Outer Banks national parks seem to get all the press, but Jockey’s Ridge State Park in the middle of Nags Head, is a natural wonderland easily explored in a day. It is so unique and beautiful, providing so much to do, that residents and visitors return time and time again.
It doesn’t look beautiful at first glance—impressive and awe-inspiring, maybe. A slash of sand piled 80 to 100’ along the sky line seems barren and desert-like. It is that characteristic–the absolute lack of any vegetation that makes Jockey’s Ridge one of the finest places in the world to fly a kite. And that’s any style of kite. From a child giggling in delight as a parafoil or delta kite is launched, to a two or four line stunt kite reaching all the way up towards hang gliders, the constant winds of the dune system create ideal conditions for unpowered flight.
From the park, Kitty Hawk Kites operates what they claim is the largest hang gliding school in the world. It may or may not be the largest, but it is a very well-run school with excellent instruction. As a first time experience, hang gliding at Jockey’s Ridge is about as good as it gets. There is usually a breeze and learning to fly a hang glider almost always includes two or three hard landings and the sand provides a relatively forgiving landing zone.
Although it appears devoid of any vegetation from the road, there are patches of greenery and grass through the park. The boardwalk that begins at the Visitor’s Center traverses a small maritime forest. One of the nicer features of the boardwalk are informational signs describing trees along the path. At the end of the boardwalk, looking off to the left (southwest for those compass minded), there is a temporary pond that forms when there’s abundant rain in the area. When it remains filled beyond July, it explodes with life. There are some fascinating examples of adaptation here, notably the Spadefoot Toad that thrives in sporadically wet systems. In between abundant rain, which may be up to six years, the toads burrow into the sand and seem to hibernate. When conditions are right, they emerge and reproduce explosively.
There’s a trail that goes off to the north or right side of the boardwalk and it’s a great experience for explorers in your group. The trail leads around the north side of the dunes to the Roanoke Sound. Alongside the water, there’s a small estuary ecosystem with scrub live oak, sea grass and in the summer flowering plants. At the base of the dunes, there’s another example of adaptation–American beach grass anchors itself and the sand with root systems that are up to 40’ feet in length. An amazing example of adaptation in a challenging environment. The park features a number of programs, many geared for kids, and the Visitor’s Center is packed with useful information. Watching the sunset from the top of Jockey’s Ridge is an experience that everyone should have, but keep in mind the park closes at sunset, so plan your trip accordingly.
When visiting, wear sandals or shoes! Summer sand is typically 50-60 degrees hotter than the air temperature. At 90 degrees, the sand temperature is approximately 150 degrees – hot enough to cause second degree burns to the soles of your feet.