For visitors to the Outer Banks who have traveled along Highway 158 through Nags Head, Jockey’s Ridge—the massive mound of sand that sits along the sound side of the island—is virtually impossible to miss. Towering 100 feet tall and extending across an area of more than 420 acres, Jockey’s Ridge State Park has been a popular destination for tourists and Outer Banks locals for decades.
The largest living natural sand dune system on the East Coast is home to a wide array of wildlife, including red foxes, raccoons, white-tailed deer, opossums, rabbits and six-lined racerunners, as well as several species of bird, such as snowy egrets, sandpipers and ospreys. The enormous dune also serves as the perfect spot to enjoy outdoor recreation ranging from sand-boarding to hang-gliding. Although the native wildlife that live here and the opportunities for outdoor recreation are the primary attractions that draw visitors to the state park, the buried treasure that occasionally surfaces from beneath the sand also prompts people to swing by to take a peek.
The Town of Nags Head was established in the 1830s, when residents of inland towns began to seek an escape from the smothering heat of North Carolina summers and started arriving by boat across the Roanoke Sound. Promising fresh salt air and cool ocean breezes, the Outer Banks soon became a travel destination for visitors, many of whom also constructed summer cottages on the western edge of the island so they can spend several weeks or months at a time along the shoreline.
As more and more visitors traversed the inland coastal plains and made their way to the barrier islands a need to develop more accommodations became evident. In 1938, the area’s first hotel was construction at the foot of the sand dunes. With maritime winds constantly blowing grains of sand and causing the sand dunes to shift, the hotel’s rooms soon began to fill with sand, forcing the owner to provide shovels in each room so guests could clear sand from their doorway during their stay.
Over time, the sands of Jockey’s Ridge had shifted dramatically and the mountains of sand that had formed on the back side of the hotel started to rise as high as the hotel’s rooftop. Since the hotel owners were no match for Mother Nature, the Nags Head hotel was eventually swallowed up entirely by the sand dune. Today, no signs of the hotel can be found, and many debate whether or not the stories of its existence under Jockey’s Ridge are even true.
In the 1970s, a miniature golf course was opened on a site near Jockey’s Ridge to provide family-friendly fun to Outer Banks visitors of all ages. Among myriad other obstacles on the putt putt course that players had to navigate were a giant octopus and a large sand castle. Winds whipping across the barrier islands throughout the seasons cause the sand dune to migrate anywhere from three to six feet to the southwest each year, and because the course was situated so close to Jockey’s Ridge, it also fell victim to the colossal sand dune. Once the sand encroached, the park system purchased the putt putt course, which now lays entombed beneath the sand.
Located on the southwest corner of Jockey’s Ridge State Park, the tip of the sand castle from the golf course can occasionally be spotted in the midst of the dunes. Southwest winds sometimes shift the sand just enough that the crumbling structure can be spotted from the road, prompting many visitors to make a stop at the park to hike up the dune to pose for a photo beside this piece of buried treasure on one of the most famous landmarks along the entire Outer Banks.