Assateague Island is one of my all-time favorite get-aways. A 37 mile-long barrier island stretching from just south of Maryland’s Ocean City into Virginia, it’s not well known even within the state. Sure, it has beaches and islands, but we have lots of those. It has something that’s much harder to find – wild ponies!
“Ponies” is a misnomer. The herd are mostly made of adults, although their diet doesn’t allow them to grow very large. The myth is their ancestors washed ashore from a floundering Spanish galleon, only to make their homes here. More likely, they are descended from horses left unattended by tax evaders who tried to hide their wealth on the island…only to lose them in the wild. But that’s not nearly as cool a story, so the Spanish myth persists.
The park is divided between Virginia and Maryland, with the latter being the more touristy of the two. The closeness to Ocean City would make the beach popular in any circumstances. But coupled with several packs of wild horses and beach-side campgrounds, it definitely gets crowded.
Unlike the herd in on the Virginia side of Assateague, the horses here roam free – so watch where you drive.
I prefer the quieter Virginia side, an hour south. You enter the Virginia side of Assateague via Chincoteague Island, home to a small community stacked with small shops and B&Bs. This is the setting of Misty of Chincoteague, a popular children’s book back in the 1950s.
When visiting Chincoteague, I often stay at Tom’s Cove Campground; it’s very family-oriented, with lots of spots overlooking the bay. A number of RVs seem to make an almost permanent home there, in addition to weekend campers. The camp store has your basic amenities, and the showers are more than serviceable. The worst you have to worry about (besides mosquitos) are late-night parties.
Horses on Virginia side are fenced in and can usually only be seen at a distance – for their protection, no doubt. It’s not unusual to see long lines of cars parked along the road, their windows down and phones & cameras taking in the view.
The park offers other attractions, including nature walks, biking, and a beach. Overall, you can traverse the entire island in half an hour.
Of course the star of the show are the ponies. Every July the town does the ‘running of the ponies’, where they take the ponies from Assateague and swim them over to the town for the equivalent of an annual checkup.
Telling this story gives me Anthony Bourdain-esque guilt trips; if you share a fun travel story, people will come. And too many people ruins the fun for everyone. So do me a favor…keep this on the down-low…OK?