The small and serene island of Chincoteague is the gateway to the Assateague Island National Seashore—a nature refuge that is home to herds of wild ponies made famous in the classic children's book "Misty of Chincoteague." It is accessible by boat or by car off Virginia's Eastern coast over the Route 175 bridge.
If you want to witness the famous annual pony swim and roundup, you need to visit in late July, but Chincoteague and its sister island, Assateague, are very special any time of year. It's a great place for families to stay awhile and there are several good hotel options on Chincoteague Island. Activities range from finding the wild ponies to climbing the spiral stairs of a lighthouse.
You will definitely catch sightings of the wild ponies of Chincoteague as you drive, bike, or walk around the refuge, but you'll get much better views by visiting parts that are not open to the general public on a private bus tour. The 90-minute guided "Refuge Trek," offered by the Chincoteague National History Association from April to November each year, gives guests an up-close look at the wild ponies.
During the tour, you'll be transported up a seven-mile service road for visitors, along which you'll see horses, white-tailed deer, Sika elk, and a variety of ornate birds. The tour will also make several stops along the journey so that visitors can get off the bus and explore the wildlife up close and personal.
Chincoteague's sister island of Assateague is just a quarter mile away and accessible by car, bike, or on foot via the trail that links the two islands. On Assateague, there are over 37 miles of pristine beaches, among the best in the Mid-Atlantic region, including two beaches with lifeguards on either end of the island.
Once you arrive at Assateague Island, there's plenty to do including four-wheel driving on the beach, seashell collecting, clamming, swimming, surf fishing, beach hiking, and birdwatching. The refuge and beaches are open year-round, but hours of operation vary by season—with extended hours in the summer and shortened hours in the winter.
You don't need anything fancy to go crabbing in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge; you can simply go to one of the island's fishing shops or hardware stores and buy a bucket, net, and a crabbing kit containing frozen chicken necks, string, and a bait clip. Kids will love reeling in blue crabs but should also be careful to avoid getting pinched by these feisty creatures.
Additionally, you'll need to observe state limits on size and quantity when crabbing as these rules are enforced by local law officers and park rangers. Each person is allowed one bushel of hard crabs per day, and there are certain limits on the sizes of crabs you can take home. Once you're finished crabbing, find another family and pass on your slightly-used crabbing gear!
If you do just one tour of Chincoteague, it should be the Hands On Eco-Expedition offered Captain Barry's Back Bay Cruises. This special two-hour tour allows visitors to get up close to nature, to put their bare feet in the mud and use their hands to pull up crab traps, dig for clams, shuck oysters, and learn about local ecology in the most hands-on way possible.
Kids especially will enjoy these tours for their hands-on approach to education and exploration. Fortunately, the tours are also limited to six people at a time so everyone gets plenty of attention and a chance to participate. All tours depart from Captain Barry's Back Bay Cruises office, which is located at 6262 Marlin Street on Chincoteague Island. Advanced reservations are required.
Flat and tremendously scenic, Chincoteague is a great place to get around on a bike because everything is close and it's the perfect blend of small town and wilderness.
Many of the roads on Chincoteague have sidewalks, and Chincoteague also offers a fantastic, paved Island Nature Trail located along both sides of Hallie Whealton Smith Drive; the land where the trail is located represents some of the last large tracts of undeveloped land on the island.
When it comes to getting a bike on the island, the Bike Depot offers a wide selection of over 200 standard and specialty cycles for riders of all ages. Bicycles are first-come, first-served, with rates by the hour, day, and week.
No visit to Chincoteague is complete without a stop at the Island Creamery for some of the best homemade ice cream in Virginia. The delicious ice cream is made on-site in small batches, with over 30 flavors available on a typical day, and you can get yours in a cup or a freshly baked waffle cone.
The Island Creamery Scoop Shop on Chincoteague, located at 6243 Maddox Boulevard, is the flagship location for the company and was originally opened in 1975. Visit the shop to see how the ice cream is made or sample the latest batch any time of year. The Island Creamery in Chincoteague is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays all year long.
Since you've likely come to Chincoteague to see the wild ponies, it can be interesting to see them from different vantage points. One wonderful way to see both Chincoteague and Assateague from the water is with Daisey's Island Cruises.
These guided scenic nature tours on comfortable pontoon boats bring you up close to the pony herds as well as dolphins and seabirds. However, for the best wildlife viewing, take an early morning cruise, though it may be a bit difficult to manage with small children.
You'll see many ponies from afar as you explore the island, but if you are yearning for an even more up-close-and-personal experience, you should head to the Chincoteague Pony Centre. Here, little kids can get a pony ride, and you can pet ponies, see a pony show, and watch a 30-minute documentary on the history of the ponies.
The Pony Centre is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays throughout the year and is located at 6417 Carriage Drive in Chincoteague. The Centre also offers a variety of special events throughout the year, so be sure to check their annual events' guide for more information on seasonal and holiday attractions at this famous horse reserve.
From April to November, you can climb to the top of the 142-foot-tall Assateague Lighthouse, which is still operational and is considered one of the most impressive landmarks in Virginia.
From Chincoteague, you can ride a bicycle or walk on the trail that leads from Chincoteague to Assateague Island where the top of the lighthouse is accessible to the public. Alternatively, if you want a great view of this attraction, take an Assateague cruise or kayak trip from Chincoteague and view the lighthouse in all of its glory from the water.
The Assateague Lighthouse is open on weekends from April through November from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily and is free to enjoy (though donations are greatly appreciated). However, you can also view the lighthouse any time of year.
For a relaxing and inexpensive way to get around on the island, hop on the quaint Chincoteague Pony Express trolley, which has a fare of just 25 cents (or one token). The trolley route covers most of the island, and many of the best motels, restaurants, shops, parks, recreational areas, ice cream parlors, and campgrounds are located along the route.