Last Updated on August 26, 2023

Legend tells of a Spanish galleon carrying a cargo of horses that wrecked off the coast of Assateague Island in 1750. The domesticated horses swam ashore, making their new home on the untamed island. What once were feral ponies are now truly wild horses.

Another story is that mainlanders brought their horses to Assateague to avoid fencing laws and livestock taxes.

My wife and I much prefer the legend.

I first heard about Assateague Island from my wife who has been in love with horses her entire life and read the book “Misty of Chincoteague” by Margeurite Henry when she was a child. Naturally, when we moved from Washington State to Maryland, I knew this home for wild horses would be a must-visit for our family.

We discovered you can also camp on the island and even bring your own horses and ride on the beach.

Where is Assateague Island

Assateague Island runs along the coast from Maryland south to Virginia. It is 37-miles long with fencing splitting the two sides. The island is most famous for the wild ponies, but is also filled with natural wonder and beauty – a place worth spending time to commune with nature.

Only 13 minutes from Ocean City, MD, the two-mile stretch of Assateague State Park is managed by the state of Maryland; the federal government and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge manages the Virginia side of the island. 

As the only oceanside state park in Maryland, opportunities for walking the beach, swimming, surfing or just lying in the sun make for a perfect day. My granddaughters loved playing in the soft sand, running along the surf and braving the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

They mounded up sand and built castles before watching the tide carry them away. It was so much fun watching them cavort like ponies themselves, dancing in and out of the surf.

Exploring the bayside by canoe or kayak is a treat as the marsh abounds with wildlife, deer, waterfowl and the ever-present wild horses. There is plenty of space for walking and biking in the park as well.

Our family marveled at the birds as they would dive in for a fish or pick their way carefully across the marshy wetlands.

Marsh birds of Assateague Island.
Marsh birds of Assateague Island. Photo by Joseph Ellis

Saving Assateague’s Horses

Back in the 1960s there were plans to develop Assateague Island into a private, exclusive resort community. Thankfully, Mother Nature had other ideas. On Ash Wednesday in 1962, the east coast was hit by a powerful ‘noreaster’ storm that lasted five days and wiped out the newly built roads and structures.

On the Virginia side of the island, 90 ponies died in the storm while the Maryland side sustained a loss of 50 horses. 

During that five-day storm, Misty, from the book, gave birth to a foal appropriately named Stormy. The destruction and death had taken a dire toll, and the annual pony penning would not happen.

Margeurite Henry wrote a sequel to “Misty of Chincoteague” called “Stormy, Misty’s Foal,” and Misty and Stormy toured theaters and schools to raise funds for a buyback program and community outreach to replenish the herds. Even previous purchasers of the Chincoteague ponies gave up their own ponies to help repopulate the islands.

Next, citizens took action to save the island for future generations to enjoy as a natural seashore and public recreation area. Today, over two million visitors have enjoyed the state park.

While the Maryland side as experienced some development including camping areas, a new restaurant and a bathhouse, Assateague Island maintains its wild beauty.

Preservation of the Ponies

In adjacent Chincoteague, VA, the fire department manages the wild ponies. Every year they have a roundup where some are auctioned off to live in new homes so their numbers don’t overrun the island. Some ponies that are auctioned are then sponsored to stay on the island in order to keep the wild ponies alive and well for future generations.

What to do on Assateague Island

Oceanside Assateague Island.
Oceanside Assateague Island. Photo by Joseph Ellis

While the wild ponies are definitely the main draw, the island offers a myriad of other activities.

Fishing is allowed in designated areas, but be sure to have the appropriate saltwater fishing license available through the Department of Natural Resources Licensing and Registration Service. Regulations are governed by the state.

There is a service charge for launching a boat that also covers parking for the day.

A variety of interpretive programs, from bayside clamming to arts and crafts or early morning yoga, surf fishing, tie-dye Tuesdays and the building of castles in the sand are well-loved activities. These are available through the Assateague Island nature center.

Crabbing and clamming are allowed on the island and there are no permits required for recreational crabbing. The season runs from the first of April to the 31st of December. Male crabs and immature females must be at least five inches to keep, so remember to take your tape measure. Clams must be one inch from the hinge, and you can only collect 250 clams per person, per day.

Watching the girls pick up clams for the first time was incredibly entertaining, especially as they didn’t realize we had to dig them up out of the sand.

There are biking paths in Assateague and we were happy to find a place our grandchildren could ride without the fear of racing cars. Biking is another opportunity to go further afield from the campsite and see the ponies and other wildlife in their natural habitat.

On the Virginia side, there are 7.5 miles of biking paths, giving cyclists more chances to explore nature and enjoy the serenity of the island.

Ponies on the Beach

My wife, daughter and I set up camp to cook over an open fire and we hoped to dig enough clams for a clam bake or catch a few fish, but most importantly we just had a good time, relaxing, watching the tide come in and out and catching sight of the beautiful ponies.

Late at night, the wild ponies walk along the beach. We witnessed a clash of two stallions, racing toward one another, then rearing and snorting, protecting their individual herds from an interloper, before turning and eventually going their separate ways.

Walking to the campsite facilities at night, we had to wait a distance away as a mare and her foal were standing in front of the entry door. The ponies are beautiful to look at, but the rules are that locals and visitors cannot get within 40-feet of the horses, for our protection as well as theirs. Most importantly, the ponies have right-of-way. It was a good 20-minutes until we could actually get inside!

Camping on Assateague Island

Watching the kayakers from Assateague Island.
Watching the kayakers from Assateague Island. Photos by Joseph Ellis

Campsites at Assateague Island National Seashore are $30 per night, with group and horse camp sites at $50. Reservations are required and can be made six months in advance from March 15 – November 15, but be aware that weekend spots often fill up on day one.

There are no hookups on the island, but guests are permitted to run a generator from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. If you’re worried about getting too hot, crack open the windows a bit at night and the ocean breezes will keep you cool all night long.

All sites have a picnic table and a ring fire. Make sure to bring firewood if you want to cook on site, but do not bring firewood from outside the state of Maryland as this is not allowed.

Group camping sites are tent-only and have multiple picnic tables and ring fires. They are located a few hundred feet from the parking area.

There are two horse camps available that can accommodate six horses and six people per site, with hitching posts, picnic tables and fire rings with grills.

Chemical toilets are available for use as well as cold water showers for all of the campsites.

Before heading to Assateague Island for camping, you should read up on the park guidelines and pack appropriately for the weather. I didn’t consider in advance how hard the sand would be at night, so my suggestion is that if you have an air mattress, you may consider bringing it along.

A mesh tent would have been great to cover the top of the picnic table and help keep bugs at a minimum. 

A two-room tent would also have been a great idea where we could have had our bedroom free from sand and our living space for dressing and storing our food to keep the ponies and other wildlife away.

Our first visit to Assateague will not be our last. The tranquil music of the ocean, the splendor of waking up to an amazing sunrise, the ability to join groups on hikes and explorations and the opportunity to breathe in nature was a heady experience.

We still have a lot to explore and can’t wait to return to watch the wild ponies and enjoy this unique and magnificent island.

Author

  • Joseph Ellis

    Born in Colorado and raised in California and Washington state, Joseph Ellis worked in the IT field with Boeing for many years and then as a legal videographer after moving to the Washington D.C. area. Interior design, cooking and overseas travel are passions. He has lived and worked in Asia, Europe, Hawaii and now Costa Rica. He enjoys spending time with his and his wife’s two children and now five grandchildren.