The Shifting Sands of Jockey’s Ridge State Park

The Shifting Sands of Jockey’s Ridge State Park

Jockey's Ridge State Park on the Outer Banks

Jockey’s Ridge is one of the most iconic sights along the Outer Banks, and for good reason. The golden slopes of this massive dune system draw curious sightseers, kite-flying enthusiasts and daredevils trying their hand at hang gliding by the thousands every year. At around 100 feet tall, the view from the top is unlike any other along the Outer Banks. To the west, the Roanoke Sound separates the barrier islands from the mainland; to the east, the Atlantic Ocean curves out of sight; between it all, the Outer Banks.

When you set foot on the lowest slopes of the dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park, a number of experiences and environments are open to explore. At first glance, the dunes seem desert-like – shifting sands, high winds and a lack of water certainly help make it seem that way – but the park’s not all sand and dune ridge. At the base of the dunes, you’ll find pockets of American beachgrass, but over by the brackish waters of the Roanoke Sound, you’ll find thickets of wax myrtle, bayberry, red cedar, sweet gum, red bay, live and southern red oaks.

The mile-long Soundside Nature Trail offers a leisurely, self-guided exploration of a surprising array of environments. Interpretative signage will lead you through wetlands, maritime thickets and grassy dunes alike, noting the plants and animals around you. On this trail you’ll get a seldom-seen view of the dunes, but you’ll also be treated to uninterrupted views of the Roanoke Sound as it stretches toward the mainland.

If you’re curious about what animals live in the park, the Tracks in the Sand trail will take you through the park where you can see tracks of deer, fox, birds, insects and more. The best time to see undisturbed tracks is early in the morning, where you’ll find tracks left over from the park’s animal residents’ nighttime travels. The trail is 1.5 miles long and includes 14 informational stations. Give yourself at least 1.5 hours to complete the trail.

Most visitors come to Jockey’s Ridge to climb to the top of the dunes. If you’re planning on climbing to the top, bring plenty of water and some sun protection, wear your shoes – the sand can get very hot in the summer – and, of course, bring your camera. Early-morning dune climbers will be rewarded with cooler sand temperatures and beautiful light for photography, but many swear by a sunset picnic from the summit.

While you’re exploring the park, be careful not to get in the way of any hang gliders. The Kitty Hawk Kites Hang Gliding Training Center teaches more than 10,000 students a year on the slopes of Jockey’s Ridge. After a morning “ground school” session, students clip themselves to a hang glider and race down the face of the dune into the wind. At some point they lift and glide to the bottom, never getting more than a few feet off the ground, but experiencing the thrill of solo flight all the same.

Hang gliding is not for everyone, but flying a kite is and the sky above Jockey’s Ridge is always filled with them. Bring your own kite or pick one up at Kitty Hawk Kites and fly it, race it or simply send your kite aloft to play on the constant wind.

For another type of thrill on the dunes, try sand boarding. A snowless cousin to snowboarding, in sand boarding, you strap yourself onto a board and skim down the face of the dune. Sand boarding is allowed between Oct. 1 and March 31, a less-crowded time in the park, and only in designated areas.

If you just want to take in the beauty of the dune, you can find eight shelters with tables, grills, drinking water and restroom facilities near the parking lot. Shelters are free and first-come-first-served unless reserved, so no matter what your adventure, you can set up base camp in the shade.

Jason Frye

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