Living in the Washington, D.C. area, sometimes you need an escape from the city and surround yourself with natural beauty. Changing sceneries and connecting with nature, always reenergizes me and helps me relax.
We were looking for camping options in the spring, when someone suggested Assateague Island, a 37-mile-long barrier island located on the Delmarva Peninsula on the Atlantic Coast, and famed for its wild ponies. It abounds with amazing scenery and wildlife, the perfect place for a couple’s getaway (and a family beach vacation!).
The National Park Service, at Assateague Island National Seashore, and Maryland’s Department of National Resources, at Assateague State Park, manage the Maryland side of the island, and the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge manage the Virginia side.
How to get there
If you are coming from D.C. like we did, the most direct route is to drive east towards Maryland, following U.S. Route 50, across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge towards Delaware, and then south into the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The drive takes on average 3 hours depending your departure and traffic. There are two entrances to the island: The North entrance via Route 611, and the south entrance at the end of Route 175, two miles from Chincoteague, VA. There is no vehicle access between the two entrances inside the park, only a paved bike path. To get to Chincoteague, you must drive through mainland and it takes about an hour driving south.
Where to stay
There are no hotel accommodations on the island. If you are not into camping, which would be my first recommendation, you should consider staying at Chincoteague or Ocean City. Camping is the most popular way to stay on Assateague and both ocean side and bayside campsites are available all year. Some sites can accommodate trailers and RVs, in addition to tents. Camping space is only available in the Maryland district and can be reserved through the Assateague State Park or Assateague Island National Seashore (recreation.gov).
Campers are not allowed to bring their own firewood but you can find it in Assateague for $5 a bag. Dogs are allowed on the leash and are restricted in some areas. Reservation is encouraged months in advance, especially during the summer or the Pony Swim dates. Both sites have restroom facilities, but Assateague State Park has hot showers and big bathrooms, and Assateague Island National Seashore has chemical toilets and cold showers. With the State Park you have campsites where you can drive to, and the National Park you have more private campsites where you drive to a nearby parking and walk to your tent.
The wild horses of Assateague are the main drive to the island. They received worldwide attention thanks to Marguerite Henry’s 1947 Newbery Medal-winning book Misty of Chincoteague. There is uncertainty on how these horses came to the island. Some historians argue that they are survivors of a shipwreck off the Virginia coast, but there are no records to confirm it. Another argument is that they are descendants of horses brought to barrier islands in the late 17th century by mainland owners to avoid fencing laws and taxation of livestock.
Over 300 ponies wander the island and they are divided in two herds: the Maryland horses which are looked after by the National Park Service and the Virginia horses are cared for by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge restricts the herd to 150 adult animals in order to protect the local ecosystem. This restriction has led to the Chincoteague Pony Swim, when the herd is rounded up to swim from Assateague to nearby Chincoteague Island.
It is very important to remember that in order to preserve their wilderness and beauty, you must, at all times, keep a safe space between your family and the horses, at least a 10 ft distance. As tempting as taking a selfie with a horse might be, you are risking your safety, that of the horses, and paying a hefty fine.
IMP: Watch for the ticks and avoid the spread of Lyme disease!
Things to do in Assateague
If you want to stay away from the crowds, many people recommend heading to the bay (western) side of the island. There you can do kayaking, wading, or swimming. The island has bike paths, canoe and kayak launching areas, and you can also surf, fish, and swim.
If you would like to learn more about the island and its amazing wildlife diversity, you might want to consider a ranger guided program.
Canoes and kayaks can only be launched at designated areas in Assateague. Rentals are available at Assateague Outfitters.
Biking is a great way to explore the island. Both Chincoteague and Assateague have great biking and hiking trails. On the Maryland side, you may travel over a paved bike path along Bayberry Drive, about 4 miles of inland habitat. There are also paved paths from Chincoteague to Assateague. Rentals are available at Assateague Outfitters or The Bike Depot in Chincoteague.
Surfing at Assateague is great for beginners when the surf is down. The surf is unpredictable as it is a beach break but the waves break far out. Paddling out is a battle with the waves as there is no visible channel (or it is well hidden to a beginner) so you have to paddle right into the breakers. It is a local favorite to get away from Ocean City. When the surf is big, bring your short board.
Over the sand vehicles and fishing are allowed with a special permit. There is a small section of the beach in Virginia open to over-sand vehicles and the permit can be purchased for $70 to $150 depending the type of access desired.
The Assateague Island Lighthouse is on the Virginia side of Assateague Island, about .25 miles from Chincoteague Island. There is a trail that connects Chincoteague with Assateague Island that can be walked or accessed by bicycle, or you can drive through mainland from the Maryland side of Assateague. The top of the lighthouse can be visited by the public.
What to eat
Besides s’mores by the campfire of course…. Maryland is renowned for its blue crabs. There are a couple of places close to the island. The Assateague Crab House is right outside the park’s campgrounds but our go-to is Buck’s Place a little further north. If you are craving good coffee or a healthy smoothie, I recommend you to check out Born to Move Coffee Shop in 8315 Stephen Decatur Hwy (right by Buck’s). Of course, you can always drive to Ocean City or Chincoteague from some fresh seafood and abundant crab shacks. If you like good tacos with home-made tortillas, make sure to stop by Pico Taqueria and have a Chincoteague Classic and some dessert Nachos.
Last but not least, make sure to always check the current conditions before your trip. We visited in the beginning of May and it was cold and rainy, but we came prepared.