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North Carolina Travel Guide
NC Outer Banks: Jockey's Ridge

Playing in the Sand

Jockey’s Ridge Provides a Unique Experience for Visitors

By Jabeen Ahmad

NAGS HEAD - It’s not your typical sandbox. The sand here isn’t even in a box. It’s piled more than 100 feet high and stretched across 420 acres. And it brings over one million visitors to Jockey’s Ridge State Park every year.  

Located on Bodie Island in the Outer Banks, Jockey’s Ridge is home to the tallest sand dune system on the east coast. The park borders the Roanoke Sound and is less than a mile away from the Atlantic Ocean. And while sandboxes are reserved for kids, Jockey’s Ridge entertains kids and adults alike.

The park has something for everyone, says park ranger Debo Cox. Visitors can hang glide over dunes, hike through the maritime thicket or bird watch in the Roanoke Sound estuary. Rangers put together more than 1,300 educational and recreational programs each year about dune ecosystems, nighttime creatures and seasonal wildlife.

jockeys ridge, ncCox, however, believes that the main attraction for visitors is the natural beauty of Jockey’s Ridge. It is one of the few areas left that has not been constructed on, Cox says. It’s a glimpse of the Outer Banks before the houses, buildings and concrete.

 “I was standing on top of the dunes surrounded by nothing but fine, yellow sand and the sun,” says Monica Shah. “The environment was still and quiet, like a desert scene or a place that has just been coated by snow.”

Shah, 20, and her friend Cameran Hebb, 20, are first-time visitors to Jockey’s ridge from Chapel Hill.

“It is outstandingly majestic,” Hebb says. “I never knew something like this existed in North Carolina.”

jockey's ridge ncHebb adds that the ripples in the sand caught her eye and captured her imagination.

“It was like a gigantic pond of sand that a child stepped into,” Hebb says. “It was one of those moments when nature reminds you of innocence.”

Jockey’s ridge, however, isn’t just serene and peaceful. It is also full of life. Near the estuary, brown pelicans skim across the water searching for fish. Sandpipers probe for worms, and blue herons wade through the waters. At night opossums and raccoons scrounge for food, and the florescent luna moth flutters in the dark. Trees such as oak, persimmon, red cedar, wax myrtle, sweet gum, bayberry and pine line the trails.  

Visitors, who prefer action, can partake in activities such as hang-gliding, sand-boarding, kayaking and wind-surfing. Two-hour lessons from Kitty Hawk Kites provide beginners with a hang-gliding license. A favorite hobby that involves no outside training is dune rolling. Participants climb to the top of the dune and roll down the side competing to reach the bottom first.

jockeys ridge, nc“It is an excellent place to imagine yourself as a kid again,” Shah says. “And you can allow yourself to behave like a kid, too.”

While Shah raced down dunes, Hebb took her time to find the perfect rolling position. Around her dune rollers of all ages tweaked their techniques. Hebb holds her arms and legs close to her body in a ball and somersaults to the bottom. With a mouth full of sand, she lets out a rhyme - “Yo, that was fun, and now I’m done.”

Less intense activities include kite flying and hiking. Kites shaped as butterflies, dragons and boats waver, dip and soar through the sky. Expert and amateur kite fliers scatter among the dunes taking advantage of 10-to-15-mile-an-hour winds. Hiking at Jockey’s Ridge is also popular. Hikers can explore coastal terrains, observe animal tracks and learn about wildlife on the Soundside Nature Trail. For health-conscious visitors, trails provide vigorous exercise and fulfill daily cardio requirements. A shorter trip on the boardwalk is perfect for leisure walks and photograph opportunities.

No visit to Jockey’s Ridge is complete without a hike to the top of the dunes. Visitors can see both ends Bodie Island and glance into the sparkling blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

“From the top, you can see 10 miles in every direction,” Cox says. “You can see the Bodie lighthouse and the Wright brother’s memorial.”

Sunsets at Jockey’s Ridge are also worth the wait. The brilliant mix of red, yellow and orange in the sky comes to life and fades. It’s the sunset that hooks Hebb to the park.

“I would totally go back to Jockey’s Ridge,” Hebb says. “It was gorgeous. Everyone should get a little taste of that place.”

About Jockey’s Ridge

  • Jockey’s Ridge was established as a state park in 1975 by local action to preserve the area. Residents obtained more than 25,000 signatures and petitioned the North Carolina General Assembly.
  • The park is divided into three ecological zones: dunes, maritime thicket and the estuary.
  • Jockey’s Ridge has been around for more than 5,000 years.
  • The park has five full-time rangers.
  • Jockey’s Ridge is known as a medano because it lacks vegetation and has shifting sands.
  • Geologists believe that strong water currents washed sand from offshore shoals onto the beach, eventually creating dunes that stretch for miles.
  • The shape and structure of the dunes constantly changes based on weather patterns.
  • Sand temperatures during the daytime can be 30 degrees hotter than the outdoor temperature.
  • Frequent lightning storms at Jockey’s Ridge create fulgurites, glass-like tubes structures formed when lightning strikes sand.

* Source : Park Ranger Debo Cox and

Jabeen Ahmad is a junior journalism and anthropology major at UNC-CH. She is a native of North Carolina and has extensively traveled across the state from the coast to the mountains. She has been published in The Daily Tarheel, The Cary News, and The Durham Herald-Sun. She can be reached at

See also NC Outer banks, Ocracoke, Wilmington, Wrightsville Beach

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