November 2015. Bekah Herndon sits on a fishing pier at a freshwater pond along the Discovery Trail in the Nags Head Woods Preserve. North Carolina.
Nags Head Hike November 2015. Bekah Herndon sits on a fishing pier at a freshwater pond along the Discovery Trail in the Nags Head Woods Preserve. North Carolina. © Ben Herndon for The Nature Conservancy

Places We Protect

Nags Head Woods Preserve

North Carolina

A gem of sand dunes, ponds, marshes and wetlands nested on the Outer Banks.

Conservation Highlights

This extensive ecological preserve on North Carolina’s Outer Banks protects a remarkable range of unique habitats, including forested dunes, interdune ponds, marshes, and wetlands. The preserve offers a welcome natural respite from the busy coastal scene not only for wildlife, but also for human visitors.

Two of the largest active sand dunes on the East Coast, Run Hill and Jockey's Ridge, run along the northern and southern borders of the preserve respectively. These huge ancient dunes constantly move and change shape as the prevailing northeasterly winds blow sand into the forest, marsh, and sound.

Shielded from the ocean winds by the dune ridges, Nags Head Woods features a diversity of plant and animal life that is unusual to find on a barrier island. Towering oaks, hickories, and beech trees, some hundreds of years old, rise from the sand and create a canopy of trees more typical of the mountains of the eastern United States.

Over 100 species of birds have been documented at Nags Head Woods. The preserve is an important nesting area for more than 50 species, including green heron, wood duck, red-shouldered hawk, clapper rail, ruby-throated hummingbird, pileated woodpecker, prothonotary warbler, and summer tanager. Fifteen species of amphibians and 28 species of reptiles have been documented as well. The freshwater ponds are inhabited by seven species of fish and many reptiles and amphibians in addition to a great diversity of floating aquatic plant life, including the rare water violet. An extensive marsh system bordering Roanoke Sound on the western side of the preserve supports a wealth of wildlife including river otter, egrets, herons, and many species of migratory waterfowl.

History of the Preserve

During the 19th century and through the 1930s, Nags Head Woods was a thriving village community with 13 homesites, two churches, a school, a store, farms, a gristmill, and a shingle factory. There are artifacts remaining of village life: a home foundation, cemeteries, and other signs of previous human habitation in the forest. 

Nags Head Woods was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1974, and protecting its unique habitats was one of the Conservancy’s first priorities in North Carolina. Between 1978 and 1986, the Conservancy acquired about 420 acres in the northern section of the forest; some of the land was generously donated by John and Rhoda Calfee and Diane St. Clair. Partnerships with local municipalities were formed early in the process, with the leasing of 350 acres from the Town of Nags Head.

In 1992, the Conservancy and the Town of Nags Head jointly acquired an additional 389 acres in the forest from Resolution Trust Corporation. In 1997, the Town of Nags Head agreed to dedicate nearly 300 acres of Nags Head Woods as a permanent conservation area under the State Nature Preserves Act. In addition, the Town of Kill Devil Hills signed a Memorandum of Understanding with The Nature Conservancy, placing another 100 acres in the forest under cooperative management. Working with the towns and other partners, The Nature Conservancy has succeeded in protecting this fragile ecosystem, overseeing both terrestrial and marine research and monitoring programs and providing trails for visitors to enjoy.

In 2011, thanks to Ed Mays, president of North Carolina Handicapped Sportsmen, an accessible multi-use trail was built through Nags Head Woods.

GPS Coordinates

Longitude: -75.66513792120
Latitude: 35.99000214880


You can reach our program staff during office hours at (252) 441-2525.

Plan Your Visit

The Preserve is a self-guided facility open from dawn to dusk every day free of charge. Maps and other important details are available at the outdoor information counter. Restrooms and visitor lobby are open based on staff availability.

Please stay on trails that are mapped and maintained by The Nature Conservancy and abide by the following guidelines:

  • Leashed pets are welcome on the Discovery, Roanoke, ADA, and Town Trails.  Pet cleanup is required.
  • Pets are not allowed on the Center, Sweetgum, and Blueberry Ridge Trails.  
  • Bicycles, horses, and motorized vehicles are allowed on the gravel roadway only. 
  • Visiting groups and researchers please call ahead; bus parking is not available. 
  • Research that takes place in Nags Head Woods must be permitted.  Call for further information.   
  • Do not damage or remove any plants, animals, or artifacts.

Things To Do

Nags Head Woods is a self-guided nature preserve that offers 8 miles of hiking trails from an easy .5 mile loop to a more strenuous 4 mile trek.  Fitness, photography, birding, and quality time in with friends and family in nature are popular ways that visitors spend their time in Nags Head Woods. 

There are hands-on, educational camp activities for children offered by the NC Aquarium and other organizations during the summer.  The Nags Head Woods 5k is a nearly 40 year tradition held annually on Mother’s Day weekend.    

Please visit our Facebook page for the most up-to-date information including outreach events, trail closures, and other important details.  

Informational Materials

Additional brochures are available at our outdoor information counter.