In light of the fact that I have inadvertently turned this blog into a forum that seems to advocate a diet based on beer and fried foods (You’re welcome, America!), I’m going to offer an actual activity that involves neither.
If you want to stretch your legs, work off some barbecue and oysters, lace up your sneaks and hike the sand dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. We do this at least three times a visit, and somehow I manage to see the Banks in a way I hadn’t before. The hike makes for a hot day, and you have to work for the jaw-dropping views you’ll see. It’s also likely the sun will be anything but forgiving, so make sure you take some water.
After you’ve hauled your newly expanded rear end up the dunes, which vary between 80 and 100 feet in height, you can take in the views of the Atlantic and the Roanoke and Albemarle sounds. It’s almost as if you’re on the edge of the earth, and in a way, you are because you’re on a tiny barrier island just a breath from the Atlantic. Jockey’s Ridge makes you forget all that. It’s downright other worldly.
If you come back the next year, the dunes might seem different. Jockey’s Ridge is the largest living sand dune system in the eastern United States, and the Outer Banks’ famous winds shift the dunes every year.
The N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation explains how the sand stays put:
Shifting maritime winds blow billions of grains of sand in different directions, constantly changing both the shape and size of the dune. Why doesn’t the sand blow away? In the winter, the winds usually blow out of the northeast and in the summer out of the southwest; therefore, the sand is constantly blown back and forth.
Sometimes the dunes seem smaller to me; other times larger. There is always a bit of a mystery surrounding them. When I lived on the Banks in 1992, you could see a single turret with a smiley face among the sand drifts and hang gliders. (Surreal, but true.) Eventually the dunes shifted and shifted some more, and you could see the remains of a mini-golf course that had been consumed by the dunes. It took more than 10 years, but finally, that mystery was solved.
Too bad I didn’t think to ask my roommate — a native Banker — about turret in 1992.
Traveler’s Advisory: Do not even think about hiking the dunes barefoot — the sand can be as much as 30 degrees hotter than the temperature. Also, an unexpected — and highly possible — Outer Banks thunderstorm isn’t fun on the dunes, so be sure to check the weather.
Where: Mile Post 12.5, Off U.S. 158
Nags Head, NC 27959
No admission fee
Park hours: November-February, 8 a.m.-6 p.m.
June-August, 8 a.m.-9 p.m.
March-May & September-October, 8 a.m.- 8 p.m.
Visitor Center Hours: November-February, 9 a.m.-5:00 p.m.
March-October, 9 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.
UPDATE: As I was writing this post, I stumbled onto this is a photo of the castle and the recently revealed turrets I used to wonder about when I lived on the Outer Banks. It’s by photographer Mike Hogan of Kill Devil Hills.