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It doesn’t get much better than exploring miles (37, to be exact) of undeveloped coastline, including salt marshes, wild blueberry bushes, and untouched stretches of sand, all serenaded by the crashing waves of the Atlantic and the cries of seabirds. There’s really not much more you could ask for. Perhaps, a pony? How about 150 ponies? At Assateague Island National Seashore, that’s what you’ll find. This rugged barrier island off the coast of Maryland and Virginia (Assateague is part of both states) is home to a herd of wild horses — and is a stunning shore to explore. Here’s a history of this unique oasis in the Atlantic, and some of the many reasons why you should make the trip.
History and Horses
Until 1933, Assateague Island was part of Fenwick Island, best known as the home of Ocean City, Maryland. Booming since 1869, Ocean City was the place to be, with elite members of society traveling from far and wide to promenade along the Grand Boardwalk and dance at the opulent Atlantic Hotel. But in 1933, the Chesapeake-Potomac Hurricane ripped across the Eastern Seaboard, creating an inlet dividing Assateague from Fenwick.
As for how the ponies arrived, the most popular legend holds that the current horses are descendants of the survivors of a long-lost Spanish galleon, sunk in a storm on the reefs near Assateague. Cynics of this theory, on the other hand, point out that horses kept on the island weren’t subject to the same taxes as they were on the mainland, so colonists might have simply found the island an ideal hideaway for their livestock.
Like the island itself, the horses are separated into two states, as well. The Assateague horses are on the Maryland side. Treated as wildlife, they are feral and receive no food or medical care, except for contraception to keep their numbers in check. A fence marks the border on the island between Maryland and Virginia, and the ponies on the Virginia side are part of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.
Each year, these ponies are swum across the narrow channel to Chincoteague Island, where the young foals are auctioned to eager buyers from around the world. The event was made famous from the 1947 novel Misty of Chincoteague by children’s author Marguerite Henry and was based on a real-life Chincoteague pony of the same name. Thousands of spectators from around the world gather on boats in the bay or on the beach to watch the annual pony swim, and the week-long festival includes a cowboy roundup of the ponies, carnival rides, a blueberry festival, and a theatrical performance of Misty of Chincoteague. If you want to witness the famous pony swim, you’ll have to wait until 2022. Pro tip: snag a seat on one of the charter boats for the best view.
The nearest major airports — Washington Dulles (IAD), Washington National (DCA), Baltimore (BWI), or Philadelphia (PHl) — are all roughly three hours away. There is a shuttle from BWI to Ocean City, but unless you paddle in, you’ll still need a car to explore the island since there is no public transportation to the seashore and the surrounding area. There are two entrances to the island: north at the end of Route 611, eight miles south of Ocean City; and south at the end of Route 175, two miles east of Chincoteague. There is no vehicle access between the two entrances, so you’ll need to return to the mainland for access to the other side of the island.
Where to Stay
More than one million visitors come to Assateague each year. There are campsites on the island, but campers must plan ahead and be prepared. Reservations are required from March 15 through November 15, and are opened six months in advance. (Weekend spots are usually booked the day they become available.) During fall and winter, all campsites are on a first-come, first-served basis. Some campgrounds do accommodate RVs, but there are no hookups and, as with the rest of the sites, only chemical toilets, cold-water showers, and drinking water are available.
To protect the unique environment, all firewood must be purchased locally. Backcountry sites are closed during hunting season. If camping’s not your jam (or you can’t get a spot at the seashore), Ocean City and the surrounding area have numerous cottages, condos, campgrounds, and hotels available.
What to Do
Make sure you treat yourself to an all-you-can-catch seafood buffet! Assateague teems with crabs, clams, and many species of fish. Rent a canoe or kayak and explore away from the shore. Vehicles are allowed on the sand in certain designated over sand vehicle (OSV) areas with a permit.
Assateague has miles of paved and unpaved trails ready to explore on foot or by bike. Horses are allowed in the OSV areas, but it’s strictly BYOH (bring your own hoof). The local ponies are protected and NOT to be ridden, fed, or otherwise annoyed. Shutterbugs will find wonderful opportunities for wildlife photography, and splashing in the water with the ponies (or simply sunbathing) is always encouraged.
What to Bring
Even paradise has its problems, and bugs can definitely be a pain. Insect repellent is a must if the mosquitoes and biting flies make an appearance on the island. You’ll also want sunscreen and a hat. Picnics are pretty much a must, so pack a tasty one — and something to toast to a beautiful day!