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Assateague Island, VA
Sunday, November 10, 2002 - 9:00am by Lolo
104 miles and 2 hours from our last stop
I hate when vacations end, so I always try to squeeze in as much as Herb will let me on the drive home. So, rather than driving through Washington, D.C. and getting all grumpy, we decided to take the more scenic route back across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and along the Delmarva Peninsula.
After about 2 hours of driving, we saw the signs for the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, and decided to take a break. We had been here once before back in 1998 and knew that there was a really nice bike ride through the refuge. A little bike ride was just what we—or at least I—were in the mood for right now.
We drove from the mainland across a bridge over Chincoteague Bay onto Chincoteague Island. From there we drove across another bridge onto Assateague Island where the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge was. I must admit I was confused why this was on Assateague Island and not Chincoteague, but that’s okay, as long as I got to see wild ponies.
After parking near the visitor center, we unloaded the bikes and stared at my flat tire for awhile. I think the thought of bagging the bike trip temporarily cross Herb’s mind, but after seeing our disappointed faces, he got out his tools and started changing my tire. Soon we were back in business and ready to head out onto the very pretty 3.2-mile Wildlife Loop through the marshes. It’s a great easy, family ride with lots of birds to see along the way. The ride is actually along a road, but since the road is closed to cars until 3 p.m. every day, it’s a perfect place to ride with kids. We didn’t see any wild ponies at first, but the boys sure had a great time weaving in and out of the pony poop.
From the Wildlife Loop, we took a side trip on the 1 ½ mile Woodland Trail through a beautiful pine forest and out to a wooden observation platform from which we were able to see several wild ponies. The trail also brought us to the boy’s favorite climbing tree, which they remembered from 4 years ago.
The ponies and marshes were really nice, but now I wanted to see the beach, which was another 1 ¼ miles from the Wildlife Loop on the Swans Cove Trail. Four years ago when we did this, Tommy was only 7 and he complained about the extra distance the whole way. Now, four years later we could hardly keep up with him. To make the ride more entertaining for them and to drive me crazy, the boys developed a new riding style in which they rode side by side with their arms on each other’s shoulders while only one of them pedaled, trying to see how far they could get. I’m not sure if we were exhibiting good parenting, but they certainly were having a great time together. Anyway, we did get to the beach without requiring medical attention and it truly was lovely. This pristine beach is part of the Assateague Island National Seashore, which stretches 37 miles north into Maryland.
The northern Maryland end of Assateague Island cannot be reached from here, unless you’re willing to walk 37 miles on the beach. Rather you have to drive back off the island and then north into Maryland before crossing back over onto the island again. We visited that portion of Assateague Island back in 1999. There are a lot more ponies to see in the Maryland section than the Virginia section. There is also camping there, both at an ocean-side State Park and a bay-side National Park campground. I think we’ll probably come back down here again some time in the future and do that. The beaches really are lovely and it’s kind of fun to see the wild ponies just meandering alongside the road.
Assateague Island is a narrow barrier island that stretches 37 miles along the coastlines of northern Virginia and southern Maryland. You cannot drive from one end of the island to another, but must visit the two sections separately.
The island is best known for its wild ponies, made famous by the children’s book Misty of Chincoteague. The ponies have lived on Assateague since the 17th century when, according to local legend, their ancestors swam ashore from a shipwrecked Spanish galleon. However, it is more likely that they were placed on the island for free grazing during colonial times. The ponies are quite easy to see, especially on the Maryland side of the island where they have virtually free reign. A lovely place to view them is along the beach in the evening after the crowds have left. The ponies are less accessible on the Virginia side, but you can generally spot some of them along the road or from the observation platforms.
Assateague Island’s location along the Atlantic Flyway also makes it a popular place for bird-watchers. More than 200 different species—including peregrine falcons, bald eagles, great blue heron, snowy egrets, and snow geese—have been spotted here.
Besides the wonderful wildlife viewing opportunities, Assateague contains 37 miles of beautiful pristine beaches. Other popular activities include crabbing, clamming, fishing, and kayaking.
Camping facilities are only located on the northern part of the island.
Southern end of Assateague Island
The Virginia side of Assateague Island contains the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and part of Assateague Island National Seashore. The refuge is reached by taking VA Route 175 west across the island of Chincoteague and over a short bridge to the island of Assateague.
The famous annual wild pony swim takes place on Chincoteague Island on the last Wednesday and Thursday in July. Chincoteague “cowboys” round up the entire Virginia herd on Assateague Island (they are separated from the Maryland herd by a fence) and have them swim the channel from Assateague to Chincoteague, where the foals are auctioned off. This event is very popular, so reservations should be made well in advance.
The refuge has several trails for biking. The 3.2-mile Wildlife Loop begins at the Visitor Center and goes through marshes and around a fresh water pond. The Loop is closed to cars until 3 p.m., giving hikers and bikers a chance to spot wild ponies and birdlife up close. The 1.5-mile Woodland Trail goes through a beautiful pine forest and leads to an overlook where you can sometimes see wild ponies. Swans Cove Trail which branches off of Wildlife Loop Trail is about 1.25 miles long and takes you to the beach. The 1-mile Black Duck Marsh Trail also branches off of Wildlife Trail.
The beach itself is in the Assateague Island National Seashore at Tom’s Cove on the southern hook of the island. In addition to sunbathing and swimming, shell collecting is very popular and productive on the tip of the spit.
There are no camping facilities on the southern end of Assateague, but there are several commercial campgrounds located on nearby Chincoteague Island.
Northern end of Assateague Island
The Maryland side of the island, which contains both Assateague State Park and the Assateague Island National Seashore, is reached via MD Route 611. It primary attraction is its beautiful sandy beaches.
Biking on Assateague is a great way to explore the island. A paved bike path begins at the pedestrian/bike bridge parking lot, goes over the bike bridge and continues along Bayberry Drive and the Oceanside Campground Road. Bicycles are not permitted on the nature trails in the Maryland section of the island.
There are camping facilities at both the state and national parks. The state park contains 311 sites all located on the oceanside of the island. Reservations for less than a week are not accepted. The National Park Service operates a bay-side and an ocean-side campground that are a bit more primitive than the state park campground. Advance reservations (and they are needed in the summer) are accepted. Mosquitoes and biting flies, which are a real issue during the summer, are much worse on the bay-side.