Carolina Beach is a small beach town in southeastern North Carolina; the beach is popular but less crowded and warmer than the Outer Banks area to the north. Just outside of Wilmington, NC; Carolina Beach has a reputation for being laidback, popular with locals, and very walkable for both lodging and dining. It is well known for its vintage-style boardwalk and is considered to be very family-friendly! There are a few small hotels and many vacation rental homes to accommodate young kids – if you stay close to the boardwalk you can ditch your car for the entire trip without too much trouble.
There are several outfitters in the area from whom you can rent jetskis, paddleboards, kayaks, or bicycles to stay active during your stay. There has been a recent focus on public art, and you can take a quick drive around the mural trail to see beautiful paintings! If organized tours and activities are your style, consider trying surfing lessons, a fishing boat excursion, kiteboarding lessons, a shark & dolphin-watching tour, or a private sunset cruise. There are beach-ready bikes ready to be rented as well as traditional paved trails and bicycle options for family bike rides all around the area.
When you’re visiting the beach area, be sure to protect the wildlife by only using red flashlights at night when it is sea turtle nesting season (the yellow lights confuse the babies who use the moon to get safely out to see after birth) and making sure to fill in any holes you’ve dug in the sand before you leave as well as pick up any trash you may have brought with you (and even pick up some that someone else left!).
Consider scheduling a dream outdoorsy vacation with half the trip in the mountains of Asheville with kids and then a few days at Carolina Beach afterwards.
Carolina Beach is open to the public, with easily accessible and inexpensive public parking along multiple public access points. Smoking is not allowed on the beach, nor is horseback riding. Dogs are only allowed in certain places and certain times of the year, check the official regulations before bringing your family pet. Lifeguards are positioned along the main beach drag for tourist season: during the day from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend.
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The northern end of the beach is quieter though with less sand and more rocks. There are certain portions where you can drive on the beach with a 4×4, but a permit must be procured in advance. Chair rentals are not easily accessible on the beach, so bring your own gear and prepare to walk back to the boardwalk for any cold drinks.
The water at Carolina Beach is typically pretty sediment-rich (which doesn’t mean it’s dirty, even if it isn’t clear) with frequent waves and occasional riptides. This beach isn’t renowned for sea shelling or finding shark teeth, but it is possible to find them and kids will enjoy beachcombing for driftwood and other treasures. If shark teeth are your main goal, consider taking a kayak tour out to Shark Tooth’s Island to find shark teeth and prehistoric fossils in the sand. Fishing is allowed but be sure to check local permits and regulation rules before casting in to catch dinner.
The beach has a colored flag safety system, with red flags indicating that swimming is prohibited, so staying somewhere with a pool might be a wise backup plan if it’s within the budget. There are nearby public showers and bathrooms adjacent to the beach, making cleaning up an easy task after enjoying the surf and sand.
Adventurous families with older kids can practice their scuba skills and see even deeper underwater, visiting shipwrecks with Carolina Beach Scuba. If you’d rather enjoy the water from up top, consider renting a family pontoon boat and head out to enjoy the waves without getting wet.
Carolina Beach Boardwalk
Named one of America’s most awesome boardwalks, the wooden walkway has a vintage feel with old-timey charm. The boardwalk area frequently hosts live musicians so you’re serenaded while you walk, eat, or rest on some of the free wooden swings overlooking the beach. There are small amusement park rides including a large ferris wheel, small souvenirs and artisan shops, along with several different restaurant options. There are frequent summer night fireworks displays and outdoor movies for visitors to enjoy as they walk, so check the local schedule!
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There are family friendly “face in the hole” photo opportunities that kids can help spot as you wander. The boardwalk vibe is very laid back, with folks walking up and down in bathing suits or cover-ups and no formal wear to be found.
The Carolina Beach Arcade provides a rainy day option for keeping busy with skee ball, pinball, and other traditional arcade games. Another rainy day option is to work together as a family to get out of the iEscape Rooms games. Britt’s Donuts along the boardwalk has a cult following but you’ll have to get in line early to try them for yourself!
Carolina Beach State Park
Located on the west side, opposite the oceanfront, the Carolina Beach State Park is made up of over 700 acres of protected land. The visitor center has small educational exhibits and brochures, making it a great spot to stop in and ask questions before you go out exploring. Consider geocaching for treasures as you hike.
There is no swimming allowed within the park, however, there are miles of hiking trails, some of which give visitors the opportunity to see the rare carnivorous pitcher plants and venus fly trap plants in their native habitat. If rare plants aren’t a draw, consider hiking around the sand dune area and marveling at how the wind has shaped the oceanfront habitat. The view from Sugarloaf Dune out over Cape Fear River can’t be missed!
North Carolina Aquarium
Located just south of the Carolina Beach area, the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher is fun for all ages and AZA accredited. They do important environmental research and prioritize education and animal health over entertainment. There are exhibits inside and outside, including a shark tooth dig pit, albino alligator, dive shows, and live animal encounters. There is a seasonal butterfly garden for kids to enjoy walking among the plants and butterflies! Visitors can enjoy seeing otters, sharks, rays, and sea turtles! Kids who are curious about aquariums can pay extra for a behind the scenes tour to see how the staff takes care of animals.
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There is free parking and an on-site seasonal cafe for families to refuel before moving on; a typical visit takes about 2 hours. Don’t miss the prehistoric shark teeth jaw for the perfect family photo op!
Fort Fisher State Historic Site
The Fort Fisher State Historic Site preserves the area where the Civil War’s largest land-sea battle took place. The visitor center provides educational materials to explore what remains of the fort and a short historical video to watch before exploring on your own. Visitors can take self-guided tours around the grounds or schedule in advance for a guided tour. There are periodic historical reenactments throughout the year along with old buildings and accessories of war to look at.
Visitors can explore several miles of other hiking trails through the marshes to bird watch or read other historical facts. Don’t miss the stately live oaks and spanish moss along the trails!
Local Area Activities
Just outside the state park boundaries, there is a free disc golf course hosted by Good Hops Brewing.
If you like to go beach hop, consider checking out the nearby Wrightsville Beach or Kure Beach.
Sick of sand, you can let kids burn off energy at the local Mike Chappell Park playground or Lake Park playground where you can also rent pedal boats to go out on the pond.
Kids may enjoy going crabbing or just chasing the crabs.
Take a water taxi to Masonboro Island for a remote barrier island experience, you can watch wildlife, hunt for shells, and enjoy peace and quiet.
Nearby Wilmington, NC Area Activities
If you’re willing to drive 20 minutes into the bigger city, there are even more family friendly activities:
History buffs may be willing to drive the opposite direction for a short day trip up closer to Wilmington, in order to visit the USS North Carolina, a decommissioned battleship.
Jungle Rapids Family Fun Park offers a traditional water park, go-karts, mini golf, and other family attractions for a fun day or night out.
Catch a baseball game, watch the Wilmington Sharks play.
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