NC State Parks: Jockey's Ridge

by J. M. Pressley
First published: July 23, 2014

Jockey's Ridge comprises the tallest active sand dune system on the eastern seaboard. With natural beauty and plenty of outdoor activities, it's the most visited state park in North Carolina.

Jockey's Ridge is a state park in the town of Nag's Head, Dare County, situated on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It is home to the tallest natural sand dune formations on the U.S. east coast. Encompassing 426 acres, the park includes not only the desert-like ecosystem of the dunes but a maritime forest and the shallow western estuary of the Roanoke Sound.

Geologists theorize that the sand dunes of Jockey's Ridge formed as early as 7,000 years ago. Erosion from the Appalachians to the west carried quartz and other minerals down rivers, forming sand that built up along the coastline. Waves and storms washed that sand onto the beaches of the Outer Banks, and subsequent winds blew the sand inland, gradually creating the dune system. The lands within the park itself can be quite inhospitable, with the sand surface temperatures ranging as high as 130 degrees Fahrenheit on the hottest of summer days.

Because of the nature of this area, early settlement was sparse. There were branches of Algonquin, Chowanog, and Poteskeet tribes that settled the Outer Banks beginning around 500 AD. Most tribes lived on the mainland and encamped briefly for hunting and fishing expeditions; only the Croatan tribe seems to have lived year round on the barrier islands. Even the subsequent European settlements were scattered hamlets with a small population of hardy souls who braved the elements to make their livelihoods there.

But in the 1830s, Nags Head was established as one of North Carolina's first vacation spots. As the century turned and bridges were built, traffic to the Outer Banks steadily increased. So did housing development. In the early 1970s, bulldozers were preparing to flatten part of Jockey's Ridge to make way for housing. Local residents organized into the People to Preserve Jockey's Ridge. Within two years, the dune was declared a National Natural Landmark and the NC General Assembly bought the first 152 acres to establish the state park. Today, Jockey's Ridge is the most popular state park in North Carolina, with more than 1.2 million visitors last year alone.

The dunes of Jockey's Ridge itself rise from 80-100 feet, offering a splendid view of the surrounding island. The heart of the park is a nearly barren desert resembling the Sahara more than a coastal vacation destination. The base of the dune harbors growths of American beach grass, and thickets of small trees border the dunes to the east and southwest. Wildlife is sparse at best, especially during the day, but evenings bring visits from lizards, foxes, raccoons, rabbits, opossums, and even white-tailed deer. The park is also abundant in birds and waterfowl, including osprey and brown pelican. As a result, birdwatching is a popular pastime at Jockey's Ridge.

The park features a visitor center and exhibit hall, picnic area, and hiking trails. Because of the consistent winds—which also brought the Wright Brothers to the Outer Banks for their test flights—the park has become a destination for flying kites and hang gliding. There are facilities on site to rent hang gliders, but guests should be aware that the park requires participants to register with the park office and own a USHGA Hang 1 or other agency-approved rating card. Gliding lessons are also available through Kitty Hawk Kites. Sandboarding is allowed with a permit from the park office within a designated site from October through the end of March. And at the west boundary of the park along the sound, there is access to swimming, kayaking, and windsurfing.

Jockey's Ridge State Park is open year-round during daylight hours except for Christmas Day. See the park website for specific hours of operation. There is no overnight access or camping allowed within the park.

Getting There

Jockey's Ridge State Park is located in Nags Head, North Carolina. It's approximately 58 miles southeast of Elizabeth City, and can be reached via US 158/NC 12. For specific directions and other park information, visit the Jockey's Ridge State Park website.