Assateague Island - A National Seashore Visitor's Guide

Assateague Pony
Assateague Pony.

Rachel Cooper

Assateague Island, a 37-mile long barrier island located off the coast of Maryland and Virginia, is most known for the more than 300 wild ponies who wander the beaches. It is a unique vacation destination with breathtaking scenery and plenty of recreational opportunities including fishing, crabbing, clamming, kayaking, bird watching, wildlife viewing, hiking, and swimming. Assateague Island consists of three public areas: Assateague Island National Seashore, managed by the National Park Service; Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; and Assateague State Park, managed by Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources. Camping is available in the Maryland portion of the island. Hotel accommodations are located nearby in Ocean City and Berlin, MD and Chincoteague, VA.
Getting to Assateague Island: There are two entrances to the island: The north entrance (Maryland) is at the end of Route 611, eight miles south of Ocean City. The south entrance (Virginia) is at the end of Route 175, two miles from Chincoteague. There is no vehicle access between the two entrances on Assateague Island. Vehicles must return to the mainland to access either the north or south entrance.

Assateague Island Visiting Tips

  • See the Wild Ponies - In Maryland, drive slowly along the park roads and stop and park in the designated parking areas on the Bay side of the park. The “Life of the Forest” and “Life of the Marsh” nature trails are good places to look. In Virginia, the ponies may be seen in the marshes along Beach Road and from the observation platform on the Woodland Trail. For a close up view of the ponies, you can also paddle a kayak or take a guided boat cruise. The ponies are wild animals. For your own safety, keep your distance and do not feed or pet them.
  • Enjoy Outdoor Recreation and Wildlife Viewing – The island has miles of pristine beach, picnic areas, and designated areas for fishing and boating. More than 300 species of birds inhabit the island. Explore the nature trails and see herons, egrets and other wading birds.
  • Visit the Assateague Lighthouse – (Located in Virginia, on the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge) Climb the stairs and get a birds-eye view of Assateague and Chincoteague. There is a $5 fee for adults, $3 for children.
  • Wear Bug Spray and Sunscreen - Assateague is notorious for its mosquitoes so be sure to protect yourself from bug bites. Wear sunscreen to prevent damage from UV rays.

Assateague Island National Seashore (Maryland)- The National Seashore is open 24 hours and the Assateague Island Visitor Center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The National Park Service offers guided walks, talks and special programs. Campsite reservations are recommended, call (877) 444-6777.

Assateague State Park (Maryland)- Located at the end of Route 611 (just before the entrance to the National Seashore), the park is comprised of 680 acres of Assateague Island and offers separate swimming, surf-fishing and surf-boarding areas. Public access to the beach and the day use parking lot is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to sunset. The park has a nature center and offers a wide variety of interpretive programs for visitors of all ages. Campsites have warm showers and electric sites. Reservations are recommended, call (888) 432-CAMP (2267).

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (Virginia) - The Wildlife Refuge's Herbert H. Bateman Educational and Administrative Center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the summer and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. the rest of the year. The Assateague Lighthouse is an active navigational aid and is in the National Register of Historic places. A variety of tours and interpretive programs are available. 

About the Wild Ponies of Assateague

The wild ponies of Assateague Island are descendants of ponies that were brought to the island more than 300 years ago. Although no one is certain how the ponies first arrived, a popular legend is that the ponies escaped from a shipwreck and swam ashore. Most historians believe that 17th century farmers used the island for grazing livestock to avoid taxation and abandoned them.

Maryland’s ponies are owned and managed by the National Park Service. Virginia’s ponies are owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department. Each year on the last Wednesday of July, the Virginia herd is rounded up and swum from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island in the annual Pony Penning. The next day, an auction is held to maintain the herd’s population and raise money for the fire company. A crowd of approximately 50,000 people attend the annual event.

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