This article continues to be popular, but since it was written six years ago. It needs a little updating for those reading it in 2013.
We no longer have home in Roanoke, but we spent six years going back and forth from the Emerald Isle area. You can find a tremendous amount about the area at my Crystal Coast Life blog which focuses on the beach. There is some basic information including a map of the area at this welcome to the Crystal Coast site. Click the following link to go to a printable PDF map of our favorite route from Roanoke to Emerald Isle. We last made the exact trip in November of 2012. For more information check out our travel guide which is available for $3.99 as a Kindle book.
I guess that I would qualify as a local beach travel expert. I have been going to the Carolina beaches since I was two years old.
That is well over fifty years. We even went to the Carolina beaches while we were living in Canada.
I think that I am ready to share what I think is the easiest way to get to the closest beaches to Roanoke.
My beach travel qualifications include everything from Folly Beach in South Carolina to Assateague on Virginia's Eastern shore. Florida, California and other non-Carolina beaches have been walked but not nearly as much as those Carolina beaches.
I have paid the fees to walk the New Jersey beaches, but I only made one trip Cape May. I just couldn't see paying a fee and wearing a tag on my bathing suit just to walk the beaches.
I wandered the Cape in Massachusetts and Nantucket. I lived on the coast in Nova Scotia and enjoyed the beautiful beaches there and in Prince Edward Island but even Prince Edward Island is no match for the beaches of North Carolina.
I once went to a beach in Maine in the dead of winter. Along the way I have wet my feet on beaches in Hawaii, New Zealand, and Australia.
Now many of those beaches are wonderful beaches, but they are a long way off from Roanoke. I am guessing that if I did a survey in Roanoke, probably North Carolina's northern Outer Banks would rate as the most visited beach area, likely followed by Myrtle Beach.
They are both more difficult to get to than the beaches I am going to share with you.
I grew up in North Carolina just north of Winston-Salem in Mount Airy, other wise known as Mayberry. I can tell you that without a doubt the area from Atlantic Beach to Carolina Beach was the most favored beach area in North Carolina in those days back in the sixties and seventies.
I often visited Nags Head and Ocracoke. As a college student I camped there on the beaches, but it was a long haul even from the middle of North Carolina.
It is even farther from Roanoke.
We now have a second home near the beaches of Emerald Isle which is between Morehead City and Wilmington on what is popularly know as the Crystal Coast. These are the closest and most accessible beaches to the Roanoke area.
Now after over a year of experimenting, I am ready to declare that you can make it to some of the best beaches on the east coast from Roanoke consistently in less than five and one half hours not counting stops.
It is also a drive without very much stress. The only trucks you will see aside from the ones with rod racks on the front bumper, you will see on Route 220. Driving across NC on Highway 64 puts you in a more peaceful world far from the high speeds and stress of Interstate 40.
Most of my efforts this year have been in figuring the best way to handle the biggest bottlenecks which are going south from Virginia and the traffic in the Raleigh area.
We are just not the type of folks who choose to get up and on the road by 8:30 am unless we just have to do it which we did when we wanted to get Nags Head by a decent time.
So if you are an early morning person who can get the whole crew on the road before nine am, then you might not need my path around Raleigh except that with the road construction there, we have been caught in hour long waits even at 8 pm on a Sunday night.
My five and one half hours time was measured from the Intersection of 419 and US 220 south to the Emerald Isle Bridge. The distance is somewhere around 320 miles depending on the accuracy of your odometer.
***While this route is still perfectly fine, we have found this linked route to be more reliable in getting us round traffic. It is also faster.****
So here are the simple instructions, take 220 south to Martinsville. Follow it to where Route 87 exits left to Ridgeway. That is actually not very far after the Sheetz just south of Martinsville. It is well marked, and there is sign before the left turn.
Don't get fooled around Greensboro by the Interstates, stay focused on following signs to 421 South.
Follow Highway 421 south to Highway 64 East at Siler City.
Taking 64 avoids the massive headache of the traffic that happens each day between Raleigh and the Durham-Chapel Hill area.
Highway 64 runs into US 1 at Cary and continues to Interstate 40 east. There are a few stoplights in the Cary section but nothing serious. We hit Raleigh yesterday around 4 pm which as most folks know is almost a sure sentence to sitting in traffic. We had no problems.
Once you are on Interstate 40 East there is some traffic until Interstate 40 exits the Raleigh beltway and heads to the coast. However, it is only a few miles, probably under ten miles. It isn't long after that when you see the speed limit increase to seventy miles per hour.
Stay on Interstate 40 East until Exit 373 near Magnolia, NC.
Take a left as you exit Interstate 40 and follow the Route 24 East signs. At this point you are about 70 miles or an hour and ten minutes from the beaches.
We typically don't drive over five miles per hour over the speed limit. You get better gas mileage, and you don't have to panic when you see a policeman.
(Note Jacksonville has grown a lot in the last six years-traffic can be very heavy around the Camp Lejeune gates) Route 24 takes you to Jacksonville. Follow the signs to Swansboro and Morehead City. You will have to go through a few stop lights in Jacksonville, but they normally aren't very bad unless troops are being deployed.
Do make certain you slow down when exiting the Jacksonville by-pass as that ramp is a favorite spot to catch speeders.
As you leave Jacksonville, you can say good buy to the trappings of modern shopping. Jacksonville is the closest Target, Sam's Club, Bed Bath & Beyond, or Books a Million to the coast.
About 17 miles after Jacksonville you will pass through the old fishing village of Swansboro where there are some nice shops for the ladies.
The beaches of Emerald Isle are five or six miles beyond Swansboro.
Make sure you take a boat ride while you are on the Crystal Coast. The main street is actually the Intercoastal Waterway. Most houses are designed to look their best from the water. So what they look like from the road is secondary.
If you do decide to visit the closest uncrowded beaches to Roanoke, you can find more information on my websites, Southern Outer Banks, Crystal Coast Life, and Crystal Coast Life at blogger. I even have Information on Accessible Trails and a website dedicated to people who might be moving to the area and another about life near the White Oak River.
(2013 Update) If you fall in love with the area like I did, I can help with you that also. While I am no longer in real estate, I do maintain my license and I will be happy to help you find a good real estate agent that meets your needs. Just send me a note through this contact form. I live right next door to Emerald Isle and worked in real estate in the area for a number of years so I know several very capable agents.
There are plenty of rental homes in the Emerald Isle area, or for a short trip I can recommend the Best Western Silver Creek Inn which has a great pool that stays empty most of the time. The beaches are five to ten minutes away. (Since this was written, a brand new Hampton Inn has been built in Swansboro)
I should warn you that once you get to the beach, the police are serious about the speed limit since there are so many people close to the roads or crossing the roads. I drive the speed limit in Emerald Isle, but mostly it is 45 mph except for a few really short stretches. After all there are only three or four stoplights.
I'll see you there when I go for one of my walks on the beach in the evening.
To whet you appetite for the beach, you can have a look at some photos of the area in my Picasa Web Albums site.