Top Spots for NC Beachcombers - Carolina Country

Top Spots for NC Beachcombers

Be in the right place at the right time to find treasured shells

Top Spots for NC Beachcombers

Who at some time or another hasn’t walked along a beach scanning downward for shells? Along coastal North Carolina can be found some of the best spots for the most ardent of beachcombers. Any section of beach along our state’s 300 miles of coastline can yield a prize, although there are some tricks to upping your odds for rare finds. 

Shells of many varieties, driftwood and objects of flotsam and other “treasures” can wash up on our beaches due to the tides and waves. The hour on both sides of low tide tends to be the most productive, and shelling is particularly good after a big storm — especially if the wind was blowing from the east, according to the North Carolina Coastal Federation. 

1shellBut where to explore? Cape Hatteras National Seashore through Dare County is a well-known shelling hotspot, but it’s not the only mecca for beach finds. While many collectors swear by Ocracoke Island beaches in Hyde County, and the remote Portsmouth Island and Core Banks in Carteret County for spotting prized shells like the Scotch bonnet (the state shell of North Carolina), several other coastal areas provide excellent opportunities for such finds. 

Wherever you find yourself on the NC coast, there is rarely a bad day for shell hunting, and unusual specimens never cease to fascinate those who investigate and appreciate their finds. A final tip from the pros: Sift through the seaweed for your beauties, and when waters are calm, get your feet wet — some of the best shells are just off the shoreline! Below are four regions you may want to comb on your next shelling adventure.

Carteret County

Shackleford Banks at the southern end of the Cape Lookout National Seashore is home to sweeping dunes and a shelling haven reached only by boat (ferries run from Beaufort and Harkers Island). One local attributes the trove of “unbelievable shells” to tidal action on the ocean-facing beach. Walk into a foot of water, he advises, feel with your feet, and pull huge shells out of the sand.

Onslow & Pender Counties

The popular Hammocks Beach State Park offers ferry rides to Bear Island, a remote haven for shells and Keyhole sand dollars. The northern most section of Topsail Island (North Topsail Beach) is typically less crowded, meaning fewer fellow beachcombers to compete with. 

New Hanover County

Figure Eight Island, Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach and Kure Beach in the Cape Fear coastal area are not unusually crowded even throughout most of the summer, much to the delight of shell seekers. 

Bo Dean, a New Hanover County government employee and avid kayaker, says at low tide, Wrightsville Beach is a reliable source of tulip shells, identified by interrupted black lines across the shell surface, and sea urchins. Shell expert John Timmerman, who co-chairs the popular annual NC Shell Show ( with Karlynn Morgan, has worked more than 25 years for New Hanover County in visual arts and exhibit design. Catch the 2018 Shell Show Sept. 27–30 at the Coastline Conference and Event Center in Wilmington, or view Timmerman’s exhibits nearby at the Cape Fear Museum.

Brunswick County

Along our state’s southeastern-most coast are white powder beaches often promoted as among the most beautiful on the East Coast. The “Brunswick Islands” — including the communities of Ocean Isle Beach, Holden Beach, Oak Island, Caswell Beach and Southport — are well known for being a shell looker’s paradise, with nearly 45 miles of beach to explore. Near the South Carolina border, the undeveloped Bird Island is a protected beach accessible by foot from Sunset Beach. While there, leave a note in the Kindred Spirit mailbox, which keen-eyed readers will recognize from the cover of the April 2015 issue of Carolina Country.

Seashells book2Beach bound? 

Share your beautiful, remarkable, or unique “seashell find” on Facebook or Instagram for a chance to win! Post your shell photo from a North Carolina beach, then tag it with #CarolinaCountryShells. We'll randomly pick five readers to win a copy of Seashells of North Carolina, courtesy of North Carolina Sea Grant. Plus, we'll feature the winners on our social channels!

Complete rules and details 

About the Author

Joan Wenner, J.D., is a writer residing in Pitt County. She welcomes comments at

Comments (1)

  • Great article Joan ! Hunting shells on our gorgeous coast is a favorite past-time
    for many. It is actually an annual tradition for lots of vacationing families, as well.

    Jeffrey Bryan |
    June 04, 2018 |

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