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Buried Treasure Beneath Jockey’s Ridge

Buried Treasure Beneath Jockey’s Ridge

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.

Photo: Our State Magazine

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.

Photo: ObxBound.com

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.

Photo Courtesy of Outer Banks History Center

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.

Photo: Village Realty OBX

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.

Photo: Dan Waters Photography

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. 

History of the Bodie Island Lighthouse

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in Buxton may be the most famous lighthouse along the coast of North Carolina, but another black-and-white-striped brick structure—the Bodie Island Lighthouse in South Nags Head—is another popular Outer Banks landmark that attracts droves of tourists to the barrier island beaches all year long. Located fewer than four miles north of Oregon Inlet, the Bodie Island Lighthouse is situated on the western edge of Bodie Island, on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Although the present-day tower that still serves as a functioning navigational aid was constructed in 1872, two previous versions of the Bodie Island Lighthouse were built on the same site during the middle of the 19th century.

Lighthouse
The Bodie Island Light Station, South Nags Head

In 1837, the United States government sent Lieutenant Napoleon L. Coste to the Outer Banks of North Carolina to search for potential places to build a new lighthouse that would aid mariners attempting to navigate the shallow shoals of the Graveyard of the Atlantic. According to the National Park Service, ships heading south toward Cape Point from northeastern North Carolina were in need of a beacon of light that could alert them to their position and let them know they would soon be nearing the treacherous waters where the Gulf Stream and Labrador Current converge. To assist these mariners by providing them with plenty of time to alter their positions as they came closer to Cape Point, Congress appropriated funds for the construction of the Bodie Island Lighthouse that same year.

View West
View of the Roanoke Sound from the top of the Bodie Island Lighthouse

Despite the approval of a lighthouse on the southern end of Nags Head in the late 1830s, a series of complications during the process of purchasing the land delayed the construction until 1847. Work commenced on the site soon after, but because the project’s primary manager had no prior experience in the construction of a lighthouse, the finished product—a lighthouse that stood on an unsupported brick foundation—proved to be a total failure. Just two years after construction was complete, the 54-foot-tall tower began to lean to one side. Although several expensive repairs were performed in an attempt to fix the structural issues and save the structure, the first Bodie Island Lighthouse was deemed ineffective and ultimately demolished in 1859.

NPS
Photo Credit: National Park Service

Armed with the knowledge of the proper way to build a lighthouse upon the sandy shoreline of the Outer Banks, the government promptly funded the $25,000 construction of the second rendition of the Bodie Island Lighthouse at a nearby site. This lighthouse was significantly sturdier than its predecessor; however, it also fell victim to an unfortunate fate just a few years after construction of the 80-foot-tall tower was complete. Because Confederate troops who were retreating from the Outer Banks during the Civil War feared enemy Union forces would use the structure as an observation post, Confederates blew up the lighthouse in 1861.

For the Bodie Island Lighthouse, the third time proved to be the charm. Fifteen acres of land was eventuallypurchased from John B. Etheridge 1.5 miles to the north of the locations where the previous lighthouses once stood, and construction on the present-day structure began on June 13, 1871. A seven-foot-deep pit was dug into the sand on the site in South Nags Head, and a wood grillage foundation was then laid at the bottom of the hole. Large chunks of granite and grouted blocks of rock were piled on top of the grillage to raise the foundation an extra five feet from the ground. The tower of the lighthouse was then set on top of the foundation and built to a total height of 156 feet. Outfitted with a first-order Fresnel lens from France, the third rendition of the Bodie Island Lighthouse was first lit on October 1, 1872, casting a beam of light that can be seen for more than 18 miles.

Lighthouse Snow
The Bodie Island Lighthouse in a snowstorm, January 2016

For more than a century, the lighthouse has served as a successful navigational aid for mariners sailing the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, and its light pattern—characterized by 2.5 seconds on, 2.5 seconds off, 2.5 seconds on and then 22.5 seconds off—has become well-known by both locals and tourists vacationing on the Outer Banks for decades. After years remaining closed to the public, extensive renovation efforts were performed between 2009 and 2012, and the tower officially opened for climbing in the spring of 2013.

Lighthouse Renovations
The Bodie Island Lighthouse undergoes extensive renovations from 2009-2012

Guided tours are now offered at Bodie Island Lighthouse from the third Friday in April through Columbus Day, allowing visitors to climb 214 steps to the top of the structure, where they will be treated to incredible 360-degree views of Coquina Beach, the Atlantic Ocean, Roanoke Sound, Oregon Inlet, Nags Head and the neighborhood town of Manteo.

Lighthouse View East
The view of the Atlantic Ocean and Coquina Beach from the top of the Bodie Island Lighthouse

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.

 

The History of Jennette’s Pier

Whether you’re an angler hoping to snag the catch of the day or you’re a sightseer searching for the perfect spot to snap a photo of a sunrise over the sea, you won’t find a better place to spend the day than one of the many fishing piers situated along the Outer Banks. From Frisco to Kitty Hawk, the Outer Banks is home to eight fishing piers, and while these structures that jut out into the Atlantic Ocean all vary in terms of their age, length and current condition, each has a unique and storied past worth telling. Perhaps the most popular and famous of all Outer Banks fishing piers is Jennette’s Pier, whose history dates back to its original construction in 1939.

Pier House New

Located within the heart of Whalebone Junction in Nags Head, Jennette’s Pier was initially built to meet the needs of vacationers and fisherman who ventured to the Outer Banks as the region first began to gain popularity among visitors. Recognizing the demand for a prime spot to cast a line far out into the surf, the Jennette family purchased five acres of property along the Nags Head oceanfront and set out to build the very first fishing pier on the Outer Banks.

Pier from endThe old adage “build it and they will come” proved true, and visitors from up and down the East Coast and beyond soon flocked to the newly constructed pier to cast their lines into the Atlantic Ocean. A series of small, bare-bones oceanfront cottages—which had formerly housed U.S. Civil Works Administration employees who spent time on the Outer Banks building a line of protective sand dunes from Corolla to Ocracoke during the Great Depression—were transformed into a camp for fishermen looking for affordable accommodations just a few steps from the fishing pier.  

old pier jennettes

The original wooden pier—built by Virginia Dare Construction and Salvage Corporation—stood 16 feet wide and stretched 754 feet out into the Atlantic Ocean. In an effort to provide anglers with ample space to set their lines and plenty of elbow room for reeling in their catch upon the most coveted spot on the structure, the builders of Jennette’s Pier also included a 28-foot-wide T-shaped section at the end of the pier. One of the original cottages from the fisherman’s camp was moved to the dune line and transformed into a pier house that served as a spot for fishermen to change their clothing, have a cold drink or grab a snack.

For decades, the pier was a prime attraction along the Outer Banks, and fisherman came from far and wide to catch species ranging from flounder and mackerel and red drum to bluefish and striped bass. As more and more fishermen and vacationers visited the pier each year, the demand for additional features grew greater. Throughout the mid-20th century, the Jennettes added a restaurant, tackleshop and arcade to the pier house, providing something for everyone in the family—not just fishing enthusiasts. In 2002, surviving members of the Jennette family sold their interests in the pier to the North Carolina Aquarium Society with the goal of the organization turning the pier and attached pier house into an educational facility.

Pier Sign

Not long after the purchase of the pier was complete, however, Hurricane Isabel—one of the most devastating hurricanes to strike the Outer Banks in over a decade—struck the barrier islands. Strong winds and rough surf slammed against Jennette’s Pier as the Category 2 hurricane edged closer to the coastline and eventually made landfall near Drum Inlet. In addition to cutting a new inlet straight through a portion of Hatteras Village and causing hundreds of oceanfront homes to fall into the Atlantic, Hurricane Isabel sliced more than 540 feet off the end of Jennette’s Pier and forced the pier to close down its operations.

old pier house

The North Carolina Aquarium Society quickly came up with a plan to replace the severely damaged wooden pier with a brand-new concrete structure that could withstand the force of the many hurricanes that frequently target the Outer Banks. A groundbreaking event was held on May 22, 2009, and in May 2011 the new pier was officially opened to the public.

Jennettes Construction

Today, Jennette’s Pier stands on thick, concrete pilings and stretches 1,000 feet into the sea, making it one of the longest fishing piers along the Eastern Seaboard. The pier house also underwent a complete renovation and now houses a retail store, snack bar, event space and tackle shop. The facility also offers a wide array of programs designed to educate visitors about the history of this iconic landmark and features an assortment of live animal exhibits that teach visitors of all ages about the myriad species of marine life that call the barrier islands of the Outer Banks home.

Pier sunrise

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