Dreaming of Travel: Chincoteague and Assateague
A charming town and a magical beach where wild horses roam.
Assateague Island is the near-mythical beach in Maryland (and Virginia) where hundreds of wild ponies call home. Trying to decipher between the island, the nature reserve, and the distinction between Assateague and Chincoteague can be difficult, but trust us – it’s well-worth untangling what’s what for a breathtaking getaway.
At 37 miles long, one side of Assateague Island belongs to Maryland (7206 National Seashore Lane, Berlin, MD 21811), the other to Virginia. A fence separates the two states. The wild horses – National Parks Service says they’re horses, not ponies – live on both sides of the island. Chincoteague, on the other hand, is the Virginia beach town that offers access to (the Virginia side of) Assateague. Maryland’s entrance is just over an hour’s drive from Virginia’s in Chincoteague. Lastly, the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge spans most of Virginia’s side of the island, but a portion is also located in the Maryland sector.
Three hours from D.C. (20 minutes less from Baltimore), Assateague, MD, is Maryland’s side of the National Park. It has beach access, trails, camping facilities, and about a hundred feral horses roaming the dunes and your campsite too. It’s an absolutely magical spot that any animal lover – and beach enthusiast – is sure to enjoy. But bring the bug spray.
Whether you’re coming for a day trip, camping, or spending the weekend in Berlin, Assateague is a great place to enjoy nature. Once over the bridge that delivers you to the island, be on the lookout for horses – we saw our first herd walking down the bike path as we drove off the bridge. Don’t worry, basically everyone stops to take photos, so you won't be alone! But, as my wife and many signs frequently reminded me, don’t feed or approach the horses – it can be dangerous to both you and the animal.
Entry to the park costs $10 for day use; $25 for a week’s pass. We opted for the pass since you can use it to enter the park from both the Maryland and Virginia sides and we’d be checking out the other side next.
The road loops around the island, with several large parking lots. We turned right and parked in the first large lot just past the visitor center. The ranger warned us lots often fill up early on summer days, but parking was not an issue when we arrived at noon.
The beach is just past a row of clean restrooms, a changing area, and across a small dune. Though certainly not deserted, the Assateague beaches, at least while we were visiting, were far less populated than its Ocean City or Delaware neighbors, which made it very easy to socially distance stress-free. The beach itself is a treasure trove of shells – please only take a few! Lifeguards are on duty in certain areas during specific times (check the website for up-to-date information).
While we, sadly, didn’t see any horses on the beach, we did spy several grazing through a campground less than 100 yards away from the shore. Swimming, horse spotting, and playing in the sand kept us entertained, but there are loads of activities if you’re looking for a little more action.
Where to Play?
Biking is the name of the game on Assateague. A paved, four-mile bike path runs along most of the road and there are numerous trails open to cyclists that scream “Explore me!” For older kids and confident bikers, you can ditch the car completely and use the bicycle-pedestrian bridge to access the island. Otherwise, pack them or rent them on the island from Assateague Outfitters – 50% of their profits support the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.
Hiking, of course, is also an option. We explored the Life of the Forest Trail. A mix of packed gravel and wooden boardwalk, the trail is wheel friendly and offers gorgeous views of the maritime forest and coastal bays.
On our first hiking foray, we were lucky and bug-free, which made me think some reviews over-exaggerated how bad the bugs can get. I was wrong. It rained the morning of our second day and hiking - even covered in Deep Woods bug spray - was basically impossible without some kind of face covering. The mosquitos were so bad we turned back after 100 feet and a dozen bites. The beach, however, stayed mosquito-free until after the sunset.
Assateague Outfitters also rents canoes and kayaks; be sure to check the tides and ask about life jackets. Reservations must be made online in advance during COVID-times. Fishing is also allowed on the island. A fishing pier with its own parking lot and several benches can be found on the bayside of the island.
Where to Stay?
If you want to stay on Assateague proper, you have to beach camp but you’ll need to plan ahead. Reservations, which can be made six months in advance, are required mid-March through mid-November and the weekends tend to get booked within the first day of availability.
Because we went in August, and don’t own an RV, we decided against beach camping due to the bug warnings, which I now take very seriously, and the heat. However, the camping area is set up nicely, with a decent amount of privacy between camps. There are ocean and bayside options. All sites are $30 per night and cold water showers are available. Horses are sure to visit.
Back on the mainland, you’ll find Frontier Town Campground in Berlin. This spot is a kid's dream come true with its ice cream parlor, mini-golf, and arcade, though it definitely looks a little kitschy to the adult eye. Available accommodations include campsites (tent and RV), cabins, and RVs. Prices vary.
Whether you camp or coordinate a private home rental in the area, you can’t go wrong, as long as you remember to pack bug spray and some light long-sleeve shirts and pants to protect against bites.
Chincoteague and Assateague, Virginia
Virginia’s entrance onto Assateague Island can be found two miles east of Chincoteague, a quaint beach town with a well-stocked Main Street and tons of seafood. It’s located three hours from DC and Baltimore
Horse-lovers are sure to remember Chincoteague – known for its wild ponies (though the National Parks Service says they’re actually horses) made famous by Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague, a 1947 children’s book about the beloved animals. Though the town itself, which is also an island – is only visited by the “Chincoteague ponies” once a year for the annual pony swim, they can be found roaming and grazing the marshes of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island, just minutes from Main Street.
Where to Play?
Most people visit Chincoteague for its Assateague beach access and wildlife refuge, which offers multiple trails for exploring on foot or by bike, fishing, and – of course – swimming for those who love an ocean dip. The park is open from 5 am-10 pm daily and offers a self-serve fee station for early morning and evening visits
The beach on Virginia’s side of Assateague is lovely, long, and less populated than other areas of the Eastern Shore. Shells cover the ground and make for great game playing should kids get bored of swimming and building sandcastles. Because NPS asks that you only collect a few shells for souvenirs, we made a game out of looking for the three most unique ones we could find. It kept us entertained on walks and while playing in the waves.
Lifeguards are on duty during weekend daytime hours. However, areas closer to lifeguard stations were significantly more crowded. We wandered further down the shore to a quieter, more socially distant spot. Swimming was lovely, though we did notice about a dozen jellyfish one day, which we simply swam away from. Swimmers should definitely remain observant.
Sadly, we didn’t see any horses during our two days on the beach (though we did see them off distantly in the marshes while driving out that first afternoon). What we didn’t see in horses, however, was made up for by the number of crabs we saw scuttling across the sand and digging holes.
Right near the two beach parking lots, you’ll find Toms Cove Visitor Center, which is currently closed due to COVID-19. However, a row of port-a-potties can be found out front. We had good luck parking in the left side lot and walking out to our left. There are plenty of bathrooms around the park, as well as a water spout for freeing feet of sand.
Hike, Bike, and Wildlife Loop
Hiking is supposed to be great on the island. Unfortunately, we tried to check out the Woodland Trail shortly after heavy rainfall, but the mosquitos were too bad. We’re not easily deterred, but these bugs must be immune to Deet. We covered our legs, arms, and clothing in bug spray, and still, they swarmed us. Less than three minutes in we retreated to our car covered in bites. The trail, however, would be perfect for little bikers, hikers, and wheelchairs because it’s both short and paved. (The beach did stay mosquito-free until after the sunset, but they came out once it was dark and the birds were gone.)
Luckily, the park also offers the Wildlife Loop, which allows cars to drive deeper into the reserve during a few hours in the afternoon. Most of the drivers pull over to snap photos of the marshes and to look for ponies, but keep an eye for little wildlife too – we saw numerous bunnies and various birds. The loop also connects to more trails (not car-friendly), including the one that allows beachgoers to hike or bike out to the shore (just half a mile from the loop).
If you don’t want to pack a bike, several shops in Chincoteague provide rentals. Consider leaving your car behind and pedal over for a family-fun activity that really gets the heart rate up!
Where to Stay?
I can’t rave enough about our stay at Holiday Cottages – just two blocks from most restaurants, coffee, and Main Street. At least a dozen one and two-bedroom cottages sit on this lot, complete with a swimming pool, grills to use at your cottage, and a linen room where you can grab fresh towels and sheets if needed.
Every cottage has a coffee pot, fridge, and a few kitchen essentials, plus a picnic table outside and cable TV. The cottages are simple, clean, and quiet – but the outside area is kid-friendly with lots of space to run, a small playscape, and tetherball.
Plus, from the door of your Holiday Cottage to the beach is less than a ten-minute drive.
Where to Eat?
For a small beach town, Chincoteague doesn’t lack good food the whole family will enjoy. But places fill up fast, especially during the summer months, so order early or make reservations ahead of time to avoid late-night dinners. Pro tip: bring cash – between credit card machines crashing and cash only spots, it’s useful to have on hand.
For delicious seafood, Captain Zack's is a hit. Their blackened grouper and fried oysters with hush puppies were our faves. They do to-go orders, but even that can be over an hour wait. Worth it, but had we known we would’ve ordered sooner.
Pico Taqueria has delicious tacos and a killer frozen marg for the adults. They have outdoor picnic tables, but under COVID-19 terms people were ordering at the window and staff carried finished orders to your car. We took ours back to the beach for a fabulous sunset picnic.
We were disappointed that we didn’t get to try Ropewalk, which wasn’t doing to-go orders during their Saturday night dinner rush. It’s right on the water along Main Street and has a fun playscape for kids to enjoy.
Mr. Whippy is a must for its soft serve (their drive-in window and walk-up window are currently open). They’re also worth a morning visit for coffee – it was the best we found on the island. Speaking of sweets, Island Creamery is a town favorite for its homemade ice cream, but the line gets incredibly long.
This is truly a dream destination, so we hope you will add it to your travel bucket list if it is not on it already!!
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Explore more of our Dreaming of Travel series in a music lover’s paradise like Memphis, or find your happy place on Nantucket or Bear Lake: An Adventurer’s Oasis. If you’d prefer, Make Nature Your Focus in Harper’s Ferry, Plan Your Next Adventure in Savannah, Explore Grand Teton or Yellowstone, Dream about a Tubing Adventure in Salida, Colorado, or further fuel your wanderlust in the Dry Tortugas or at Mojave National Preserve.
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