“Always changing, always beautiful.” That’s a motto the Friends of Jockey’s Ridge invoke when describing this unusual State Park, located in Nags Head on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. “The Ridge,” as some of the locals call it, is the tallest natural sand dune in the Eastern United States, according to Jockey’s Ridge State Park officials. But with so many of the family activities in the Outer Banks revolving around water, it’s worth noting that these special dunes are worth a trip in their own right.
In part, a scene from “Lawrence of Arabia” part “Ishtar”, you’ll arrive to be greeted by a sign announcing the dune area surrounded by hundreds of shoes littered about. The park staff suggests visitors wear shoes on the dunes, but depending on the time of day you’re there, I’d recommend going “au naturel” in the footwear department. That said, this trek is not for the faint of heart during the mid-day heat. Rather, you may want to plan for a day when you’ll have an early dinner, then arrive at the park an hour or so before sunset and consider using this hike as an outstanding evening constitutional. The sand temperatures on this dune in the summer can range anywhere from 10-35 degrees hotter than the air temperature, according to park rangers. So consider this, if it’s 95 degrees outside, that’s some potentially hot sand you’d be walking on!
If you do choose to go earlier in the day, be sure to bring ample water, sunscreen and sunglasses-it gets bright on the sand. And if it’s the height of the summer season, prepare to deal with some heat. There’s a water fountain at the base of the climb and one more along the way, but nothing once you get closer to the top.
Choose Your Trail
There are several trails leading up to the ridge. Whether taking The Tracks in the Sand Trail or the Soundside Natural Trail, both will afford you the chance to see a range of nature—and depending on what you chose you may see grassy dunes, wetlands, and some of the wildlife living in the varied ecosystems. You may even get lucky and discover a fulgurite—a hollow tube formed when lighting strikes the sand. If you DO discover one—be sure to bring it to the attention of a park ranger, but if you discover it’s beginning to lightning-be sure to leave the dunes right away!
Your journey upward will take you through the brush, on to areas where hills of sand will surround you. As you continue walking, it can be hard to keep the kids from wanting to race up ahead and then run full-speed straight down. Not only will the kids want to potentially run, they may also want to roll, slide, or “sand surf.” Sandboarding is permitted, but keep in mind, depending on the type of board and time of year, you may need a permit. But a piece of cardboard will potentially work as well!
Wind Works for You
The wind on these dunes also makes it ideal for other pastimes that families will love—from kite flying to hang gliding. Kitty Hawk Kites gives hang gliding lessons to beginners on the dunes. The company has been working in conjunction with the State Park Service to provide these lessons (yes, kids can take them too) for more than 25 years. They say, “the dunes provide, plenty of height for beginners, and are soft for landing.” However, if the wind is blowing heavily, be prepared to be pelted with some sand. (Ok, if you’re taking young kids with you, you may want to be prepared for that regardless.)
To the Top
Once you’ve made it to the top, just take it all in. The pristine skyline, the sand dunes, the sunset. Watch as the sun sinks along the horizon leaving a trail of colors. Watch your kids have a blast. Faucets and showers at the bottom will allow you to wash the sand from your feet. And, if you’re unable to make the hike due to physical limitations, special arrangements can be made with the park service to take you to the top in an electric golf cart. (Call in advance for this service.)
You’ll have a chance to share your experiences with folks making their mass exodus down the trails back to the bottom. There’s something about climbing Jockey’s Ridge that brings out a mutual friendliness in everyone.