24 Best Shelling Beaches In NC Including Secret Shelling Spots

Best Shelling Beaches In NC

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If you’re looking for the best shelling beaches in NC, you’ll be excited to learn how many beaches along the North Carolina coast have fantastic shelling opportunities. 

I’m sure you’ve heard about some of these beaches like Ocracoke Island, which is one of the best beaches in the US for shelling, but I have some secret beaches on the list also.

In NC, you’ll be able to find scotch bonnets (the NC State shell), conches, whelks, periwinkles, sundials, olive shells, and so many more shells.

But also keep a lookout for shark teeth, sand dollars, and sea glass, as you’ll probably find them while you’re out shelling.

I would also suggest you consult the NC Facebook Shelling Group for any questions you have about shelling. This group takes their shelling seriously, including having shelling conventions where they compete for best shell awards.

If you’re a serious sheller and would like a great NC seashell guide, I recommend the following book:

Here we go!

I will show you 24 excellent spots to hunt for shells starting at Carova, the northernmost beach in NC, to Bird Island, the southernmost beach. 

1 – Carova Beach

Best Shells In Carova Beach NC

Carova Beach is the northernmost beach in North Carolina. It’s optimal for shelling because you can only access it with 4WD, meaning fewer people find those shell treasures.

If you go during the off-season, you’ll generally have the beach (and the seashells) to yourself.

Carova Beach is also great for shelling because it has a shallow shoreline that gradually slopes downward; this allows delicate shells to wash up without breaking.

Let me emphasize one more time that you really need a 4WD to even get to Carova Beach.

What are some of the shells you’ll find at Carova Beach?

Search Hotels.com to find the best places to stay on Carova.

2 – Coquina Beach

Coquina Clam Shells Best Shelling Beaches in NC

Coquina Beach has a lot of…you guessed it… Coquina clamshells. 

These colorful shells are a vibrant sight when you find them spread across the beach. 

Coquina Beach lies just 8 miles south of Nags Head and is known for its solitude, clear water, and gorgeous moss-covered rocks that only show at low tide.

Visit in the Spring or Summer to see live Coquina Clams come up to the surface briefly before burying themselves in the sand. 

It’s an amazing sight!

What are some of the shells you’ll find at Coquina Beach?

Search Hotels.com to find a hotel near Coquina Beach.

3 – Pea Island

Scallop Shells on Pea Island in North Carolina
Scallop Shells

Pea Island is named after the wild pea vine that grows in abundance there.

Because of the large freshwater ponds on the island, it’s a great place to observe migratory birds. The island has observation towers and beautiful trails to help visitors enjoy the many species that visit here.

Pea Island is a wonderful place to go shelling because there are no homes or hotels, making it an unadulterated, secluded spot.

Pro-tip: Park in the parking lot at the north end of the island (right before the Bonner Bridge) and take the path to the beach. 

You’ll likely have the beach to yourself to search for shells and other treasures. 

There can be biting midges on this island, so bring bug spray, or wear long sleeves and pants.

What are some of the shells you’ll find On Pea Island?

Pea Island is secluded because there are no homes or hotels on the island. But you can stay in Nags Head to the north or Rodanthe to the south.

Search Hotels.com for the best places to stay near Pea Island.

4 – Frisco Beach

Olive Shell Frisco Beach North Carolina
Olive Shell

Frisco Beach on Hatteras Island is unique for its south-facing beach. This makes for great shelling as the waves are milder, and shells can wash up in one piece. 

The water is warmer on Frisco Beach than east-facing beaches on the Outer Banks, and there are even times during the year you will have an oceanfront sunset. 

This phenomenon generally happens in late fall to spring, so be sure to bring your camera to capture it!

Keep in mind that you can explore most beaches on the Outer Banks with 4WD, which will help you find awesome shells. Just check local rules and regulations.

What are some of the shells you’ll find On Frisco Beach?

Search Hotels.com for the best places to stay on Frisco Beach.

5 – Ocracoke Island

Pear Whelk Best Shelling Beaches in Nc Ocracoke Island
Pear Whelk

Ocracoke Island is known to be one of the best shelling beaches in the U.S. partly because of its uncrowded beaches that take a 4WD vehicle to explore.

The northern beaches of Ocracoke Island are a great place to get far from the crowds to find rare shells. 

According to one successful shell hunter, Ramp 59 on the northern end of the island is a fantastic place for shelling.

The southern end of the island, South Point, is also a good place to look for shells as scotch bonnets and sand dollars can wash up on the shore.

While you’re at Ocracoke, visit the Ocracoke Lighthouse or learn about Blackbeard, the pirate who used the island as a hideout and was eventually killed there.

What are some of the shells you’ll find On Ocracoke Island?

Search Hotels.com for the best places to stay on Ocracoke Island.

6 – Portsmouth Island

Outerbanks Shells Florida Fighting Conch from Ocracoke Island
Florida Fighting Conch

Just south of Ocracoke Island is Portsmouth Island. You can find many shells here as the island is uninhabited (other than a few rustic cabins).

You can only get to the island with a 45-minute ferry ride, and you’ll need a 4WD to get around. You can book your ferry ride with Morris Marina. They’ll carry you and your vehicle across the sound for a scenic ride. 

While on the island, visit the deserted village of Portsmouth. You can explore the perfectly preserved general store and Methodist Church, among several other buildings.

You can camp on this island, and fishing is known to be spectacular. There are even bathroom facilities on the north end of the island.

What are some of the shells you’ll find On Portsmouth Island?

7 – The Point On Cape Lookout

Tulip Shells Best Beaches Outerbanks Seashells
Tulip Shells

The southernmost point of the Cape Lookout National Seashore is one of the best spots you could look for shells along the Outer Banks.

Due to its location near the Gulf Stream Current, Labrador Current, nor’easters, hurricanes, and remoteness, this is a wonderful spot to find seashells.

To get here, take the Island Express Ferry Service from Harkers Island. It will take you to the Cape Lookout Lighthouse. 

From there, you can either take a truck shuttle to the point to find shells or rent a 4WD Kubota from Island Express Ferry Service to get to the point yourself. 

A Kubota carries 4 people (6 seaters are also available), has plenty of storage, and will allow you to explore the beach at your own leisure.

What are some of the shells you’ll find at The Point On Cape Lookout National Seashore?

There are no hotels or vacation homes on Cape Lookout, but you can stay at nearby Harkers Island or Beaufort.

Search Hotels.com for the best places to stay near Cape Lookout

8 – Shackleford Banks

Queen's Helmet Shell Shackleford Banks NC Outerbanks Shells
Queen's Helmet Shell

Shackleford Banks is just a short 15-minute ferry ride from Beaufort or Harkers Island, NC. 

It is one of the best places in North Carolina to find shells and to see the beautiful wild horses that populate the Outer Banks.

You can find shells on the sound side or ocean side of Shackleford Banks. When My family has been there, the ferry dropped us off on the sound side, and we walked around to the ocean side, where we were able to find large shells by wading in the water a bit.

The Southern end of the island is also a great place to look for shells as it’s limited to foot traffic, and it’s harder for people to take very many shells at one time.

Shackleford Banks is one of the best places in North Carolina to find Conch Shells. I’ve known people to pull several out of the waters here.

You can book a ferry from Beaufort or Harkers Island HERE.

If you want to rent your own boat that comes with a captain and carries 6 people go here to book

What are some of the shells you’ll find at Shackleford Banks?

There are no homes or hotels on Shackleford Banks, but you can stay in nearby Harkers Island or Beaufort.

Search Hotels.com for the best places to stay near Shackleford Banks.

9 – Sand Dollar Island

Sand Dollar Island Outerbanks Seashells NC
Sand Dollars

I’ll never forget the trip I took to Sand Dollar Island with my daughter a few years ago. We found an enormous amount of live Sand dollars and a few dead ones. 

I was surprised to see people taking the live sand dollars with them. I don’t think that’s allowed anymore, thankfully. 

Dead sand dollars break easily, so I would suggest bringing something to help you transport it home in one piece.

Sand Dollar Island is located in between Shackleford Banks and Bird Shoal Island. It’s the best place to go if you want to find sand dollars. 

You can get there by taking this ferry.

While you’re there, enjoy the shallow tidal pools that make for great swimming and snorkeling. 

What are some of the shells you’ll find at Sand Dollar Island?

There are not any places to stay on Sand Dollar Island. In fact, the island is only accessible when the tide is low, which is why it usually doesn’t show up on a map.

Search Hotels.com for the best places to stay by Sand Dollar Island.

10 – Bird Shoal Island

Small Whelk Shell Bird Shoals Island Best NC Beaches For Seashells
Small Whelk Shell

Bird Shoals Island is another great place to find sand dollars and other small shells. It’s a lesser-known island, and so you may have it all to yourself. 

Like Sand Dollar Island, there are great shallow tidal pools to play in.

Here is a ferry service that will take you to Bird Shoals Island. 

What are some of the shells you’ll find at Bird Shoals Island?

Bird Shoal Island is another uninhabited Island, but Beaufort is close by and a lovely place to stay.

Search Hotels.com for the best places to stay in Beaufort.

11 – Fort Macon State Park

Giant Tun Fort Macon State Park Best Beaches In NC For Shells
Giant Tun

I’ve loved visiting Fort Macon State Park with my family in the past.

Not only is the fort one of the coolest things to see in the area, but the shelling is also great. 

To find the best shells, enter at the public beach access and walk left toward the jetty. Some also have luck shelling on the channel side.

As with most beaches, low tide is the best time to find shells.

What are some of the shells you’ll find at Fort Macon State Park?

The closest place to stay near Fort Macon State Park is Atlantic Beach, which is also a wonderful place to go shelling.

Search Hotels.com for the best places to stay on Atlantic Beach.

12 – The Point On Emerald Isle

Whelk Shell South Beach Hatteras Island Best Beach for shells in NC

The Western end of Emerald Isle is known as The Point. People love the amazing views and how uncrowded it is. It can also be a great place to find shells.

The Point does take effort to get to as parking is scarce, and if you find a place to park, you’ll have to walk a good distance.

I’ve found two suggested parking spots from my online research – the US Coast Guard Station on Channel Dr. (I’m not sure if you’re really supposed to park there) and Station Street Public Parking on Coast Guard Rd. The later parking option only has 10 parking spaces, so you’ll want to get there early.

Another option is to Uber there or rent a home right on The Point.

The long walk will take effort as you’ll have to trudge through soft sand, so be sure to bring water, sunscreen, and snacks. But from the research I’ve done online, the views make it worth it.

Also, know that there are no restrooms or water fountains.

To find shells, people suggest visiting at low tide and walking into the water a few feet deep to hunt for shells.

Beachgoers also report finding sand dollars and starfish in the tidal pools there. 

For a beautiful and easy hiking spot, go to Emerald Isle Woods Park.

What are some of the shells you’ll find at The Point on Emerald Isle?

Search Hotels.com for the best places to stay on Emerald Isle.

13 – Bear Island At Hammocks Beach State Park?

Oyster Shell on Bear Island Beat Beaches In NC for Shells
Oyster Shell

Bear Island is accessible by catching a ferry during the warmer months at Hammocks Beach State Park (info here) or booking a Shelling Adventure Cruise with Marsh cruises (info here). 

There is also a kayak trail that leads to the island that is about three miles.

You’ll love Bear Island for the uncrowded beaches, beautiful views, public restrooms, and drinking water. 

Most people who visit Bear Island report finding plenty of large and small shells and even sand dollars and shark teeth.

The public ferry limits what you can bring on board, so if you want to bring a wagon to carry your stuff, make sure it is collapsible. 

Or, you can bring your items in a bag or backpack.

Shell hunters may have more luck during the winter months of the year since few people visit during that time. 

Luckily, Marsh Cruises operates in the winter and will help you find sand dollars, shark teeth, and other shells.

What are some of the shells you’ll find On Bear Island?

The closest place to stay near Bear Island is Emerald Isle.

Search Hotels.com for the best places to stay on Emerald Isle.

14 – Topsail Island

Pen Shell Topsail Island Beast NC Beaches For Seashells
Pen Shell

Topsail Island has always been one of my family’s favorite beaches in North Carolina because of the calm waters and uncrowded beaches.

Look for shells around the northern and southern points of the island, around fishing piers, and in tidal pools.

Hunting during the winter will also increase your chances of finding shells as there are fewer people then.

One unique thing about Topsail Island is the amount shark teeth you can find there. The Seaview Pier on North Topsail is known to be a great spot to find them. 

To help you hunt for small shark teeth, you may have to sift through handfuls of sand and shells. Or, you can bring a small sifter (like this one). Also, don’t overlook the possibility of finding large shark teeth like Great White and Megalodon.

Toms Teeth Facebook page is a great place to learn more about shark tooth hunting on Topsail Island.

And remember to bring a ziplock bag to store your shark teeth in.

Sifting Pan for finding shark’s teeth

What are some of the shells you’ll find On Topsail Island?

Search Hotels.com for the best places to stay on Topsail Island.

15 – Lea-Hutaff Island

Lea Hutaff-Island-Best Shelling in NC Sundial
Sundial Shell

Some of the best shelling spots are on remote islands where few venture. That’s why Lea-Hutaff Island is a great place to look.

It’s located just south of Topsail Island, and you can only get there by charter boat (like this one from Tiki Tours)

What are some of the shells you’ll find On Lea-Hutaff Island?

16 – Shark Tooth Island

Shark Tooth Island NC
Shark's Teeth

I’m veering away from shell hunting for a bit to show you a really cool spot to find shark teeth in between Wrightsville and Carolina Beach. 

In south Wilmington along the Cape Fear River is a tiny island called Shark Tooth Island. You can get there by renting a kayak from Pleasure Island Rentals

They will bring your kayaks right to the water at River Road Park. From there, it’s a short paddle to Shark Tooth Island. People claim to find dozens of shark teeth there.

Search Hotels.com for the best places to stay near Shark Tooth Island.

Shark Tooth Hunting On The Carolina Coast

17 – Masonboro Island

Shark Eye Shell Best Shelling Beaches Masonboro NC
Shark Eye Shell

Located south of Wrightsville Beach, Masonboro Island is one of the best places to shell in the Cape Feat region because of the tidal flats and pools. 

It also helps that it’s only accessible by boat, ferry, or kayak. You can find a water taxi from Wrightsville Beach to Masonboro HERE.  You can also go on a guided shelling trip HERE

If you want to kayak to Masonboro Island or nearby Zeke’s Island, you can find a kayak tour HERE.

Other fun things to do on the island include fishing, birdwatching, swimming, and hiking the trails around the island.

What are some of the shells you’ll find On Masonboro Island?

Search Hotels.com for the best places to stay near Masonboro Island.

18 – Bald Head Island

Calico Scallop Shell Bald Head Island Shelling NC
Calico Scallop Shell

To get to Bald Head Island, you’ll take a 20-minute passenger ferry from Deep Point Marina in Southport, NC, to the harbor at Bald Head Island.

No cars are allowed on Bald Head Island, so you’ll leave your car on the mainland. Once you get to the island, you can get a ride to your rental home by making a tram reservation (make your tram reservation before you board the ferry).

You can explore the island by golf cart, bicycle, or foot. Some vacation rentals come with a golf cart and/or bicycles. If not, you can rent them on the island.

The island has miles of isolated beaches making for a great shelling adventure. The best places to find shells on the island are the east coast or the southernmost point.

As with any beach, hunt for shells at low tide, preferably after a storm.

Other things to do on Bald Head Island include climbing the Bald Head Lighthouse (which can be seen in the movie Weekend at Bernie’s), explore the beautiful trails, or take a historic tour and learn about the island’s interesting history.

What are some of the shells you’ll find On Bald Head Island?

Search Hotels.com for the best places to stay on Bald Head Island.

19 – Caswell Beach on Oak Island

Cowry Helmet Shell Caswell Beach on Oak Island NC
Queen's Helmet Shell

Oak Island has two great places to hunt for shells – Caswell Beach and The Point.

Caswell Beach has easy access and is not as crowded as other beaches on the island, making it easier to find shells, especially in the off-season.

It also has gently sloping shorelines that help delicate shells to wash ashore in one piece.

The Oak Island Lighthouse sits on Caswell Beach and is a fun spot to take pictures. Or, you can pay a small fee to visit the remnants of Fort Caswell, which sits at the eastern end of the island.

Caswell Beach is one of the few beaches in the world where you can watch the sun rise and set without moving (because of its east-west orientation). It’s also a nesting site for endangered sea turtles.

Pro-tip: There are only around 100 homes or condos for rent on Caswell Beach, so book your stay early or stay in the off-season.

What are some of the shells you’ll find On Caswell Beach On Oak Island?

Search Hotels.com for the best places to stay on Caswell Beach on Oak Island.

20 – The Point on Oak Island

Soft Shell Clam at The Point on Oak Island Best Shelling North Carolina
Soft Shell Clam

The Point at the western end of Oak Island is a popular place for shell hunting and watching breathtaking, colorful sunsets.

And it’s less crowded than other beaches on the island.

When the tide goes out, it’s a fun place for kids to play in the tidal pools.

There’s not a lot of parking, so get your spot early or visit in the off-season. 

As with most beaches, shelling is best early in the morning, at low tide, and after a storm. Also, wade out into the water a few feet to look for shells.

People also enjoy kayaking on the sound side of The Point as the water is calm there.

What are some of the shells you’ll find On The Point On Oak Island?

Search Hotels.com for the best places to stay near The Point on Oak Island.

21 – Holden Beach

Murex Shells Holden Beach NC
Murex Shells

The East end of Holden Beach is the best place to go shelling on the island because inlets are usually a great place to find shells.

Sand dollars are often found there by searching in ankle-deep water at low tide. Just make sure that the sand dollar is no longer living before you take it.

The west end of the island is also a great place to hunt for shells, but you can only access it by staying in the private community there or walking a long distance from a public beach.

What are some of the shells you’ll find On Holden beach?

Search Hotels.com for the best places to stay on Holden Beach.

22 – Ocean Isle Beach

Scotch Bonnet Best Beaches In NC For Shells
Scotch Bonnets

Shell hunting is good anywhere on Ocean Isle, but the East End is the best spot to find shells, especially if you go early in the morning at low tide. 

Ocean Isle is also a great place for kids to play in the water because the beach is flat. And on the east end, at low tide, there are many little tide pools for kids to play in.

While you’re there, visit the Ocean Isle Museum, where you can watch the workers feed the animals in the Touch Tank

Or go to one of the fantastic shows at the Ingram Planetarium.

What are some of the shells you’ll find On Ocean Isle beach?

Search Hotels.com for the best places to stay on Ocean Isle Beach.

23 – Tubbs Inlet

Lion's Paw Scallop Shell Tubb's Island Best Shelling in NC beaches
Lion's Paw

Tubbs Inlet is located between Ocean Isle Beach and Sunset Beach. Shelling there can be incredible since the inlet is always changing.

You can find shells at the beaches in this area or take a kayaking tour that will take you through picturesque marshes and creeks where even boats can’t go. 

The kayak tour even takes you to a private beach for shelling, swimming, and fishing.

What are some of the shells you’ll find at Tubbs Inlet?

Search Hotels.com for the best places to stay near Tubbs Inlet.

24 – Bird Island

Best NC Beaches for shelling Bird Island Knobbed Whelk
Knobbed Whelk

At the southernmost end of North Carolina is Bird Island. Since the island is undeveloped, few visitors make the trek there, which leaves plenty of shells to be found. And it’s not uncommon to find whole sand dollars there.

The island is also rife with wildlife, including alligators, sea turtles, deer, goats, foxes, and lots of birds.

Getting to Bird Island is easy. Just drive to 40th & Main Street on Sunset Beach and find a place to park. Walk eastward along the beach until you see signs for the Bird Island Reserve.

For an extra special experience, keep walking until you see the Kindred Spirit Mailbox. This mailbox holds notebooks where you can write your innermost thoughts. Or read the thoughts of others.

The mailbox is actually the inspiration behind Nicholas Sparks’ novel Every Breath. The mailbox, along with Sunset Beach, is featured heavily in the novel.

Here is the story behind the mailbox:

What are some of the shells you’ll find On Bird island?

Search Hotels.com for the best places to stay near Bird Island.

Check out the Google map below to see all of the best places to go shelling in NC in one place.

Have you been shelling in North Carolina? What are your favorite beaches?

Please share in the comments below!

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50 Responses

  1. Wow, this is an awesome post! There are so many amazing shell spots. I never knew! We haven’t ever been shelling but my kids do love those shell bags for finding fun stuff on the trails.

  2. I love shelling. It is so fun with kids to find all of the shells. When I was a kid I would always find the smallest, perfect shells. I had no idea NC had such great shelling. May have to take a road trip this summer.

  3. What a comprehensive guide for best shelling beaches in NC. I’ve only been to Outer Banks and it was pretty cool

    1. Thanks! I’m so glad you liked it. The Outer Banks is a beautiful place and one of the best to get shells.

  4. Shelling is one of my meditation in motion activities when beaching it. Thank you for the timely post!

    1. I’m glad you pointed out that shelling can be mentally healthy. What a great insight!

  5. These shells are beautiful. We love looking for shells at our beaches here in Southern California, but here we aren’t supposed to keep them, so we usually toss them back in the water. I’ve never seen some of the ones in this post! I’d love to check them out and it sounds like a great sight for the kids too!

    1. That’s interesting that you can’t keep the shells in Southern California. Maybe they are worried about people keeping live shells??

  6. What a great resource for finding sea shells in North Carolina. I’ll have to bookmark this for whenever I get out there to visit!

  7. What a great post! This is such an amazing list. I wish I could be in NC and do some shelling. There are some amazing shells there.

  8. This is a great guide to the best shelling beaches in North Carolina! Especially love the insider’s tips to the secret shelling spots!

    1. It was really fun researching to find the unknown or lesser-known spots like Bird Island and Masonboro Island.

  9. We visited Pea Island in January a few years ago. The beach was covered in gorgeous shells. Not only to we collect them, but I had a blast taking gorgeous photos.

    1. I’m so glad you had a great time on Pea Island. This is one of the spots that few people have heard about to go shelling.

  10. This looks like a blast. We love rock collecting whenever we go out in nature. I never heard of Coquina clamshells, they remind me of Agates.

  11. Live, love, love this post! I’m a nut about beaches and seashells (I like to say that my birthstone is a seashell!), so I am saving this post forever in case I get to go to the Carolinas to the beaches there.
    The shells are gorgeous –
    Thanks so much!!

    1. Thanks so much! I’m so glad you loved the post. I really hope you get to come here to go shelling. I think you’d love it. You have been to some pretty cool places in the world. I love reading about them on your website.

  12. This is such a cool post! Where was this when we were on our Epic East Coast Road Trip a few years ago! My daughter loves hunting for treasures on the beach. And I will definitely have to look into both the purse and the sifter for our next trip!

    1. It’s so much fun for kids to find shells. And it’s a great way to teach them about the creatures that live in the ocean.

  13. I love shells, but your post made me realize how little I know about them and where to find them. I love sand dollars, too, and didn’t even know that Sand Dollar Island existed! It’s now on my travel bucket list, along with Coquina Beach. Those coquina shells are so colorful! Thank you for sharing all of your knowledge.

    1. I hope you get to visit. We have so many fun places to go shelling to along the NC coast.

  14. We’ll be on Emerald Isle this summer so I’ll have to do some shelling then. But I have to say my kids are more into sea glass. Lol.

    1. I’m so glad you’ll get to go to Emerald Isle. Sea glass is so cool to find. I know some of the colors of sea glass are very rare too.

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