When you think about North Carolina, you might picture the South, idyllic mountains, stunning beaches, and delicious barbecue. But one thing you shouldn't overlook is its collection of islands. From the famous Outer Banks to lesser-known paradises, these islands offer a diverse range of experiences for all types of travelers. Whether you're looking for a peaceful escape or a fun-packed adventure, North Carolina's islands offer a break from your daily grind. These islands are well-known for their warm southern charm, bustling boardwalks, active nightlife, and vast stretches of Atlantic beachfront.
And don't think that these North Carolina islands are just for short-day getaways. Even if you only stay for a few days, you'll discover so much to do on these beautiful islands. Here, we've compiled a list of the 16 mind-blowing North Carolina islands you must visit!
1. Bald Head Island
Located near Wilmington in Brunswick County at the tip of Cape Fear, Bald Head Island is a sprawling 12,000-acre paradise. The island is only accessible by ferry, and cars are not allowed. The term “Bald Head” relates to the natural erosion of the sand dunes, which leads to a smooth, bald head.
Some of the popular activities to do here involve hiking through the Bald Head Woods Maritime Forest Preserve, fishing at the Shoals of the Cape Fear, exploring the Bald Head Island Conservancy, relaxing on South Beach, and playing golf at the Bald Head Island Club. History buffs can tour the Old Baldy Lighthouse and the Smith Island Museum.
2. Ocracoke Island
Ocracoke Island is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, a 70-mile stretch of natural coastal land managed by the National Park Service. It's a dreamy escape for those who love endless, unspoiled beaches and breathtaking sunsets. This 16-mile-long North Carolina island, which includes Ocracoke Village, is accessible by ferry, private boat, or private plane. You can drive here, but many folks prefer bikes or golf carts.
As you explore this 16-mile-long island, you'll discover various attractions like Springer's Point Nature Preserve, the Hammock Hills Nature Trail, Ocracoke Island Lighthouse, Teach's Hole Pirate Store, and the Blackbeard Exhibit. If you're lucky, you might encounter the island's wild ponies, which are thought to be descended from mustangs brought by Spanish explorers. If you're into outdoor activities, you can enjoy surfing, kayaking, fishing, paddle boarding, and more.
3. Topsail Island
Topsail Island is a 26-mile-long barrier island between Cape Fear's beaches and the Crystal Coast islands. You can get to the island by crossing the swing bridge to Surf City or a high-rise bridge on the North End. Topsail Island is famous for its sea turtles, which frequently nest and rest on its secluded beaches. For more information, visit The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center.
If you're visiting with your family, you can enjoy fun places like the Soundside Park, the Topsail Island Skating Rink, the Surf City Ocean Pier, the Missiles and More Museum, and the Patio Playground. If you enjoy water sports, you can go paddleboarding or sailing in the Intracoastal Waterway, or you can try fishing at the Jolly Roger Pier.
4. Oak Island
Oak Island is a great family destination at Sunset Harbor, just west of Bald Head Island. Oak Island is easily accessible via the G.V. Barbee Sr Bridge or the Swains Cut Bridge. It has over 60 public beach access sites and lovely attractions like mini-golf courses and old-fashioned ice cream parlors. Some must-see places are the Oak Island Pier, the Oak Island Lighthouse, and the Oak Island Nature Center.
For more fun, go fishing with Fugitive Fishing Charters or NautiGirl Charters, try your hand at Oak Island Golf Club, or paddle from Tidal Waves Kayak & Canoe Dock. If you're up for waterpark adventures, visit Magic Mountain Fun Park in Supply, NC. And when it's time to satisfy your seafood cravings, don't miss KoKo Cabana or Shagger Jacks.
5. Emerald Isle
Emerald Isle is home to the beach towns of Indian Beach, Emerald Isle, Atlantic Beach, and Pine Knoll Shores. It is also known as Bogue Banks Island. Located on the Crystal Coast, this island has everything you need for a memorable vacation! The Bogue Inlet Fishing Pier is a fantastic spot to cast your fishing line, open from March to November.
Get your daily dose of excitement with kayaking, paddleboarding, jet skiing, and pontoon boating from A.B. Water Sport. Spend the day enjoying some of North Carolina's most beautiful beaches and making a splash at the Salty Pirate Water Park. Explore marshlands and unspoiled maritime woodlands at Hammocks Beach State Park by ferry or boat. Other recreational spots are Fort Macon State Park and Emerald Isle Woods Park. After a day of adventures, don't forget to try out some of the best restaurants on Emerald Isle.
6. Bodie Island
The next up on our list of the best North Carolina Islands is Bodie Island. It is located west of the Alligator River and Roanoke Island, between the Pamlico Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. You can easily reach here by driving across the Virginia Dare Memorial Bridge. Bodie Island is a tranquil, preserved island with several enjoyable activities. Spend your day boating, kayaking, sunbathing, and swimming on the sandy beaches of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, or go camping at the Oregon Inlet Campground managed by the National Park Service.
The main attractions are the Bodie Island Lighthouse, Wright Brothers Memorial, Jurassic Putt Miniature Golf, Nags Head Outlets, Jennette's Pier, and Whalebone Park. You can also visit the Jockey's Ridge, which boasts the title of the tallest dune on the East Coast.
7. Bird Island
Bird Island is a natural barrier island on North Carolina's southwest coast, and it's been recognized as a Dedicated Nature Preserve. Bird Island Coastal Reserve protects about 1,481 acres of the island. Here, you'll find various bird species and sea turtles, such as painted buntings, horned grebes, wood storks, American oystercatchers, and black skimmers. You can reach the island on foot from Sunset Beach or by boat from Little River Inlet.
Bird Island is an excellent destination for nature lovers, with walking access to its various ecosystems, which include a beautiful boardwalk, coastal grasslands, sand beaches, and salt marshes. And before you leave, be sure to leave your thoughts and hopes for the future in the Kindred Spirit Mailbox.
8. Harkers Island
Harkers Island is a unique destination only a 30-minute drive from Emerald Isle. The island boasts stunning beaches, where you can enjoy fishing, swimming, shelling, and sunbathing. Harkers Island, well-known for its waterfowl adventures, has the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center, featuring waterfowl art and carvings. You may also learn about the adjacent Cape Lookout National Seashore at the National Park Service Visitor Center, where you can view a documentary and participate in children's activities.
Winter visitors can enjoy the annual Taste of Core Sound Festival in February and the Core Sound Waterfowl Weekend & Decoy Festival in December. After your island tour, dine at Sea Side Galley or Captain's Choice on delicious local seafood.
9. Pea Island
The 6,000-acre Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1938. It was named for the island's wild pea vine. This refuge spans 13 miles along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and includes a beach, ponds, marshes, and dunes. Birdwatchers will find a variety of species here, including ducks, geese, osprey, herons, falcons, and migrating birds. You can visit the Visitor Center on Highway NC 12 to learn more about Pea Island, which features an observation deck, interactive displays, herons, and trailheads.
You can hike two short, accessible trails: the Salt Flats Wildlife Trail and the North Pond Wildlife Trail. The island also hosts seasonal events, including the Pea Island Beach Walk, Wings Over Water Festival, and Crabbing Rodeo.
10. Figure Eight Island
Figure Eight Island is surrounded by mystery and allure. It's situated just north of Wrightsville Beach and is separated from the mainland by the Figure Eight Island Drawbridge. It's not spooky, but it's a private and secluded island. It is privately owned by its residents and has been rumored to be a getaway for celebrities and high-profile individuals. Visitors to this 5-mile-long, 1,300-acre island can rent beautiful vacation houses. You won't encounter large crowds on the pristine beaches, making it a great place to unwind.
The island boasts many facilities, such as tennis courts, a boat ramp, and a private yacht club. Once there, you can enjoy bird watching, fishing, swimming, shelling, surfing, kayaking, boating, and other activities.
11. Roanoke Island
Roanoke Island, located between the North Carolina mainland and Nags Head, is a beautiful eight-mile island. It's accessible through the Virginia Dare, Washington Baum, and William B. Umstead Bridges. It is one of the oldest communities in the Outer Banks, dating back to the 1500s.
If you're visiting the island during summer, don't miss the opportunity to immerse yourself in history by attending an outdoor presentation of The Lost Colony. Roanoke Island boasts numerous attractions, including the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, Roanoke Island Maritime Museum, Roanoke Island Aquarium, the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse, Roanoke Island Festival Park, and Elizabethan Gardens. These locations allow you to learn about the island's rich history and cultural heritage while having unforgettable moments.
12. Hatteras Island
Hatteras Island is one of the largest islands on the Outer Banks, stretching over 48 miles between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pamlico Sound. It is the centerpiece of the 72-mile-long Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The island has two lighthouses and seven villages. Here, you'll find long stretches of beach with no residences or hotels. It is an ideal spot for water sports such as surfing, windsurfing, kayaking, kiteboarding, etc.
Drive along The Outer Banks National Scenic Byway to enjoy outdoor trails, shopping, and restaurants. Along the Byway, you can see the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station, the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge, and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Don't miss the Hatteras Island Ocean Center for educational activities.
13. Masonboro Island
Masonboro Island is an 8.4-mile-long pristine, untouched barrier island located just five miles south of Wilmington, North Carolina. It is protected as the Masonboro Island Reserve, managed by the North Carolina National Estuarine Research Reserve, and serves as a North Carolina State Natural Area.
This island features diverse natural settings, including dunes, tidal flats, and salt marshes, and it is a major nesting habitat for endangered loggerhead sea turtles. The island can only be reached by boat, canoe, or kayak, and numerous private ferry companies provide service. If you choose to stay overnight, there are officially designated camping sites on the island.
14. Shackleford Banks
Shackleford Banks, an 8.5-mile island within Cape Lookout National Seashore, is a must-see for adventure seekers, surfers, and beachgoers. The island can be reached by passenger ferry or boat via Island Express Ferry Service. Shackleford Banks is famous for its incredible seashell collection, which includes scotch bonnets, augers, multicolored scallops, moon sails, and olive shells.
Watersports fans can participate in kayaking, surfing, and other activities. The island provides opportunities for birdwatching, fishing, boating, and wildlife viewing. You'll also see the well-known Shackleford horses, which are thought to be descendants of Spanish mustangs rescued from a shipwreck in the 1500s. The island is a fantastic natural destination.
15. Portsmouth Island
Portsmouth Island, once the largest community on the Outer Banks in 1753, attracts visitors due to its historical significance, amazing camping, fishing, and some of the best seashell-hunting opportunities on the East Coast. Here, you can travel back to the 18th and 19th centuries by exploring historic locations such as the U.S. Life Saving Station, Methodist Church, U.S. Post Office, Portsmouth Village School, and General Store.
If you want to learn more about the history of Portsmouth Village, visit the Theodore & Annie Salter House and Visitor Center, a restored house filled with many exhibits. With 13 miles of sandy beach, you can enjoy swimming, sunbathing, and fishing whenever you want. The only way to get there is to take a 20-minute ride on the North Carolina Ferry from Ocracoke.
16. Knotts Island
Knotts Island is a small, charming community surrounded by water and marshes. It is accessible by ferry from the mainland or by road from Virginia Beach. Some highlights of the island are the Swan Island Hunting Club, which includes an event pavilion and public orchard, and the Bay Villa restaurant and bar, where you'll find the main boat access ramp.
You can visit the Currituck Beach Lighthouse for stunning views and spot wild horses at the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge. Nature lovers can go hiking, camping, and wildlife-watching at Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge. If you're interested in equestrian activities, Willowgait Farm offers children's camps and private seasonal lessons. In addition, the island hosts an annual Peach Festival in June.
I hope this list of the 16 North Carolina Islands has inspired you to explore the diverse beauty and natural wonders of this coastal paradise. Whether you're a nature lover, a history buff, or a beach bum, these islands have it all.
So, plan your next vacation to the North Carolina coast and embark on an island-hopping adventure!
I’m Steve. I’m an English Teacher, traveler, and an avid outdoorsman. If you’d like to comment, ask a question, or simply say hi, leave me a message here, on Twitter (@thefrugalexpat1). Many of my posts have been written to help those in their journey to financial independence. I am on my journey, and as I learn more I hope to share more. And as always, thanks for reading The Frugal Expat.