Plants growing through the dunes at Jockey's Ridge State Park in the Outer Banks, North Carolina.

Swept Away: Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Outer Banks

While not technically a desert, the more than 400 acres of sand dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park in North Carolina‘s Outer Banks inspire awe. Nestled a few blocks from the Atlantic Ocean and just next to the Roanoke Sound in Nags Head, these are the tallest living sand dunes on the eastern coast. But there is more to Jockey’s Ridge than just sand that makes it an important Outer Banks attraction. With multiple ecosystems, it is a fascinating exploration of nature that many don’t frequently experience that’s an Outer Banks adventure.

Walking the nature trail through Jockey's Ridge State Park.

A tuft of American Beach Grass growing in the sand.

A small tuft of American Beach Grass growing in the sands of Jockey's Ridge State Park.

Brief History of Jockey’s Ridge State Park

As with so many things in nature, scientists aren’t completely sure about how Jockey’s Ridge came to be. The theory dates the ridge to 7000 years ago when minerals from the mountains were washed to the ocean, creating sand in the process.

As Europeans began visiting the New World, 16th-century mariners are said to have used the dunes as a landmark. The first known reference to the dunes as Jockey’s Ridge is in the 18th century. No one seems exactly sure of the origin of the name but popular lore says it comes from the dunes serving as a racing track for the region’s wild horses.

Jockey’s Ridge State Park, however, owes its creation to Carolista Baum. In 1973, as developers were about to break ground on a new residential project at the base of the dunes, Baum placed herself in front of the construction equipment. The move won public support from the local community and a “Save our Dunes” movement was launched. Before the end of the year, a feasibility study commissioned by the state returned favorably for the creation of a park. In 1974, it was named a National Natural Landmark, and the following year Jockey’s Ridge State Park was created with 194 acres. Today, the park comprises 426 acres and is one of the must-see things to do in the Outer Banks.

A sign for the nature trail at Jockey's Ridge.

Jockey's Ridge State Park is comprised of multiple ecosystems.

Visitors walking on the sand dunes at Jockey's Ridge State Park.

Visiting Jockey’s Ridge

Whether it’s your first visit or your fiftieth, Jockey’s Ridge is striking. It’s just sand. Everywhere sand. It seems unremarkable in a beach community like the Outer Banks. However, in the valleys of the dunes, you’re so low that all you can see is sand, sand, and more sand. Small islands of shrubs and plants — including American Beach Grass with roots that can reach 40(!) feet down — are like oases here and there. But otherwise, it’s just huge hills of sand.

Where you can normally retrace your steps in a typical park, the wind ensures that your footprints in the sand are wiped clean away. And sometimes it’s within only a few moments. The Wright Brothers flew for the first time just down the road for a reason.) Needless to say, kite flying is a popular thing to do in the Outer Banks and especially in the park.

In addition to the novelty of scaling these giant hills of sand, there are also several nature trails throughout the park that are worth exploring. The far side of the park, along the Roanoke Sound, offers a quiet spot where fewer visitors tend to venture. It offers views across the water and onto the town of Manteo and the island of Roanoke.

Jockey's Ridge is very dog-friendly.

Tips for Visiting

  • There’s no fee or admission to visit the park. You can’t find a much cheaper thing to do in the Outer Banks!
  • Keep the weather in mind. If it’s a sunny summer day, the dunes will be hot! You’ll want to consider footwear, sunblock, hats, water, and so on. If it’s especially windy, you may want to keep a hat or a hoodie at hand.
  • Jockey’s Ridge is dog-friendly! With that in mind, consider the temperature of the sand on those puppy paws. Also, always bring water and clean up bags!
  • The park runs special events and hikes that may help you get a better understanding of the area. Be sure to check the listings to see if any appeal to you.
  • The park is popular and you’ll even find visitors exploring the dunes in the Outer Banks off-season during the fall and in the spring. But no matter the time of year, because the park is so large, it can often feel like you have it all to yourself.

A sign for the ridge area at Jockey's Ridge State Park.

The top of sand dunes.

A pinecone in the sand.

Getting to Jockey’s Ridge

Jockey’s Ridge State Park’s main entrance is Carolista Drive, right off of S. Croatan Highway, also known as US 158, at milepost 12 in Nags Head, North Carolina. There’s also a side entrance that is ideal for exploring the more southern sections of the park or if you’re planning to participate in watersports, it’s adjacent to the sound. There’s an area for swimming, windsurfing, and the like.

There is a large parking lot with free parking at the main entrance. There is also a lot with free parking at the side entrance off of 158 at Soundside Road.

The hours at the Soundside Road access gate are slightly different than the main gate hours. Regardless of the entrance, opening hours vary throughout the year so be sure to verify ahead of time.

There are no buses or similar public transit in the Outer Banks. There are, however, private options you can hire as well as car-sharing services like Uber.

You can also reach Jockey’s Ridge on foot or by bike. There are sidewalks running along 158 as you approach the park. Keep in mind that the sidewalks are limited as you go farther from the park and traffic on the highway is fast and can be heavy.

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A visit to Jockey's Ridge State Park is a must in North Carolina's Outer Banks. A popular OBX attraction, the 400-acres of sand are awe-inspiring. #obx #outerbanks #jockeysridge #northcarolina #usa

All photos, as well as all opinions, are my own. This post contains affiliate links

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