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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. 

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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