If you’re looking for a place to get away from it all – I mean REALLY get away – consider Assateague Island. This 37-mile-long, barrier island off the east coasts of Maryland and Virginia offers a quiet, unspoiled, uncommercialized respite from big city life. Located just 8 miles south of Ocean City, MD, this is the place where you put away the electronics and get back to raw nature.
Visitors can enjoy a wide variety of activities – the beach, camping, hiking, fishing, boating, biking, birding, off-roading, and much more. And of course, there are the famous, wild Assateague horses who roam freely throughout the island.
If you’re a teacher, student or home-schooler, this is a wonderful place to study ecology due to its diverse habitats from the bay side to the ocean side and to the forest in between. All of these habitats are within a short distance of each other. It’s also a great place for parents to instill an appreciation of nature in their children. You can even spend the night and wake up to nature by camping at the campground or in the backcountry.
Before you head to Assateague Island, it’s important to understand the layout. It’s a little confusing. The Island is divided by both state lines and ownership agency lines. Each state and agency has a different name, entry and exit point, website, amenities, fees and even horses associated with it. Take a look at the map to follow along. That said, don’t let the borderline morass prevent you from going – it’s well worth the visit no matter where you end up!
Ultimately, this page is about the Assateague Island National Seashore portion of Assateague Island in the Maryland district. But before we get there, let’s look at the Island as a whole. Skip to the Assateague Island National Seashore section if you already know this part.
Assateague Island is a 37-mile-long barrier island on the Eastern Shores of Maryland and Virginia. Running roughly north to south, this narrow strip of land has the Atlantic Ocean on its east side, and the Sinepuxent and Chincoteague Bays on its west side. The ocean side landscape consists of white, sandy beaches and rugged, sand dunes. The bay side consists of grassy marshes transitioning to pine forests that are abundant with wildlife.
The northern two-thirds of the Island sits in the state of Maryland, and the southern third sits in the state of Virginia. The entire island is unspoiled, uncommercialized, protected land. It’s best known for the herds of “wild horses” or “wild ponies” that have lived there for centuries. A fence separates the two states to prevent the horse herds from mixing.
There’s no road connecting the Maryland and Virginia districts. Each state has a separate point of entry and exit, so you can’t enter from the Maryland side and exit through the Virginia side. You’d think they were two separate countries!
Maryland District. On the Maryland side of the border, the two-mile section on the northern end is owned by the State of Maryland. It’s called Assateague State Park. The rest is owned by the National Park Service. It’s called the Assateague Island National Seashore. The entry and exit point for both starts at the end of Route 611.
Virginia District. On the Virginia side of the border, the Island is owned by the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge under the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The exception is about a one-mile patch owned by the National Park Service containing the Toms Cove Visitor Center and a recreational beach. The entry and exit point is at the end of Route 175.
To recap, Assateague Island is divided into three separate parks:
In shorthand terms, you’ll hear the Maryland portion referred to as “Assateague” with its “Assateague horses” and the Virginia portion as “Chincoteague” with its “Chincoteague ponies.”
Confused yet? Here’s how it happened.
The Verrazano Bridge connects the mainland to Assateague Island in the Maryland district. It is located about 20 minutes south of another popular vacation spot, Ocean City, MD. You can cross the bridge by car, or you can park at the Assateague Island Visitor Center and ride your bicycle across the bridge on the bike path. Once across the bridge, you can either go to the:
Assateague State Park entrance just a few yards down the road on Stephen Decatur Highway. Check the website for fees, hours and reservations. Or, the
Before entering the island, stop at the Assateague Island Visitor Center to pick up maps and trail guides, get tips from the park rangers, tour the museum, watch a short film, buy a souvenir, and get a stamp on your National Parks Passport. Learn about the ranger guided programs they offer for kids and adults. Check the calendar here or in person at the Visitor Center.
?TIP: Beware of the Bugs – Assateague Island is notorious for its mosquitoes, ticks and flies, especially on the bay side of the island. If bugs really bug you, it’s best to visit in spring or fall instead of summer. Or, be sure to pack bug spray.
Assateague Island National Seashore is owned by the National Park Service. It is a beautiful park with beaches, bays, marshes, forests and dunes, where wild plant and animal life proliferate in this uncommercialized protected area.
By “uncommercialized,” that means there are no hotels, restaurants or permanent residences here. There’s only a seasonally-operated snack stand at the beach. You have to bring your own provisions. And if you want to stay on the Island overnight, camping is your only option.
Even though this is an uncommercialized space, there are plenty of recreational opportunities here, the kind that will get you back to nature. Here are a few.
There are two beaches in this National Park – the North Ocean Beach and South Ocean Beach – a few miles apart accessible by car. Both beaches have convenient parking lots. Once onto the beach, you’ll be greeted by scrubby landscapes with sand dunes and wild grasses. The pure white sand stretches for miles. It’s a very serene setting compared to the carnival-like atmosphere a few miles away at Ocean City, MD.
Assateague Island is best known for its wild horses. They wander freely all over the park. Whether you’re at the park for a few hours or all day, be sure to look for them. Those in the Maryland district are owned and managed by the National Park Service. Those in the Virginia district are privately owned and managed by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department, and are referred to as the Chincoteague Ponies. There’s a fence at the Maryland and Virginia border to keep their populations separate. There are currently about 80 horses in the Maryland district, and about 150 in the Virginia district.
Use your tracking skills to locate the horses. Copious piles of fresh, pony poo will give you a clue where they’ve been. You can often find them on or near the beach, where they can keep cool and away from the bugs. They travel in family groups, or “bands,” of about 2-10 horses. They are magnificent creatures. When we visited, we saw a foal galloping along with his family and nursing from his mother.
Park rangers may be on hand to give you information about each of the horses, such as their names, ages, and personality details. They will also warn not to feed or get to close to the horses, for your sake and theirs. Even though they appear docile, they can injure the tourists.
Want more information?
?TIP: I strongly advise wearing proper hiking boots, not open-toed or open-backed shoes. While some parts of the trails are well-maintained, wooden or dirt paths, other parts are hot, white sand loaded with nasty sandburs! Getting them stuck in tender feet and picking those prickly menaces out of your skin with your fingers is not fun!
There are three, short half-mile hiking loop trails in the park, each with distinct landscapes. They are all accessible by car and each have their own convenient parking lots. Follow the signs to each trail. It’s easy to do all three in a day because they are short and within a few miles of each other. Here’s a map. More information about hiking is here.
Life of the Marsh Nature Trail – this trail is easily traversed on a well-constructed, raised boardwalk overlooking the salt marshes and wild grasses. It is out in the open sun, so be sure to protect your skin accordingly. If you want to venture off the path, take the short stairway down to a little “secret” beach. Then, return to the boardwalk that loops back to the trail head.
Life of the Forest Nature Trail – this trail starts through a pine forest and opens to another boardwalk overlooking the salt marshes. We spotted two bald eagles gliding overhead, an egret and some seagulls.
Life of the Dunes Nature Trail – this trail shares the parking lot with South Ocean Beach. This one requires lumbering through hot, white sand in between hilly dunes topped with grasses. Be sure to wear proper hiking boots!
Rent a kayak, stand-up paddleboard or canoe from Assateague Outfitters located at the end of Bayside Drive. They also offer kayak tours. Check here for rates, hours and instructions.
The park offers a variety of camping options on both the ocean side and the bay side, including drive-in, walk-in, group, horse and backcountry camping. Check here for more information.
Here are the maps:
You can make reservations here:
Here’s a helpful video explaining the details:
And check out this visitor’s experience:
Here’s a helpful video to get you started.
Another popular activity is shellfishing and surf fishing. Check here for fishing license requirements.
Here are some guys having a good day surf fishing:
As a barrier island, Assateague takes the brunt of the harsh, ocean weather conditions. Battering storms, salty air, and crashing waves lead to ever-shifting shorelines, making the island itself very fragile. But the nature and wildlife that survive here are quite formidable.
The slender strip of land separating the bay from the ocean transitions through several different zones, each with its own unique collection of plants and animals. The ocean is filled with fish, crabs, clams and shorebirds. Just inland on the upper beach is a desertlike landscape, dotted with low lying grasses that clutch to shifting sand dunes. Their underground root system helps to stabilize the dunes. Loblolly pines dominate the maritime forest offering a cool shade to an otherwise open landscape. Deer, fox, raccoons, birds and reptiles scamper through the blanket of pine needles dropped on the forest floor. The other side of the forest opens to a salt marsh, rich with nutrients where ocean life on the lower end of the food chain, like snails and fiddler crabs, thrive. Bright, green marsh grasses poke out of the shallow waters giving animals a place to feed, cling and hide. Beyond the marshes are the coastal bays, a quiet sheltered breeding ground for fish, crabs, seahorses and other marine life before washing out to the larger ocean.
To learn more about Nature on Assateague Island, start here. Then go back to the menu bar at “Learn About the Park/Nature” to drill down deeper.
Or, track your observations, contribute to science, and see what’s already been spotted on iNaturalist.org for Assateague Island National Seashore.
Birding is also a delight here. The diverse landscape draws a wide variety of birds, such as shorebirds, waterfowl, songbirds, birds of prey, and waders. The island plays an important role in seasonal activity, such as breeding and overwintering. And in the fall, it serves as a stopover for thousands of migrating birds and butterflies on the Atlantic Flyway.
Here’s a more on birding and a list of birds found on Assateague Island.
Here’s a video on fall birding:
And winter birding:
Stop at the Visitor Center to find out more about the daily park ranger guided activities. The calendar is here, but be sure to call or inquire in person when you arrive in case the calendar is not updated.
Here’s a sample of what they offer:
Here’s a documentary about Assateague Island. It’s a little dark and outdated, but still good information.