If you’ve ever wondered what it might look like to hover over North Carolina’s barrier-islands, floating like a bird on thermals, a visit to Jockey’s Ridge State Park may give you a close rendition. There are 426 acres of rolling sand dunes and some of them are over 90 feet high. Climbing to the top of the tallest dunes provides a view of the barrier islands from all directions. The islands resemble thin ribbon of taffy-colored sand with dark green maritime forest curling through wide expanses of salt water. The Atlantic Ocean sits to the east, Roanoke Sound to the west. The Wright Brothers Monument sits to the north of the park and can often be spotted on a clear night, while the Bodie Island lighthouse sits to the south.

The tall dunes at Jockey’s Ridge are the highest points around, so it’s not wise to be there when storm clouds are approaching. It’s quite common for lightning to strike the dunes. What happens when lightning strikes sand? Great question! The temperature of lightning is about 27,000°F. That’s pretty hot and extreme temperatures like this can change minerals from one form to another. At Jockey’s Ridge, the sand is composed of about 90% quartz, which is made from the elements silicon and oxygen. When lightning strikes this sand, the quartz is converted into glass! A delicate tube of sand with a glassy sheen on the inside, called a fulgurite, sometimes can be found after a lightning strike. In areas where the sand, soil, or rock has a different mineral composition, the resulting fulgurite will differ in shape, color, and texture. 

As you can imagine, exposed sand dunes get very hot during the day, so most of the animals that live in the park only come out at night – they are nocturnal. Morning tracks across the sand prove that a wide variety of animals live at Jockey’s Ridge. Often in the morning, tracks can be found from foxes, deer, coyotes, frogs, toads, raccoons, opossums, rabbits, lizards, and snakes. There are three primary ecosystems where these animals live: the open dune area, the maritime shrub thicket, and the estuarine environment. The open dune area is the soft sandy dune area where the park’s sands are moved around by wind, also known as aeolian transport. The maritime shrub thicket is a beautiful thick maritime forest surrounding the dunes where many animals retreat for protection from predators and the sun’s hot rays. The sprawling scrub oaks provide a shady canopy and are a constant reminder of how life persists and grows gracefully in the harsh environment of salt air, high winds, and strong storms. Roanoke Sound is the highly productive estuarine environment at the “back door” of Jockey’s Ridge. An estuary is where freshwater from rivers and saltwater from the ocean meet to form an environment of brackish, or mixed salinity water. Estuaries are great places for fish and shellfish to grow, providing some of the most productive ecosystems on the planet.

Jockey’s Ridge is a must-visit site in the coastal region of North Carolina. If you are exploring the Outer Banks, make sure to stop at the visitor’s center to ask questions. The rangers at Jockey’s Ridge are exceptional and love to share stories and provide great educational offerings. You can sign up for kayaking the sound and sunset on the dunes. Other activities at the park include hiking, paddling, swimming, kiteboarding, and windsurfing in the sound. A private vendor provides opportunities where you can try kite flying, hang gliding, and sandboarding in a fun, safe environment.

You can see the NC Science Trail calendar or the State Parks website for details about events at Jockey’s Ridge.

*All images were shared by Jockey’s Ridge State Park.

Smith, A. C., & Carrier, S. J. (2020). Thirty Great North Carolina science adventures: From Underground Wonderlands to Islands in the Sky and Everything in Between.