The ultimate Assateague Island travel guide that covers all the logistics and tips for seeing the wild ponies on this remote corner of east coast USA.
Guest Post by S.M. Stevens (I don’t normally do guest posts but it’s my amazing Mother so I made an exception).
One island, two states, three government agencies and a pile of confusion.
Ever since I was a girl enchanted by Marguerite Henry’s book Misty of Chincoteague, I longed to visit the barrier islands of Assateague and Chincoteague on America’s east coast and see the wild ponies there for myself.
When I started planning that visit, I couldn’t believe how confusing it was. Chincoteague. Assateague. The National Park Service. The State of Maryland. The State of Virginia. U.S. Fish & Wildlife.
All have a hand in this sliver of land known as Assateague Island National Seashore.
Once I got there, I realized it’s not so confusing after all, if someone had just presented the basics in a simple fashion. I also wish I’d known the details of the Pony Swim before I made my plans.
So this post explains both things – the different sections of the island, and how the official pony events work.
I tried to avoid repeating much of the general information already available through a quick online search. I hope this nuts-and-bolts summary helps you plan the best visit possible.
Visiting state and U.S. parks is one of the best ways to travel on a budget.
Camping in a tent, trailer or camper is of course a bargain in comparison to a hotel. And it’s the perfect way to enjoy the pristine landscape. (Just be prepared for wind, cold and/or bugs, depending on the season!)
I’ve included details about the campground rates below, along with contact information for each section of the island, to steer you in the right direction from the start.
Local budget airlines also have cheap flights into Ocean City Maryland, which is the nearest big city to Assateague Island.
Assateague Island Travel Guide
This Assateague Island travel guide will cover everything you need to know about the area.
From geography, to campsites, to contact information, to activities, we’ll cover it all.
I’ll also include a section about the wild ponies of Assateague Island. You’ll hear about my personal experience, as well as useful information about when, where, and how to see the wild ponies.
General Geography of Assateague Island
Assateague Island is a mere sliver of land, 37 miles (60 km) long and I’m guessing less than a mile wide. Yet this sliver is managed by three separate government agencies, apparently to keep the general public guessing.
Let’s break down the different sections of Assateague Island:
Maryland: The northern section, constituting about two-thirds of the island. There are two separate areas here:
- A small piece managed by the State of Maryland and called Assateague State Park.
- The rest of the Maryland section, which is managed by the National Park Service (NPS) and called the Assateague Island National Seashore.
Virginia: The southern section of Assateague Island is in the state of Virginia.
- This lower one-third of the island is managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and is called the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. (Yes, it’s called Chincoteague even though it’s on Assateague. More confusion… Explained below!)
Meanwhile, squeezed in between Assateague Island’s southern end and the mainland is Chincoteague Island. You’ll cross this eight-mile-long chunk of land to get to the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague.
Map of Assateague Island
Even the maps of Assateague are confusing. This map, although it turns the island on its side, is one of the better ones.
- The light green portion is the Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland, managed by the NPS
- The small, dark green portion is Assateague State Park in Maryland, managed by the State of Maryland
- The orange portion is the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia, managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Chincoteague Island is the beige blog to the right, under the orange part.
The island and the town of Chincoteague are basically the same thing, by the way. Chincoteague is a bona fide tourist destination, largely due to Pony Penning Day, which I’ll cover below.
Assateague Island, on the other hand, is very remote and has no towns and few amenities. It’s basically beach, marsh, maritime forest and some campgrounds. And wild ponies, of course.
The Maryland Part of Assateague Island
Next on this Assateague Island travel guide, I’ll discuss the different sections of the island. Let’s start with the sections in Maryland.
Assateague State Park
You can reach the northern section of Assateague Island via Route 611 from the town of Berlin, Maryland.
After crossing the Verrazano Bridge, you’ll be on the State-managed land of Assateague State Park.
The gorgeous beach here offers two miles of sand and surf. It’s open year-round, but only has lifeguards from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
A fun thing to do here is parasailing! You can book a parasailing tour from Ocean City, MD that takes you up into the air over the state park.
The campground is open from late April through October. The sites accommodate tents, campers and RVs. All have fire rings and picnic tables, and a few sites have electric hook-up. The bathhouses actually offer warm showers! Pets are allowed in some areas.
Park Entrance Fee:
- $5 per person from Memorial Day through Labor Day
- $5 per vehicle from Labor Day to Memorial Day
- $27.50 for standard site
- $38.50 for site with electric hook-up
- Address for Assateague State Park: 7307 Stephen Decatur Hwy, Berlin, MD 21811
- Phone: 410.641.2120 or 888-432-2267
- Website: https://dnr.maryland.gov/publiclands/Pages/eastern/assateague.aspx
Assateague Island National Seashore
If you continue past Assateague State Park, driving south on Bayberry Drive, you’ll soon be on the part of the island managed by the National Park Service.
The only way you’ll know you’ve reached this point is because you’ll be at the NPS’s National Seashore entrance station and campground office. This is a fairly new, large office by NPS standards, with three or four customer service windows.
Activities at the Assateague Island National Seashore, which is open year-round, include:
- Walking Trails: Life of the Marsh Trail, Life of the Forest Trail, and Life of the Dunes Trail. All are short and easy.
- Kayaking: Rental season starts in mid-April. Rentals are at the end of Bayside Drive, the road that goes through the Bayside campsites.
- OSV (Over Sand Vehicle): It amazes me that driving is allowed on this important natural habitat. If that’s your thing, it’s best to get your permit in advance.
Assateague Island National Seashore Camping
Camping is available in the NPS-managed section of Assateague Island, year-round. Reserve in advance, and check in for your vehicle tag at the entrance station and campground office.
NPS offers 16 sites split between the two sides of the island, Oceanside and Bayside.
Sites accommodate tents, campers and RVs. Some are walk-in only, so for the young and fit.
Unlike the state-managed campsites, there are no warm showers or electric hook-ups here. But there are picnic tables, storage boxes for your food (to keep the horses from getting at it), and incredible views.
Pets are allowed here, with some restrictions such as the nature trails.
Assateague Island National Seashore is the best place to see the ponies!! I’ll get to that later.
Park Entrance Fee:
- Free for bicyclists and people who walk in, although I’m not sure how feasible either is, given how remote the island is!
- $20 for a 7-day motorcycle pass
- $25 for a 7-day vehicle pass
- $45 for a 1-year vehicle pass
- $30 per night
- Book online here
- Assateague Island National Seashore Address: 7206 National Seashore Lane, Berlin, MA 21811
- Phone: 410.641.1441
- Website: www.nps.gov/asis
The Virginia Part of Assateague Island
Next on this Assateague Island travel guide, the sections of the island in Virginia.
Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge
First off, despite its name, this refuge is on Assateague Island.
It’s next to Chincoteague Island, home of the town named Chincoteague, and its mailing address is in the Town of Chincoteague. But it is technically on Assateague Island.
The refuge is managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and is open year-round. There’s no camping here – this is truly a nature refuge. You’ll have to stay in Chincoteague town if you want to overnight in this area.
There is a gorgeous beach with a lifeguard from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Walk among dunes, wetlands and marshes. Kayak or bike. Swim. Visit Assateague Lighthouse. Pets are allowed in some areas.
It would be nice if the two U.S. government-run parks had the same admission prices, but no, even the fees get confusing.
The Virginia park has a 1-day vehicle pass but does not offer a reduced rate for motorcycles, according to park websites:
- Free for bicyclists and people who walk in
- $10 for a 1-day vehicle pass
- $25 for a 7-day vehicle pass
- $45 for a 1-year vehicle pass
- Address for Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge: 8231 Beach Rd. Chincoteague, VA 23336
- Phone: 757.336.6122
- Website: www.fws.gov/refuge/chincoteague
More Details on Park Fees for Assateague Island
State park passes don’t work for U.S. parks, and vice versa.
However, one pass will get you into both the Assateague Island National Seashore and the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, since the U.S. government runs both of them.
If you’re planning to visit a number of national parks, consider the $80 annual pass, which can quickly pay for itself.
And if you’re a senior, it gets even better. The NPS offers a lifetime senior pass for $80, which gets you admission to most U.S. parks plus discounts on the already low camping prices.
Learn about the various NPS entrance passes here.
More Travel Tips for Assateague Island
The only way onto the northern section of Assateague Island is near the top, from Route 611 in Berlin, Maryland.
The only way onto the southern part of Assateague Island is via Chincoteague, Virginia.
Most important, the two don’t connect on the island itself – there is no road traversing the entire island. To go from one to the other, you have to go back to the mainland and drive about 50 miles, which the NPS says takes about 1.25 hours.
Next up on this Assateague Island travel guide, let’s talk about the horses!
Assateague Island Travel Guide: My Pony Experience
Finally, let’s get to the topic that started this entire adventure – the wild ponies of Assateague and Chincoteague!
Most accounts say Assateague Island National Seashore is the best place to view the horses in the wild. My childhood dream was definitely fulfilled by hanging there for a few days.
As we drove to our campsite in the national park, we passed a few horses meandering around. We also passed a mare standing over her sleeping foal at the edge of the road!
We didn’t have any equine visitors to our campsite overnight, although my mother experienced that when she visited Assateague. Maybe our dog Korra in our camper was a deterrent.
But the next day, we got our fill of the famous Assateague Island wild ponies.
A small group of two adults, one young adult and one foal meandered through the campground.
Check out this video of a foal literally kicking up his heels. Ah, life is good when you’re young and wild.
Later as Korra and I were out for a walk, we saw the same group cross the road in front of us and head toward a series of marshy inlets.
To my amazement, Korra immediately sat down and watched them cross. Not a peep from her. It was almost as if she knew this was the horses’ home and she was a guest.
Of course, we then stalked the horses like paparazzi on a celebrity.
I revelled in their beauty as the shaggy brown, russet and pinto animals went on about their lives.
(I realize watching wild animals take steps and breathe and generally exist is not everyone’s cup of tea. But I’m the type of person who gets excited just being in the vicinity of wildlife. I could have watched the horses “be” for hours.)
Making this moment even better, I met a man and fellow horse-lover whose camera sported an impressive zoom lens. Joe Bainbridge offered to share his photos for this article, and I thank him for sharing so generously.
We continued to see ponies throughout our stay, and every sighting took my breath away.
Assateague Island Travel Guide: More Fun Pony Facts
Are the Assateague horses different from the Chincoteague ponies?
Humans have managed to make this as confusing as the geographic distinctions between the different sections of the island.
Those two terms are the most common ones used to describe the wild horses on Assateague Island. But, they are the same species, separated only by a fence on the Maryland-Virginia border. And fences don’t mean much to horses.
The only difference is that the Assateague animals are wild and the Chincoteague ones are not.
Are they ponies or horses?
Horses and ponies are the same genetic species. The main dividing line between the two is height. A pony is under 14.2 hh and a horse is taller than 14.2 hh. (That’s 58” or 4’ 10”. Or just over 147 cm.)
In general, ponies are stockier with a heavier bone structure and thicker coats.
While genetically a horse, the Assateague equine is decidedly pony-sized, with the average one around 13.2 hh (that’s 54” or 4’ 6” or 137 cm).
So feel free to call them horses or ponies. No one will judge your word choice.
Pony Etiquette on Assateague Island
NPS guidelines say people must stay at least 40 feet away from the horses at all times. That’s about the length of a school bus. Any closer and you could be fined $100 minimum.
Touching, feeding or enticing the horses is illegal for good reason.
They are wild animals and acclimating to people (any more than they already have – they parade through the campgrounds completely at ease) can be dangerous to their health and the humans’ (think biting, kicking, etc…).
Don’t even think about throwing a carrot or apple their way. Such “treats” are at odds with their native grass-based diet and can cause colic, which can be deadly.
So enjoy these beautiful, wild ponies from a distance.
Pony Penning and Carnival – July
On the last Wednesday before the last Thursday in July, for nearly a hundred years, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company (CVFC) has been rounding up the Chincoteague ponies on the Virginia section of Assateague Island and herding them across the Assateague Channel to Chincoteague Island.
The entire event actually lasts several days and entails much more than the Pony Swim. Many of the activities provide great viewing opportunities of the ponies.
Here is the full schedule:
- Saturday — The “Saltwater Cowboys” round up the herd of ponies at Assateague Island’s southern end and herd them into the Southern Corral. The public can view them at that corral, on Beach Road.
- Sunday — A similar round up herds ponies from the northern section of Virginia’s part of Assateague Island, but that area is not accessible to the public and there is no public viewing.
- Monday – The Northern ponies are herded at daybreak along the shore to join the ponies at the Southern Corral.
- Tuesday – Ponies can be viewed in the Southern Corral while they are checked over by veterinarians.
- Wednesday – The Pony Swim! All but those too old or too young to make the swim are herded across the channel to Chincoteague Island, which takes around 10 minutes. The horses then parade through town (can’t help but wonder what they’re thinking at this point).
- Thursday — The foals are auctioned off with proceeds benefitting the CVFC and also some going into herd management and care.
- Friday — The adult horses swim back across the channel to Assateague Island.
This is a huge tourist event so plan your trip well in advance. In fact, Chincoteague hosts a Carnival for several weeks in July to add to the excitement.
The two best sites I found for up-to-date information on Pony Penning are the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce and Chincoteague.com’s Pony Swim Guide. These offer details on the schedule, parking, and when and where to view the ponies.
Pony Penning Days – April and October
I wish I’d known there are actually two other, smaller pony round-ups every year.
These supplemental round-ups take place on a Friday afternoon and Saturday morning in April and in October.
- Friday – Saltwater Cowboys round up the southern herd, which takes about 2 hours
- Saturday – The northern herd is rounded up, which takes 5-6 hours because it’s a larger herd and there is more land to cover. Veterinarian checks including inoculations, deworming etc. take place at both the Southern Corral and the Northern Corral. After that, the ponies are released.
Assateague Island Travel Guide Wrap Up
So now you know how to plan a visit to see the wild horses of Assateague, including the Pony Penning Day activities in Chincoteague.
And you know about the three distinct areas of land that make up this part of the world, which will aid your planning.
Happy horse viewing!
S.M. Stevens is an author of novels for adults, young adults and children. She hasn’t written about horses yet, but will someday. www.AuthorSMStevens.com
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