If you’ve ever been to the mid-point of the Outer Banks, it’s impossible to miss the huge sand dune system nestled between the ocean and Roanoke Sound. In the early 1970s, the dunes came close to being only a memory due to a proposed apartment complex. One woman took a stand, then others joined her.
The result: One of North Carolina’s most-visited state parks.
What’s the draw?
Sure, the sand dunes (there are actually three primary dunes) are what first pull you into the park. It doesn’t seem to matter what age you are; climbing the dunes is almost irresistible. And you’ll certainly be rewarded with an incredible 360-degree view, impressive in any season. And the park even has a program to help physically-challenged individuals experience the views as well (call 24 hours in advance).
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In almost any season, there will be some type of activity on the dunes, whether it’s flying kites or taking flight yourself – via a hang glider or simply running down the hill, arms whirling like propellers. If you try the latter, make sure you secure things like glasses, phones, wallets and keys.
Wish you could fly like Wilbur and Orville did? Try hang gliding through the concessionaire here that operates a flight school (Kitty Hawk Kites at www.kittyhawk.com or 877-359-8447) but please try not to become a lawn dart.
More than a million people a year visit the park; while the dunes are its most visible feature, they are only part of the allure. Start at the visitor center; history exhibits and local plant and animal displays are highlights. The park offers a lot of kid-friendly activities, especially during the summer months. Among them: “Blackbeard’s Treasure,” where kids go on a treasure hunt using map and compass; “Tracks in the Sand,” where they learn animal tracks and make plaster casts for keepsakes; and “Seine the Sound,” a hands-on adventure involving catching, learning about and releasing soundside aquatic life.
A favorite program for almost everyone is the “Sunset on the Ridge” ranger-led event.
Want to get away from the crowds and explore? Two primary trails traverse a wide diversity of habitat. Both are easy to moderate walking. You may be pleasantly surprised at the animal life encountered, especially early or late in the day. Fox, deer, rabbit, opossum, raccoon and an occasional muskrat are often seen as well as a variety of birds in thickets, marsh and sound. Bring your binoculars and camera. And don’t forget the sunscreen and bug spray.
The Tracks in the Sand trail starts at the visitor center and covers 1.5 miles; the Sound Side Nature Trail is a 1-mile loop along the Roanoke Sound through grassy dunes and maritime habitat.
An increasingly popular section of the park is its sound-side access. Reach it by heading south from the park’s main entrance for 0.8 miles and then turning right onto West Soundside Drive. Just as the road takes a hard left, you’ll see a parking area on your right.
The Soundside Nature Trail access is here; so is a quiet beach, tailor made for families with small kids. No huge ocean rollers here. It’s also a very popular spot for kayakers, pebble board enthusiasts and fishermen. Be aware parking is limited; check to learn what time the gate is locked.
Of all the great things to do here, if you can only do one, catch a sunset: It’s an image that will stay with you a long time.
Park admission is free, as are many of its programs. Hours are 8 a.m.-8 p.m. for the main entrance; 8 a.m.-6 p.m. for the sound-side access. Check out www.ncparks.gov or 252-441-7132 for program dates and times. Special note: There is a 100th anniversary Killer Dunes 2-miler and fun run held the morning of July 4.
Mark Alan Hudson
Nearby: Roanoke Island
Roanoke Island Festival Park (www.roanokeisland.com), the N.C. Aquarium (www.ncaquariums.com/roanoke-island), Fort Raleigh (www.NPS.gov/fora) and the summer-only Lost Colony outdoor drama (www.thelostcolony.org) are all great family-friendly venues.
The island’s walking town of Manteo offers a wide range of eating options and specialty shops from casual to high end. Don’t miss Kitty Hawk Kites on the waterfront; you can rent a kayak, buy a kite or stock up on pirate garb.
On the waterfront, check out Poor Richard’s Sandwich Shop (www.poorrichardsmanteo.com) with great sandwiches, relaxed atmosphere and evening entertainment. Big Al’s (www.bigalsobx.com) is a ’50s-themed, family-friendly spot featuring a wide range of sandwiches, barbecue and seafood entrees. It was recently featured on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.”
The Dare Day Festival is June 4 on Manteo’s waterfront. A Kids Zone, crafts, food and music are highlights. The first Friday of each month, Manteo’s downtown comes alive from 6 to 8 p.m. with crafts, food and music.