Ponies in the morning mist-they're a sight to see at Assateague Island National Seashore. You might awake in your dune country campsite to find them gazing right back at you. More likely, you'll spot them throughout the day roaming free about the 48,000-acre seashore's beaches and marshlands.
Ponies and sea foam are just part of the memories from an Assateague Island vacation. The national seashore, shared by Virginia and Maryland, offers the morning sun glinting off the Atlantic, campsites with views of both the ocean and Chincoteague Bay, dark, starry skies come night, and history threading back to 1750, when a Spanish galleon beached here.
To ensure an encounter with the seashore's fabled ponies, visit the last Wednesday of July when the Virginia herd is rounded up and driven from Assateague Island through the bay waters to Chincoteage Island for the annual foal auction staged by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department. These wild horses gave rise to Misty of Chincoteague, an award-winning children's book Marguerite Henry wrote in 1947 after being inspired by the ponies. Fourteen years later, the book was transformed into a full-length feature film.
Another option for tracking the ponies is to use your cellphone to learn where you're most likely to spot them, how to do it without disturbing them, and some history on the herds. To tap into this information, dial 410-864-9128. Ponies, of course, aren't the only reason to visit Assateague.
Cooling off in the Atlantic is a summer tradition. Canoeing and kayaking are popular here, as is over-sand travel, used by many to reach both campsites amid the dunes and the beaches for surfcasting. Throughout the summer months park rangers can help you get the most from your visit, leading kayak tours and other outdoor activities when they're not presenting a variety of natural history programs at the Toms Cove Visitor Center in Virginia.
If you go: Camping is only allowed on the Maryland side of the seashore. You'll find front-country sites at either the Bayside or South Ocean Beach campgrounds a bit south of the Assateague Island Visitor Center (410-641-1443). There also are a number of backcountry sites open to hikers or paddlers. During your vacation, not only can you look for the horses, but you can enjoy the freshest of seafood meals by clamming, crabbing, or fishing. To build your appetite, take to some of the seashore's short hiking trails, its bike paths, and life-guarded beaches. While you're allowed to collect sea shells, you have to limit yourself to a gallon of shells.