Assateague Island National Seashore
Hours: Open year round. Visitor’s centers open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Location: Maryland, Virginia (closest city: Ocean City, Md.)
Activities: Biking, birding, boating, camping, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, hunting, iterprative programs, kayaking, swimming, wildlife viewing.
Contact: Maryland District Visitor Information 410-641-1441, National Seashore Camping 410-641-3030, Virginia District Visitor Information, 757-336-6577
Web site: http://www.nps.gov/asis/
Even though more than two million people visit it each year, Assateague Island never seems to feel crowded. That’s because, at nearly 40,000 acres and spanning two states, the island is massive. And whether you go to Assateague Island to bike, fish, camp or kayak, you’re really going to see the ponies.
The wind-swept, 37-mile-long barrier island is home to about 300 wild horses – split almost evenly into two herds, one in Maryland and one in Virginia. The horses are descendents of domestic animals that reverted to a wild state. They only look like ponies; a poor diet – 80 percent of which consists of the coarse salt marsh grass and American beach grass on the island – contributes to their size of 12 or 13 hands.
Don’t, however, be fooled by the horses’ small size: these are indeed wild animals that bite, kick and have the ability to turn a spring, summer or fall day on the island into a trip to the emergency room in nearby Ocean City.
It’s not hard to spot the horses – after generations of conditioning they tend to linger near the parking areas where they get fed, despite park rule prohibiting the practice. And to truly experience Assateague Island, you need to venture further down the 37 miles.
There are only three possible routes for getting away from the crowds (also keep in mind that overnight use and other activities is generally prohibited on the Virginia side, which is maintained by the state and not the National Parks Service, which has jurisdiction over the Maryland side): SUV, complete with an expensive, annual permit that allows you to travel on the beach, backpacking or kayak. We’ll rule out SUVs as being cost prohibitive unless you live in the area and can get more than one use out of the annual permit that costs more than $90. As for backpacking, let’s face it: blisters on a normal backpacking trip are bad enough. Blisters and sand is miserable.
That leaves kayaking. If you stay on the inner side of the island, you can paddle your way to one of two secluded backcountry camping sites to spend the night. But, more importantly, you can experience first hand the ever-changing island, its diverse wildlife and some of the best sunrises on the east coast.
A couple of things to note and observe when you visit: the island you’re standing on is actually a quarter mile further inland than it was in 1866, when the first detailed map of the island was drawn. That shift is the result of the inviting, gentle breezes that will sweep your camp site as well as the storm-tossed seas that can best be seen on the eastern side of the island. But the important thing to note is it’s constantly changing, and what you see this trip might not be here when you bring your children or grandchildren back in a generation or two.
If you do decide to backpack and want to cheat, look for the remnants of a paved road hidden in the dunes behind the beach on the eastern side of the island. While the road is broken in some parts and completely covered by sand in others, it will keep you from making the whole hike through soft, ankle-torturing sand. The road is actually one of the few remnants of a summer resort that was built – but could not survive – the harsh, island conditions.