Most day trippers and weekenders who visit Assateague Island National Seashore are familiar with the wild horses of the area, especially the classic story of one wild horse. Many people remember reading the 1947 classic Misty of Chincoteague or seeing the 1961 film Misty as children.
There's much more than those tales to this storied seascape. Besides the horses, you can see deer, geese, blue herons, dolphins, all kinds of crabs and other wildlife and marine species on the island. Unexpected or not, those "other" seaside denizens are also seen at many shoreline sites.
What's not so expected are the options if you take the time to stay when the day-trippers leave to soak up the atmosphere of Assateague after dark and off the more beaten path.
Dark Time Distinctions
Most points along the Atlantic shorelines of the United States are polluted by the lights of crowded cities when the sun goes down. When sitting beneath the stars on the fine sands of Assateague Island National Seashore, even distant lights of Ocean City to the North won't diminish this island's midnight black sky with the constellations brightly shining.
Flickering flames from a campfire just feet from the surging sea provide barely enough light to see the ghost crabs scampering away from your feet. You'll hear the national seashore rangers patrolling on their ATVs, greeting the midnight surf fisherman and over-sand campers.
At those times, after dark, when I cast my bait into the salty cool Atlantic with the aid of a headlamp, all of my senses zero in on feeling the slightest tug on my line. This is the Assateague that I know and love.
Assateague Island is one of the bluest and most unpolluted shorelines that I have found on the Atlantic. Thirty minutes south of Ocean City, Maryland, the waters provide a calming atmosphere that invites both surf casters and families. There is a combination of lifeguard-protected and swim-at-your-own-risk beaches.
Parking spots at the lifeguard-protected beaches are ample and visitors will find amenities like a newly installed snack bar. The other beaches on the island also offer bathrooms, changing rooms, and outdoor showers. For those willing to brave the insects (especially mosquitoes), you can stay for an extended period of time by backcountry camping, walk-in camping, and drive-in camping.
RVs are even welcome on the island, but during peak season I recommend reserving your space a few months in advance or up to a year in advance for holidays. I find the best camping to be the drive-in sites on the bayside of the seashore. These can be found on a road to the right just a half mile past the ranger station and main entrance.
Campsites cost $25 a night (rates increase with groups and horses). Hikers are welcome to explore the dunes, plant life, and 37 miles of shoreline. Don’t forget your backcountry camping permit and the proper equipment. Understandably in this wildlife rich envrionment, there may be restrictions and beach closures for nesting birds and other animals, so check in with the ranger station before trekking out on your own.
Backcountry travelers -- both on foot and in kayaks -- can pick from two oceanside and four bayside camping areas. Camping is $6/person for a 7-day permit that can be obtained at the ranger station, not including the $15/vehicle entrance fee that all visitors must pay. I recommend purchasing the annual pass for $30 if you plan to visit more than one time in a calendar year.
Biking is another enjoyable way to explore. The Verrazano bridge traverses from mainland Maryland to the island and has both a vehicular span as well as a pedestrian and cycling bridge. As you pedal or push up to the peak of the bridge you get a phenomenal bird’s eye view of the bay that runs between the mainland and island. From this vantage point you can also see the spectacular and ever-changing dunes of the island.
Surf fishing is another treat get the appropriate license. Before arriving, be sure to stop for bait at Buck’s Place on the corner of Route 611 and Assateague Road. Pick up a 6-pack if so inclined; many of us think there’s nothing like a cold beer with a catch as fresh as you'll find from this shoreline. Anyone who's ever done it realizes just how much magic there is in standing beside the Atlantic—and reeling in a meal from beyond the breaking waves.
After you have caught that nice-sized Bluefish, regulations permit filleting it beachside and cooking it on a campfire (check in at the ranger station for restrictions).
Flounder fishing is typically good around September/October. No fish cleaning stations are available, so bring the appropriate gear and separate coolers for your catch.
Some of the best fishing spots on the Maryland portion are closer to the Over-Sand Vehicle entrance and points farther south. One of the best features of this East Coast beach is that the Maryland portion of the barrier island is open year round, 24 hours a day (as long as you are awake and not pitching a tent on shore).
When visiting during seasons other than summer, campfires and appropriate clothing are especially nice, as the island gusts can become quite cool.
What’s the best way to get onto the beach?
You can get a workout by hiking across the dunes, or you can purchase a seashore Over-Sand Vehicle Permit.
I had an OSV permit for two seasons and found it to be the best way to enjoy a long day at the beach. I could bring all of my fishing gear, coolers, firewood, and friends with me.
Rangers do regulate the area, and a maximum of 145 vehicles are allowed in the designated OSV area at one time. There’s a well-lit air station so you can regulate your tire pressure before getting on and off of the sand. Of course, make sure you have all the proper equipment so you don’t get stuck.
However you choose to get onto the island and wherever you decide to explore, Assateague Island and its shared Virginia portion of the island, the Chincoteague Refuge, can offer so much more than wild horses. While their untamed beauty is amazing to behold, the other activities are just, and even more, memorable for visitors.