Assateague Island National Seashore
Assateague Island National Park was established in 1943. The island has 14,000 acres of beach, a forest, as well as saltwater marsh and freshwater marsh habitats. This habitat is home to migratory birds, plants, and of course wild ponies. Their are many different theories to how the ponies got to the island; some say they are survivors of a shipwreck, but there is no evidence to support this. Others say that someone put the ponies over on the island so that they could avoid fencing laws.
More than half of Assateague Island National Seashore’s 48,000 acres is comprised of near-shore and estuarine waters, and the interplay between these waters and the barrier island affects nearly every aspect of life in this dynamic coastal environment.
The geography of the island itself is in a state of constant flux, continuously being reshaped by the elemental forces of wind and water. Powerful storms can dramatically alter the shoreline in a matter of hours, as waves wash over the beach and reshape the island from ocean to bay. Other forces sculpt the landscape in less obvious ways. Exposure to salt spray, lack of fresh water, and isolation from the mainland are subtle, but powerful influences on the Island’s species composition. Over time, these conditions have produced a community of plants and animals uniquely suited to the extremes found at the edge of the sea.
Flora and fauna
While Assateague’s wild horses are perhaps the island’s best-known inhabitants, other large mammals also roam the park, including the native white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and the non-native sika deer (Cervus japonica), a diminutive species of Asian elk introduced to Assateague during the 1920’s.
Other inhabitants are less conspicuous than the large mammals. Seven species of frogs and toads depend on fresh water ponds in the center of the island for breeding, and a variety of snakes, such as the black rat snake (Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta), can be found across the forests, dunes, and marshes preying on rodents, small birds, or toads. Numerous invertebrates such as fiddler crabs (Uca ssp.) and mud snails (Nassarius ssp.) play key roles in maintaining the health of the island’s salt marshes. Even the seemingly barren beaches provide habitat for nocturnal ghost crabs (Ocypode quadrata), red fox (Vulpes vulpes), and raccoons (Procyon lotor), who scavenge the crustaceans, fish, and other organic matter washed in by the tides.
Many bird species make their home on Assateague on a seasonal basis. Shorebirds by the tens of thousands depend upon the island’s protected foraging and resting areas during their twice-yearly transcontinental migrations. Each fall, large flocks of waterfowl such as snow geese (Chen caerulescens) begin arriving at Assateague where they will spend the winter traveling between the sheltered bay and salt marshes and fallow farm fields on the mainland.
Finally, the coastal waters that surround Assateague Island teem with animal life. The sheltered, nutrient rich waters of the estuary formed by the island provide ideal breeding and spawning habitat for many aquatic species, some of which, like the blue crab (Callinectes sapidus), are commercially important to the local area. Each spring a variety of fish, including spot (Leiostomus xanthrurus), Atlantic menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) and summer flounder (Paralichthys dentatus) migrate into the estuary to breed. Later, the juvenile fish provide an abundant food source for birds, marine mammals, and larger fish.
Summers are generally hot and humid. It rarely snows in the winter but there is often a damp cold. In 2010 there was a heavy snow storm, causing the horses to starve and the firefighters had to take hay to them.
Entrance fees are $3 for individuals on foot or $15 for private vehicles. Both fees are good for seven days. A $30 annual pass is available, allowing free entry for one year. The $80 National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass is valid at all national parks and allows free entry for one year.
The park service allows 4x4s to drive on the beach with a seasonal permit (predominantly used by locals), which unfortunately will spoil any thoughts you had of a pristine walk on an unspoiled beach, or for that matter, peaceful, isolated beach camping. Edward Abbey would be appalled.
The Assateague Light house was built in 1833 and is 142 feet tall, it was first lit in January 1833. On October 1 1867 A new lens was put in and it could be seen for up to nineteen miles. This lighthouse is now only open a few times a year for tours.
The wildlife and wild ponies- Bird watching is one of the popular activity in Assaeague, but people mostly come to see the wild ponies. Their are many different theories to how the ponies got to the Island, some say they are survivors of a shipwreck, but their is no evidence to support this. Others say that someone put the ponies over on the island so that they could avoid fencing laws.
Pony Penning day- On the last Thursday in July thousands of tourist come to watch the "Saltwater Cowboys" swim the ponies from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island. One of the best ways to see the Wild Ponies swim is on a Scenic Boat Tour.
On Assateague Island there are many activities to keep one occupied. First off there is the beach where many people can come to and enjoy. People can also camp on either the beach side or the bay side in the Federal part of the park. Throughout the Federal side of the park there are many feral horses, white tailed and sika deer, red foxes and many other types of animals that can be seen while on the road, beach or one of the many trails. On the bay side people can rent out kayaks and canoes, while there is off road driving to the South. Also on the bay side there are places where a person can try to catch blue crab, and many mussels.
On the last Thursday in July is Pony Penning day and an auction is held to sell wild ponies from Assateague. They do this to make sure the ponies do not over populate the island. Many tourist love to watch the auctions as well as see the "salt water cowboys" swim the herd from Assateague to Chincoteague.
Assateague has sinks and water fountains next to each bathroom. The water is perfectly safe to drink.
Campers are permitted to bring their own alcoholic beverages. Those under 21 should be exceedingly discreet, however, as the Park Police have recently begun cracking down on underage drinking, and those under 21 caught in possession of alcohol can expect a hefty fine ($300).
Oceanside Drive-in: Tents, trailers and recreational vehicles (no hookups). Sites have a picnic table and an upright grill.
Oceanside Walk-in: Tent-only sites, located 100-200 feet from centralized parking areas. Sites have a picnic table and an upright grill.
Bayside Drive-in: Tents, trailers and recreational vehicles (no hookups). "Generator-Free Zone" available. Sites have a picnic table and ground fire grill.
Group Camping: Organized clubs and affiliated groups must use group campsites. Tent-only sites, located 100-200 feet from centralized parking area. Sites have a picnic table and an upright grill. Group campsites are available for reservations year round at $30 per night per site.
The usual beach hazards of drowning, riptides, sunburn, dehydration, etc. all apply to Assateague, although you can expect life guards during the busy season, particularly at the public beach at the State Park. Sunburn tends to be a bigger concern here than at many beaches, simply because there are no edifices to provide a retreat—lather up!
The ponies are beautiful, and a big part of the reason that people come to see the island, but they are wild animals, and they will charge, kick, and bite if you get to close or otherwise provoke them. The Park Service recommends never approaching them closer than ten feet, although fifteen feet might be a better rule of thumb. Under no circumstances should you try to feed them.
Beach campers far and wide know Assateague as the biting insect hell hole of the Mid-Atlantic. It cannot be emphasized enough that a visit in the warm months without a good bottle or two of insect repellent with DEET can be a nightmare, and will likely end with you speeding off in your car, clawing wildly at your wounds. You can enjoy your trip quite a bit, and quite comfortably if you simply remember to keep the bug spray handy, and to either stay in your tent with a good book or or drive to a local restaurant during the buggy dawny and dusky portions of the day. If you are going over to the bay side, wear long pants and long sleeves, and perhaps a hat. The woods along the trails between the bay and beach sides of the island are by far the worst infested with the insidious little monsters.
Horses love the campsites, they probably love your tent in particular, and they particularly love any and all accessible food. If you have food, it's really best to just keep it on your person or in the car. If you are backcountry camping, and this is therefore not a viable option, bear canisters or some other airtight (preferably double-bagged) contraption will be necessary to keep the horses out of your tent. If there are quadrupeds milling about your insect/sun refuge, and you want them to move off, clap your hands loudly, while keeping your distance, and they should meander off.
It's unlikely that you will have a problem on any given visit, but Assateague occasionally can be a very windy place. Happily this drives away the insects, but the beach can be unpleasant if the sand starts picking up (another reason why it's good to bring some lightweight long-sleeves and pants). And tents have a tendency to fly away even when the wind isn't that strong, as the camping ground is soft. Bring long stakes for the tents, and possibly sand anchors.