Jockey’s Ridge State Park in eastern North Carolina boasts a surprisingly impressive distinction: the highest sand dunes on the East Coast. With dunes reaching as high as 60 feet above sea level, this is no ordinary beach: Jockey’s Ridge is a wild and rugged sandscape that runs down to the banks of Roanoke Sound on the Outer Banks. The 1.2-mile Tracks in the Sand Trail is the best hike in the park and cuts through the heart of the dunes.
The Tracks in the Sand Trail takes off from just outside the Visitor Center at Jockey’s Ridge State Park: look for the sign marking “Sand Dune Access.” Climb the wide track as it cuts under a canopy of live oaks, one of the few shaded sections of the hike.
Out of the forest, the trail drops to an inlet of sand, surrounded on three sides by dense vegetation. Off to the left, the highest dunes of Jockey’s Ridge are visible on the horizon. Continue straight, cutting across the sandy avenue: look for a sign marked “Nature Trail.” This track slices through a stand of loblolly pines and then begins a sharp upward climb—a feat that is made more difficult by the shifting sands.
Once hikers crest the ridge, they are rewarded with a tremendous view: a playground of sand, with tracks cutting off to the right toward the five high dunes of Jockey’s Ridge. The Tracks in the Sand Trail stays right, skirting pockets of American beachgrass as the path heads toward the sea. (Note: Freewheeling hikers will be tempted to head left: to leave the trail to summit the highest dunes, a detour well worth the effort. From here you have a panorama of the dunes and views of both the Atlantic Ocean and Roanoke Sound. I would recommend leaving this for the return trip, however, in order to the conceal the surprises of the nature trail.)
At 3/10 mile, the Tracks in the Sand Trail crests a sandy ridge, only to reveal that another ridgeline lies ahead. The terrain ahead looks like something straight out of Tatooine: virtually barren, save for the occasional intrepid clumps of beachgrass. The winds create ripples in the sand, ever-shifting with the changing weather.
Follow the wooden stakes marking the way—they are sometimes hard to spot amid the dunes—and climb over a second ridgeline at 4/10 mile. The top of this dune brings a surprise: the deep blue of Roanoke Sound appears ahead, with a crude and partial fence line ahead. Head toward the slats and follow the trail through a cut in the fence. This is the start of the loop portion of the hike.
Begin the circuit by staying right, following the arrows as the trail drops to seaside. At around the ½-mile mark, the Tracks in the Sand Trail brushes up against the shores of Roanoke Sound. Bear left on the beach, following it for roughly 100 yards. At 6/10 mile, the trail cuts away from the sound and enters a dense maritime thicket. The vegetation does not last long, however, as the trail quickly reemerges onto the dunes. A steep climb is required upon exiting the brush, then hikers are on their own to return to the start of the circuit, as wooden markers are non-existent in this section.
Once back at the fence, return the way you came—or turn right to conquer the heights of Jockey’s Ridge. Allot roughly an hour for a leisurely stroll around the stem and loop, leaving some time for exploration in this dune paradise.