The Crystal Coast of North Carolina is one of the best gems along the east coast of the USA. It’s a place to vacation, find adventure and enjoy the ocean.
It’s a destination that surprised us with its perfect balance of nature, history wild horses, port towns and islands. A place we could return to again and still find new places to discover.
Our goal here is to share our visit with you and give you the tools you need to plan your own getaway to the Crystal Coast NC. We’ll highlight some of the top adventures, places to visit, delightful eats and best places to stay.
Ultimate Crystal Coast NC Itinerary
Table of Contents
Where is the Crystal Coast?
The Crystal Coast is also known as the Southern Outer Banks. This is because this special area resides directly south of the Outer Banks along the North Carolina coast.
As far as the exact location in North Carolina, it would be about midway along the coast. It’s roughly 2 hours north of Wilmington.
The best airport to fly into is Jacksonville, which puts you just under an hour from Atlantic Beach and the best of Emerald Isle.
The Crystal Coast itself essentially runs from the edge of Swansboro to Cedar Island and includes Bogue, Croatan National Forest, Emerald Isle, Morehead City, Beaufort, Atlantic Beach, Harkers Island and the Cape Lookout National Seashore.
When to Go & For How Long
The Crystal Coast is very much a year round coastal destination. You can expect hot, humid summers and mild winters. The shoulder seasons can offer the best deals and most pleasant weather.
The coast does experience a hurricane season which is entirely dependent on which storms make their way up the coast vs staying in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.
We visited during the shoulder season in mid-November and found the weather pleasant. It was in the low 70’s during the day and 50’s at night.
As far as recommended amount of time to spend in the Crystal Coast, you need at least 3 days but we’d highly recommend you book for a week or more.
There is an incredible amount of things to do here, especially if you want to dive into the history and nature options on offer. You can see a lot in a long weekend, but a week is the sweet spot.
Also worth noting is that most, if not all, vacation rentals are booked in week increments, even if you only want to stay for 3 or 4 days.
Why We loved the Crystal Coast
The Crystal Coast was one of those sneaker destinations for us. You know, the ones that blow your expectations out of the water once you arrive. We ended up really falling for this destination during our visit and wouldn’t hesitate to return again soon.
One of the things that make the location of the Crystal Coast unique is while it is an Atlantic coastline along the eastern edge of the United States, the area actually runs more east to west due to the way the coastline cuts inland.
So why does this matter? Well, we feel it’s worth mentioning because that means you get to see both sunrise and sunset when you’re there!
Suffice to say, it is worth it to get up early and make time to watch in the evenings if you like incredible light over the ocean. Some of the most spectacular sunsets we have seen were on Emerald Isle during our visit.
The other thing that really stood out to us was how laid-back life on the Crystal Coast is for those that live there or visit. It has more of an island vibe than you find in other areas of the coast and it’s just plain feel good to find yourself submerged in that.
It’s also an adventure and outdoor lovers mecca, which is right up our alley of places to love. You have islands, a national forest, a national lakeshore, sandy shoals, the ocean and acres upon acres of marshes to serve as the backdrop for your exploration. Oh, and wild horses too.
Pair it with adorable towns with fascinating history and all the fresh seafood you can imagine and we promise you’ll be booking a revisit before you even leave.
Things to Add to Your Crystal Coast NC Itinerary
Make Time for Sunset
First and foremost, visiting the Crystal Coast and not heading to the beach for sunset should be a crime. Seriously! Barring stormy weather, you’re almost guaranteed to see some of the most spectacular sunsets of your lifetime.
Every day we made sure to be on the beach, walking in the waves and playing under the piers so we wouldn’t miss the sunset.
If you’re a photographer, there are so many fun framing opportunities to be found, so be sure to show up early and do some scouting before peak color.
Tour Fort Macon
If you are into history or even architecture, the civil war era Fort Macon is worth some of your time when you visit the Crystal Coast.
Set right on the coast, this fort offers a chance to step back in time and learn more about North Carolina’s importance in defense and war strategy along the Atlantic coast.
The fort is part of the broader Fort Macon State Park and offers a large no fee parking lot and beautiful visitors center. The fort itself does not charge admission either.
To make the most of your visit, be sure to go when there is ranger led tours as they do an amazing job of transporting you into the life of the people that were stationed at Fort Macon. You’ll learn about the fort’s history, design and the people that were part of that.
It’s an incredible way to step back in time, hear some fantastic stories, learn some history and of course marvel and the construction of a still standing civil war era fort. If you visit during high season, you can also attend live canon demonstrations too.
Hike the Trails in Fort Macon State Park
Fort Macon State Park offers some of the best hiking trails in the Crystal Coast and a way for you to totally disconnect, if that is what you are looking for. There are two main trails and also beach access to one of the best beaches in the area.
The beach trail stretches 1.5 miles one way and is a great trail to enjoy if you like to watch dolphins play in the water or are into bird watching. It’s possible to spot some of 320 bird species that more through the area from this trail.
The Elliot Coues Nature trail offers a 3.2 mile loop option that weaves through the maritime forest and sand dunes. Along the way you can get an up close and personal look at some of the eco systems that are in place around the area.
Kayak in the Croatan National Forest
Located a short drive from Emerald Isle, the Croatan National Forest offers camping, fishing and hiking but the best way to explore this natural space is by kayak. This way you get a chance to see both the wonders of the water and the coast area.
We booked a self-guided kayak tour with Hot Wax Surf & Paddle Sports, who arranged both kayak rental and the paddle route information for us.
We were given the option of routes and choose the itinerary that took us to the 3 main bays of the Croatan National Forest, launching from the Cedar Point boat ramp.
This route gave us an opportunity for some open water, marsh and protected bay paddling. As experienced paddlers, this was the perfect balance for a 3 hours paddle.
If you’re not as experienced, there are options for shorter duration and more protected routes too.
The best part of our paddle was being able to go into the marshes and get an up close look at the eco system they provide for the coast. We saw numerous fish, many jumping out of the water, and more birds than you could even count.
The highlight was locating an osprey nest in the distance and then seeing the massive bird perched almost directly above us. That is the closest we’ve ever been to an osprey, so it was a definite highlight from our time spent on the water.
Due to the weather and time of year, we didn’t actually have a chance to get in the water. We did, however, spend some time watching plenty of local surfers hit the waves during out visit.
We also learned that the Crystal Coast has a very strong surf culture and community. People come from all over the states to surf here, so taking advantage of an opportunity for surf lessons during your visit is highly recommended.
See the Horses at Shackleford Banks
You don’t have to be a horse lover to appreciate the history and story of the wild horses that live along the Crystal Coast. In the 1500s, several Spanish ships ran aground and shipwrecked. The horses that were onboard the ship bailed out and swam ashore.
For several hundred years these horses have adapted and learned to live with minimal resources while surrounded by salt water. The horses that live along the North Carolina coast today are direct descendants of these survivors.
One of the highlights of any visit to Crystal Coast, NC is to see these horses. While many of the herds that live on the various islands are managed, the ones on Shackleford Banks are not.
These particular horses are monitored by the National Park Service, as Shackleford Banks is part of the National Seashore, but they are not managed for interfered with in any way. This means they live exactly like their ancestors.
From Harkers Island, it is possible to take the Island Express ferry to Shackleford Banks, which will drop you for a designated amount of time so you can hike around the island and see the wild horses that live there.
This adventure is not for the faint of heart as there are no maintained trails. You’re dropped on the beach and then it is up to you to search for and find the horses.
The crew will point you in the direction of any they might spot on approach, but you need to prepare for some rustic bushwalking.
To best enjoy your experience, we recommend that you bring plenty of water, some snacks, a hat, sunscreen, good shoes, binoculars and a camera with a zoom lens to best enjoy the experience.
During our visit, we had the privilege of seeing and observing around 12 horses, who let us get reasonably close. That said, please be sure to abide by all regulations for wildlife viewing and maintain a safe distance. Even if you feel they’ll let you get closer. They are wild and unpredictable.
See the Cape Lookout Lighthouse
Standing 163 feet tall, the Cape Lookout Lighthouse is a must visit site on the Crystal Coast. Modeled after the lighthouses you’ll find on the Outer Banks to the north; this lighthouse is just as spectacular as the others.
Completed in 1857, it is one of a few lighthouses that operate during the daytime. The light flashes every 15 seconds and can be seen 12-19 miles out to sea.
During the high season months, generally mid-May to mid-September, it’s possible to climb to the top too.
From the ferry dock there is a maintained boardwalk that leads you right to the lighthouse. Be sure to take your time taking in the various views and framing as you approach it, especially if you enjoy photography.
The highlight of our visit was strolling through the museum inside the house that was once the lighthouse keeper’s residence.
This museum tells the story of life on the Cape and the job of maintaining the lighthouse through the years.
Tour the Cape Lookout Historical District
At its peak, Cape Lookout functioned as a community and with it were several buildings where people lived.
These buildings all existed around the lighthouse, but with the automation of the light and change of purpose for the island, the buildings were relocated and used for coast guard training.
Today, they have again been relocated away from the lighthouse into a more protected area to form the Cape Lookout Historical District.
Here you can visit the buildings, read the plaques and learn the history of them. If you have the time, it is worth making your way to this area to see the houses.
Some of them are in surprisingly good shape, considering the elements they stand in and the number of years that they have been constructed. They really help tell the story of life on the seashore.
Rent a Kubota and Explore the Cape Lookout National Seashore
If you’ve taken the time to book a ferry to the Cape Lookout National Seashore, then you’ll want to make sure you give yourself enough time and they use that time wisely. For us that meant renting a Kubota 4WD RTV to explore.
These units handle the deep sand with ease and gave us the ability to explore the historic district, beach and cape during our visit. Without transportation, we wouldn’t have had enough time to see everything as your only alternative is to walk.
If you love an adventure and like to have freedom when you explore, then we highly recommend you give this a try on your visit to the Crystal Coast!
Visit the North Carolina Maritime Museum
The Crystal Coast is no stranger to maritime history and one of the strongest stories follows the pirate life. To get the best of this history, we recommend you save some time in your itinerary to visit the North Carolina Maritime Museum.
Located in downtown Beaufort, this museum currently houses many artifacts from the recovery of the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Yes, the beloved ship of the famed pirate Blackbeard that was discovered off the Crystal Coast in 1996.
In addition to pirate history the museum shares the history and progression of colonization, shipping, fishing and recreation along the North Carolina coast through the ages.
It’s a fun way to spend a couple of hours and be sure to also stop in at the Harvey W Smith Watercraft Center located just across the street too.
Tour Historic Downtown Beaufort
Having officially been bestowed the title of ‘America’s Coolest Small Town’ in 2012, Beaufort is a place you cannot miss when you visit the Crystal Coast.
The heartbeat of the town is its rich history and much of that is preserved today in their historical district.
Here you can find a series of original buildings that have been relocated and placed in the downtown area. They have been resorted and allow you to have a sense of what life was like in Beaufort in the 17 and 1800s.
There are a number of ways to enjoy the historic downtown including scheduled daily walking tours from the visitor’s center, a narrated double-decker bus tour, a bike tour, a ghost tour or you can grab a printout and explore on your own. Just make sure you don’t miss the Old Burying Grounds!
Once you’ve had your fill of history, head to the waterfront where you can enjoy a beautiful boardwalk on the water directly across from the Rachel Carson Reserve. It is here that you can find local shopping and dining as well.
Go Horseback Riding on Cedar Island
As a lifetime horse lover, I make a point to live out my horse riding fantasies when traveling. This includes galloping down the beach on a horse that is fun to ride.
One of the best horse adventures we’ve had to date was during our visit to the Crystal Coast.
We drove from Emerald Isle to Cedar Island, where we set off on a 2-hour horse ride on the beach with OBX Riding Stables.
The thing that really stood out to me about this experience is that the barn is near the coastline, so our entire ride was on the beach. This is rare.
Our whole ride was incredible, and we had beautiful weather for riding. We rode along the entire beach stretch of Cedar Island before entering the water and crossing the channel between islands to reach Sandy Shoal, a nearby island.
It was here that we encountered a herd of wild horses. Being that we were on horseback, we were able to get pretty close, still a safe distance, but much closer than we would have been able to on foot. Being able to see them this close was surreal.
The horses at OBX Riding Stables are sweet, well trained and willing to ride. I never got the feeling that they were sour or overridden.
They truly seemed to enjoy their jobs and we had no issues with them in the water or on the sand. I was even able to gallop on the beach, which is one of my favorite things in the world.
The stable itself had good staff that was well educated in horse care and took good care of us on the ride. They were also happy to accommodate wishes, like galloping, as our skill allowed.
That said, if you love horses and have dreamed of riding on the beach, this is the place to do it!
Other Crystal Coast Adventures to Consider
If you have more time in your itinerary, here are a few more notable things to try on your visit to the Crystal Coast:
- North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores
- Stand Up Paddle boarding
- Kayak trip to Rachel Carson Reserve to see Wild Horses
- Biking Food Tour in Beaufort with Hungry Town Tours
- Charter a Fishing Boat
- Beaufort Boat Tours for Dolphin Watching
- Try the Cruisin Tikis
- Go Shelling at Hammock Beach State Park
Where to Eat Along the Crystal Coast NC
It’s all about the seafood and fresh fish when you visit the Crystal Coast and you certainly won’t go hungry. I know we didn’t!
Below is a list of the places that we visited during our stay and truth be told, we didn’t have a bad meal. You really can’t go wrong. Of course, if you like seafood, don’t hold back.
- Ruddy Duck Tavern (Moorhead City)
- Crabs Claw Ocean Front (Atlantic Beach)
- Trading Post (Emerald Isle)
- The Royal James Café (Beaufort)
- The Dock House (Beaufort)
- Moonrakers (Beaufort)
- No Name Pizza (Beaufort)
- Amos Mosquitos (Atlantic Beach)
Best Places to Stay
Location is everything when it comes to the Crystal Coast and accommodation is no exception. You can find the whole gambit of places to stay here, including small motels, private beach houses, chain hotels, condos, villas and everything in between.
Having been, though, we highly recommend you spend the money and grab a place on the beach. This way you never have to wonder where you’ll spend sunrise.
To say we were spoiled is an understatement. We’re currently trying to organize a group of friends and family for a revisit, as that condo easily sleeps 12 and is located directly on one of the most gorgeous beaches on the east coast of the USA.
If the condo life isn’t your style, we’re happy to recommend the following alternatives and locations too:
- DoubleTree by Hilton Oceanfront**** (Atlantic Beach)
- Island Inn*** (Atlantic Beach)
- Pecan Tree Inn *** (Beaufort)
- Hampton Inn *** (Morehead City)
This trip was made possible in partnership with the Crystal Coast and Carteret Country Tourism Authority. All opinions, words, horse craze and love for beach sunsets are 100 % mine, as always.
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