Locals call them “the greeters.” Visitors get their first glimpses of Assateague’s wild ponies while traveling along the Verrazano Bridge, which delivers motorists across Sinepuxent Bay. At the entrance to the island, these stocky ponies nibble marsh and beach grasses that are growing along the edges of the highway. Ignoring traffic laws, the horses cross yellow lines like they own the place, which they essentially do. It might be the one time when getting stuck at a full stop is considered lucky. Pass slowly, and don’t fret about missing a photo op. There will be more.
Assateague hugs the Mid-Atlantic coast as a barrier island designed by nature to protect the mainland from the brunt of strong storms. Like many of these dynamic and narrow islands, Assateague is vulnerable to the weather. In 1933, a hurricane carved a channel between Ocean City, Maryland, and Assateague, removing its tie to the mainland.
The island drew interest from developers, as well as the National Park Service, which wanted land for public recreation. In 1943, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service successfully established a wildlife refuge. By 1956, Maryland had formed Assateague State Park. The tipping point occurred after the devastating Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962. This massive nor’easter destroyed burgeoning development and eventually led to the creation of the Assateague Island National Seashore. Now, the whole of Assateague Island’s 48,000 acres is devoted to providing habitat for birds, mammals, and reptiles, as well as space for outdoor recreation.
Assateague’s rustic terrain contains a mix of salt marshes, maritime forests, sand dunes, and a remarkable length of unobstructed ocean views on undeveloped terrain. The rich aquatic ecosystem surrounding the island provides a home for mussels, crabs, turtles, and various finfish. Coves and areas of calm water attract the peculiar horseshoe crabs that arrive in droves every spring to lay eggs in the sand. Their prehistoric heads and spiky tails appear ferocious, but they neither bite nor sting and are harmless to everything save clams and worms. If you don’t spot one on the beach, go to the Assateague Island Visitor Center for a hands-on exhibit.
The 37-mile-long island straddles the Virginia and Maryland state lines, and drivers should be aware that the entire length of Assateague isn’t open to through traffic. Visitors must use either the Maryland entrance or the Virginia approach, which includes passage across Chincoteague Island. The 50-mile inland trek between the two entrances is worth the time—each portion of the scenic island provides unique diversions and activities.
Thriving in the Wild
Assateague Island’s most conspicuous residents are the bands of wild ponies that have lived there for centuries. How they were introduced is still debated. Most people believe they either swam ashore from a Spanish galleon or were left behind by mainland farmers who used the barrier islands as natural corrals. Regardless of their ancestry, the ponies seen today were born on the island and now spend their time ambling about the dunes and marshes.
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Both the Maryland and Virginia sections of the island independently maintain their herds, with around 82 ponies on the Maryland side and up to 150 on the Virginia side. The horses residing on the Maryland territory are considered free-roaming wildlife. Moving unchallenged between surf and bay, they saunter onto beaches and into campgrounds with a few stops at picnic tables holding the scents of earlier meals. Shy foals quickly learn from their elder kin to brazenly stomp across a beach towel and nose through an unsecured cooler. While the ponies’ arrogance might be amusing, protecting their natural diet is a very serious matter, so store human food securely.
It’s worth trading out your work shoes for flip-flops just to stroll along the water’s edge and gaze across the marsh or the Atlantic Ocean. And while beachcombing might rank second to pony viewing, there’s an abundance of natural beauty on and around the island. Some portions of Assateague’s beach are open to over-sand vehicles (OSV). Be mindful that entrance to the OSV zones requires the appropriate vehicle, towing gear, and a yearly permit. Each state maintains its own regulations, so check before going to ensure you abide by the rules. Portions of Virginia’s OSV area are closed in spring and summer to protect the nesting grounds of the threatened piping plover and are open to vehicles only when the last bird fledges.
Spectacular vistas across pristine sand dunes and virtually guaranteed pony sightings make camping here more of an activity than merely an accommodation. Available only in the Maryland district, campgrounds are run seasonally by the National Park Service and Maryland’s Assateague State Park. The same brisk ocean wind that keeps biting insects away can be unforgiving to tents, making RV camping popular. Campsites are in high demand, and reservations are encouraged months in advance. Intrepid hikers and kayakers can find backcountry camping in areas not accessible by motorized vehicles.