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.
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.
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.
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.
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.