January 2003: Jockey's Ridge State Park


Nag's Head, North Carolina

Jockey's Ridge, with heights varying from 80 to 100 feet, is the highest natural sand dune system on the Atlantic seacoast. Once discovered, the naked hilltops served as an important navigational landmark for European explorers. As access to the Outer Banks barrier islands increased after World War II development pressures galvanized local groups into action to save the dunes. In 1974 Jockey's Ridge - popularly believed to be named for wild pony races staged at the base of the dune - was designated a National Natural Landmark. The state park began taking shape the next year and today encompasses 420 acres.

Your dog is welcome to play anywhere throughout this vast sand box. The soft sands, steep dunes and stiff winds can make for invigorating canine hiking at Jockey's Ridge. For those who like their walking more structured there are two interpretive nature trails marked by posts across the dunes. The 1.5-mile "Tracks in the Sand" trail departs from the Visitor's Center and highlights that plants and animals that have adapted to this desert environment. The 1-mile Soundside Overlook trail explores the four different environments of the park including shrub forest and brackish marsh. Both trails lead to the sandy edge of the Roanoke Sound estuary where the gentle waters make an ideal canine swimming pool.

For wilder doggie paddling, the Atlantic Ocean surf is just across the street from Jockey's Ridge State Park. The Outer Banks offer some of America's most dog-friendly beach access. The 70-mile Cape Hatteras National Seashore permits dogs on the beach year-round as do several barrier island towns. The residential beaches of Duck and Corolla on the northern Outer Banks are especially welcoming to dogs, although access is limited.

(Don't forget that in summer the sand on a paw pad can be as much as 30 degrees higher than the air temperature. Also check your dog's feet periodically for sand- spurs, burs with long sharp spines that have blown onto the dune.)

Jockey's Ridge is the ideal place to hone your skills in tracking. Signs in the sand are left by small mammals, reptiles, birds, insects and even plants. Carefully observe the size and shape of each print and observe the distance between the prints to determine if the animal was walking, running or hopping. By process of elimination you can make an educated guess of what has walked the dunes before you.

Wright Brothers National Memorial (Kill Devil Hills). Flamboyant kites, model planes and hang gliders frequently fill the skies above Jockey's Ridge State Park. It is an enduring legacy. A century ago, two Dayton, Ohio bicycle mechanics tamed the skies just north of here on Big Kill Devil Hill. Orville and Wilbur Wright were lured to the Outer Banks to test their experimental fliers by the high dunes, blustery winds and the promise of soft, sandy landings. At the Wright Brothers National Memorial your dog can walk along the rubber mats that mark the path of the first four powered manned flights in history on December 17, 1903.

Jockey's Ridge State Park is located on the Outer Banks in the town of Nags Head at milepost 12 on the Highway 158 Bypass (South Croatan Highway).