North Carolina’s Crystal Coast is postcard perfect, with picturesque lighthouses, quaint towns and quiet beaches. That’s enough for anyone to pack their bags for a week at the beach, but kids want more than that. It’s a family-friendly destination and there are plenty of things to do in North Carolina’s Crystal Coast with kids. From activities on the water to attractions that bring history to life, here are our favorite must-do activities to add to your vacation itinerary.
Known as the “southern Outer Banks,” the Crystal Coast has 85-miles of beautiful Atlantic shoreline. You won’t find rows of high-rise hotels or heavy beach crowds. It’s the type of place where you fantasize about raising your kids there, even though you’re only on vacation. The Crystal Coast is a slice of paradise for families.
These are the towns that inspired Nicholas Sparks’ best-selling novels The Choice and A Walk to Remember. Whether you consider yourself a history buff, the outdoorsy type, a book lover, a foodie, or you’re traveling with children, everyone will find something they love on the Crystal Coast.
Of course there are all of the basics that you bring to a standard beach vacation, but when you’re visiting the Crystal Coast, there’s plenty to do that’s not on the beach. Bring a jogging stroller for little ones to participate in outdoor activities and some walking shoes, along with your flip flops.
Kids will love hanging out on the beach, but there’s so much to do beyond the shorelines. Add these adventures to your family’s Crystal Coast vacation and you’ll never hear the words “I’m bored” from your kids.
Crystal Coast With Kids: 11 Best Family-Friendly Attractions
It’s easy to get around the area. I recommend driving, especially when you’re jumping from city area to city area. However, it’s also a very bike-friendly area. You’ll see plenty of bikers on beach cruisers, in the vacation rental neighborhoods surrounding the beaches. For the most part, it’s easy to find free parking near all of these major attractions.
North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores
The Pine Knoll Shores neighborhood is mostly residential, but it’s also the location of the beautiful North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. The aquarium takes kids on a walk-through adventure from the mountains to the sea. Discover the animal’s habitats, learn about the eco systems and even view a tank a tank that has a real shipwreck.
Younger kids will love the touch tables, where they gently feel the sea life, and the “imagination bay” indoor play area. What makes the aquarium truly unique is how they use their location to showcase outdoor aviary exhibits and provide beautiful walking trails for guests.
Fort Macon State Park
Known as one of North Carolina’s most popular state parks, Fort Macon State Park is surrounded by three sides of water with amazing views and history. The pre-Civil War fort is fun for kids to explore (and an amazing spot for shutterbugs), but the visitor’s center doubles as a museum and educational center.
Kids can learn what life was like living in the fort, touch hands-on exhibits to discover about the park’s natural environment and park rangers host live weapon demonstrations. Plus, the park has scenic bike and hiking trails. Parking and park admission is free! Read my complete Guide To Fort Macon State Park With Kids.
Beach Combing On The Crystal Coast
Of course you’re going to have time carved for the beach on your trip to the Crystal Coast, but check out the shorelines for some of the best beach combing. The area geography of inlets and sounds makes it the perfect location to find some beautiful sea shells that wash ashore.
North Carolina Maritime Museum
Another free activity, the North Carolina Maritime Museum packs tons of artifacts – from floor to ceiling – that’ll wow the kids. This is one of my favorite activities to do on the Crystal Coast with kids and it’s crazy that it’s absolutely free!
They’ll love learning about the area’s pirate history, like Blackbeard calling Beaufort home, and they can watch how artifacts are restored once discovered. Kids can pick up a scavenger hunt when they arrive, complete it while touring the museum, and turn it in for a little prize.
Tour Beaufort’s Waterfront
Get the kids out on the water and see the beautiful Beaufort waterfront from a different perspective, on the Waterbug Tours. Listen to your captan share facts and history that only a “true” local would know about. Keep your eyes peeled for North Carolina’s famous wild horses and the dolphins that love to show off. Each cruise is around 45-60 minutes long and the perfect length of time for younger kids. Bring some binoculars for even better views, if you happen to see the horses.
Wild Horses of Shackleford Banks
Want to see the wild horses even closer? Head to Cape Lookout National Seashore (part of the National Parks System) and grab your ferry tickets to catch a ride to the famous Shackleford Banks. Families can spend all day long on the primitive island, where it’s just beaches and wild horses. Pack everything you need for a beach day and be photo ready. Guests are allowed to get as close as 50 feet to the horses and the island has several paths.
Cape Lookout Lighthouse
Part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore is the Cape Lookout Lighthouse. When you hop aboard your ferry, at Harkers Island, you can pick whether you’d like to go to Shackleford Banks or to the Cape Lookout Lighthouse. Kids can learn about the daily tasks of the lighthouse keepers, what a lighthouse does and the history of the one at Cape Lookout. Currently, the lighthouse is closed for renovation and cannot be climbed, but the National Park Service plans to re-open for the 2025 season.
Cape Lookout National Seashore Junior Ranger Program
While you’re at Cape Lookout, for Shackleford Banks or the lighthouse, pick up a Junior Ranger book! Kids love touring the park and completing their activity book. It’s a great way for them to understand the history of the park and the responsibilities to protect the park, as a visitor. After completion, the kids can turn in their book to earn a Junior Ranger badge!
The Beaufort Creamery
If you’ve got a hankering for ice cream, head to the Beaufort Creamery for homemade ice cream and beautiful views. The creamery is located direction on Front Street, which has the waterfront views. Kids love to grab a scoop of ice cream and watch the boats pass by.
Fly A Kite On The Crystal Coast
Speckled amongst the surf shops, you’ll find a few kite shops along the beach. Flying a kite is an old-fashioned fun thing to do on the Crystal Coast with kids. An often forgotten pastime, kite flying is still popular in the area. The geography of the shoreline, with stronger winds, makes flying a kite tons of fun. Check out Kites Unlimited and Kitty Hawk Kites.
Year Round Crystal Coast Family-Friendly Events
With gorgeous weather and great views, the Crystal Coast has an event calendar that’s always busy. Kids love the annual Beaufort Pirate Invasion, where they’ll have a swashbuckling good time and can talk like a pirate until their heart is content. There’s also boat shows, kid fishing tournaments and plenty of food festivals to celebrate the local seafood scene. Check the Crystal Coast Events page to see what’s happening during your visit.
No matter what type of adventure you find on the Crystal Coast, the kids are sure to have a blast! You can easily fill up your vacation itinerary with activities to keep you busy all day long, or do absolutely nothing while relaxing on the beach. It’s just reassuring to know that the Crystal Coast has both options, just in case your kids (are like mine) and can’t sit on the beach all day long.
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