Assateague Island National Seashore: Wild horses and coastline beauty

Horses standing in a grass field
April 03, 2018 09:19 AM
National Park Service

Just south of the packed beach resort areas near Washington, D.C., lies a completely different experience: a largely undeveloped barrier island filled with salt marshes, maritime forests and feral horses. Visiting Assateague Island National Seashore, which spans Maryland and Virginia, will connect you to a slower, quieter Eastern Shore.

Facts and figures

  • Assateague wasn't always an island; it was connected to Fenwick Island until a storm opened up an inlet between the two in 1933
  • The island is 37 miles long
  • Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and Assateague State Park both lie within the national seashore boundaries
  • The feral horses are descendants of domesticated ones that were brought to the island in the late 1600s
  • The horses tend to be pony-size because of their grass diet and the island's conditions


In the latter half of the 1800s, small villages on Assateague were home to watermen or staff of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, a group that eventually became part of the Coast Guard. The populations of these villages had declined by the 1920s, and plans emerged for a commercial resort town in the 1950s.

But those plans changed when an extreme nor'easter, the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962, wiped out the existing structures and roads. The federal government purchased the land, and Assateague Island National Seashore was established in 1965.


Things to do and see

The park has two visitor centers: Assateague Island Visitor Center on the Maryland side and Toms Cove Visitor Center on the Virginia side. Both are good places to start, and kids will love their exhibits, aquariums and touch tanks full of shellfish and other marine life.

On the Maryland side, feral horses roam throughout the park, including in campgrounds and parking areas. In Virginia, they are fenced within large enclosures. A good place to look for them is from the observation platform on the Woodland Trail, a 1.5-mile paved loop through pine forest.


The island has several short nature trails, and its beaches provide another way to explore. Biking is also a nice way to get around, thanks to paved paths that wind past four miles of the Maryland habitat along Bayberry Drive and also on Chincoteague.

Along the shores, which are staffed with lifeguards daily from late May through early September, your group can swim, surf and hunt for seashells. Fishing is another draw: You can go surf fishing, crabbing and clamming—but check in at the visitor center to learn the regulations.


To pitch a tent, stay on the Maryland side of the park and head to one of four campgrounds (two drive-in, one walk-in and one for large groups), which have restrooms and drinking water. If your trip falls between March 15 and November 15, be sure to make a reservation first.

Best time to go

The park is open year-round, as are the campgrounds. Summer is the most popular time to visit, with crowds beginning to pick up in May and lasting through August. Late September and October are great times to avoid peak crowds—and insects.


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January 18, 2018 09:48 AM
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