Pack Your Camera and Sense of Wonder for Assateague Island
The difficult-to-pronounce, easy-to-visit Assateague Island bestows an otherworldly escape that’s only 10 miles away from Ocean City, MD.
Within your own backyard lies adventure that will transport you to a place that feels miles from home. So leave your passport behind and start exploring The Nearest Faraway Place.
Few creatures in the American landscape have the mythic allure of the Chincoteague ponies, misnomered because they spend most of their lives across the bay on the Assateague Island National Seashore, and because they are actually horses.
They hold a captivating spot in the national imagination. Perhaps it’s because they carved a place for themselves on the naturally-formed barrier island more than a century before the U.S. became a country. Or maybe it’s because their very reason for being there—survivors of a Spanish shipwreck or abandoned by early farmers looking to save money on fences?—is still shrouded in mystery.
But I think the real reason that the Chincoteague pony belongs alongside bison and bald eagles is that while their feral majesty feels so otherworldly, the ponies are in fact right next door.
Assateague is a Frisbee toss from the Skeeball and Plinko of Ocean City, MD, and a less than three-hour jaunt from D.C. and Baltimore. How is it possible that a place that resembles a rough-and-tumble Equestria straight out of a neo-realist My Little Pony is so close to the place where policy is (sometimes) made?
Getting up close to these creatures is actually an easy and inexpensive endeavor with over 300 year-round campsites available on the Maryland side of Assateague State Park. Seeing one of the diminutive horses (they’re smaller than typical of their breed due to their limited diet on the island) saunter up to an Airstream or a Coleman four-person tent only accentuates their incongruity and wonder.
For some lovers of Assateague, which is celebrating its fiftieth year as a national park, the horses are an afterthought. For them, the place is really about seclusion in untamed nature.
“The horses are there, but they were never my thing,” admits Reid Johnson, a UCLA professor of Biological Chemistry who spent much of his youth on the Island and whose mother, the late naturalist Judy Johnson, was instrumental in preserving it. “I went there for the isolation, and for the birding. Assateague for me was all about getting away from people and getting into wilderness. You don’t have to walk far to be by yourself there.”
This is especially true in the off season, which stretches between mid-October and mid-April, when the park is all but empty. We happened to go in the height of summer when there were not only plenty of people, but the combination of moist sea air, forest and an abundance of horseflesh attracts a particularly aggressive breed of mosquito, one that seems to scoff at the mere mention of the words, “Deep Woods Off.” (Strong bug spray is an Assateague summer must, just don’t consider it a guarantee you won’t come home covered in red dots).
But whatever challenges Assateague presents are offset by its otherworldliness and beauty, not to mention the additional rewards it presents for anyone with room enough to pack a mountain bike, kayak, or fishing poles.
With or without the horses, the pristine beaches, looking no different than how one might have encountered them three or four centuries ago, seem almost from another planet. Even the flora—like the horses, the plants on the island have adapted to survive in harsh conditions—are at once familiar and utterly unique.
And then there’s the fauna. While the horses grab the headlines, they’re just a small segment of the wildlife that call Assateague home. There are Sika deer, an elk-like species of Asian deer that was introduced to the Island in the 1920s, and the Red Fox that feast off the abundant shore birds and fish. And while it might be harder to spot those, the island’s dizzying array of birds are unmissable—even if you aren’t looking.
Herons, pipers, sanderlings, egrets, pelicans, oystercatchers, sparrows of every stripe: a trip to Assateague is an Audubon field journal come to life. For Johnson, his childhood trips there started a lifelong passion for birding. One of the pleasures of camping there—especially for city folk used to sirens and car alarms—is waking up to a morning symphony of bird song, the density and variety of which is unlike anything you’ve heard before.
A near-midnight trip across the road from our campsite to the ocean yielded another discovery: a beach where nearly every inch was covered by scuttling ghost crabs. The nocturnal scavengers—bone white and about 2-inches across with probing eyestalks and an oversized claw—prefer to burrow in beaches that are relatively untouched by humans. Needless to say, it is not uncommon to find countless ghost crabs skittering across the Assateague sand at night.
While all campsites have fire rings—with wood easy to come by at the camp store— not all the rings come with grates, so prepare accordingly if you plan to cook outside and are not packing your own stove.
The coastal weather can be fickle: it rained just before we planned to start dinner, so we improvised and grabbed some tasty local shrimp and crab cakes at the Assateague Island Oasis, a roadhouse bar and grill a few miles from the park entrance. It’s good to remember that there are ways of getting an authentic taste of Maryland without getting soaked.
Primitive campsites cost $20 nightly during the late spring and summer and you should reserve ahead to guarantee a spot; an electrical hook-up for an RV will cost $10 more. In the offseason (which is also the mosquitos’ offseason, if more incentive was needed), sites cost $16 and you can just show up.
You shouldn't come to Assateague with a checklist of expectations—it’s possible to visit and not even spot a single horse. What you do need is a sense of wonder, and a desire to create memories that outlast your bug bites, if not your Instagram photos.
“One of the things I really enjoyed about those long walks on the beach in Assateague was all the magnificent seashells, particularly whelk shells and moon shells,” says Johnson, who was last on the island in 2007 to honor his mother and her work to help save it. “To this day, I still have some of those whelk shells.”