Friday, April 13, 2018

The dunes of Jockey's Ridge

The wind coming off the Atlantic Ocean has played a primary role in the history of the Outer Banks. It provided the Wright Brothers with needed lift at the Kill Devil Hills site of first flight, yet it also blows in hurricanes and storms so powerful that some theorize might have been a factor in the disappearance of English Colony on nearby Roanoke Island. Whether this is fact or fiction, what we do know is that the barrier islands have been shaped – physically and historically – by these winds, and nowhere is this more evident than at Jockey’s Ridge State Park.

Jockey's Ridge is the tallest active sand dune system in the Eastern United States, the shifting winds constantly reshaping the dunes. Nags Head Woods and Jockey's Ridge were designated a National Natural Landmark in 1974 by the National Park Service. Today, the park is a favorite spot for flying kites, sandboarding (with permit), hang-gliding (through vendor) and watching sunsets, and the trails and visitor center provide insight into the history and ecology of this unique region.

You’ll want to start your visit at the visitor center & museum. After exploring the exhibits and picking up maps, take some water and sunscreen and head out onto the dunes on the 360ft boardwalk. From a viewing platform you can get a good perspective of the expansive sands of the park’s 420 acres before heading off into the dunes.

Jockey's Ridge encompasses three distinct ecological environments: dunes, maritime thicket, and the Roanoke Sound estuary. We explored the dunes first, and although for every two steps you take up the dune it’s one step back, don’t let that discourage you from climbing to the top of the biggest dune. There you’ll have a view of sand, surf, and sea - from the Sound all the way to the ocean. The park’s dunes consist of three peaks, and due to the constantly shifting sand, plants and animals do not live there. Around the base of the dunes you’ll find grasses and plants, providing habitat for small animals and insects. Don’t forget to bring shoes (the sand gets hot!), sunscreen, your sunglasses, water bottles, and a kite!

For a closer look at Roanoke Sound head out on the 1.5 mile Tracks in the Sand trail. The trail starts off with a short section through a forest of shrubs. The maritime thicket grows best in areas protected by the dune, which provides protection from wind and salt blown off the ocean. The live oaks, persimmons, red cedar, wax myrtle, bayberry, sweet gum, red oaks and pines are stunted by the effects of the wind and salt, causing them to look like shrubs. Fox, deer and raccoons live in the thickets, but you’re more likely to spot birds and a variety of insects.

The trail crosses a wide section of dune before reentering the forest, and eventually loops for a section along Roanoke Sound. At the shoreline, there is an area of restored marsh where nesting ospreys visit during the summer months, and the views of the dunes and sound are magnificent no matter the season. The trail is a Kids in Parks TRACK Trail, and brochures are available at the trailhead or inside the visitor center. A section of the North Carolina Mountains-to-sea trail is also located within the park.

The Sound-side of the park offers a completely different experience: sunbathing, wading, paddling and the 1-mile Soundside Nature Trail that tours the wetlands, grassy dunes and maritime thickets of the southern corner of the park. The Roanoke Sound Estuary is a rich habitat for a variety of plant, animal and bird life; the sound provides nesting areas for waterfowl, serves as a fish nursery, and is home to the blue crab. Windsurfers and kiteboarders are a common sight, and the sun setting over the sound often brings a crowd.

Events such as this lights on kites festival are a regular occurrance at the park

Legend says the park was named as a result of the early inhabitant’s practice of capturing wild ponies and racing them on the flat surface at the base of the dune, while the steep sides of the ridge served as a grandstand of sorts for spectators. Horses are no longer free to run on this portion of the Outer Banks - you’ll have to head north of Corolla to see the remaining population of wild Spanish mustangs. However, there’s still plenty of motion to be seen from a perch on the ridge: the dunes endlessly shifting, boats on the water, kites in the air… Jockey’s Ridge truly is alive, and a must-see for visitors on the Outer Banks.


  1. I enjoyed reading about this area. I especially appreciated the extra history and science. Thank you!

    1. My pleasure! We really enjoyed exploring the Outer Banks and hope to return soon - it is an extraordinary area, both physically and historically. Thanks for your comment, it's nice to hear what visitors to my blog enjoy reading about.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...