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Explore a Pristine Natural Treasure: The Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve

Explore a Pristine Natural Treasure: The Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve

Photo: OuterBanksThisWeek.com

With more than 100 miles of shoreline stretching from Carova to Ocracoke Island, the Outer Banks of North Carolina is best-known for its pristine barrier island beaches and opportunities for world-class watersports ranging from kayaking to kiteboarding. Although the wide, sandy beaches and ride-worthy waves are undoubtedly the region’s biggest attractions—drawing thousands of visitors to the coast each year from across the country and around the world—the area is also home to an array of hidden gems just waiting to be discovered. One such spot that’s worthy of a lengthy visit to explore everything it has to offer off the beaten path is the Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve.

Photo: Pinterest

Situated on the western edge of the island along the shores of the Roanoke Sound, the Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve comprises 1,400 acres of maritime forest, saltmarshes and sand dunes. This unspoiled Outer Banks attraction—which is bordered by Run Hill State Natural Area to the north and Jockey’s Ridge State Park to the south—serves as a protected habitat for more than 50 species of birds, 15 species of amphibians and nearly 30 species of reptiles. Visitors who wander along the trails within the Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve will also discover several freshwater ponds, which are home to seven species of fish and an assortment of unique aquatic plant life, including a rare flower called the water violet.  

Photo: My Outer Banks Home

Before the town of Nags Head became the busy, bustling beach town it is today, it was home to a small population of year-round residents, some of which resided within a tiny village that was located on the grounds where the ecological preserve exists today. From the middle of the 1800s until the 1930s, these Outer Bankers lived within the protective confines of the maritime forest, developing 13 home sites and building two churches, a factory, a school, a gristmill and a general store. Despite the fact that nearly an entire century has passed since the Nags Head Woods were inhabited by a thriving village of local residents, visitors strolling through the preserve today will likely stumble upon a few remnants of the former structures, including a handful of headstones and gravesites, as well as pieces of brick foundations from the houses that once stood in this same location several decades ago.  

Photo: The Nature Conservancy

In the 1970s—as the barrier islands began to gain popularity as a desirable vacation destination for travelers throughout the Mid-Atlantic states and up and down the Eastern Seaboard—hundreds of vacation rental homes were constructed along the coastlines of both the ocean and the sound to accommodate the surge of seasonal visitors. In an effort to prevent the entirety of the area from being divided into parcels that would soon be purchased and developed with vacation rental properties and hotels, Nags Head and the neighboring town of Kill Devil Hills formed a partnership that sought to save the untouched natural area. The towns joined forces with The Nature Conservancy, a national environmental organization whose stated mission is to “conserve the lands and waters upon which all life depends.”  

Photo: Town of Kill Devil Hills

In 1974, Nags Head Woods earned its status as a National Natural Landmark, and in 1977 The Nature Conservancy and the towns of Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills designated 1,000 acres within the woods that would be free and open to the public but could never undergo development. Additional parcels of land were added to the Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve throughout the decades that followed, including more than 400 acres on the preserve’s western border that were generously donated John and Rhoda Calfee and Diane St. Clair.   

Photo: The Nature Conservancy

Today, outdoor enthusiasts who visit the barrier islands can escape the hustle and bustle of the busy beaches by venturing into the picturesque ecological preserve to enjoy a sense of peace and tranquility. Seven marked nature trails meander through the lush saltmarshes and dense maritime forest, giving visitors an opportunity to witness an array of different species of plants and animals, and the chance to explore an Outer Banks landmark that has remained completely unchanged over the course of the past several centuries.  

 

The Shifting Sands of Jockey’s Ridge State Park

The Outer Banks of North Carolina are home to a wide array of historical attractions and iconic landmarks. From manmade structures such as the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse to naturally occurring phenomena like the converging currents found at Cape Point, the 200-mile-long string of barrier islands that comprise the Carolina coast attract hundreds of thousands of vacationers each year. Whether you’re an avid adventurer searching for a spot to attempt a one-of-a-kind activity or a wildlife enthusiast who wants to witness a series of native island species up close and personal, the shifting sands of Jockey’s Ridge State Park offer something for everyone in the family.

Jockey’s Ridge State Park. Photo by Ray Matthews.

Situated along the Roanoke Sound on the western edge of the town of Nags Head, Jockey’s Ridge is a natural sand dune that stands 100 feet tall and extends over 420 acres. According to geologists, the dune was formed over the course of several decades, as strong currents from storms that struck the Outer Banks picked up sand from offshore shoals and pushed it onto area beaches. As time went on, gusts of wind grabbed these grains of sand and blew them inland to the sound side of the island, where they settled and slowly grew into an extensive system of sand dunes that stretched along the coast. Although maritime winds continue to blow grains of sand in myriad different directions—changing the size, shape and height of this Outer Banks landmark—Jockey’s Ridge retains its status as the largest living natural sand dune system in the Eastern United States.

Pinterest 2
Hang-gliding at Jockey’s Ridge. Photo courtesy of Pinterest.

If you’re traveling along U.S. 158, this enormous mound of sand between sound and sea is impossible to miss. But while many visitors to the Outer Banks are aware the state park exists, few can boast that they have experienced everything the unique sand dune system has to offer to the fullest extent. When most people think of Jockey’s Ridge, the first thought that comes to mind is hang-gliding—and for good reason. Since the mid-20th century, the sand dune has served as a mecca for both experienced hang-gliders and those looking to give a new activity a try. With steady, year-round winds ranging in speed from 10-15 miles per hour, Jockey’s Ridge provides the perfect place to launch a hang-glider and soar through the sky from the top of the dune to a soft and sandy landing spot at the bottom.

Jockey’s Ridge may be best known for offering prime conditions for hang-gliding, but you don’t have to take flight in order to enjoy the many incredible features of this North Carolina state park. One of the most popular ways for visitors to experience the park is by embarking on one of its nature many trails that wind their way through the dunes and along waters of the Roanoke Sound. Hikers will find three main trails ranging in difficulty from easy to moderate and in lengths that range from 360 feet to more than a mile and a half.

WAVY TV
VIews of the Roanoke Sound from Jockey’s Ridge. Photo: WAVY TV.

Pick the Boardwalk Trail located just behind the visitor center for a leisurely stroll that features a series of interpretive displays detailing the different types of plants and animals that can be found within the park’s borders. Choose the self-guided, mile-long Soundside Nature Trail for a more scenic route that takes visitors through a variety of coastal environments, including maritime thickets, grassy dunes, wetlands and the nearby shoreline of the Roanoke Sound. And if you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, take a journey along the coveted Tracks in the Sand Trail—a self-guided trail that takes visitors on a 1.5-mile round-trip trek through the sand dune system. Popular among nature enthusiasts, this trail exposes hikers to tracks left by an assortment of animals ranging from deer and foxes to a variety of different species of birds. And if you’re lucky, you might just encounter one of these animals face to face during your excursion along the sandy pathway.

ocean view
The Atlantic Ocean from the top of Jockey’s Ridge.

While hang-gliding and hiking are two of the most popular activities to take place in the park, one of the best ways to experience Jockey’s Ridge is climbing to the top of the sand dune to take in spectacular 360-degree views of the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Roanoke Sound to the west, as well as the town of the Nags Head below and the town of Manteo on nearby Roanoke Island. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better spot to view a sunrise over the ocean or to watch the sun sink into the calm waters of the sound than the peak of this Outer Banks landmark that has been enjoyed by visitors and locals alike for more than a century. 

Matt Jones
Sunset from the top of Jockey’s Ridge. Photo by Matt Jones.

 

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