Jockey’s Ridge, Exploring the Largest Sand Dune on the East Coast

Jockey’s Ridge Sand Dune

Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nag’s Head, North Carolina is one of the most unique and beautiful places on the east coast.   The Outer Banks based state park covers a 426 acre area that borders the Roanoke sound.  The main attraction of Jockey’s Ridge is the ridge itself.  Jockey’s Ridge is the tallest active sand dune in the eastern U.S.   The exact dimensions of Jockey’s Ridge are constantly changing, but the height of the dunes generally vary between 80 and 100 feet.  It is estimated that there are 30 million tons of sand within the park!  The technical name for the massive sand dune is medano.  A medano is a large sand dune with no vegetation growing on it. With the sheer number of vacationers that descend on the Outer Banks every year, it’s no surprise that Jockey’s Ridge is the most visited state park in North Carolina.

Jockey's Ridge, Dune, Sand, Outer Banks, Path
Path through the sand out to the base of the dune

History of Jockey’s Ridge

Most of the visitors to the park don’t actually know this, but Jockey’s Ridge was dangerously close to being leveled for a new subdivision of houses.  In 1973 a bulldozer began clearing the way through the dune to begin construction on the subdivision.  Some kids playing nearby on the dune saw the bulldozer and told their mom, a woman named Carolista Baum.  She immediately got the bulldozer to stop operating and promptly began a movement to save Jockey’s Ridge.  The People to Preserve Jockey’s Ridge group petitioned the state and local government and were able to successfully get the dune designated as a National Natural Landmark the next year.  In 1975 the North Carolina General Assembly appropriated funding and Jockey’s Ridge State Park was officially created with the purchase of the first 152 acres of the park.

Jockey's Ridge, Sun, Sand, Dune, State Park, Nag's Head
Late Afternoon Sun across the dune


One of the reasons that Jockey’s Ridge is so cool is that there are three unique ecosystems all located within the 426 acre park.  The most obvious ecosystem is the dune itself.  The tall, shifting sand dunes are completely bare of all vegetation.  This creates a desert-like environment with little shelter for animals within this area of the park.  At the base of the dunes is the maritime forest area.  In this area you will see live oaks, southern wax myrtles, eastern redcedar, and loblolly pine trees.  The trees and shrubbery here help contain the dune somewhat as they create a natural barrier.  The maritime forest is where most of the animals live in Jockey’s Ridge State Park.  Most of them are nocturnal but you can definitely see their tracks where they have crossed sandy areas.  If you’re lucky, you might spot a gray fox out and about around sunset time.  The third ecosystem in the park is the Roanoke Sound.  Jockey’s Ridge is bordered to the west by the Roanoke Sound.  The water here is shallow due to the sand that is constantly blown off the dunes.  This makes it a perfect nursing ground for many types of aquatic life.  There’s a good chance of seeing blue crabs, shrimp, flounder, croakers, and even seahorses here.

Jockey's Ridge boardwalk, trail, path, forest
Boardwalk trail from the parking lot out to the dune

Park Acvtivities

If running and jumping off the top of the dune isn’t exciting enough for you, you can also sandboard or hang glide in the park.  The strong ocean winds make Jockey’s Ridge one of the best hang gliding locations on the east coast.  You also can’t beat the view of the barrier island from up there.  If you’re interested in sand boarding or hang gliding, you’ll need to stop by the office and pick up a permit.  Check out the park’s activity website HERE for more information on permits.

Jockey's Ridge, flora, plant, dune, sand
Bush growing on the edge of the dune
Jockey's Ridge Sand Dune
View across the sand dune during the late afternoon

Jockey’s Ridge Hiking Trails

There are three trails located in the state park.  The first trail is the boardwalk that takes you from the visitor center parking lot to the base of the dune area.  The boardwalk is an easy walk that takes you through the maritime forest area.  The Soundside Nature Trail begins at the West Soundside Road parking lot.  This mile-long loop trail will take you through a quick section of maritime forest and then along the Roanoke Sound.  It’s a great way to see the shallow sound waters that serve as a nursery ground for so many animal species.  The third trail is the Tracks in the Sand Trail.  This trail begins in the southwest corner of the Jockey’s Ridge visitor center parking lot.  The trail is self-guided and takes you across the sand over towards the Roanoke Sound.  It’s only 1.5 miles in length, so this is a pretty quick hike as well.  Since, the sand is constantly shifting with the wind, this trail is just marked with posts to keep you going the right direction.

Jockey's Ridge sand pattern, wind
Patterns in the dune created by the strong winds

Visiting Jockey’s Ridge

The main visitor center parking lot is located on Carolista Drive, off milepost 12 on Highway 158.  Make sure you bring plenty of water and sunscreen before heading out on the dune.  You can get dehydrated pretty quickly during the summer and the sand on the dune can reach temperatures up to 130 degrees.   The strong winds at the top of the dune can whip up some powerful sandstorms.  During high winds the sand blowing across the top of the dune can be pretty painful. Check out the park’s official website here.

Jockey's Ridge Sunset
Jockey’s Ridge Sunset

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