What can be better than a beach than not only has beach driving available but also wild ponies? Unspoiled as far as the eye can see, Assateague Island is a feast for the senses and the soul. What an experience!
We were so excited when we took a trip to see the wild horses on Assateague Island. They can be found on the beaches, in the marshes and woods, even on the roads! DRIVE SLOWLY. The island is divided into two parts and it can be a bit confusing. The Virginia side is called Chincoteague, the Maryland side is called Assateague State Park, and the National Park Service (NPS) portion is called Assateague National Seashore.
The horses move back and forth between the two areas. There is a famous annual swim across the channel from Assateague to Chincoteague, where a festival and auction take place. The auction helps to control the size of the herd and is a fundraiser for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. The Fire Company uses some of the proceeds from the auction to provide veterinary care for the ponies through out the year. Find more information with this link.
Exploring the Island Areas
The best place to start is the Visitor Center in Maryland. That's also where the most popular beach is located. Getting there is easy with your GPS. It's on the southern side of Route 611, before the Verrazzano Bridge entrance into the park. The address is 11800 Marsh View Lane, Berlin, Maryland 21811.
We decided to park and walk first. There are 2 trails currently open which you can explore in addition to the beach. Life of the Marsh is a half mile wooden boardwalk near the entrance. Our favorite was Life of the Dunes. It's almost a mile and is a beautiful, sandy walk at the very end of the paved road.
Getting to the Beach and Ocean
The beach we visited first is the most popular and located just after the entrance where you pay your fee. North Ocean Beach is often more crowded because it is close to the Oceanside Campground. So you will have both visitors and campers using the beach.
This beach area has plenty of parking and is staffed with lifeguards throughout the summer months to ensure the safety of swimmers. There is also an in-season snack bar, bathrooms to change in and a picnic pavilion.
The sand is fine and light in color, ranging from white to brown sugar in places. It is thick enough to build a sandcastle and for kids to dig for hours. It reminded us of the light sand in New Smyrna Beach.
Sand dunes can vary in size and there is lots of sand available.The tallest dune on the island is the "big dune" which is located on the northern end of the beach. This dune is around 30 feet high and serves as a natural barrier that helps protect the island from storms and erosion.
South Ocean Beach is the other option for swimmers and sun lovers because it is less crowded. Most visitors stop to park at the first beach. South Ocean Beach has a smaller parking lot. If you can get there early, you might experience a less crowded beach day. The downside is there is no concession stand and the bathrooms are smaller.
Another option is the beach area at the end of Bayside Drive. Choose this if you want to rent or launch kayaks, canoes and bicycles.The beach is small and calmer but not as beautiful as the ocean beaches. There is a portable restroom and picnic tables. Be careful of sharp shells and rocks here.
Dogs are allowed on the Maryland beach as long as they stay leashed.
Pets are completely prohibited in the following areas:
Driving a Vehicle on Assateauge Island Beaches
Well this isn't as easy as you think. In Florida, you pay and drive right on the beach, but not here. We mentioned above that it is a bit confusing when visiting this large park that is shared by different states. A map for Over Sand Vehicles (OSV) Zones can be found here. Unfortunately, you can only drive on the beach with a permit, which must be ordered online, so we did not do it. The fees are over $100 although the permit is good for a year. If you're a regular visitor or fisherman, it might be worth it. Here's the lowdown on beach driving access.
Beach driving is highly dependent on weather and tidal conditions (just like in Florida). In Virginia on Assateague Island National Seashore, beach driving starts at the end of the parking lot for the main beach area and continues south along Toms Cove Hook to Fishing Point. But during Bird nesting season from the middle of March until August 31 it is closed.
Another small stretch of beach is open for fishing only and it is accessed through Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. It may also be closed at any time. They have a Twitter account with updates that you can check.
If you want to try beach driving do it in Maryland. You can drive the entire beach south of South Ocean Beach. There are also access roads to Chincoteague Bay, though there is no driving along the shoreline. There is public Facebook group that provides closure and beach conditions updates.
There's even more vehicle requirements for driving on the beaches. Attempting it without a 4x4 is not a good idea. You must follow these rules and be prepared to show you have the required equipment:
We had a bit of a laugh at these requirements. When you driving on Florida beaches, nobody checks your equipment. It is a good idea to be prepared for getting stuck in the sand, however. We have seen plenty of cars and trucks spinning their wheels in the Florida beach sand. The shovel and plywood board is definitely a big help!
Park Entrance Fees and Information
At first glance, these fees may look crazy. But have you tried to park on or near a Florida beach lately? Paying $25 per day is pretty normal these days. Occasionally you can find a free lot or less expensive parking meter. These fees are actually pretty good since they are for more than one day!
For Maryland, that includes:
In Virginia, fees and passes are:
Assateague Island Park Hours
You can get more park information using this FAQ link.
Fun Activites on Assategue Island
One of the more popular things to do on Assategue Island is camping. We are not big on camping unless it's a truck or bus! However, it's pretty cheap for a campsite and there are five areas to choose from. You can even bring your own horses to one of them. It's a pretty rustic environment. You WILL need bug spray! Get more information here.
As mentioned above, canoeing and kayaking are popular. Here are some other things to do on Assategue Island:
What to Watch Out For on Assateague Island
Although the wild horses are beautiful, there is a 40' rule in place. This is the distance to maintain from the horses and other wildlife. Some horses may try to close the distance and even stick their head into your vehicle! However, these are wild animals that may bite or kick you. Nobody wants to get injured on their trip to a beautiful beach island. So don't feed, approach or try to pet the horses. It's also illegal!
The park has had a lot of recent controversy over management of the wild horses. According to The Maryland Coast Dispatch there is now a team of six horse management rangers to ensure the safety of the park’s wild horses. The park also announced the establishment of “red zone” areas, which are areas where negative human/horse interactions often occur.
What is the best time to visit Assateague Island?
Is there a bad time? Probably not! If you're like us and prefer to avoid crowds, then try to avoid summer. Summer means line-ups to get in the park or drive onto the beach. It's the opposite of Florida where winter is the peak season. In summer Assateague Island tourism goes full tilt. The weather is hot and sunny, perfect for swimming, sunbathing, and other water activities.
Spring and fall are cooler but still great for walking and exploring the beach and wildife areas. It's a more peaceful and less crowded time. The weather is still mild enough for hiking, bird-watching and other water activities such as kayaking. You might see more wild horses that are active in the cooler weather. Remember to keep your distance from them, drive slowly, and have fun!
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