White, foam-crested waves crashed into the shoreline as my running shoes dug into the wet sand, and the warm, salty wind passed over my face, swirling and lifting my hair. I felt as wild and free as the horses that inhabit this island. I was on Assateague, a barrier island located on the eastern shore of Maryland and Virginia, a few miles south of the popular resort destination Ocean City, Md.
We had come to the island to camp, enjoy the ocean, hike the nature trails and see the wild horses of Assateague Island National Seashore. Camping is only allowed on the Maryland side of the island, so we settled our Class B into a campsite near the sand dunes. Within Assateague Island National Seashore, RVers have a choice of camping on the ocean side or the bay side of the island, but neither side offers hookups. Because of a heavy mosquito population in the warmer months, we recommend the ocean side where sea breezes blow the mosquitoes inland. Every campsite has a picnic table and fire grill, and the campgrounds have cold water showers and chemical toilets, as well as drinking water. If you need a campsite with electricity, there are 39 30-amp hookup sites at the adjacent Assateague State Park.
Meeting the Wild Horses On Assateague
There are two schools of thought about the origin of the wild horses of Assateague Island – they were either survivors of a shipwreck off the coast of Virginia, or they were horses owned by the area’s settlers. Undisputed is the stamina of these small horses, who have survived ocean storms, hot summer sun, mosquitoes and a diet mainly of cordgrass, salt marsh plants, beach grass, seaweed, poison ivy, rose hip, bayberry and greenbrier. There are also two entities that oversee the wild horses. On the Maryland side, the National Park Service manages the horses; on the Virginia side the horses are privately owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department.
As the morning light filtered through the back window of our motorhome, I slid open the side door and felt a refreshing ocean breeze. Then I stepped out of the camper and found myself sharing our campsite with seven horses – three golden brown, two chestnut and two painted ponies. The horses grazed on beach grass and a bayberry bush while several orange-billed cattle egrets strutted around snatching up displaced insects. As I set up breakfast, Chee Chee, our Chihuahua, sat tethered in a camp chair watching the horses.
As soon as my husband, Victor, joined me for breakfast, the stallion walked toward us. I quickly grabbed the cereal and Chee Chee and scurried inside the motorhome. Victor stepped back, as the stallion’s nose pushed the remaining dishes off the table. We stood inside the motorhome laughing. The horses stayed for another hour resting and rolling around on the grass.
Our introduction to the wild horses reinforced what we’d been told about keeping a safe distance from these unpredictable animals. All visitors are given a brochure outlining the dangers of petting, feeding and approaching these horses.
Bike Riding On Assateague
The horses eventually trotted toward Bayberry Drive and I thought it was a good time for us to take Chee Chee for a ride on the four-mile bike trail. Chee Chee sat secured in his pet carrier as we passed pine trees, wax myrtle and bayberry bushes. A rabbit scurried into the thicket under a cluster of poison ivy. We turned off Bayberry Drive and rode a short distance to Old Ferry Landing. Fishing, crabbing and kayaking are the recreations of choice for this inlet. Children and adults stood on the dock fishing, while a female boat-tailed grackle hopped on the railing.
Sharing the bike path with horses, we left the park and rode on Route 611, encountering a mare with a foal and a herd of grazing horses. Another mare crossed the road in front of us, halting all traffic. As we continued riding we passed a great egret and glossy ibis fishing in a mud marsh. Once we reached the Verrazano Bridge, the gateway to Assateague Island, we crossed over Sinepuxent Bay on the footbridge and watched sailboats skimming over the water and terns flying under the bridge.
Arriving at the Assateague Island Visitor Center, we ate our brown bag lunches and walked around the viewing deck. Since dogs are not permitted inside the building, I waited on a bench chatting with an elderly gentleman while Victor went inside. The center has a marine aquarium, touch tank, trail maps, a film about the island’s wild horses and a variety of educational books. We recommend visitors stop at the center before entering the park.
We rode back to our campsite and rested, while the sound of breaking surf and the smell of a distant campfire filled our senses.
The following morning while I slept, Victor woke at 5:30, dressed quickly, grabbed his camera and hiked across the sand to the dunes. It was dark as he climbed the dune, sinking his feet into the soft sand. At the top of the dune, an orange glowing sky and the silhouettes of six horses lying on the beach greeted him. As the sun began its ascent, some of the horses stood up. Led by the stallion, the herd walked over the dunes, past the campsites and into the woods. Victor was convinced that losing a few hours of sleep was worth the experience.
Assateague Nature Trails
Another morning, we woke to the sound of a whinny followed by a snort. The horses outside our motorhome were talking to each other. Since it was 4 a.m., I pulled the blanket over my head. After breakfast and dog walking, we drove to South Ocean Beach to hike Life of the Dunes trail. Since dogs are prohibited on nature trails, we left Chee Chee napping in our air-conditioned motorhome.
Covered with sunscreen and bug repellant, we followed a sandy path bordered by beach grass, beach heather, yellow flowered prickly pear and bayberry. Catching a glimpse of a brown speckled dowitcher sitting on an abandoned fence post, we walked off the path to find a broken, cracked blacktop road known as Baltimore Boulevard.
Baltimore Boulevard was part of a planned beachside resort constructed in the 1950s and destroyed by a storm in 1962. After the storm, developers abandoned the idea of an island paradise. The federal government purchased the land and established Assateague Island National Seashore in 1965.
We walked along the fractured road for approximately a quarter-mile and reached an observation deck with signboards describing plant life. Leaving the observation deck, we continued on the trail and passed the beach where men were fishing while others drove over-sand vehicles (OSV) along the coastline.
A Sika deer watched us as we followed the trail into the woods and encountered a large scrub pine casting tentacle shadows on the sandy needle floor. The hot noon sun combined with hungry mosquitoes caused me to walk briskly to the parking lot. The best time to hike this trail is early morning or at dusk.
Our next hike was Life of the Forest, a half-mile loop near Old Ferry Landing. A canopy of loblolly pines and red maples shades the forest path. We walked the trail bordered by thorny greenbrier, poison ivy, serviceberry and blueberry bushes, which provide food for resident catbirds, mockingbirds, flickers, woodpeckers, red foxes, opossums and raccoons. The song of an eastern towhee filled my ears as the scent of pine tickled my nose.
The path changes into a boardwalk taking you across the marsh with signboards explaining the complex ecosystem. We passed a large group of orange striped dragonflies clustered around a leafless bush. The dragonflies appeared to be eating bugs from the broken branches.
Looking across the marsh, we saw an abundance of slender salt meadow cordgrass, which protects nesting shorebirds and small animals from marsh hawks and screech owls. From the observation deck, I watched a great egret land gracefully on a shallow saltwater pond while horses grazed on marsh grass. Walking back on the forest path, we passed fresh-water ponds that provide drinking water for the horses. As we stepped out of the forest on to Bayberry Drive, my thoughts drifted back to the diversity of this natural barrier island and the storm that saved it from development.
Assateague Island National Seashore is one of the few places in this country where you can camp and see wild horses in their natural habitat. This diverse landscape, with its multitude of wildlife, miles of sandy beach, nature paths, docks for fishing, inlets for crabbing and kayaking, and wild horses, is sure to provide visitors with a unique outdoor experience.
Assateague Island National Seashore