I’ve wanted to visit Assateague Island since the day I learned of its existence. I’m not exactly sure why. I’m fairly certain I based my decision on a calendar photo. Something about the combination of wild horses, sand dunes, and the ocean just drew me in.
So when I started looking for a halfway point for our drive to South Carolina, Assateague Island turned out to be a good location to stop for the night.
If you’ve ever heard anything about Assateague Island, it’s probably that the bugs are awful. And they are. Tiny mosquitoes and flies that won’t leave you alone. We lasted five minutes before changing into long pants, long-sleeve shirts, and shoes, and spraying our clothes with bug spray.
The good news is that out closer to the coast where it’s breezy the bugs aren’t nearly as bad.
We definitely could have spent more time on Assateague Island. You can rent dune buggies and explore the 12 miles (19 km) of sand, swim at two lifeguarded beaches, kayak or paddleboard, or simply relax on the shore. We didn’t have time for those activities, but we did hike the trails, drive all the roads, and swing by the visitor center.
There are three 0.5 mile (0.9 km) trails at Assateague Island, each depicting one of the predominate ecosystems of the island – marsh, forest, and dunes.
We began near the Bayside Campground, at the Life of the Marsh trail. This boardwalk took us out over the bayside marshes, where aquatic plants and many types of birds abound. We also caught our first up-close glimpse of the wild horses of Assateague Island.
The horses are here as a result of Spanish ships that sunk off the coast in the 1800s. Most of the sailors died, but the ponies were able to swim to shore. They’ve been on the island ever since… and somehow never managed to find the bridge to the mainland, it seems. Or maybe if they do, the park service transports them back to the island. I’m not sure.
Regardless, they are in fact wild horses, and signs all over the park warn against feeding or approaching them – they’ll bite and kick, which would really put a damper in a vacation.
Next was the Life of the Dunes trail, which traversed many sand dunes and provided views of the flora that manages to survive in the sand. We saw everything from trees to cactus – it’s incredible how many plants can take root in a sand dune. It’s also these plants that are crucial for preventing the erosion of dunes, as their roots provide structure to the otherwise elastic landscape.
Part of the Life of the Dunes trail is on asphalt, which is the remnant of a road that used to run the length of Assateague Island. The road was thoroughly destroyed by a storm in the 1960s, and after witnessing the fragility of the island in the face of such weather, it was decided that the road would not be rebuilt.
Right next to the Life of the Dunes trailhead is the short walk out to South Beach, located just over the dunes. This was our first glimpse of the Atlantic from the island, and we spent a few minutes walking the beach and soaking our legs in the water.
Next, we drove out to the old Ferry Landing, which today is little more than a small parking lot and beach. We also stopped at the historic boathouse, which has been converted into a small museum detailing the dangerous process of ocean rescues back before the Coast Guard existed.
The last trail of the day was the Life of the Forest trail, which wound through trees and past a pond before opening up into a view of the Sinepuxent Bay. Assateague Island National Seashore is relatively small, and yet there’s so much ecological variation. Walking these trails and seeing it all up close really helped us to understand why Assateague Island is so special.
Our last stop on the island was North Beach, just for a few minutes. It was nearing lunch time now, and the parking lot was filling up. The beach was equally crowded, and as we left the park, the line of cars waiting to enter stretched on for quite a distance. If beachgoing is your preferred activity, I’d recommend visiting on a weekday.
I’ve never really been a relaxed vacationer, which I’m sure is evident by this point. If I’m going somewhere new, I like to see as much as I can, not lay around on the beach. But Assateague Island has a pretty laid back vibe. I’d love to return someday and spend some time paddleboarding in the bay and relaxing on the sand.
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: Assateague Island is located off the coast of Maryland and Virginia and can be accessed at the southern tip from Virginia or the northern tip from Maryland
- Fees and passes: $20 per car for 7 days; Interagency Annual Pass accepted
- Camping: $20 per night at Oceanside and Bayside campsites – Oceanside fills up early as sites are just over the dunes from the ocean; we were in Bayside, on the inland side of the island. Toilets are primitive but a sink and showers are available.
- Hiking: three 0.5 miles (0.9 km) trails – Life of the Dunes, Life of the Marsh, and Life of the Forest – as well as many miles of beach to explore
- Other: Bugs, bugs, and more bugs. Bring full-coverage clothing, bug spray with lots of DEET (yes, I know it’s not good for you, but you’ll need it), and a full coverage canopy to pitch over the picnic table to keep those little suckers out. I’ve never been anywhere with so many mosquitoes and flies