Legend has it that the feral horses that roam Assateague Island National Seashore descend from survivors of a Spanish galleon, shipwrecked along the mid-Atlantic coast. Like most girls, I fell in love with the romantic notions of Assateague and Chincoteague Islands after reading Marguerite Henry’s children’s book, Misty Of Chincoteague (1947) and then seeing the movie (1961). Growing up in Maryland and vacationing in Ocean City each summer, I can’t remember a year that we didn’t visit the Assateague Island National Seashore.
Even knowing that the horses more likely came from 17th-century landowners placing their horses on the island trying to avoid the Maryland fence tax (rather than on their way to a viscount in Peru) can’t remove the allure.
I’ve loved Assateague Island since I was a little girl. Between the lighthouse, the Chincoteague horses, and exploring sand dunes, I think the only “bad” thing about any visit was the mosquitos. The mosquitos are vicious, especially on the bay side during the summer months. I’ve just learned that having Type O blood attracts mosquitos. Lucky me.
But in addition to bringing strong insect repellent and wearing long-sleeve shirts and slacks, what else should you know to best enjoy your time at Assateague?
1. Do Not Approach The Horses
Though the horses may appear tame, they’ve been known to bite or kick park visitors. Additionally, rangers can ticket you for being too close to the horses. So save yourself the trouble; don’t pet, feed, or even move within 40 feet of these beautiful animals.
2. How To Get There
Assateague Island, located off the eastern coast of Maryland and Virginia, is a 37-mile long (but never more than a mile wide) barrier island. It’s the largest natural barrier island ecosystem in the Middle Atlantic states and part of a chain that extends from Maine to Texas.
It’s less than a 3-hour drive from Richmond, D.C., Baltimore, Wilmington, or Philadelphia. No road runs across the entire island. You can take the bridge from either Maryland (Verrazano from SR 611) or Virginia (John B. Whealton Memorial Causeway from SR 175).
Note: The Visitor’s Center is before the bridge on the Maryland side. It provides orientation information, exhibits, and ranger-led programs in the summer and fall.
There’s a 2-mile stretch of road through the state park for visitors to reach the National Seashore.
3. The Ecosystem Is Changing
Barrier islands, by their nature, change form based on sand movement on the land-facing side of the island. Some view this as a new island every season based on wind and sand shifts.
Multiple factors led to the island drifting westward, starting with the Chesapeake–Potomac hurricane in 1933. During the storm, an inlet was created south of Ocean City, Maryland. After the storm, land jetties were created to preserve the navigation channel which led to better beaches for Ocean City and increased erosion on Assateague.
The source of sand erosion is runoff from the Appalachian Mountains. This erosion has accelerated as the climate changes and the sea level rises. It remains most pronounced at the north end of the island. After several nor’easters in 1998, a sand replenishment program was undertaken to restore the north end of Assateague.
4. History Of The Island, The Pony Swim, And Pony Penning
In 1950, construction began on Assateague for a private resort community called Ocean Beach, Maryland. But the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962 destroyed the road, Baltimore Boulevard, and structures on the island. Realizing the land was too unstable to build upon, the land was sold to the federal government.
Established in 1965 to “preserve the barrier island and surrounding waters, and provide recreational opportunities,” Assateague Island National Seashore is a unit of the National Park Service system of the U.S. Department of the Interior, and operated in cooperation by the National Park Service, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and Maryland State Parks.
The northern two-thirds of the island belong to Maryland, while the southern third of the island belongs to Virginia. The Maryland section contains the majority of Assateague Island National Seashore.
The Virginia side contains the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and is home to the Pony Auction held as a fundraiser for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department. About 60 foals are born each year and the sale assists with population control.
Local “saltwater cowboys” round up the ponies and sort those to be removed from the island. This causes the exciting Pony Swim and on the next day, the Pony Penning. Maryland horses are given birth control to limit the horse population. Their goal herd size remains 80 to 100 horses.
Children get involved as shown in this documentary.
Tips for those who wish to bid on the ponies can be found here.
5. There Are Several Ways To Get Around
In addition to the visitor center and campgrounds, Assateague Island National Seashore includes three nature trails, a lifeguarded beach, and park headquarters.
You can get around on foot or by kayak, Over-Sand Vehicle (OSV), and horseback (allowed on beaches).
Kayak touring is a popular way to see the wildlife, especially on the bay side of the island.
Hikers have three options, each less than a mile long. The Marsh Trail is a half-mile along an elevated boardwalk that offers excellent views of the salt marsh habitat. The half-mile Forest Trail is easily walkable on hard-packed surfaces or boardwalks and much of it is shaded by woodlands. The Dunes Trail is three-quarters of a mile long, where you’ll walk in sand and see a section of the old Baltimore Boulevard.
While you’re allowed to swim anywhere, the lifeguarded beaches on both the Maryland and the Virginia sides are likely the safest each summer. Surfing is prohibited within the lifeguard areas.
Over-Sand Vehicle (OSV) Zones are designated for 4WD vehicles to drive on the beach. On the Maryland side, you can drive from the main camping area in the park to the Virginia state line (horse fences prevent access). Each vehicle requires a permit and a verified list of safety equipment before accessing the OSV zone, which is enforced by automatic gates. Each side of the seashore limits the number of vehicles at any time, which are restricted further during the piper plover breeding season. OSV permits are issued for a year from the month of purchase.
6. It’s A Great Place For Birding
Many bird species inhabit the island including the American oystercatcher, great blue heron, snowy egret, red-winged blackbird, brown pelican, several species of gulls and terns, shorebirds, raptors, waterbirds, and waterfowl. In the wooded habitats shelter, you may find ruby-crowned kinglets and white-eyed vireos. In winter, the region shelters brant geese and northern saw-whet owls.
Most importantly, perhaps, the threatened piper plover nests on Assateague. During their summer breeding period, closures may occur in the OSV zone and the north end of the island.
7. You Can Fish There, Too
Saltwater fishing remains a popular pastime on Assateague. Anglers over 16 must possess a valid fishing license. Since 2011, all anglers must purchase a valid Maryland fishing license before they go out. If you’re fishing in Virginia waters, though, you’ll also need to purchase a Virginia fishing license.
8. Camping Options Are Available
Staying overnight on Assateague requires a camp permit. Car camping sites are available by reservation online. Reservations open 6 months in advance and book quickly, especially for weekends and holidays.
Options include drive-in, horse camping, and back-country camping. All camping is on the Maryland side of the park. You can choose oceanside with quick access to the beach, or camp west of the main dune on bayside campsites with better views of the wetlands and grazing horses. There are six backcountry campsites, four of which are bayside and can be accessed by hiking, canoe, or kayak. Hike into the two oceanside backcountry sites.
It’s critical to know there is no fresh water available at any of the backcountry sites. You’ll have to bring your own.
Pets are prohibited except from a very small part of the National Seashore and State Park.
9. You Can Visit A 19th-Century Lighthouse
The picturesque red and white Assateague lighthouse is located on the Virginia side of Assateague Island, less than 5 minutes from Chincoteague.
The original lighthouse was constructed in 1833 for a price of $5,000. In 1860, a taller, more powerfully illuminated lighthouse was begun, but construction was delayed due to the Civil War. It was finally completed in 1867. With a base over 27 feet in diameter, it stands 142 feet high.
The Coast Guard maintained it for years and it was converted to be electrically operated in 1933. Ownership transferred to Fish & Wildlife Service in 2004. The Coast Guard continues to maintain the light, which was originally a candle lantern and is now twin rotating lights that flash one after the other from a height of 154 ft above sea level and can be seen 19 miles out to sea.
The top of the lighthouse is accessible to the public and remains one of the most impressive landmarks in Virginia. While admission is free, donations are gratefully accepted.
If you’d like a panoramic view of the Assateague Lighthouse, consider an Assateague cruise or kayak trip from Chincoteague, Virginia.