A fall getaway to an island? Yes! Assateague Island, roughly a three-hour car ride from Philadelphia, stretches across 48,000 acres. The island is between the coast of Maryland and Virginia, and is unique for its wild horses and seclusion. Assateague’s ecosystem is so cherished, that three separate agencies manage it: the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
* A note from Springtime President, Kevin Edwards: “I am excited to share a little bit about one of my favorite places in the U.S. I’ve been going to the island since I was a teenager, and now my family and I enjoy everything the island has to offer. It is so peaceful and has so much for us, especially since we live an active, healthy lifestyle. We bring our dogs and appreciate all nature has to offer.”
The island was created in 1933 after the Chesapeake- Potomac Hurricane created an inlet south of Ocean City, Maryland. This inlet separated the two landforms. The Maryland section is where life is more untouched. It contains Assateague State Park and the majority of Assateague Island National Seashore. Assateague State Park provides many recreational opportunities, and has a wonderful visitor center, with great displays for adults and children. The National Park Service manages the one-mile stretch of land that contains the Lifeguard Recreational Beach.
Marguerite Henry’s children’s book, Misty of Chincoteague, features the ponies of Assateague Island, and has helped bring popularity and appreciative photography to the Island.
For hundreds of years, wild horses have inhabited Assateague Island. Legend has it, they descended from domestic horses that survived a shipwreck on Virginia Coast in the late 17th century. You are most likely to find the free-roaming horses on the Maryland side. Assateague Island also offers wildlife tours, highlighting the many species that occupy the island.
The horses in the Maryland and Virginia section of the Island are kept apart by fencing at the border. When there is an excess of these feral horses, some are relocated and are placed into human ownership. Horse population in the Maryland side is controlled by allowing each mare to have one foal. Once every year in July, on the Virginia side, the local “salt water cowboys” gather them to sort for auction on Pony Penning Day. It is noted that they adapt quickly to domestication.
The Maryland side has 12 miles of beach. The island waters reach into 70° temperatures. Most visitors head straight to the coast during summer, but the island is a perfect getaway all year round. Both the Maryland and Virginia districts have lifeguard-protected spots.
Many different kinds of plankton fill the ocean. Phytoplankton produces 80 percent of the earth’s total oxygen, which attracts fish, invertebrates, whales, and sea turtles.
Popular activities include: fishing, clamming, paddle boarding, kayaking, canoeing, surfing, kite flying and kite surfing, sunbathing, hiking, camping, birdwatching, and, of course, pony watching! Cycling is also popular in Assateague Island, and the annual Seagull Century starts in Salisbury, and has a rest stop at mid-point on the island.
A Private, but Public, Island
The island has a land area of 24.4 square miles and has no resident population in either Maryland or Virginia.
The western side of the island is the most secluded. Often, you feel like you have the whole Bay Area to yourself. Assateague Explorer offers three-hour long, guided kayaking tours, where you paddle alongside wild ponies, bald eagles, and other amazing wildlife.
In certain areas, and with permits, the National Park Service allows off-road vehicles. Car camping sites are also available, for both the National Seashore and Assateague State Park by reservation. The best times to backcountry camp are in the spring and fall, as the summer months are known for heavy mosquito populations, particularly on the bay side.
The entrance is on the north end, just eight miles from Ocean City, MD, via MD Route 611.
As there are no north/south roads along the island, you can’t travel from one entrance to the other on the island. However, if you return to the mainland, you are free to explore both sides. With a four-wheel drive vehicle, and an Over Sand Vehicle permit, you can access certain areas of the beach by car.
Plan Your Trip!
The seashore stays open year-round, but depending on the time you plan your trip, there are certain unique experiences you will encounter. For instance, the bay is heavily populated by mosquitoes in the summer. That is why Assateague Island is a perfect fall trip!
Another upside to Assateague-ing in the fall? Avoiding the heat. Assateague summers are generally hot and humid. Proper planning for camping, guided-touring, and other permits are necessary, but well worth the Assateague experience.
Bonus Video: Springtime’s President, Kevin Edwards, visits Assateague Island and enjoys the beauty of the wild horses that inhabit it: