The Outer Banks are known for their picturesque coastlines, defined by their seamlessly flowing sand dunes that line the beaches. No ordinary heaps of sand; these dunes are some of the tallest to be found on all of the East Coast. Visitors to the area revel in the challenge of climbing the tallest dunes and the panoramic view that provides the ultimate reward.
So if you’re hoping to hike the highest slopes in the Outer Banks while staying at a local vacation home, you’ll need to know where to go and what activities can be done around the area.
Jockey’s Ridge State Park
- Location: Carolista Drive, Nags Head, NC
- Website: ncparks.gov/state-parks/jockeys-ridge-state-park
- Hours: Seasonal; check the website for current hours.
Standing as tall as 100 ft., Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head is home to the tallest sand dune system on the East Coast. Spanning 426 acres, this state park boasts towering dunes providing panoramic views of the Roanoke Sound and Atlantic Ocean.
The landscape of Jockey’s Ridge is constantly evolving, and the views are ever-changing, making it a popular park for OBX hang gliding. Strong, consistent winds and towering sand dunes set the stage for the optimal conditions for hang gliders. A local hang-gliding school, Kitty Hawk Kites, offers gliding lessons that can take place inside the park.
Visitors to Jockey’s Ridge can also enjoy activities such as sandboarding, kite flying, and hiking across the dunes. The park offers several trails that traverse a diverse array of coastal ecosystems.
The park also offers arguably one of the best beach accesses on the Outer Banks. You’ll find a soundside access located at the western end of Soundsdale Street.
This beach access overlooks the Roanoke Sound and offers much quieter waters than the waves of the Atlantic. You can enjoy a day on the beach or rent a kayak for a relaxing afternoon away from the hustle and bustle of the oceanfront beaches.
The park’s visitor center offers educational exhibits and information about the unique ecosystem that thrives within the dunes. Restrooms are available at the park office.
Currituck Banks Reserve
- Location: North Beach Access Road, Corolla, NC
- Website: deq.nc.gov/reserve-sites/currituck-banks-reserve
- Hours: 24 Hours
Located in Corolla, the Currituck Banks Reserve features stunning sand dunes that serve as a home to the region’s wild horses. The native Spanish Mustangs roam freely among the dunes and beaches in the area.
The wild horses are mostly visible on an off-road portion of the OBX. Visitors can reserve a guided tour to observe the wild horses or access the beaches with their own four-wheel drive vehicle. Just remember, it is important to maintain a safe distance from this protected species.
Currituck Banks Reserve encompasses 956 acres with diverse ecosystems, including sand dunes, maritime forests, salt and freshwater marshes, and miles of sandy beaches. You’ll find many plant and animal species throughout this remote reserve.
You’ll have options to explore both the soundside and the oceanfront. Just off Highway 12, you’ll find a parking lot for the Currituck Banks Reserve that leads to two trails.
The first is a handicapped accessible boardwalk trail through a maritime forest to the Currituck Sound. The second trail also ends at the sound. However, it is a much longer trail at 1.5 miles and is a more primitive hike with no boardwalk.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
- Location: Hatteras Island, Buxton, NC
- Website: nps.gov/caha
- Hours: 24 Hours
Stretching across 70 miles of coastline, the Cape Hatteras National Seashore is dotted with many beautiful sand dunes that tower over the beach. While there are many opportunities to view the dunes in this area, the two most popular areas to do so are the Buxton Woods Reserve and the Cape Point dunes by Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
The Buxton Woods Reserve allows visitors to witness the convergence of maritime forests and the sandy shoreline, creating a unique and diverse ecosystem. You’ll find a number of trails throughout the park with a variety of difficulty levels.
The dunes near the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, known as “Cape Point,” are renowned for their unparalleled sunsets and picturesque views. Visitors can stroll along the sandy shoreline or simply bask in the serenity and splendor of the Atlantic Ocean.
While you’re in the area, you should absolutely pay a visit to Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. This 208-foot giant is the tallest lighthouse in the United States. While the lighthouse is closed for climbing currently, restoration efforts are expected to be completed soon, which should open the inside back up to the public.
Cape Hatteras is a local favorite for water sports like windsurfing. You’ll likely spot some surfers paddling out, hoping to catch the perfect combo of waves and winds. If you’re interested in windsurfing or other water sports, several equipment rental venues will be nearby.
Kill Devil Hills
- Location: 10th Ave, Kill Devil Hills, NC
Kill Devil Hills, a town historically significant for the Wright Brothers’ first flight, is home to stunning sand dunes that overlook the Atlantic Ocean. The dunes in this area are largely inaccessible due to the coastal beach homes dotting the landscape.
The structural integrity of the dunes might be compromised by hiking, and these stately dunes protect from eroding shorelines. However, Avalon Pier offers some of the best views of the dunes on the Outer Banks.
Additionally, you can access the dunes in this area by visiting Run Hill State Natural Area. This nature preserve is located in a residential area, and you won’t find a parking lot. However, this massive 70 ft dune is less traversed than Jockey’s Ridge and includes a trail system allowing an intimate experience amongst the dunes. This allows you a peek at the thriving vegetable that naturally inhabits the dunes in the area.
While visiting Kill Devil Hills, it’s worth exploring the Wright Brothers National Memorial, which showcases the monumental achievements of these aviation pioneers. You can also stand atop the very dune where they launched the first flight. This national park is home to a museum that contains a full-scale replica of the original 1903 Wright Flyer.
Outer Banks Dunes: Special Rules and Considerations
When visiting the sand dunes in the Outer Banks, it is important to be mindful of any specific rules. The barrier islands are lined with delicate ecosystems that are present along the shores of the banks. The following general rules and guidelines are relevant no matter where your travels take you.
In areas such as the Currituck Banks Reserve, where wild horses roam, it is crucial to maintain a safe distance and avoid any attempts to touch or feed them. Observe these magnificent creatures from a 50 ft or greater distance, allowing them to thrive in their natural habitat undisturbed.
Never attempt to feed any wildlife. Animals such as the local Spanish mustangs have died from eating foods their stomachs are not acclimated to. Even something as seemingly harmless as an apple can make a wild horse sick.
Leave No Trace
As with any natural area, leaving the sand dunes as you found them is vital. Always collect any trash you bring with you and throw it away in proper trash receptacles.
If you are traveling with pets, be sure to clean up their waste and dispose of it properly. Preserving the pristine beauty of the dunes and beaches of the OBX requires a collective effort from all visitors.
Stick to Designated Paths
As a general rule, you should avoid walking outside of marked trails. The dunes are fragile and can collapse easily.
Always stay on designated paths and trails. Trampling on vegetation or disturbing wildlife habitats can harm the natural balance of these coastal habitats.
Check for Activity Restrictions
Certain activities, such as sandboarding or hang gliding, may have specific regulations or require permits. Before engaging in these activities, you should always check with local authorities or visitor centers for any restrictions or guidelines.
Observe Fire Safety
The area surrounding the dunes is usually quite dry. Most areas have fire safety regulations in place. You should always check with the local visitors center before building a campfire. It is important to note that open fires and fireworks are generally prohibited in dune areas to prevent the risk of wildfires.
Hit the High Slopes, then the Vacation Rental Couch!
From the towering mounds in Jockey’s Ridge State Park to the primitive Currituck Banks Reserve, where the dunes are dotted with wild mustangs, the sand dunes in the Outer Banks have no shortage of stunning scenery. You’ll want to experience some, or perhaps all of them while staying at an OBX vacation home rental.
After a day of exploring the dunes, you’re sure to be in need of a shower and some relaxation. There’s nothing better than relaxing on a cozy couch in the cool AC after a long day in the sun.