Assateague Island | Wild horses roam free on this untamed Island

Assateague Island is a 37-mile (60 km) long barrier island located off the eastern coast of the Delmarva Peninsula facing the Atlantic Ocean. The northern two-thirds of the island is in Maryland while the southern third is in Virginia. The Maryland section contains the majority of Assateague Island National Seashore and Assateague State Park. The Virginia section contains Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and a one-mile stretch of land containing the lifeguarded recreational beach and interpretive facilities managed by the National Park Service (or NPS).It is best known for its herds of feral horses, pristine beaches and the Assateague Lighthouse. The island also contains numerous marshes, bays, and coves, including Toms Cove. Bridge access for cars is possible from both Maryland and Virginia, though no road runs the full north/south length of the island.

Getting to the Island

Renting a car from Washington, D.C., is the easiest way to get to Assateague. The most direct route is to head east through Maryland over the 7-kilometer Chesapeake Bay Bridge into Delaware, then south back into Maryland. While it’s an easy and scenic drive, you’ll want to use a map or GPS to navigate and check traffic reports.

Meet the Horses

Visitors flock to see the “wild” horses on the beach. The park features two herds, with a fence divided between the Maryland and Virginia borders. While they are called wild, Assateague’s horses are “descendants of domestic animals that have reverted to a wild state,” according to the National Park Service. Here, the horses can be found running into the surf or grazing on hay or beach grass. As with all animals in their natural habitat, do not approach or feed the horses, and give them space.

Assateague draws its largest crowds of the year on the last Wednesday of July when it celebrates the annual “Pony Swim.” To prevent overpopulation — which could destroy the herds, as well as other wildlife and vegetation on the island — the Virginia herd of horses is rounded up to swim from Assateague Island to nearby Chincoteague Island between tides, when there is no current. There, the horses are auctioned off to new homes, with the proceeds benefiting the local volunteer fire company. To get the best view of this tradition, reserve a spot on a charter boat.

Outdoor Adventures

Assateague also offers paved bike paths, canoe and kayak launching areas, 19 kilometers of beach driving area (a permit is required), surf fishing and swimming. For biking, a paved path connects Chincoteague and Assateague, with four main trails that wind through woodlands, a swan cove and a marsh, ranging from 0.8 to 5.2 kilometers. Canoes can be rented from the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.

What to Eat

Maryland is renowned for its blue crabs, particularly in summer when they shed their shells and are completely edible. Marylanders typically steam and season crabs with local favorite Old Bay Seasoning, and serve with sides like French fries, corn on the cob and coleslaw. Specialty crab shacks are abundant in the Assateague and Ocean City areas, such as the iconic Assateague Crab House, outside the park’s campgrounds.