Jockey’s Ridge State Park and Cape Hatteras National Seashore
With the recent expansion of the team to five, we’ve been challenged to find new places to go and new things to do to keep everybody happy and engaged.
Hence Brian, the Minister of Expedition planning, decided to take the whole family – Himself, Sylvia, our borrowed children Emily and Sayuri, and future sled dog captain Fitz Roy – out to a place we’d never seen before as a special surprise. Brian attempted to keep the location quiet from the rest of the family, knowing that children love surprises, or so he has “heard tell” as they say in Texas, and so he firmly believes.
As a destination Brian selected someplace that has been on his radar for a while – Jockey’s Ridge State Park.
Jockey’s Ridge usually vies with William B. Umstead State Park as the most visited unit in the entire State Park system. In 2017 it finished first, recording over 1.5 million visitors. That’s a lot of people for an area just 460 acres in size. For comparison, Great Smoky Mountains National Park attracts about eleven million visitors annually…more than seven times as many as Jockey’s Ridge. But it is more than a hundred times bigger.
Brian expected to see crowds of people. We set out on the last weekend in spring on a Sunday…Brian has had better success in general with Sunday adventures than Saturday.
We packed Fitz, the borrowed children, ourselves and a cooler full of water and assorted other goodies into the jeep and set course for Cape Hatteras, one of North Carolina’s natural treasures. The size of Cape Hatteras, and its relative remoteness, conspire to render it almost never crowded…even on peak summer weekends. (from Ocracoke Island to Currituck near the Virginia Border is 131 miles, and three and a half hours by car/ferry.)
It used to be a drive out to Hatteras was somewhat of a complex affair, as the roads (US 64, mainly) headed out in that direction tended to be small country highways, often one lane or taking motorists right through small town centers and other congested areas. This has been improved lately, and it is now a straight three hour shot right from the house to Nags Head, NC.
Alas, nephew Mikey was not along for this expedition or we would surely have stopped in Manteo on Roanoke Island – site of the first permanent English colony in the New World, founded in 1585, decades before the pilgrims settled on Cape Cod. This led to one of the great unsolved mysteries in North American history when the colonists simply vanished – touching off a debate that continues to this day as to what exactly became of them. Mikey is a big fans of such historical mysteries and is eager to survey the site for himself, but he will have to wait for another day.
We arrived in Jockey’s Ridge near the hot part of the day. Still, it was so breezy it hardly felt hot. This area is known for its almost continual strong onshore winds, one of the reasons Hatteras and Cape Fear had such a notorious reputation as “The Graveyard of the Atlantic.”
It is in fact these strong winds, and their resultant updrafts, that caused Wilbur and Orville Wright to choose nearby Kill Devil Hills, near Kittyhawk, NC, as the site of their famed first man powered flight in 1903.
Jockey’s Ridge is home to tallest active sand dune system in the eastern United States. (Or, as the Park website puts it, “The tallest living sand dune on the Atlantic coast.”
The sand dunes that put Jockey’s Ridge on the map accrued by a process called saltation. Storms which frequent the area problem caused it to pile up here, though why exactly is still unknown. The park reminds Brian a lot of the much larger dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, which he visited with his brother in 2007.
At any rate, whatever the process was, what remains of these dunes – which used to extend as far as the Virginia Border – were protected through the actions of concerned citizens who lives in the area. If not for their actions, the dunes would have been long ago bulldozed to make way for vacation homes, shopping plazas and perhaps a luxury golf course or two.
They sure make an interesting place to visit for the properly shod. After arriving, I informed the girls and Sylvia of my surprise. The girls greeted the information with some reservation, wondering if there was ‘someplace they could go in the water.’ Brian replied he thought so. Sylvia was perhaps even less impressed, stating that she had “not warn the right shoes” because I had ‘not told here where we were going.”
All signs pointed to a very long and hot day, but Brian soldiered on.
Despite these ill omens, everyone was soon happy. We stepped out of the scrub forest and climbed the steep, sandy slope on the dunes. Immediately the panorama, which includes Roanoke sound, became visible. Everyone was pleased.
Atop the dunes one feels transported into a scene from Lawrence of Arabia.
This included Fitz Roy. Though it is hot on the sand, making it no country for young dogs locked in fur coats, Fitz was game; he’d never seen so much sand before, and it was not long before he began dabbling in one of his favorite pastimes, “Excavation.” Though there were several other parties of people and dogs about, we were able to keep a discreet distance from them. The sandy ridge is spacious and wide open.
We quickly climbed to the highest point on the dunes. From here, we looked down on the placid water of the sound. The wind occasionally whipped up and whipped our faces with blown sand, a phenomenon that recalled to me our attempt on the Peruvian Volcano Misti a few years back.
If you like kite flying, this is the place for you. There was quite an exhibition of kite aerobatics put on by commercial kite vendors at the park. Some of these kites were quite eclectic.
Jockey’s ridge is also the eastern terminus of the Mountains to Sea Trail, which runs from here to Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains, running past our house en route. This is basically the ‘sea’ part of it.
We explored the dunes as long as we dared before thirst and hunger drove us off and back to the car. Our recommendation when exploring this park is to bring real hiking shoes, NOT open sandals (or maybe even worse, closed toed sandals, AKA sand filled clogs) as we did. Also bring plenty of water, because its hot and dry on those dunes and there’s a lot of walking, some of it laborious, and no water past the visitor center.
A hat is also recommended but hold onto to. Sylvia’s got away twice, but we got it back both times.
After the dunes we all went for a meal of pizza where everyone admitted they were pleased with the dunes and Brian’s surprise choice was vindicated.
Following the pizza we drove down to Pea Island in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore for a dip in the ocean. This is just south of Bodie Island Lighthouse, the Oregon Inlet and the recently rebuilt (after the hurricane) Life Saving Station. We could still see quite a few areas that were damaged by Hurricane’s Matthew and Florence, which did substantial damage to the Outer Banks.
Here at Pea Island we had a series of Fitz Roy related misadventures. First, Fitz took an opportunity presented by an open car door to make an escape attempt. Fortunately (as the lot is bordered by busy Highway 12) we were able to get him back into custody after just a few laps around the car.
After this we all crossed the road and went down to the shore. The tide appears to be just past full high and just receding, and many ghost crabs were just popping out of their burrows.
Fitz, who has already established a reputation as a surf dog, enjoyed himself greatly. He loves the wind driven foam and spray.
We always find the huge beaches of Hatteras to be almost deserted, a welcome change from overrun Myrtle Beach and Wrightsville beach.
Brian as always patrolled the tide line watchful for what the sea had turned up. He found a large number of skate (or maybe shark) eggs. He was hoping that cash hound Fitz Roy might find some gold dubloons or something, but….not this time.
After returning, we had more Fitz Roy related misadventures. First, the excitement of the surf having apparently stirred up his innards, he proceeded to vomit on dog whisperer Sylvia. Not content with this, a few minutes later he included Brian on the action.
But we had him cleaned up and back in happy dog order soon and got back on the road for our return leg to Raleigh. Another great coastal adventure!
Brian was more impressed with the dunes than he had thought he’d be. He’d expected a sordid, dirty and overrun parcel of squalid sand, and this turned out to be not the case at all. These large and windswept dunes are quite impressive.
We would very much recommend a visit to Hatteras and Jockey’s Ridge but do so in the spring or fall., when the heat is low, the sand flies less active and the crowds apt to be far less.
One of our recommended Carolina scenic trips would be the circular coastal ‘drive/ferry’ South to Cedar Island Ferry on Cape Lookout, then up along the coast by ferry to Ocracoke Island, then again by Ferry to Cape Hatteras Village and a visit to the famed Cape Hatteras Light, culminating with a drive back up highway 12 to Nags Head and then home. It normally takes us two days, minimum, going out of Raleigh, but could be expected out to a long weekend or even a week.
Any way you go…You won’t regret it!