Jockey’s Ridge offers dune, hiking trails

Going to the Outer Banks? Take time for a climb to the top of Jockey’s Ridge, an 80- to 100-foot sand dune at Nags Head. Nature has provided a gigantic “sandbox” for children and adults to enjoy.


Nags Head is about 335 miles from Charlotte, about a six-hour drive.

To see and do

Jockey’s Ridge, the tallest sand dune system in the eastern United States, was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1974. The following year, the N.C. General Assembly appropriated money to buy land, and, with matching federal funds, the state purchased 152 acres. The Nature Conservancy secured an additional 266 acres, and the park today encompasses 420 acres of windswept sand.

And sweeping is exactly what the wind does: Jockey’s Ridge is never exactly the same from one season to the next. In winter, the winds normally blow northeast to southwest; during summer, winds blow southwest to northeast. As a result, Jockey’s Ridge is constantly shifting back and forth.

The nature of the dune prevents the construction of traditional trails, but the park does feature Tracks in the Sand, a 1 1/2-mile walk with 14 stations. The trail leads west across the dune, starting at the main parking lot and meandering over to Roanoke Sound. Along the way, you might see the tracks of fox, deer and a variety of shorebirds. Hikers can also look for fulgurites, glass tubes formed by lightning striking the sand.

A 360-foot handicap-accessible boardwalk near the parking area provides interpretive displays and an overlook.

The Soundside Nature Trail winds through grassy dunes, maritime thickets and wetlands.

But the main attraction is the dune itself. From the summit, you can enjoy sweeping views of the Atlantic to the east, the Roanoke Sound to the west. At dusk, the twinkling lights of the cottages and businesses of Nags Head paint a relaxing picture, and the top of the dune is a great place to see the sunset over the Sound.

Hiking? Wear shoes to protect feet from sandspurs at any time of the year and from burning sand during summer (sand temperature can sometimes be as much as 30 degrees higher than air temperature).

Keep an eye out for hang gliders. Just as the winds of Kitty Hawk, a few miles to the north, attracted Orville and Wilbur Wright more than 100 years ago, the 10-15 mph winds common at Jockey’s Ridge make it an ideal spot for hang gliding – easy takeoffs and soft landings. Participants are required to have a USHGA Hang 1 or other agency-approved rating.

Kite flying is another popular pastime along the sandy ridgeline, especially as evening approaches.