Assateague Island National Seashore has sandy beaches, salt marshes and maritime forests, but its untamed horses are the main draw.
It’s one of the few places in the U.S. where travelers can see horses roaming freely. The barrier island shared by Maryland and Virginia is 227 kilometers east of Washington D.C. This insider’s guide to the island will help you reach Assateague, as well as make the most of your time there.
Getting to the Island
Renting a car from Washington, D.C., is the easiest way to get to Assateague. The most direct route is to head east through Maryland over the 7-kilometer Chesapeake Bay Bridge into Delaware, then south back into Maryland. While it’s an easy and scenic drive, you’ll want to use a map or GPS to navigate and check traffic reports.
Meet the Horses
Visitors flock to see the “wild” horses on the beach. The park features two herds, with a fence divided between the Maryland and Virginia borders. While they are called wild, Assateague’s horses are “descendants of domestic animals that have reverted to a wild state,” according to the National Park Service. Here, the horses can be found running into the surf or grazing on hay or beach grass. As with all animals in their natural habitat, do not approach or feed the horses, and give them space.
Assateague draws its largest crowds of the year on the last Wednesday of July when it celebrates the annual “Pony Swim.” To prevent overpopulation — which could destroy the herds, as well as other wildlife and vegetation on the island — the Virginia herd of horses is rounded up to swim from Assateague Island to nearby Chincoteague Island between tides, when there is no current. There, the horses are auctioned off to new homes, with the proceeds benefiting the local volunteer fire company. To get the best view of this tradition, reserve a spot on a charter boat.
While horses and people can mingle on Assateague Island, it’s important to give the animals space.
Assateague also offers paved bike paths, canoe and kayak launching areas, 19 kilometers of beach driving area (a permit is required), surf fishing and swimming. For biking, a paved path connects Chincoteague and Assateague, with four main trails that wind through woodlands, a swan cove and a marsh, ranging from 0.8 to 5.2 kilometers. Canoes can be rented from the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.
Biking, kayaking and swimming are among Assateague Island’s many outdoor recreation options.
Where to Stay
Camping is one of the most popular ways to stay on Assateague, with beachfront accommodations costing US$30 a night. Reservations are required March 15 through November 15 and can be made up to six months in advance. No surprise: Camping spots go quickly, so book as soon as possible.
For less rustic lodging, the seaside resort town of Ocean City, Maryland (16 kilometers north of Assateague), has a range of hotels along the shore, such as the Hilton Ocean City Oceanfront Suites, as well as home rentals.
If camping isn’t your style, nearby Ocean City offers a variety of lodging, food and entertainment options.
What to Eat
Maryland is renowned for its blue crabs, particularly in summer when they shed their shells and are completely edible. Marylanders typically steam and season crabs with local favorite Old Bay Seasoning, and serve with sides like French fries, corn on the cob and coleslaw. Specialty crab shacks are abundant in the Assateague and Ocean City areas, such as the iconic Assateague Crab House, outside the park’s campgrounds.