A trip to Assateague Island is a pretty easy sell... I mean, come on. It's a quiet, beachy island in the Atlantic populated with gorgeous wild horses that you can camp right alongside. What more could you want??
Assateague Island National Seashore is a truly special place, unlike anything anywhere else in the country. The 37-mile-long, mile-wide barrier island features a stunning strip of Atlantic Ocean beachfront but is almost completely undeveloped. You'll find lighthouses and seafood joints nearby, but for the most part, it's just you, the waves, and the sand. And the horses.
The island, shaped by stormy seas and gentle winds, lies between Maryland in the north and Virginia in the south; you'll find the National Seashore and Assateague State Park in Maryland, and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia. Subtle differences make them all worth exploring; for example, the horses on the National Seashore roam freely, while the horses in the wildlife refuge are protected by huge fenced expanses of land.
Note: Cars can't drive the length of Assateague Island; they must head back to the mainland to reach the other end. Which isn't a bad thing; the mainland of Maryland and Virginia is full of fun activities!
The horses are probably the most famous feature of the island, and despite popular legend, they aren't the descendants of animals that survived a shipwreck. They were mostly likely kept on the island by locals in the colonial era; there was a law that taxed fences on the mainland, so letting the horses hang out on the island was cheaper. Either way, the horses have been on the island for generations; they're feral (but are easily tamed), and they've evolved to be a lot smaller than average horses. The horses have gone down in legend, thanks to the classic children's novel Misty of Chincoteague. The herd in Maryland is treated by the NPS like wildlife and usually ranges between 80-100 animals. The best time of day to see them is around either dusk or dawn.
Besides watching the horses, popular activities on the island include surf fishing and crabbing, sea shelling, swimming, kayaking, and hiking or biking the trails. Assateague Island is also very popular for its camping. You need a reservation between March 15th and November 15th, and even though they open up 6 months in advance, weekends fill up the day they become available. That's pretty incredible for a campground that has no hookups, chemical toilets, and cold water showers. While the oceanside campgrounds provide the views of the water, the bayside campgrounds that face the wetlands offer more wild horse sightings.
Part of the island is set aside as Assateague State Park. It offers a two-mile stretch of beach, marshland to explore, and pretty much the same activities as the National Seashore (beachcombing, kayaking, swimming with a lifeguard on duty, sunbathing, fishing, all of that.) But here's some good news: while the National Seashore's campgrounds only have 141 sites, the state park has 350 sites, some of which even have hookups and are pet-friendly. They can be reserved from April 25 through October 28. And yes, your odds of seeing a wild horse at the state park portion of the island are just as good!
There's also public parking and a day-use area for those who just want to stop by the beach for an afternoon. The nature center is also a great stop; they put on programs that can really add to a camping trip here.
Head inland to make your way south, and to stop by and enjoy everything coastal southern Maryland and northern Virginia have to offer. Like the Assateague Crab House. The old-school seafood eatery does steaks and seafood like you wouldn't believe, including lobster bakes and a variety of all-you-can-eat options that can include crab legs, shrimp, and their mouthwatering fried chicken. The entrees are solid too, if you aren't hungry enough for either of those options; go retro with crab imperial, or get the classic crab cakes, since you are in Maryland!
Part campground, part Wild West theme park, and part water park, Frontier Town is a great stop on your trip, whether its just for the day, or for an overnight stay. The theme park is loaded with re-enactments, shows, performances, shops, rides, and other attractions and amusements. The waterpark has a lazy river and waterslides, and there's even a mini golf course, an arcade, a treetop ropes course, and, randomly enough, a 31.5 foot long Great White Shark that was used as a prop when filming the movie Jaws. The coolest feature of the campground is that you can rent a covered wagon to spend the night in, pioneer style!
As you head into Virginia, explore the area's NASA history at the Visitor center at Wallops Island. The facility here is used for testing "research aircraft, unmanned aerial systems, high-altitude balloons, suborbital and orbital rockets" at the "operational launch range and airfield". Basically, all kinds of awesome science happens here. The visitor center is loaded with exhibits on topics ranging from aeronautics, orbital and sub-orbital rockets and scientific balloons to current missions and the history of Wallops. The observation deck, numerous free public programs, and gift shop add to the experience. Pro tip: The Visitor Center also serves as the viewing site for rockets that launch from Wallops Island. Check their calendar; if you're in town during a launch, this is the place to watch it from.
Every good trip to the beach involves ice cream. Island Creamery in Chinoteague churns up small batches of super-fresh ice cream on the daily, using only the highest-quality local ingredients in a cute lighthouse-shaped building. Their flavors range from classic (rum raisin, butter pecan, chocolate chip cookie dough, cherries jubilee, sorbets, mint chip, strawberry, peanut butter cup) to the out-there (limoncello, cotton candy party, pineapple upside down cake, cherry vanilla). The two super-unique and totally local flavors to order? Wallops Rocket Fuel, which is loaded with chocolate, cinnamon, and chili pepper, and Pony Tracks, which is vanilla ice cream with peanut butter cups and a fudge and peanut butter swirl.
The other place to spy wild horses on Assateague Island is at the Chinoteague National Wildlife Refuge. However, this herd of wild horses is a bit different. It was purchased by the Chincoteague Fire Department before the NWR was established. The firemen have two areas where their horses graze, and then each year, there's a "Pony Swim" (where the ponies are herded across the short channel from the island to the mainland) and parade, followed by an auction where the fire department sells several of the foals and yearlings to earn money for the town's ambulance and fire services. The Pony Penning, as it's called, takes place at the end of July and is a big event.
While there's no camping allowed at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, there's no shortage of fun to be had here. Kayaking and boating, fishing, crabbing, clamming, beachcombing, hunting, bird watching, and hiking are all available. You can even grab a free permit for a bonfire on the beach if you want to have an evening cookout to end your day.
A quick visit to a little local museum, like the Museum of Chincoteague, can provide a lot of background information and history on an area. You'll learn about all kinds of things, from the history of the island, the role of the seafood industry, even some natural science about the impact of storms on the coast. You'll see old photos, model ships, artifacts recreated scenes, and even the taxidermied remains of Misty and her foal Stormy, the two horses that inspired the famous book Misty of Chincoteague and learn the real-life tale behind the novel.
Finish the trip with a stop at the 142-foot-tall, white-and-red-striped Assateague Lighthouse. It's owned by the US Fish & Wildlife Service as its located in the National Wildlife Refuge, and it still guides ships to this day, under the care of the U.S. Coast Guard. It's been standing since 1867, and was automated in 1933. It recently underwent a huge rennovation, and is currently open for public tours on weekends during the summer months.
Banner Photo Credit: Flickr/Mrs. Gemstone
Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books. -John Lubbock