This North Carolina Sand Dune Is Known as "The Living Dune" for a Reason

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If you think about it, sand dunes are sort of like a beautiful hybrid of the mountains and the beach. They tower above you like the most majestic peaks, but they also offer all the sun and sand you could ever wish for. Unlike those more common tourist attractions, though, sand dunes are often alive. And we mean that both literally and metaphorically. Need proof? Just look at Jockey's Ridge on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Dune-ing It Right

They call Jockey's Ridge "the Living Dune," and not just because of the plethora of wildlife that dwell there (more on those residents in a moment). It's what's known as an active sand dune system, meaning that it's still constantly changing. Comprised of eons-old quartz sand (about six million dump trucks' worth), the dune was created by several millennia of northeast and southwest winds, which still shape and shift it to this day. Because the wind systems converge on this point, the dunes will never fully blow away. They'll only adapt to the latest patterns.

The wildlife has adapted too. You might be surprised to find such an abundance of animals in an area so devoid of vegetation, but only if you didn't notice the maritime thicket of oaks, persimmons, cedars, and other plant life thriving in the dunes' shadow. In the wooded areas and on the dunes themselves, you'll be able to find signs of previous passersby, like the S-shaped tracks of the hognose snake; the long-fingered marks of North America's favorite (and only) marsupial, the opossum; and the cat-like pawprints of red and gray foxes, which feed on rodents and persimmons alike.

More to Dune and See

Thanks to the fact that it sits on the barrier islands of the Outer Banks, you can look down from the top of any of the three peaks of Jockey's Ridge to see the Atlantic Ocean in one direction and the interior water of the sound in the other. But there's more to do at these lookout points than take in the scenery. You could follow in the footsteps of the Wright Brothers further up the strand by flying a kite or going hang-gliding. From October to March, you can also take advantage of the cooler weather to go sandboarding all the way down the dune. If birdwatching is more your jam than an uphill climb, you could also take the boardwalk through the estuary and spot osprey, herons, egrets, and many other avians.

There are a few dangers of the dunes as well, however. Chief among them is lightning, which can strike anywhere within 20 miles when the heavens start to rumble. So when the park rangers clear the dunes for fear of thunderstorms, it's best to listen. Still, even this destructive force has an upside. The dunes are frequently studded with fulgurite: snaky, branching hollow tubes caused by lightning strikes. You can see some pretty breathtaking examples at the park's museum — you just don't want to be nearby when they form in the wild.

For more information about planning a visit to The Outer Banks of North Carolina, check out OuterBanks.org.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas October 13, 2018
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