Within less than half a mile from the Cedar Point outpost, kayakers meander through quiet marshes, paddle along protected estuaries, and then beach their boats upon the aptly named Sharks
Within less than half a mile from the Cedar Point outpost, kayakers meander through quiet marshes, paddle along protected estuaries, and then beach their boats upon the aptly named Sharks Tooth Island, featuring a daily speckling of washed-up treasures. Along the way, Barrier Island Kayaks owner Josh Hudgens says, the Bogue Sound’s dolphins, great white egrets, black skimmers, osprey, the occasional bald eagle, and other marine life and seabirds add to the intracoastal immersion.
Josh’s father started the outfitter 28 years ago, and ever since, customers have offered one common reason for their frequent return. “They tell me, ‘We’ve visited many, many beaches, but there’s just something special here,’” he says.
Indeed. Stretching 85 miles from Cape Carteret to the tip of Harkers Island, the Crystal Coast features all kinds of unique landscapes, amenities, and activities that elevate the typical beach vacation. Here are 10 worthy stops for your next trip — and one incredible experience to have in each of the area’s varied communities.
Eighty-five miles of gleaming beaches only begin to tell the story of The Crystal Coast — from crystal waters bordering sandy, sparkling beaches, to wild mustang horses and a towering lighthouse, the natural beauty of the Southern Outer Banks awaits exploration.
Made up of the towns of Cape Carteret, Cedar Point, Stella, Pelletier, and Newport, the western Crystal Coast region is centrally located to beaches, shops, and family-friendly fun. Visitors to Barrier Island Kayaks can select among a variety of kayak types and rental duration, but we suggest booking an Eco Tour for a memorable guided excursion. “In colder months, it’s quiet,” Josh says, “but even in high season, you can always find serenity in these waterways.”
Grab a cozy Fair-Trade coffee and a homemade muffin from Emerald Isle’s Stir it Up. It’s easy to linger among the local art, but ask for your order to go so you can get moving at Emerald Isle Woods Park. Covered in dense trees, this 41-acre nature preserve has all-season appeal, with a popular nine-hole disc golf course, kayak access to Bogue Sound, a pier for anglers, and the North Carolina Birding Trail.
Once you choose your ride from Beach Wheels Bike Rentals, it’s only a few minutes of pedaling until you reach the Indian Beach public access.
If you prefer a paved route, hop on the Emerald Path, an 11-mile multiuse trail that follows County Road 58. No matter which you choose, the destination is the same: the Point at Bogue Inlet, the picture-perfect meeting of the Atlantic Ocean and Bogue Sound.
Turn into Big Oak Drive-In & Bar-B-Q in Salter Path, where the umph of the flavor more than makes up for the size of the shop. Order the legendary shrimpburger made their way — with a steamed bun, tartar sauce, slaw, hot fried shrimp, and ketchup. You can even kick it up a notch with the signature hot sauce. Barbecue, seafood plates, hamburgers, wings, and milkshakes round out the menu, fueling you up for a day on the sound or the sand.
A favorite for families, the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores engages all ages with its exhibits and experiences. Watch in awe as fish, sharks, and a green sea turtle swim through a replica sunken submarine. Learn about loggerheads, touch a stingray, and race a river otter.
Feeding programs and animal encounters take place throughout the day, and before you depart, get the last of the wiggles out on the playground at the start of the Alice Hoffman Nature Trail.
On the eastern end of Atlantic Beach, one of North Carolina’s most visited parks, Fort Macon State Park, features a restored brick-and-stone Civil War-era fort, complete with cannon and musket demonstrations and a museum room in the casements.
Surrounded on three sides by water, Fort Macon also has a Coastal Education Center and a stunning shoreline for swimming, fishing, and beachcombing. Lace up for a hike or bring a bike to enjoy the Elliott Coues Nature Trail, which loops through the marsh, sand dunes, and maritime forest.
Shopping is in season year-round, and Morehead City has plenty of places to browse. Art galleries, boutiques, antiques shops, and jewelers dot downtown’s walkable blocks. Parsons General Store is popular for its souvenirs, saltwater taffy, and local jams and sauces, while Sea Classics Interiors helps you bring coastal style to your own home. Stop in to Côte for fashion with a focus on sustainability. If Fido is in tow, Sea Paws stocks healthy food, treats, and a slurpable Dawgarita. A short drive away, collect a colorful canvas from artist-owned Gypsybee Studios.
Named “America’s Favorite Town” by Travel + Leisure, Beaufort’s 300-year history comes alive in the Old Burying Grounds. Here, graves — the earliest dating back to the 1700s — are marked with shell, brick, and weathered tombstones and tell tales of Beaufort’s colorful characters. With 24-hour notice, you can reserve a tour by a guide in period dress. Or download the free audio tour on your smart phone.
When lunchtime comes, Beaufort Grocery, located in the Historic District, is a French country bistro with a notable wine list. Start with a hot Carolina crab dip, then try your hand at a Gougère — a Parmesan pastry filled with chicken salad, pimiento cheese, and more.
Catch a ferry to visit the remote-feeling beaches of Cape Lookout National Seashore. Here, the 163-foot Cape Lookout Lighthouse and Keeper’s Quarters Museum can’t be missed. Built in the mid-1800s and known as the “Diamond Lady,” its pattern distinguishes direction and differentiates it from other North Carolina lighthouses. Currently closed for renovation, the lighthouse can typically be climbed during the summer months. Junior Ranger booklets, lighthouse society stamps, and other informational materials can be viewed at the Light Station Visitor Center.
Just east of Beaufort, the quiet, largely residential Harkers Island is home to the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center. Learn about the impact of decoy carving, boat building, and commercial fishing.
Hands-on activities in the Children’s Learning Center help younger visitors engage with the Sound’s natural world, from waterfowl to water quality and weather, or stroll the Willow Pond Trail, a maritime forest and safe harbor for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds.
Save some time to swap stories in the hunt club-style Gathering Room or jump right to the Lookout Tower to take in sweeping views of Core Sound, Back Sound, Barden’s Inlet, Cape Lookout Lighthouse, Core Banks, and Shackleford Banks — and reminisce on a perfect trip along the Crystal Coast.