Smack in the middle of the East Coast, roughly three hours by car from Philadelphia, Assateague Island is an exhilarating, uniquely preserved stretch of coastal wilderness along the Atlantic. Spanning 48,000 acres, it remains one of the largest mid-Atlantic barrier islands to have a continuum of intact coastal habitats — and it does so with little to no human interference.
The ecosystem here is so valued, in fact, that it takes three separate agencies to manage it (National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources). Add to that the fact that the island is split between two different states — Maryland and Virginia — and it’s easy to see why travelers often throw up their hands in confusion before ever setting foot on the rugged, windswept shoreline.
“The geography of the island is in a state of constant flux,” says Liz Davis, the chief of interpretation and education for Assateague Island National Seashore. “[It’s] continuously being reshaped by the elemental forces of wind and water. A powerful storm can dramatically alter the shoreline in a matter of hours.”
But other forces are at play here, too. For a quick tutorial on how to make the most of this extreme wilderness at the edge of the sea, read on.
Meet the local horses
Wild horses have been present on Assateague for hundreds of years — they were originally descended from domestic horses that survived a shipwreck off the Virginia coast in the late 17th century (at least, that’s how the legend goes). You’re better off catching them on the Maryland side of the island, since that’s the side that contains free-roaming horses.
Then again, if you want to actually ride the horses, you’ll want to head to the Virginia side — unlike in Maryland, which has restrictions on horseback rides during summer and fall, Virginia offers them year-round. Wildlife tours, offering a comprehensive look at the many species that call this island home, are available too.
Get in the water
With 12 miles of beach on the Maryland side, most visitors head straight to the coast, and with good reason. During summer, there are lifeguard-protected spots in both the Maryland and Virginia districts, with water temps reaching into the 70s.
Perhaps one of the coolest parts of a beach day on Assateague, though, is all the rich biodiversity you’ll be sharing the waters with. The ocean here brims with different kinds of plankton — phytoplankton, by the way, produces 80 percent of the earth’s total oxygen — which attracts fish, invertebrates, sea turtles, and even whales.
Steer away from the crowds
For a more secluded way to spend your time on the water, Davis recommends heading to the bay (western) side of the island, which is less frequented by crowds: “I’ll spend most of my time kayaking, wading, swimming, clamming, and crabbing in the shallow, warm bay waters. I often feel like I have the whole bay area to myself.”
For a proper, guided kayaking expedition, Assateague Explorer offers three-hour tours, where you’ll find yourself paddling alongside wild ponies, bald eagles, and other wildlife.
Take your car
There are two entrances to Assateague Island National Seashore: one on the north end, just eight miles from Ocean City, MD, and one on the south end, two miles from Chincoteague, VA. While you can’t travel from one entrance to the other on the island (you’ll have to return to the mainland to do that), you can access certain areas of the beach with your car.
To do so, you’ll need a four-wheel drive vehicle, along with an Over Sand Vehicle permit (obtainable from the Visitor Center, for $70 to $150 depending upon the type of access desired).
“Driving on the beach is a unique privilege not found in too many areas. It can feel like a real ‘getaway’ once you leave the paved roads,” Davis said.
While the seashore stays open year-round, the harsh barrier island habitat means nature inevitably takes precedence over human recreation — so diligent trip planning is key. For instance: Bird nesting frequently results in closures along certain sections of the beach, so be sure to check for ranger updates on the park’s website.
And then there’s the heat. “Summers at Assateague are generally hot and humid,” warns Davis. Plus, you’ll need to be prepared with plenty of insect repellent and protective clothing, as mosquitoes, biting flies, gnats, and ticks are an ongoing nuisance throughout spring, summer, and autumn.
If you’re camping out, note that you’ll only be able to pitch a tent in the Maryland district of Assateague Island. And before you arrive, be sure to pick up firewood, a screen tent— for shade and insect protection — and nice, long tent stakes, so your dwelling stays anchored in the sand and wind.
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