If seashell hunting ranks at the top of the list of your favorite things to do on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, chances are you’re already well-aware that this particular stretch of barrier island paradise is one of the best places in the world to stroll along the shoreline looking for hidden treasures.
It’s definitely possible to stumble across some rare finds on the beach right outside your quaint cottage or hotel room. However, if you’re hoping to find an unusual variety of seashell—or even a couple pieces of seaglass—you might have to venture a little farther from your cozy accommodations and scope out the spots that offer some of the best opportunities for seashell hunting on the entire East Coast of the United States.
Whether you’re planning your next vacation to the beach or you’re already on the islands and ready to get outside and start searching, check out our list of the top places for seashell hunting on the Outer Banks below before you go!
Few places on the Outer Banks are better spots for finding a plethora of unique seashells than along the shoreline of Ocracoke Island. Accessible only by ferry, private boat or private plane, Ocracoke Island is situated at the southernmost portion of the Outer Banks, bordered by the Pamlico Sound to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. This tiny island—which is home to a population of fewer than 1,000 year-round residents—comprises only 8.6 square miles of land but boasts 16 miles of pristine and undeveloped beaches. In fact, Ocracoke Island was recognized by Dr. Beach as the No. 2 beach in the United States in 2019 and has repeatedly received similar honors by Coastal Living Magazine, being recognized as one of the “Best Beaches in the USA” and “Best Beach Towns in North Carolina” in the past several years.
Thanks to its prime location off the beaten path and its positioning just south of the spot where the Gulf Stream and the Labrador Current converge at Cape Point on nearby Hatteras Island, Ocracoke Island is the perfect spot to find an abundance of rare seashells—including the elusive scotch bonnet. This hard-to-find shell was officially named the state shell of North Carolina in 1965; however, even the most dedicated beachcombers and experienced seashell collectors have struggled with successfully finding one completely intact along the beaches of the Outer Banks. In addition to scotch bonnets, visitors who search for seashells on Ocracoke Island will also find an assortment of other interesting finds ranging from scallops, sand dollars, periwinkles and coquina clam shells to olive shells, whelks and queen helmet conchs.
PEA ISLAND NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE:
When it comes to searching for seashells on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, one particular spot that consistently delivers a wide array of stunning and rare varieties is Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Located just south of Oregon Inlet on the northernmost tip of Hatteras Island, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is 13 miles long and covers nearly 6,000 acres of land and more than 25,000 acres of water. Like its Ocracoke Island counterpart, which sits a few miles off the coast of the opposite end of Hatteras Island, this uninhabited stretch of sandbar is a beachcomber’s dream come true.
In addition to serving as a sanctuary for 400 different species of wildlife ranging from dolphins and sea turtles to migratory birds, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge offers wide expanses of open shoreline just waiting to be explored by visitors who are searching for the perfect shell to add to their collection. Here you’ll likely find an assortment of colorful scallop shells, clams, whelks and moon snails. And if you’re truly lucky, you just might stumble upon a piece or two of Outer Banks seaglass because this sliver of secluded shoreline is a hot spot for these hidden gems! For more information about Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, check out our detailed blog here.
If you’re visiting the northern beaches of the Outer Banks and a trip to Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge or Ocracoke Island is a bit too far to travel for an afternoon of seashell hunting, simply head down to South Nags Head and take a stroll along Coquina Beach to search for the perfect find.
Coquina Beach is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and it is conveniently located directly across N.C. Highway 12 from the Bodie Island Lighthouse at Milepost 22. This popular Outer Banks beach access offers both a bathhouse and plenty of parking spaces. Coquina Beach is just a short drive from the bustling beach towns of Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head to the north, but it boasts seemingly endless stretches of undeveloped beaches and windswept sand dunes. This makes it the perfect place to spend your day searching for seashells without a lot of competition from other shell collectors.
What is a Coquina Clam?
Coquina Beach is aptly named after the coquina clam, whose shells are found in abundance along this particular piece of shoreline. This is especially true during the warm spring and summer months, when coquina clams are the most active. The wedge-shaped shells of these bivalve mollusks are small, ranging in size from about 1 centimeter to 1 inch in length. They also come in a rainbow of colors ranging from yellow, white and pink to purple, blue and orange.
Visit Coquina Beach in the spring and summer and you’ll likely witness live coquina clams quickly burrowing back down into the sand along the water’s edge after they are uncovered by the waves washing up along the shoreline. Coquina Beach may be best-known for the number of coquina clams that call this spot home; however, beachcombers will also find a variety of additional seashell varieties here. Keep an eye out for whelks, scallops and moon snails—as well as a plethora of driftwood and the occasional shard of Outer Banks seaglass!
TIPS & TRICKS FOR FINDING SEASHELLS:
- Seashell hunting on the Outer Banks is typically the best in the morning hours (ideally just prior to or during sunrise). Getting to the shoreline before other beachcombers collect the most highly prized finds is key!
- Scope out the beach during or just after a storm or period of rough surf. Intense wave action can stir up shells that are normally nestled along the seafloor or buried beneath the sand and deposit them onto the shoreline.
- Hit the water’s edge as the tide is going out or when the tide is at its absolute lowest for the day. A receding tide reveals an abundance of shell beds that are normally covered by the ocean waves. These are often the best spots to discover hard-to-find treasures, particularly pieces of seaglass!