How can the largest natural sand dune system on the East Coast also be North Carolina’s most-visited state park? Because there is a lot more than sand to enjoy.
Jockey’s Ridge – which nearly became an apartment complex in 1973 – is visited by well over 1 million people a year for a wide array of activities. If you have kids, it’s going to be tough to get them to slow down at the visitor center, but you should try. Park staff knows the drill and they have many free kid-oriented activities (like “Blackbeard’s Treasure”), especially during summer.
A favorite program for almost for everyone is the ranger-led “Sunset on the Ridge.” And just in case you are tempted to follow the kids and roll down the dune, don’t forget to secure your glasses, jewelry, wallets and such: They may become someone’s “dune booty” at a later time. As park superintendent Debo Cox noted, “Gravity is still in effect.”
The dune is ever shifting due to almost constant breezes that make kite flying a popular activity. There are even kite events at the park. Wish you could fly like Wilbur and Orville did? Try hang gliding: The concessionaire here operates a flight school (Kitty Hawk Kites, at www.kittyhawk.com ).
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If you like to explore, try the park’s two primary trails. Watch for birds and small mammals along both. The animal life you’re likely to see is surprising, especially early or late in the day. Fox, deer, rabbit, opossum, raccoon and an occasional muskrat are easy finds. Bird life is varied due to the variety of habitats such as thickets, marsh and sound. Take your binoculars and camera.
The Tracks in the Sand Trail starts at the visitor center and its 1.5 miles offer several interpretive stations. Another option is the Soundside Nature Trail, a 1-mile loop along Roanoke Sound, through grassy dunes and maritime habitat. (Access it via the Soundside Access off West Soundside Road, just 0.8 miles south of the main entrance.)
Jockey’s Ridge is also a great spot for sunning, splashing around in calm water and for launching a canoe or kayak. Small children do well here: Parents don’t have to worry about monstrous waves of the Atlantic. Be aware parking is limited and the time the gate is locked.
Park admission is free park and almost everything you can do there is free. If you can, catch a sunset from the top of the dunes; it’s an image that will stay with you a long time.
Park details: www.ncparks.gov.
Along the way …
Just 2 miles north at about MP 10 on West Ocean Acres Drive is Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve, one of the premiere maritime forests on the East Coast and run by the Nature Conservancy. Walk any of its trails and you’ll marvel that such a place exists in such a developed area. Wooded dunes, freshwater ponds, and unusual views in a quiet setting are the norm. Look for wildlife and marvel at all the plant species. Details: www.nature.org (type “Nags” in the search window).
If you’re hungry/thirsty …
Pigman‘s Bar-B-Que, on U.S. 158 in nearby Kill Devil Hills, is a slightly off-center sort of place (by intention) and the food is great. Details: www.pigman.com. Less than a mile further north on the right is Bob’s Grill, another unusual spot (motto: “Eat and get the hell out”). It’s beach-friendly, family-oriented and great value for your dollar. Beach fare and comfort food are the norm. Details: www.bobsgrillobx.com. Area info: www.outerbanks.org.