Beaufort Historic Site, which includes several 18th and 19th-century homes, gardens, and exhibits.
While you are in Beaufort, here are some things to explore:
Downtown Waterfront: A hub of activity, with fishing boats, sailboats, and yachts docked at the marina, as well as a variety of waterfront restaurants, shops, and attractions. Take a scenic ferry ride to nearby Shackleford Banks, a beautiful barrier island known for its wild horses and unspoiled beaches, or Rachel Carson Reserve, which is home to wild horses you can see right from the Beaufort waterfront.
Rachel Carson Preserve: A pristine coastal preserve that is home to a diverse range of wildlife including wild horses. You can kayak or take a ferry over right from Front Street downtown!
North Carolina Maritime Museum: Learn about the area’s rich Maritime history including stories of Blackbeard, an infamous pirate, and local marine life and ecology.
We loved strolling around Beaufort and were treated to dolphins playing in the bay while we ate on the stunning balcony at Moonrakers restaurant, saw wild horses grazing on the shores of the Rachel Carson Reserve, enjoyed homemade fudge from the General Store, and admired the beauty of the boats sitting in the bright blue waters of the harbor.
Fort Macon State Park
Fort Macon is a historic military fort located only 25 minutes from Beaufort and close to Atlantic Beach. Built in the early 19th century, this fort played a significant role in the Civil War and other conflicts throughout American history.
Today, the fort is a popular tourist attraction, offering visitors a glimpse into the country’s military past. The fort has been restored to its former glory, and we learned a lot while exploring its many rooms, exhibits, and artifacts.
The surrounding park also features picnic areas, hiking and biking trails, and a beautiful stretch of beach, making it an ideal destination for learning about U.S. history and spending time in nature.
Cape Lookout National Seashore
Part of the National Park Service, this stunning stretch of coastline is located on the southern end of the Outer Banks and is home to miles of pristine beaches, crystal-clear waters, and breathtaking scenery. Some of the best things to do on the Cape Lookout National Seashore include taking the ferry over the Shackleford Banks or Cape Lookout where you can get far away from the pulls of modern life and immerse yourself in remote island nature.
Shackleford Banks is located on the southern end of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. It is a secluded and remote barrier island that offers visitors an idyllic escape where you can leave the stress of everyday life behind for a while. Shackleford Banks is a true paradise for nature lovers with its pristine beaches, wild horses, and abundant wildlife.
At 9 miles long and less than a mile wide, it is now a standalone island, although it was once attached to Cape Lookout (now separated by the Barden Inlet). Shackleford Banks is home to over 100 wild horses that have been living on the island for over 400 years. This island also has the largest maritime forest in the park and long stretches of saltmarsh, in addition to a long white sandy beach on its southwest shore.
Cape Lookout Lighthouse
The Cape Lookout Lighthouse is one of the most iconic landmarks on the North Carolina coast and can be seen 20 miles out to sea. Standing 163 feet tall and flashing every 15 seconds, the lighthouse has been guiding ships safely through the local shoals for over 150 years. The black and white diamond daymark pattern (black diamonds north/south and white diamonds east/west) of the lighthouse, painted in 1873, is instantly recognizable and has become a symbol of the Cape Lookout National Seashore. If you have time, we recommend making your time on North Carolina’s coast a lighthouse tour! We have a complete guide to Outer Banks Lighthouses, based on our lighthouse road trip.
The lighthouse tower is typically open for climbing (207 steps) in the summer months. It is currently closed for maintenance and is expected to be reopened by 2025
Shelling on Cape Lookout Point
The seashore is home to a variety of seashells, including Conch, Scotch Bonnets (North Carolina’s state shell), Knobbed Whelk, Atlantic Moon Snail, Helmet Shell, and Coquina which can be found along the beaches and in the shallow waters. With its wide expanses of sand and proximity to the powerful Gulf Stream and Labrador Current, the seashore is the perfect place to search for these treasures.
You can take a 4WD vehicle out to the point, explore on foot, or take the Beach Shuttle Tour. You can find more information on visiting Cape Lookout and these different features in our Cape Lookout guide!
Croatan National Forest
The Croatan National Forest is a sprawling woodland covering more than 160,000 acres. The forest features a diverse landscape of pine forests, swamps, and estuaries. The forest is a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts, offering opportunities for hiking, fishing, boating, and camping. Visitors can explore the forest’s many trails, including the popular Neusiok Trail, which runs for 21 miles through some of the most beautiful and remote areas of the forest.
In addition to its natural beauty, the Croatan National Forest is home to a rich variety of wildlife, including black bears, deer, and a wide range of bird species. We loved being immersed in the forest while staying only minutes from the coast, a refreshing reminder of the diversity of North Carolina’s Crystal Coast region.
The Croatan National Forest also has a few great campgrounds such as Oyster Point, Cedar Point, and Flanners Beach, that will provide more of a peaceful nature escape than other campgrounds or RV parks in the area.
Emerald Isle Beach & Atlantic Beach
Emerald Isle Beach is a stunning beach located on the Crystal Coast. Known for its crystal-clear water and pristine white sand, the beach is a popular destination that we found fairly busy even during the off-season.
The beach stretches for several miles and offers visitors plenty of space to relax, swim, and enjoy the sun. The water is warm and the waves are perfect for swimming, surfing, and other water activities. We parked at the Bogue Inlet Fishing Pier, which offers spectacular views of the surrounding area. Be sure to keep an eye out for 4WD vehicles driving across the beach and under the pier. The beach is surrounded by restaurants, shops, and other attractions, but we found it was a great spot for a low-key picnic and enjoying the sunset.
Just north of Emerald Isle is Atlantic Beach. A bit more built up, this classic coastal beach town has plenty of attractions. Just south of Fort Macon State Park, you could easily make a day trip to both and get a sense of the area’s history while enjoying nature.
Hammocks Beach State Park
Hammocks Beach State Park, located on the southern end of the Crystal Coast, is a natural oasis that offers visitors a wide range of activities to enjoy.
Here you can take a ferry ride to Bear Island, a secluded 4-mile-long barrier island where you can explore miles of undeveloped shoreline, hike nature trails, or explore one of the 5 paddle trails. The park’s waters are ideal for kayaking, paddle boarding, and canoeing. Visitors can rent equipment on-site.
For those who prefer to stay on land, the park offers hiking trails that wind through the coastal forest, with opportunities to spot wildlife such as deer, raccoons, and a variety of bird species. With its beautiful scenery and abundant activities, Hammocks Beach State Park is full of great activities on the Crystal Coast.
Cedar Point Trails
The trails at Cedar Point offer visitors a chance to explore the natural beauty of the area, with its lush cedar forests, scenic waterways, and abundant wildlife. The Cedar Point Tideland Trail offers stunning views of the White Oak River and the surrounding wetlands while strolling across charming wooden bridges and provides a great place for sightings of jumping fish, birds feeding in the waterways, or a vibrant orange sunset.
Other Outdoor Activities
North Carolina’s Crystal Coast is a nature lover’s paradise, with an abundance of outdoor activities to choose from. One of the most popular activities is exploring the miles of pristine beaches that line the coast, perfect for swimming, sunbathing, and surfing. Another popular activity is kayaking or paddleboarding along the calm waters of the bays and inlets, where you can spot dolphins, turtles, and other wildlife up close. If you want to get even further into this area’s landscape, you can go deep-sea fishing or try a scuba diving excursion to explore the underwater world of the Crystal Coast.
Fulfilling Travel Tips
Before exploring the amazing activities and things to do on North Carolina’s Crystal coast, we had no idea that this area was also part of the famous Outer Banks. Compared to the more northern section of the Outer Banks, we loved how the southern section of the Crystal Coast offers a variety of opportunities to connect with nature from beaches and remote islands to maritime forests and marshes.
On your next adventure to the Crystal Coast, we encourage you to step away from a classic beach trip to explore more of the undeveloped areas where you can find solitude and spend time connecting with the landscape and wildlife. Sieze the beautiful opportunity to do activities that get you closer to nature while also providing quiet moments for self-reflection and growth.
PLAN YOUR TRIP TO NORTH CAROLINA’S CRYSTAL COAST
Reserve Your Ferry:
- Island Express from Beaufort
- Island Express from Harkers Island
- Island Express Combo to Shackleford Banks & Cape Lookout Lighthouse
Local Camping Options:
Camping is a great way to live in harmony with nature and bring the outdoors right outside your door!
- Tent Camping on Shackleford Banks
- Tent, car camping, or truck campers on Cape Lookout or the South Core Banks
- Oyster Point Campground (reservation and walk-in primitive sites) in the Croatan National Forest
- Cedar Point Campground (electric or primitive sites with a bath house in Croatan National Forest)
- Flanners Beach Campground (electric and primitive sites 30 minutes from Atlantic Beach)
North Carolina’s Crystal Coast is full of great campsites, ranging from RV resorts to no-frills National Forest campgrounds. If you are looking for the perfect one-stop shop for comparing RV parks, campgrounds, and glamping options and prices with instant booking, we highly recommend Campspot.
RV Rentals: If you are looking to get closer to nature but don’t have an RV, consider renting one through RV Share. We used this service when renting out our Casita and found them to be high quality and easy to use!
Other Area Accommodations:
If you are looking for other accommodations, you can find plenty of great stays not far from the pristine beaches in this area. Booking.com is a great resource that allows you to compare prices easily and lock in the best rates for stays ranging from hotels to private rentals! Some spectacular coastal areas to consider for your stay include: