Assateague’s coastal wilderness is a peaceful escape from the bustle and energy of Ocean City, Maryland. The island stretches 37 miles along the east coast of Maryland. Animal lovers get the added bonus of outstanding wildlife diversity. Here’s how to get the most out of your Assateague Island visit and increase your chances of finding the roaming wild ponies.
It remains a mystery how this island became a haven for the wild ponies. They’ve been on the island for hundreds of years. Some believe they are descendants from early farms and others prefer the legend of the sunken Spanish ship whose horses swam ashore. The ship was found not far from the coast in 1997 supporting this theory.
I read numerous blogs in advance of our trip, trying to determine whether to explore the island’s State Park or the National Seashore. When we arrived, we felt we were misdirected. So, I’ve shared our experience and recommendation below.
Choosing between the State Park and the National Seashore
Here is a comparison between the two parks to help you decide where to spend your day.
|Where?||State Park||National Seashore|
|General Info||Fee: $5 per person |
You’ll receive a dash permit so you can leave and come back
|$20 per car for a seven day pass|
$40 annual Assateague National Seashore Pass
$80 annual National State Park Pass (If you are visiting at least 3 National Park locations in the next year, this is the best value)
|Pros||-Concessions building with Bathrooms and Showers|
-We found horses along the road toward the National Seashore entrance without actually entering the Fee area.
-Plenty of parking at the beach access area
-Lifeguards on the beach
|-Offers established trails through the Forest, Marsh, and Dunes.|
Take advantage of these to see the diversity of the island.
-There are two entrances; one from the Maryland side and the other for those traveling up from Virginia.
|Cons||-The Beach here was more crowded |
|-The parking lots are smaller than the State Park and quickly filled up near the beaches. Arrive early to ensure you get a spot.|
Be Wary of Maps
We originally decided to do the State Park because Google Maps had shown that reaching the National Seashore Entrance was 1 hour further. This was misguided as our map did not consider the road down the island as a valid route. Google Maps was taking us to the southern entrance to the park, near Chincoteague.
Packing for your Assateague Island Visit
- Layers of clothes including your swimsuit- It was chilly upon arrival to the park in the morning, but before long we were in our swimsuits on the beach.
- Beach Towel – A beautiful Turkish Towel doubles as a shawl!
- An SLR camera with decent zoom. Visitors are not to approach the ponies closer than 40′. My iPhone 11 camera wasn’t ideal at this distance.
- Picnic and Cooler – There are not concessions at the National Seashore Beach access points.
- Lots of Water
- Hand Sanitizer – Use after visiting outhouse facilities at the National Seashore.
- Comfortable Walking Shoes
- Sunscreen and Insect Repellent
Level Set Your Expectations
When I was daydreaming about our upcoming trip, I pictured sunbathing next to a herd of lounging wild ponies. My expectations were far from realistic for my single day Assateague Island Visit.
These ponies are smart to keep their distance from the daily onslaught of visitors. Set your goal to seek out at least ONE wild pony and consider yourself lucky.
You’d have to be especially fortunate to spend your day lounging at the beach and the horses to come to you. Plan to do a considerable amount of walking; check the marshes and forest especially on hot days.
You won’t be petting or feeding any horses. We were advised by several staff and signage to keep our distance, at least 40′. Every month there are instances of visitors being bit or kicked in their attempt to approach the horses for a perfect selfie.
Want to find more wild horses across the United States? Here are 12 Places to find them!
Where to Stay
I would have loved to camp right on the beach to give us a better chance to see the horses walk right onto the beach itself. If you’re driving into Maryland, I recommend tent camping within either the State Park or National Seashore.
I’ve added this to my list of future road trip opportunities with my family so we can soak up more time exploring the island.
Ocean City, Maryland
There are not hotel options on the island. We booked an Airbnb for a long girls’ weekend in Ocean City, Maryland. The drive was about 20 minutes to the Assateague Visitor Center then 10 more minutes to reach the State Park entrance.