Assateague Island National Seashore: Visiting the Wild Ponies
Assateague Island is a barrier island found just off the coasts of Maryland and Virginia. Assateague Island is the perfect outdoor explorer and wildlife fanatic oasis. On the island you will find a multitude of wildlife species, most notably various species of birds and the famous Assateague wild ponies. You will also find a ton of other family friendly activities, including hiking, swimming, fishing, and kayaking. Assateague Island, on the Maryland side, is split into the Assateague Island State Park and Assateague Island National Seashore. In Virginia, you will find the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.
On our recent visit to Ocean City, we were able to visit Assateague Island National Seashore. The Assateague National Seashore stretches across Assateague Island in Maryland. The seashore was designated as a protected area in 1962 in order to protect the wildlife and natural habitat of the area. The scenic drive along the Assateague Island National Seashore will take you past many pull off areas where you can enjoy views of the bay and marshes and at times the wild ponies roaming about. You can also find many fun outdoor activities to enjoy beyond watching the wild ponies.
How Did The Ponies Get There: The Legends
While the exact events surrounding how the ponies came to call Assateague Island home is unknown, there are many legends and speculations about this. One legend has it that a Spanish galleon shipwrecked 300 years ago and the ponies that were aboard the ship swam to Assateague Island, making it their home and where they have roamed ever since.
Two other theories are that locals living in the area sent their horses to Assateague Island to avoid fencing laws set for mainland farmers or sent there to avoid paying taxes on the horses. The theory that is believed to be the actual origin of the Assateague wild ponies is the use of Assateague Island as a seasonal space for the mainland farmers, who would send the ponies to the island during the winter months to graze with plenty of food availability for them, and then bring them back to the mainland after the winter season.
In 1749 Assateague Island was hit with a storm surge that covered a good portion of the island in water and very few ponies survived. Following this pasturing of the ponies on Assateague Island is believed to have ended, but it is believed some ponies survived and their offspring continue to wander the island.
The Visitor Center
To begin your journey at Assateague Island National Seashore, make a stop at the Assateague Visitor Center. The visitor center is found before the Verrazano Bridge leading to Assateague Island. Inside you will find a museum with history on Assateague Island and the ponies and a gift shop. You may even catch a glimpse of the wild ponies strolling around in the parking lot! Watch your step though, they do leave behind some not so pleasant surprises!
From the visitor center it is a short drive over the bridge to the entrances of both Assateague Island State Park and Assateague Island National Seashore.
The visitor center is open from 9am to 5pm daily. The seashore is open 24 hours a day.
When To Go
The best time of year to visit Assateague Island is April through mid-October, with summer being the best time to see the foals. When visiting, you have a good chance of seeing the ponies no matter what time of day you visit. They are found grazing the marshes or relaxing on the shoreline throughout the day.
Best Place to Find the Ponies
It is important to remember that the ponies are wild, and therefore their daily movements can not be predicted, meaning pony sightings are not guaranteed! But there are places to look where they tend to roam around the most! When entering Assateague Island National Seashore, be on the lookout on the right hand side. This is the bay side of the island lined with marshes, where you are likely to find the ponies munching on the grass! In fact, we went all the way through the park, hiked the three trails available, and did not catch sight of a single pony! As we were leaving, we found 8 of them hanging out along the marshes. There are some pull off areas where you can stop to capture some great photos of the ponies!
What To Do On the Assateague National Seashore
One of the main reasons for visiting the Assateague National Seashore is inevitably the wild ponies, but don’t let that deter you from enjoying everything else the island has to offer. Assateague Island offers ranger guided programs, camping, hiking, biking, wildlife viewing, horseback riding, fishing, over sand vehicles, and swimming.
Throughout the park you will find three marked hiking trails: Life of the Forest, Life of the Dunes, and Life of the Marsh trails. Each trail gives you unique scenic views and the opportunity to spot the ponies and other wildlife.
Life of the Forest Nature Trail
Length: 0.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 3 ft.
The Life of the Forest trail is a short, easy trail that takes you to a boardwalk extending over the marshes on Sinepuxent Bay. Along the trail you will walk past a small freshwater pond and out onto a boardwalk overlooking the marshes with great opportunities to see the wild ponies grazing. The short, easy trail is perfect for any age group and any fitness ability.
Life of the Dunes Trail
Length: 3/4 mile
Elevation Gain:6 ft.
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
The Life of the Dunes trail is the most challenging of the three trails, but is still a fairly easy hike that can be done with the family. The trail goes through the sand dunes with a walk along the soft, white sands past wildlife, plant species, and the remnants of the highway that once ran through Assateague Island. The Life of the Dunes Trail entrance is close by beach access, so after a nice hike on a hot summer day you can dip your toes into the ocean to cool off.
Life of the Marsh Trail
Length: 0.5 miles loop trail
Elevation Gain: None, flat boardwalk trail
The Life of the Marsh trail is a boardwalk trail that takes you out over the marsh on Sinepuxent Bay. This trail is great for viewing wildlife, especially the different species of birds that can be found along the trail. There is a small section of the boardwalk, which was part of the original boardwalk destroyed by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, leads down to a small shoreline where you can relax on a small sandy beach or dip your toes in the water.
For those looking to stay on Assateague Island, camping options include oceanside and bayside campsites. Camping is available year-round, with reservations required between March 15 and November 15 and a first-come first serve basis the rest of the year. Camp sites average $30 per night.
Assateague Island is a popular pace to camp, so plan and make your reservations way in advance. (Tip: Camping is only available on the Maryland end of Assateague Island).
Take a Boat Tour
Taking a boat tour along Sinepuxent Bay is another great option for seeing the wild ponies of Assateague Island National Seashore. The ponies frequent the marshes on the outskirts of the island, making a boat tour a great way to catch a glimpse of them! There are plenty of tour options that will give you a tour of Ocean City from the water and down around Assateague Island, where you will be on the lookout for ponies grazing. Combine this with a dolphin tour and be treated to even more wildlife! (If you are visiting the Virginia end you will also find some great options that leave from Chincoteague)
If you are staying in Ocean City, Mr Ducks Assateague Adventure is a great option when visiting Assateague Island National Seashore with kids. The experience is interactive with a touch tank and the chance to get off the boat on the shore of Assateague Island and try to catch some little sea critters.
Swimming is permitted on the island, bayside and ocean sides. There are designated areas with lifeguards on duty from mid June until early October, otherwise it is swim at your own risk. You will find gorgeous white sand beaches on the ocean side with waves generally quiet enough for kids to swim in and even quieter places to swim on the bayside.
Water Activity Rentals
Don’t just stand and admire the ponies and marshes of Assateague Island National Seashore from afar! Try your hand at some of the water sports, with rentals conveniently located right on the National Seashore. Assateague Outfitters is located at the end of Bayside Drive and has kayak, canoe, and stand up paddle board rentals. You will also find bike rentals if you want to explore the island that way.
If you are interested in a guided tour you can enjoy the Wildlife Kayak Tour, a 2.5 hour tour around Assateague Island with a tour guide giving you information about the local wildlife and ecosystem.
Things to Know
- The Maryland end of the island is separated from the Virginia end, so you will not be able to drive from one end to the other. This is because the two do not want the ponies mixing. The Virginia ponies receive care, such as vet visits and vaccines, while the Maryland ponies do not, so the two states keep the ponies separate. It will take you about an hour to drive from the Maryland end to Chincoteague.
- The state park and national seashore are separate and both have separate entrance fees.
- Do not approach the ponies. They are wild and while they will not outright attack you, if you get to close you may get kicked or bitten. You can also earn yourself a ticket for getting to close, so save yourself the money and stay back!
- Don’t forget the sunscreen and bug spray! Some areas are heavy in mosquitos and you don’t want your visit to be ruined by getting eaten alive! And on a hot sunny day you will want to protect yourself from the sun!
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I’ve always wanted to see the wild ponies, but when I went to OBX a couple years ago, we didn’t plan well enough to get on a tour. I might have to add Assateague to my “to visit” list, although it sounds like there’s no guarantee of seeing them there either. At least there’s lots of hikes and other cool activities to keep you busy! That’s fascinating that they keep the ponies from the two states separate.
What a beautiful island to explore. I think it would be lovely even without the ponies, but they just add a little bit extra to the experience.