Assateague Island National Seashore near Ocean City, Md. Visited: June 12, 2004 NPS Site Visited: 53 of 353 NPS Website; Local Website
WHAT IS IT? A 37-mile long undeveloped and protected barrier island seashore just south of Ocean City, Md. Assateague Island includes two other protected areas: the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and the Assateague State Park. Two herds of wild horses, known locally as ponies, roam the Island.
BEAUTY (7/10) Kids wake-boarding, adults surf-fishing, everyone tanning and having a peaceful time next to the Atlantic Ocean. Summer on the Atlantic Ocean is a beautiful time. And there are wild ponies everywhere! They walk through the campsites and along the road. They are still gorgeous despite being a bit short and squat, a product of malnutrition and living on an Island.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (3/10) Assateague Island was beginning to be developed in the 50’s. Remnants of a macadam road attest to that. In the early 60’s, a devastating Nor’easter hit the Island and destroyed much of the resort property. The fortunate result was a movement to protect the land which led National Seashore authorization in 1965. Had it not been for that storm, Assateague Island might bear a resemblance to Ocean City.
Legend tells us that Assateague’s wild ponies are descended from horses that swam to the Island fleeing a sinking Spanish galleon. Scientific testing tells us that the ponies’ ancestors were placed on the island by 17th-century farmers looking to avoid livestock taxation. We prefer the legend. You may also know of the ponies from the classic Marguerite Henry children’s book, Misty of Chincoteague.
CROWDS (5/10) Mid-week, early June and all the campsites were taken; parking spaces were hard to find. The beach was still not nearly as crowded as we had imagined. In fact, the crowds were sparse when compared with Ocean City, Md. and the many beaches in nearby southern Delaware.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5) Assateague Island is easy to find and close to the vacations hotspots of the Delmarva Peninsula. Much of the Park, however, is accessible only through the purchase of a $70 off-road vehicle permit or by canoe. Off-roading along the beach, wow. we don’t think the Altima would ever forgive us.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (4/5) Great book selection and lots of stuff for kids. We still regret not purchasing the wild pony stuffed animal.
COSTS (3/5) The $10 fee per vehicle is good for a week. The park is free with the National Parks Pass which means that with the Pass you have year-long access to one of the prime beach locations on the east coast. Amazing stuff.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (3/5) There were a few Rangers at the Visitor Center. We saw one Park staff member, a volunteer on “Pony Patrol”, inside of the park. No lifeguards and no Rangers near the beach.
TOURS/CLASSES (8/10) The classes provided at the Barrier Island Visitor Center are both fun and educational. There is a salt-water tank filled with the local marine life. Visitors are encouraged to reach in and pick up the horseshoe crabs, mussels, clams and seaweeds. Displays explain what you have in your hands. Another tank teems with fish. Rangers lead discussions every hour on the tank contents.
The Visitor Center offers three different films, which are started upon request. We watched the most popular of the movies: Wild Ponies, an 18-minute film done in 1993 by the Kratt Brothers, of Be the Creature fame. They are very young. We love the Kratt Brothers because they love animals. They were just as excited about the wild ponies as we were. Their film told us how the ponies live, how their little society works. The film also showed and identified many more fauna we would see.
Assateague also offers both guided and self-guided tours along the Park’s three hiking trails. We did not want to wait for the Ranger and did not want to pay the $0.50 for the tour booklet so we walked the Life of the Dunes Nature Trail on our own. The display panels helped but the swarms of mosquitoes drove us off the trail and up to the Seashore. We won’t even think about the insects along the Life of the Marsh and Life of the Forest trails.
FUN (8/10) Are you kidding? There are wild ponies. Everywhere. You see them sunning themselves on the beach as you cross the bridge to the Island. You stop your car to let them cross the loop road. You watch them nip at their colts and graze on the wild grass. And this is before you even go to the beach.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (8/10) Assateague Island is a natural gem nestled amid a coastline of over-developed beach towns and resorts. Not that we don’t love Ocean City, Md. and Slower Lower Delaware. We do. Perhaps it is the sharp contrast with the Boardwalk pier, the flashing lights and brightly colored hotels, all visible through a telescope at the Visitor Center, that makes Assateague so special. It is hard to believe that it is so close to the fray but so remote. And there are wild ponies! If you are anywhere along the Atlantic Coast, we recommend a day trip to Assateague.
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