Header background

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.  

 

Top 10 Outer Banks Activities and Attractions for Vacationers

Photo: Dan Waters Photography

When it comes to the best vacation destinations in the United States, the Outer Banks of North Carolina consistently earns a spot on the lists compiled by various travel companies, publications and blogs each season. In 2017, Southern Living magazine ranked the Outer Banks as the “South’s Best Island,” and the picturesque sliver of sand has also found a spot on Dr. Beach’s list of the “Top 10 Beaches in America” every single year for the past decade.

Photo: Sport Fishing Magazine

The popularity of the Outer Banks has grown exponentially since some of the area’s first vacation homes were constructed here nearly a century ago, with tens of thousands of visitors venturing to the 120-mile-long string of barrier islands each year to spend a week in paradise. Although the vast majority of people who visit the Outer Banks are drawn to the region in search of opportunities for relaxation and recreation by the sea, the shifting shoals that comprise the North Carolina coast offer far more than just fun in the sun.

Whether you’re planning your first-ever vacation on the Outer Banks or you’ve been visiting the OBX for decades, the following are the top 10 Outer Banks activities and attractions you can’t afford to miss the next time you’re in town.

1. Climb the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Photo: Stephanie Banfield

No Outer Banks vacation is complete without a trip to Hatteras Island to see the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in person. The 193-foot-tall, black-and-white spiral structure is situated in the tiny town of Buxton and has been an iconic Outer Banks landmark since its construction was completed in 1803. Visitors can take a tour of the historic lighthouse keepers’ quarters to learn more about the men who were responsible for fueling the lamp and maintaining the light that served as a guide for mariners sailing along the dangerous shoals of the Graveyard of the Atlantic decades ago. And if you’re searching for an unforgettable Outer Banks experience, climb the 257 steps that lead to the top of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, where you’ll be treated to stunning, 360-degree views of the Atlantic Ocean, Pamlico Sound, the converging currents at Cape Point and the village of Buxton below.

2. Take a Wild Horse Tour in Corolla

Photo: CorollaWildHorses.com

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse might be the most famous attraction on the Outer Banks, but the wild horses of Corolla are certainly not far behind. Believed to be the descendants of Spanish mustangs that swam to shore after the vessels they were being transported on were shipwrecked off the coast of North Carolina five centuries ago, as many as 6,000 horses once roamed the beaches of Corolla and the four-wheel drive area of Carova to the north. Today, the herd consists of approximately 100 wild horses that can be spotted running along the seashore, splashing in the surf and foraging for food among the sand dunes and salt marshes. Visitors with off-road vehicles are welcome to scour the shoreline in search of the horses on their own; however, embarking on a tour with a local company whose guides are knowledgeable about the horses’ whereabouts is highly recommended.      

3. Tour the Historic Whalehead Club

Photo: Steve Alterman Photography

While you’re in Corolla searching for sightings of the wild horses of the northern Outer Banks, head to the historic Whalehead Club for a unique trip back in time. Located just a short walking distance from the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, the Whalehead Club is a 21,000-square-foot mansion that sits on the western edge of the barrier island and overlooks the Currituck Sound. The 12-bedroom, four-story residence was constructed in 1925 as a lavish hunting lodge for a wealthy couple who frequently visited the Outer Banks to hunt the wide array of waterfowl that inhabited the towns of Duck and Corolla in the early 20th century. Today, the Whalehead Club is best-known as being a prime venue for Outer Banks weddings and receptions; however, the property can be toured by those interested in learning what life would have been like on the Outer Banks when the structure was built and seeing lavish examples of the Art Nouveau style of architecture that was popular during its heyday.

4. Hike to the Top of Jockey’s Ridge

Photo: Pinterest

Whether you’re a wildlife enthusiast hoping to encounter some of the unique species that call the Outer Banks home, or you’re looking for a place you can experience one of the best views on the islands, heading to Nags Head to hike to the top of Jockey’s Ridge should be on every vacationer’s bucket list. The largest living natural sand dune system in the eastern United States, the dunes cover a 420-acre area along the edge of the Roanoke Sound and stand as tall as 100 feet in some spots. The views from the top of the ridge can’t be beat—you’ll not only have a stunning view of the sound and the ocean, but also the town of Nags Head below and Roanoke Island in the distance. Embark on a journey along one of the many nature trails that wind their way through this popular North Carolina state park, where you’ll likely spot a variety of animals ranging from white-tailed deer and rabbits to foxes, lizards and luna moths. And if you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, sign up for a hang gliding lesson to discover what it feels like to soar over the sand dunes while taking in a stunning view of the Atlantic Ocean on the horizon.

5. Tour the Wright Brothers National Memorial

Photo: National Park Service

On Dec. 17, 1903, brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright made history when they successfully completed the world’s first powered flight in their 40-foot, 605-pound Flyer from the top of a large sand dune on the central Outer Banks. The brothers made four flights on that fateful day, and the fourth and final time the pair took to the air their glider stayed aloft for 59 seconds, soaring a record-breaking 852 feet. A colossal monument atop a huge hill in the heart of Kill Devil Hills commemorates the Wright Brothers’ historic achievement that forever changed the face of aviation, and visitors can walk up to the top of the hill for exceptional views of the surrounding towns, ocean and sound, or take a tour of the on-site Wright Brothers museum just a short distance away from the base of the monument. Four large stone markers on the grounds of this national monument in Kill Devil Hills indicate the landing spot of each flight attempted that December day, with the fourth stone showcasing the one that made history and put the Outer Banks on the map more than a century ago

6. Visit the Site of the Lost Colony

Photo: National Park Service

History buffs who visit the Outer Banks will never be disappointed during their stay, as the barrier islands have been ground zero for an assortment of historical events that have taken place here over the course of the past several centuries. One such event continues to puzzle historians more than 430 years after it occurred: the disappearance of the men, women and children of the infamous “Lost Colony.” In the summer of 1587, a group of settlers recruited by Sir Walter Raleigh made the long and arduous journey from the coast of England to the shores of Roanoke Island, where they constructed a fort-like settlement in the present-day town of Manteo. Among the settlers were a man named John White, as well as his pregnant daughter, Eleanor Dare, and her husband, Ananias Dare.

Photo: American Digest

On Aug. 18, 1587, Eleanor gave birth to a daughter, Virginia Dare, who became the first English child to be born in the New World. Less than two weeks after his granddaughter was born, John White embarked on a journey back to Britain to procure additional supplies for the colonists of the brand-new settlement. When he finally returned to Roanoke Island in 1590, he found the fort completely deserted and no signs of the 117 settlers he had left behind just three years earlier. The tale of the Lost Colony still intrigues historians and archaeologists, who have yet to determine exactly what events transpired in the 16th century and resulted in the disappearance of the colonists. Today, tourists vacationing on the Outer Banks can visit the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site to see the spot that members of the Lost Colony called their home for a short time before they mysteriously vanished from the barrier island more than four centuries ago.

7. Stroll through the Elizabethan Gardens

Photo: ElizabethanGardens.org

The Outer Banks may be most well-known for its beautiful ocean beaches and pristine stretches of soundside shoreline, but one lesser-known attraction that every vacationer should visit during their stay is the Elizabethan Gardens. Featuring over 500 different species of plants and flowers, the picturesque gardens stretch across 10.5 acres on the northern tip of Roanoke Island, in the soundside town of Manteo. The origins of the Elizabethan Gardens can be traced back to the 1950s, when a group of vacationers visited the nearby Fort Raleigh National Historic Site and learned the story of the so-called “Lost Colony” that had briefly settled on the Outer Banks in the 16th century and then abruptly disappeared without a trace.

Photo: RoanokeIsland.net

Inspired by the story of the 117 colonists who disappeared centuries ago, the group of visitors sought to create a place that would permanently pay homage to the settlers from the Lost Colony. On Aug. 18, 1960, the 373rd anniversary of the birth of colonist Virginia Dare—who became the first English child born in the New World when she was born on Roanoke Island—the Elizabethan Gardens officially opened to the public. The site has remained a popular Outer Banks attraction since its gates first opened, and each year thousands of tourists take a leisurely stroll along the pathways that weave throughout the gardens to view the wide variety of botanical collections that change with the seasons as spring and summer give way to fall and winter. 

8. Visit the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station

Photo: Scenic USA

With its converging currents, shallow waters and constantly shifting shoals that make navigating the coastline a difficult task for mariners, the Outer Banks of North Carolina are commonly referred to as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Despite the presence of four lighthouses along the coastline from Ocracoke to Corolla—whose purpose was to help sailors navigate the treacherous shoals that lie just offshore from the barrier islands—thousands of vessels have become shipwrecked on the Outer Banks. To aid sailors whose vessels ran aground in returning safely to the shoreline, crews of surfmen were historically stationed at spots along the North Carolina coast—including the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station—and rowed large wooden surfboats past the breakers and into the Atlantic Ocean to save those who were stranded at sea as the ships went down.

Photo: Chicamacomico.org

Located on Hatteras Island, in the small village of Rodanthe, the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station was commissioned on Dec. 4, 1874, and its crew of surfmen became the first life-saving service in North Carolina. For years, the surfmen who staffed the Chicamacomico Life-Saving played a pivotal role in saving the lives of distressed sailors whose ships had begun to sink after striking the unseen diamond shoals. In November 1921, crew members from Chicamacomico were awarded gold life-saving medals by the British government for their incredible efforts to save the lives of three dozen soldiers who were tossed into a fiery sea when their ship, the Mirlo, struck a mine that had been dropped by a German U-boat, causing a series of massive explosions—and resulting in one of the most dramatic rescues in maritime history. Today, visitors can tour the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station to view a variety of artifacts, photos, interviews and rescue equipment, including an original surfboat used by the surfmen who staffed the station until it was decommissioned in 1954.

9. Cast a Line at Jennette’s Pier

Photo: OBXbound.com

Whether you’re an avid fisherman or you just want to find a stellar spot for sightseeing, taking a trip to Jennette’s Pier is an absolute must on your next Outer Banks vacation. This popular pier in Nags Head stretches 1,000 feet into the Atlantic Ocean, offering some of the best opportunities for pier fishing from Corolla to Ocracoke. Originally constructed in 1939, Jennette’s Pier became increasingly popular among anglers from up and down the Eastern Seaboard, who traveled to the barrier islands of North Carolina just to cast a line for the catch of the day. As the pier’s popularity grew, a series of bare-bones cottages along the oceanfront—which had formerly housed U.S. Civil Works Administration employees who spent time on the Outer Banks building a line of protective sand dunes during the Great Depression—were transformed into a camp for fishermen looking for affordable accommodations near the pier.

Photo: Pelmey Photography

As the decades passed, Jennette’s Pier took several beatings from hurricanes and nor’easters, and in 2003 a large portion of the structure succumbed to the massive power of Mother Nature when Hurricane Isabel hit the Outer Banks and took 540 feet of the original 754-foot-long wooden pier with it. The pier was forced to shut down operations for several years due to the damage, but the North Carolina Aquarium Society—which had purchased the pier from surviving members of the Jennette family shortly before the hurricane hit—started construction on a new pier in its place. In May 2011, the new version of Jennette’s Pier, which is made of concrete rather than wood to ensure the structure can withstand the force of coastal storms, officially opened to the public. Today, Jennette’s Pier is one of the longest fishing piers on the East Coast, and its pier house features a 3,000-gallon aquarium, a series of educational exhibits, a retail store, snack bar, event space and tackle shop. The staff of Jennette’s Pier also offer a variety of summer camps where kids visiting the Outer Banks can learn to fish, surf, paddleboard and hang glide, and veteran on-site anglers are available to offer family fishing activities and private lessons with a pro.

10. Explore the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge

Photo: Stephanie Banfield

Unlike other popular vacation destinations along the country’s coastline—which boast bustling boardwalks, crowded beaches and high-rise hotels—the Outer Banks are characterized by pristine stretches of shoreline and plenty of natural habitats home to a wide array of wildlife. And perhaps the best spot to experience the unparalleled beauty of the barrier islands and to encounter an assortment of unique species of wildlife up close is Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. The wildlife refuge was established in 1938, when the U.S. government sectioned off this portion of the island so it could serve as a nesting and resting habitat for migratory birds and waterfowl, and to provide a safe haven for threatened and endangered species.

Photo: Richmond Navigator

Located on the northern tip of Hatteras Island, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge spans 13 miles, from Oregon inlet to the north to the village of Rodanthe to the south. Comprising 5,834 acres of land and 25,700 acres of boundary waters, the refuge is home to more than 365 species ranging from shorebirds and snow geese to piping plovers and sea turtles. Visitors can explore the refuge on foot via two nature trails—the North Pond Trail and the Salt Flats Trail—or launch a canoe or kayak from the boat ramp that provides paddlers easy access to the shallow, brackish waters of the sound, salt marsh and a series of wide canals along the margins of the refuge. Stretching from the waters of the Pamlico Sound on its western border to the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the Pea Island National Wildlife refuge offers incredible opportunities to enjoy a wide array of recreational activities on the Outer Banks, including birdwatching, surfing, kayaking, standup paddleboarding, and searching the shoreline for seaglass and seashells.

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

Footer background

Let Us Know

© 2018 The Coastal Cottage Company. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Web Design