Currituck Banks and Jockey's Ridge State Park

For the past year, we've been exploring eastern NC from the Fall Zone to the shores just off the Outer Banks. We've learned quite a bit during our outings. However, drawing on a quote I once read (the author of which I cannot remember) we've been jumping from parapet to parapet, and after a year of this, it was time to slow down and explore the castle's nooks and crannies.

We recently attempted to do that with a trip to Currituck Banks. It's a three and a half hour drive for us, so to maximize our time, we drove up on a Thursday evening and spent the night in Kitty Hawk. Depending on the hotel, the rates are fabulous on the Outer Banks right now, and we snagged a room for less than seventy dollars using our AAA discount.

The goal for this trip: explore Currituck National Wildlife Refuge and see the wild horses that roam the northern tip of the Outer Banks. Easier said. Hwy 12 ends at a beach, which is the entrance for the refuge. I presumed the sand would be packed down because this is the only way into the refuge and people have been driving on it for years.

Wrong. The sand is soft and deeply rutted, and after dishing out over a hundred dollars to fix our four wheel drive after the Mattamuskeet incident, Kelley was a bit nervous about attempting an off-road expedition. We gave it a shot, though. But when the ruts got deeper (and without our CarolinasAdventure posse there to push if we got stuck) we turned around.

The good news: various tours are available. I'd checked out the Jeep tours but they were too expensive for our current budget. Kayaking, and guided van tours are also available. This place is worth exploring, so we intend to return in the spring and take one of those tours.

Once back on paved ground, we stopped at the Currituck Banks National Estuarine Research Reserve, located within a few steps of the refuge's beach entrance. I'd read about this place in The Natural Traveler: Along North Carolina's Coast and knew we'd find a .33 mile boardwalk through the maritime forest that grows along the Outer Banks. Not what we had in mind but it would do.

To our delight, halfway down the boardwalk we found a mile and a half (round trip) nature trail that leads into a forest consisting predominantly of wax myrtle and live oaks, transitioning to pine near the water. The live oaks in this forest are amazing. Long, thin arms rest their elbows on the ground and then twist imploringly into the sky. The trunked sculptures stretched outward throughout the woods, pushing back other trees and providing space that allowed the winter light to shine through.

Blue blazes mark the trail. Note, we believe at least one sign is missing at a turn, and it gets a bit confusing in this area. If this happens to you, stop or backtrack if you can and look carefully. You should spot the blue-tipped stick a bit further down the path.

While enjoying the walk through the quiet forest, we came upon a pile of horse excrement. This often happens along a trail so I didn't think anything of it. By the forth pile, I finally caught on. Be still my Carolina heart, the wild horses roam through that area! Unfortunately, we didn't see any while hiking, or at the end of the trail where it meets Currituck Sound, but we saw plenty of evidence of their existence in that area.

After finishing that trail, we continued down the boardwalk to the observation platform overlooking marshes, Currituck Sound, and Monkey Island. The Estuarine is a good example of several types of natural environments: maritime forest, transitional forest, swamp, and marsh. From Natural Traveler, I learned North Carolina has four types of marshes: freshwater, brackish water, high saltwater and low saltwater. The marsh of Currituck Sound is an example of a low marsh, which floods daily with the tides. No wonder it's a research area!

Next, we made a quick stop at Currituck Lighthouse, situated in historic Corolla Village. After moving to ENC, I learned the four lighthouses of the OBX are similar in design, down to the wood and stone pilings they're built on. They're painted with different patterns so approaching mariners could distinguish one from the other. The Lighthouse Board left Currituck au naturale. The theory is this was to avoid having to paint it in the future. It was a good decision. Though built in 1875, Currituck is an attractive structure.

With time on our hands after not exploring the refuge, we made an unexpected stop at Jockey's Ridge, located in Nags Head. With its desert ambiance, tall dunes, wildlife that often roams the sand, and sparse vegetation, this destination deserves its own blog post. But more research and another visit is needed before I can attempt that. For now, I'll say that though around four hundred and twenty acres, the park is larger than I expected. Kelley hiked on while I stopped and took pictures, and at times, he was a speck atop the sand. Can you spot him in this photo?

At the top of that ridge, we were treated to a breathtaking view of a shaft of sunlight slicing across Currituck Sound. That view along with the 360 perspective makes the effort worth the climb. This being the highest spot, I assume it's also used for hang gliding and sandboarding, which are permissible under certain circumstances. The park has a hang gliding school, but I'll save that for the next post.

There are two "trails" at Jockey's Ridge: the one-mile Soundside Natural Trail, and the one-and-a-half mile Tracks in the Sand. But with all that sand, it's hard to tell exactly where the path is. We simply walked toward our destination.

As an added bonus, Jockey's Ridge runs perpendicular to the path of the sun and the shifting shadows along the dunes would make for some interesting photography in the early morning or late in the afternoon. Yes, we're definitely going back.

All in all a decent day despite not seeing the Outer Bank ponies.

So whether you're looking for a vacation spot or a nice getaway, the northern tip of the Outer Banks around Nags Head and Corolla is a great place to go. There's much to see and in the low season, hotel prices can be quite reasonable. Hope to see you there.

Currituck Banks and Jockey’s Ridge, Outer Banks

For more on Currituck NWR, go to

For more info on the Reserve, go to

For more on Jockey's Ridge, go to


Kelvin Taylor said...

The tree with Kelly in the shot is really cool! Another nice trip by the roaming Buffaloes.

Kimberli said...

Thanks! And those live oaks were scattered throughout the forest like that. We definitely have to go back to explore more of this area.