Destination: Assateague Island, Maryland and Virginia
Assateague Island: Wild Ponies and Untamed Land
By Melissa LeGates (with Adam Porter)
Visit Assateague Island — a narrow, 37-mile-long Atlantic coast barrier key that straddles Maryland and Virginia — to get up close and personal with feral horses, deer and seabirds. Explore three parks across two states. Swim, stroll or cruise along the beach and hike up to an iconic Atlantic lighthouse.
Every year, more than 2 million vacationers descend on Assateague State Park in Berlin, Md., to indulge in the windswept beauty of the seashore and catch a glimpse of the park’s famous wild ponies. The free-roaming horses leave visitors in awe, prone to stopping in the middle of the road whenever they spot one of these magnificent creatures.
According to the National Park Service, the horses’ diminished stature is the result of a low-nutrient diet of salt-meadow hay and beach grass. The Assateague ponies also drink nearly twice as much water as domesticated horses, leading to their distinctive, bloated appearance. Not the look you or I strive for when visiting the beach, but the horses don’t seem to mind.
Summertime gives you the best chance to catch both the endless shoreline and wild horses in one camera frame. We visited in October, when the hoofed residents are more likely to be found along the marshy inland trails. But be forewarned, they also like to hang out in parking lots and intersections and display no respect for right-of-way. Also, while these horses may look cute and cuddly, remember they are wild — and they like to bite. There are flyers all over the park emblazoned with images of people who learned the hard way that the best policy is “look, but don’t touch.”
The seasons matter here. During the summer, expect throngs of tourists and day-trippers; if you visit in the fall or early spring, you’ll find the pace slows to a relaxed crawl. Of course, not everyone comes just to see the horses. Those less enamored of Assateague’s stumpy equine residents can still fill their days with fun.
- Stroll 22 miles of beach. Collect shells. Swim in lifeguard-patrolled waters (summer only) and sunbathe, surf or fish.
- Hike the Life of the Marsh nature trail, a walkway that meanders along and over bay waters. The shallow depth offers a clear look at fish and other marsh critters.
- Hike the Lighthouse Trail, a quarter-mile, wooded path to Assateague Lighthouse.
- Enjoy a sunset lighthouse cruise and see bald eagles, playful dolphins and grazing ponies.
- Bicyclists, hikers and (after 3 p.m.) drivers can explore the Wildlife Loop. At just over three miles, it’s a great place to see wading birds and waterfowl.
- Those with 4WD vehicles can also hit the beach, driving across 12 miles of dunes to the Maryland-Virginia border. Obtain an over-sand vehicle (OSV) permit (good for one year) at the ranger station.
- Stop by the Assateague Island Visitor Center to get up close with horseshoe crabs, whelk and other sea creatures.
- Drive to nearby Ocean City and its celebrated boardwalk for timeless family fun.
THREE PARKS IN ONE
Assateague Island is home to three distinct parks, each managed by a different government agency.
- Assateague State Park is situated at the northern end of the island and is managed by the state of Maryland. Entrance fees here are currently $4 per person for Maryland residents and $6 per person for out-of-state visitors from Memorial Day to Labor Day; at all other times, there is a per-vehicle entry fee of $3 for Maryland residents and $5 for visitors.
- Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge lies in Virginia and is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Entrance fees here are $8 daily, $15 weekly or $30 annually.
- Assateague Island National Seashore stretches between the two parks and is managed by the National Park Service. Entrance fees here are $15 weekly or $30 annually. (Those entering from Virginia also have the option of a single-day entry fee for $8.)
Some visitors are surprised to learn that a fence runs along the Maryland-Virginia border, which prevents you from accessing Chincoteague from the Maryland side of Assateague Island. Those who wish to visit both ends of the island must cross back to the mainland and head north or south, respectively. The fence separates the Maryland and Virginia wild horse herds. There are about 150 wild horses in the Virginia herd, which is owned and managed by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department. Each year, on the last Wednesday in July, the herd is rounded up for a swim over to Chincoteague Island, where the foals are auctioned off. The adult horses then make the return swim to Assateague on Friday. The annual Pony Swim event has evolved into a rustic festival for anyone who enjoys horsing around.
Assateague Island offers two RV camping opportunities with varying amenities. Neither is a full-hookup resort, but both are surrounded by the natural wonder of Assateague Island. (If you prefer full hookups, try the campgrounds near Ocean City.)
Assateague Island National Seashore Campground
Whether you choose an ocean-side or bay-side campsite, the Assateague Island National Seashore campground offers beautiful views of the beach and
frequent visits from local wildlife, including ponies, deer, crabs and waterbirds. The ocean-side sites put you just a few steps from the sand, while the bay sites offer kayak launches for those interested in exploring the inland marshes. Visitors who bring their own horses are welcome to ride them on the beach from Oct. 9 through May 14.
- The Beach Hut offers refreshments, gear and souvenirs during the summer season
- Horse-trailer-friendly campsites available
- No hookups, but you can get fresh water near the dump station
- Pull-through sites with big-rig access
- Chemical toilets and cold-water showers
- Waterfront views
- Family-friendly and pet-friendly
From October through April, sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. For more information, call 410.641.1441. Reservations are accepted for stays between April 15 and Oct. 15, and can be made online at recreation.gov or by calling 877.444.6777. The campground is located on the Maryland side of the island, inside the park, with entry from 7307 Stephen Decatur Highway, Berlin, MD 21811. GPS: 38.20828, -75.15262
Assateague State Park Campground
Unlike the Assateague Island National Seashore campground, the Assateague State Park campground offers warm showers and some electric hookups. It also offers terrific views and a short walk to the beach.
- Limited electric (H Loop only)
- Dump station available
- Warm water in bathing facilities
- Fire ring and picnic table at each site
- Family-friendly and pet-friendly
Reservations are recommended late spring through early fall. The campground is closed late October through late April. For additional information, contact the Ranger Station at 410.641.2918. Reservations may be made online or by calling 888.432.2267. The park entrance is located at 7307 Stephen Decatur Highway, Berlin, MD 21811. GPS: 38.23788, -75.13799