Have you ever wanted to see wild horses running on a wide sandy beach? If your answer is yes, then this blog post is for you. Assateague Island is an incredible destination along the east coast that has wild horses roaming the island.
We visited Assateague Island and camped among the wild horses in late May. We were so surprised by all that the island had to offer and treasure the time we spent there. Read further to see how you can visit the island and experience the wild horses of Assateague Island.
The History of Assateague Island
(aka why are there wild horses on this random island?)
There are two legends as to reasons why horses are on Assateague Island today. One legend says that the horses came to the island after a Spanish ship wrecked close to the island. The other legend or thought is that the horses were brought to the island by people living on the mainland to try and avoid paying taxes.
Regardless of how the horses arrived on the island, the horses on the island today are feral and thriving. Since they live in a different environment than domesticated horses typically do, the Assateague Island horses are bloated and stocky from living in the marshes and eating salty foods.
Since they are feral, they also can be aggressive and violent. The National Park Service recommends staying at least 40 feet away from the horses, which is the length of a typical school bus. There are multiple signs around the park telling visitors to stay “one school bus away” from the horses.
Where is Assateague Island?
Assateague Island is a barrier island located along the coast of Maryland and Virginia in the Atlantic Ocean. You can access the island from both the northern side from Maryland and from the southern side from Virginia.
How to get to Assateague Island
The best way to get to Assateague Island is by driving. There is not a lot of super reliable public transportation that reaches the island. Also, to get around the island, you will need to have some form of transportation during your visit since things are spread out in the island.
Note: there is a northern part of the island and a southern part of the island that are not connected via roads on the island. To access both parts of the island, you will have to drive back to the mainland, drive on the mainland, and take another bridge back onto the island on the other side. I talk about both parts of the island in this post, but some people only visit the north or the south. Be sure to plan your trip itinerary accordingly.
Northern Assateague Island vs. Southern Assateague Island
While Assateague Island is one island, it is part of two different states, Maryland and Virginia, and you have to drive on the mainland to cross from the north to the south or vice versa. Some people visit just one part of the island or the other. There are several differences between the north and the south of the island.
Northern Assateague Island
The northern part of Assateague Island is part of Maryland. It consists of the Assateague Island National Seashore and the Assateague State Park. It is managed by the National Park Service and the Maryland State Park Service. The horses on the northern part of the island are managed by the National Park Service and are completely wild.
The northern part of the island is much quieter and less touristy in comparison to the southern part of the island. I recommend visiting or staying on the northern part of the island if you are look for a more nature-oriented experience.
Southern Assateague Island
The southern part of Assateague Island is part of Virginia and has some major differences from the northern part of the island. It is managed partially by the National Park Service and also by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The horses on the southern part of the island are actually called “ponies” and are fenced in (in a very large fence). They are managed by a local group and some are auctioned off every year. Since they are fenced in, it is harder to see the ponies on the southern part of the island.
The southern part of the island is right beside Chincoteague Island which has many more amenities, restaurants, and lodging options. This means that the southern part of the island tends to get a bit more traffic than the northern part.
Where to stay on and around Assateague Island
Luckily, there is a wide variety of options for lodging on or near Assateague Island depending on your budget, time of year you are visiting, and amenities you are seeking.
Northern Assateague Island
On the island
The only option for staying on the Assateague Island is to camp on the island. There are two main camping facilities on the northern part of the island: Assateague Island State Park (managed by the state of Maryland), and the Assateague Island National Seashore (managed by the National Park Service). Both are great camping facilities, however there are some main differences.
The campground that is managed by the National Park Service is the Assateague Island National Seashore Campground. It is open year-round and has limited facilities. In the peak season for the campground, considered to be March 15-November 15, you can reserve sites in advance on Recreation.gov. All other times of the year, all sites are first-come, first-serve. The campground has vault toilets, drinking water, and cold showers (however in the colder months the water is not available).
Another campground on the northern part of the island is the Assateague Island State Park. Unlike the National Park Service campground, the campground is open only in the peak season from the end of April to the end of October. The campground at the Maryland State Park part of the island has a lot more amenities including bathhouses, but there are not campsites directly on the beach like in the NPS campground.
Both campgrounds have their pros and cons, but regardless, they both can be completely booked months in advance. If you want to stay at either of these campgrounds, I recommend booking your site several months in advance, especially if visiting during summer weekend.
Firewood is not available on the island, so you must purchase your firewood off the island. There are many houses and shops selling wood on the road in between Berlin, MD and the Verrazano Bridge to the island.
Off the island
The nearby town of Berlin, MD has several Airbnb options and Inns. If you are looking for a hotel, the Ocean City, MD is the closest large town with various hotels to choose from.
Southern Assateague Island
On the island
There are no accommodations on the southern part of Assateague Island.
Off the island
The southern part of Assateague Island is beside the more popular Chincoteague Island which has a wide variety of hotels, inns, and AirBnbs. The town has more of a touristy-vibe, but does have more accommodation options that are not camping and also has many places to eat and shop. To find places to stay in the area, I recommend looking either on AirBnb or Booking.com.
What time of year should I visit Assateague Island?
I recommend visiting in the off-season due to the lack of tourists, cheaper prices, and privacy. However, I give details on visiting in the off-season and peak-season here so you can make the choice for yourself.
In the off-season, Assateague Island is quieter, with less visitors. If you are wanting a more peaceful experience at Assateague Island, I recommend visiting in the shoulder seasons of fall or spring. Visiting during the fall or spring will allow you to have a much calmer experience and you can experience the horses and nature of the island with very few people around.
Assateague Island is really popular in the summer and often the parks fill up early in the day. If the park is too full, they will not allow more people into the park. Prepare to arrive early in the morning or wait in long entrance lines if visiting in the summer. If planning to stay in the area during peak season, consider booking your lodging months in advance for popular campgrounds or hotels.
Things to do on the northern side of Assateague Island (Maryland)
The northern side of the island is primarily managed by the National Park Service and Maryland State Park Service.
Assateague Island National Seashore Visitor Center
Right before you cross the large Verrazzano Bridge onto Assateague Island, there is a large, new visitor center with a lot of nice resources. There are several exhibits on the area and the animals that live on Assateague Island. There are fish tanks and also a theater with a movie about the area. Here you can also find a gift shop and nice bathrooms. I definitely recommend stopping here before going onto the island.
Look for horses
When driving onto the island, you may even see horses before you enter the National Seashore Area. The horses like the marshes that you can see while crossing the Verrazzano Bridge to the island. You may be able see horses off in the distance.
The horses may also be along the road as you are driving into the park. Our first view of horses when we visited Assateague Island was a group of five horses eating grass alongside the road. However, the horses can really be anywhere. We also saw horses standing in parking lots, wandering in distant marshes, and up close when they trampled through our campsite.
Life of the Dunes Trail
The Life of the Dunes Trail is a 0.75 mile trail that weaves through wild sand dunes on the island and over some of the old road that used to cross the island. Along the trail there are informational panels, talking about plants and animals that live in the dunes and also the history of the area. It is a fun family friendly trail.
Life of the Marsh Trail
Life of the Marsh Trail is a 0.5 mile trail over boardwalks that showcases the marshes of Assateague. There are informational panels discussing the animals that live in the marshes and how the horses have grown to survive in the marshes of the island. The trail boardwalks were recently refurbished in spring 2023.
Life of the Forest Trail
The Life of the Forest Trail is 0.5 mile trail over a boardwalk that weaves through the forest on the bayside of the island. The trail ends at a viewpoint of Sinepuxent Bay. It is a great trail for birdwatchers and to enjoy the peaceful forest of the island. It is an accessible trail that is great for all ages.
Old Ferry Landing
Old Ferry Landing is an area on the sound side of the island that has boardwalks that allow you to get up close views of the marsh and possibly even horses. When we visited, there was a group of horses grazing in the marshes not far from the boardwalks. In the summer there is a “Naturalist Shack” with programming throughout the peak season.
Walk on the beach
The beach at Assateague Island is expansive and goes on for miles. There are large parking lots for the beach near the entrance of the park and also at the end of the main road of the park. Also, if you are staying at any of the campgrounds, you will be within walking distance of the beach, or your campsite may even be on the beach.
In the summer, the beaches at Assateague Island are very popular and can fill up quickly. If you want to enter the park with no problem in the summer and find a place on the beach, I recommend visiting early in the morning.
Kayak on the bayside
Kayaking is a popular summer activity at Assateague Island. In the summer, kayaks can be rented at Assateague Outfitters on the island. They offer kayak rentals and tours on the bayside. More information regarding their rentals can be found on their website. Kayaking at Assateague Island is primarily on the bayside and allows you to explore the marshes where the horses and many other animals frequent.
Biking is a great way to get around and explore Assateague Island. You can bring your own bikes or you can rent bikes on the island at Assateague Outfitters. There are bike trails throughout most parts of the park to allow you to access everything you can by bike.
Assateague State Park
So far I have been mostly talking about the NPS Assateague National Seashore, however, the Assateague State Park, managed by the state of Maryland is also located on the northern part of Assateague Island. The state park also has the beach, camping, and kayaking options. I discuss more about the differences between the state park campground and NPS campground.
The horses also come to Assateague State Park as there are no fences that separate them from the state managed land versus the NPS managed land.
Visit the nearby town of Berlin, MD
The closest town to the northern part of Assateague Island is the adorable town of Berlin, MD. It is a small town with a really cute main street, full of boutiques and restaurants. I recommend stopping to grab a bite to eat at Rayne’s Reef Soda Fountain and Grill (they have amazing milkshakes). Stop by The Greyhound Indie Bookstore or Eastern Woodland Home for a nice book or gift to bring home. If you need an afternoon pick-me-up, stop by On What Grounds? for good coffee.
Things to do on the southern side of Assateague Island (Virginia)
The southern side of the island mainly consists of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service) and the Assateague Island National Seashore (managed by the NPS).
Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center
There is a beautiful visitor center when you enter the southern side of the island. In the visitor center, there are many exhibits showing the animals that live on the island and about the island habitat. There are rangers at the visitor center than can answer any questions that you may have about the island and activities to do in the area. It is a great place to pick up any maps or brochures about the area.
Assateague Island Lighthouse
Near the visitor center, there is the Assateague Island Lighthouse. From the parking area, you can walk a short trail through the woods to reach the lighthouse. Sometimes, it is open so that you can climb to the top of the lighthouse to see the surrounding views. The lighthouse is red and white striped and has been there since the 1860’s.
Drive or Walk the Wildlife Trail
The Wildlife Trail is a 3.25 mile paved loop that is open to pedestrians only prior to 3pm and to vehicles and pedestrians from 3pm until dusk. The loop goes through some marshes and forest areas on the southern end of the island. In the spring when we visited, I did not think that it was really worth walking, but it was nice to drive around. There are various places to pull-off through the loop incase you wanted to drive and get out for a shorter walk within the loop.
Toms Cove Visitor Center
Toms Cove Visitor Center is the NPS visitor center on the southern part of the island. It is much smaller than its counterpart on the northern part of the island, but still has a lot of great information. The rangers at the Toms Cove Visitor Center were very friendly and helpful.
The Woodland Trail is a paved 1.6 mile trail that weaves through a pine forest. This trail is one of the few chances to see horses on the southern part of the island. The ponies on the southern end of the island are contained in a fenced-in area. The Woodland Trail has a wooden viewpoint near the end of the loop that allows you too see the ponies’ field. When we visited, we did see the ponies here, but very far out in the distance. Regardless of the horse sighting, we really enjoyed walking this peaceful trail.
Hang out in the nearby touristy town of Chincoteague
Chincoteague Island is right beside Assateague Island. The town of Chincoteague is a popular tourist destination and has many restaurants and stores. It has lots of activities for the family including mini golf. If you are looking for somewhere to stay, eat, or get ice cream near the southern side of the island, Chincoteague is the best place.
NASA Wallops Flight Facility Visitor Center
Right off Assateague Island and Chincoteague Island, there is NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, which has a free visitors center. The visitors center is nice and has a lot of exhibits, especially for kids. You can also watch rockets launch here. Be sure to check the launch schedule to see if there will be rocket launch on the day of your visit.
Tips for visiting Assateague Island
Have realistic expectations of seeing horses
You may be disappointed if you go to Assateague Island expecting to see horses up close. We were really lucky to have seen the horses 3 times up close, but we were camping there and were on the island almost 36 hours. If you are just driving through the island, there is a lesser chance that you will see the horses up close.
You may get really lucky and see the horses a bunch, but just know that there is nothing to control where they are and there is a lot of the island that isn’t very accessible to humans, but very accessible to the horses.
Stay away from the wild horses
If you are lucky enough to see the horses up close, stay at least 40 feet away! The NPS recommends staying at LEAST a school-bus-length away from the horses. Since the horses are wild, they act differently than horses you might have previously encountered.
The horses attacked people at the campsite beside ours because they had food in a bag. The horses were very vicious, even trampling their latched cooler to get any food out. People are sent to the hospital because the horses bite or kick them.
Prepare for bugs
If you do plan to visit in the warmer months, the mosquitoes are known to be terrible. Bring plenty of bug spray if visiting in the summer, especially if you are camping and will be spending a lot of time outside at dusk and dawn.
Get a “America the Beautiful” Pass (the USA National Parks Pass)
Entrance fees are required for all of the different parks on the island. For example, the entrance fee for the Assateague Island National Seashore is $25 per day. As you can imagine, this adds up quickly. If you visit many national lands, I recommend getting the “America the Beautiful” Pass. It has one annual fee (around $80 for most people, but cheaper for some groups) and allows you into most nationally managed lands for FREE the rest of the year. The “America the Beautiful” Pass is accepted by the nationally managed lands on Assateague Island.
Overall, this is my guide to visiting Assateague Island. I hope it helpful to you in planning your trip to this incredible and unique place.
Let me know any comments or questions you may have below!
Thanks for reading!