by Judith Bailey on the Hidden Gem of Jockeys Ridge State Park
This time of year on the Outer Banks I look forward to long hikes in the "woodsy" areas. Places like Kitty Hawk Woods and Nags Head Woods have a special appeal this time of year because our fall color comes much later here than in northern places like my native Ohio. There is still a lot of color on the trees contrasting with the leaves of the live oak that are always green. It is what I like to think of as Nature's holiday garb: Beautiful reds against the deep greens of the oaks.
Of all the "woodsy" areas there are here, my favorite place to hike is Jockeys Ridge State Park. Most visitors to the Outer Banks know it as a huge pile of sand, sort of like your kid's sandbox on steroids. And it is that. You can jump and roll and play on the front side of Jockeys Ridge State Park, get all sandy, run back up to the top and do it all again. It's an experience I highly recommend.
But if you go down Soundside Road, near the Sound you will find a small parking area on the right with a gate. Park here and you will find a nature trail near a large sign on the north side. The Rangers would really like for you to stay on the trails but it isn't mandatory. They also close the gate at 5 pm so don't overstay your welcome. The trails meander in and out of stunted growths of pines and live oaks, into shady alcoves and even up a flight of stairs at one point. Sometimes they come to an abrupt end in front of a newly arrived pile of sand blown there by the constant wind. This is a great place to track animals.
Across the windswept sand of Jockeys Ridge State Park you will see evidence of mice, rabbits, birds, raccoons, opossums, and even deer. If the Sound is not being pushed ashore by a west wind you can stroll along the shore for quite a ways, observing kingfishers, terns and other shore birds. On the north end there is a new effort to raise marsh grass so this area is roped off but they have left room for foot traffic. Up on the Ridge there is a wonderful view of Roanoke Island, the Causeway and looking north, Nags Head Woods. I have seen some rare raptors flying over these dunes as they migrate southward for the winter so keep your eyes open for beauty above you. On warm days, and we have those even in November, you might find a lethargic snake or two, cacti or sandspurs, so watch your toes too.
For a little history, you might be surprised to know that Jockeys Ridge State Park is part of a system of dunes that began to the south near the Nags Head-Manteo Causeway and runs all the way to the Virginia line. The dunes have always been an enjoyable feature of every vacation to the Outer Banks. Even as far back as the early 1900's folks loved these dunes. Back then vacationers arrived by boat at the village of Soundside that was situated between Engagement Hill and Hotel Hill, just above the Seven Sisters dunes and just below Jockey's Ridge. You will find these names on nautical maps even to this day but the dunes are mostly gone.
Jockey's Ridge would have met the same fate if it hadn't been for the bravery and audacity of a local artist I knew who fashioned jewelry and had a shop nearby, Carolista Baum. She laid down in front of the bulldozers and got people's attention on the importance of making this into a state park.
They told me when I first came here, "Once you get sand in your shoes, it means you'll have to come back..." I think about that when I am dusting off my feet ... Maybe it was just an old saying but it worked for me. Eventually I stopped coming back and just stayed, on a permanent vacation. To cap off a perfect off-season day after a long hike I recommend visiting a local restaurant for some hot food and beverages. Some of my favorites in this area of the Outer Banks are the Thai Room on the Beach Road, Basnight's Lone Cedar on the Nags Head-Manteo Causeway or the newly remodeled Dunes Restaurant near Whalebone Junction, across from Tanger Mall in Nags Head NC. Call ahead to make sure they are open.