Small Park Saturday: Assateague Island National Seashore

Designated as a protected National Seashore in 1965, Assateague Island is a premier spot for all of life’s coastal pleasures. From sunbathing by the bay and spotting wild ponies to kayaking and off-roading on beautiful sand dunes, there’s something for every summer agenda on Assateague Island.

Let’s dive (see what I did there?) into the Assateague Island National Seashore edition of Small Park Saturday! 

A Brief History of Assateague Island National Seashore

Assateague Island has always been an inherently wild place with only a few temporary communities popping up over the centuries. It’s widely speculated that one of these communities brought over the ancestors of today’s Assateague ponies from the mainland.

While the human civilizations on Assateague burnt out quickly, the lack of human disruption over the following centuries has allowed roughly 80 feral descendants of the original domestic ponies to thrive on the island to this day, according to the National Park Service.

As a barrier island, the topography of Assateague changes often and dramatically resulting in large, scenic sand dunes on the ocean side, pine woodlands and wildflowers in the center of the island, and ever-evolving marsh land on the bayside. 

With such a unique environment comes a wide range of flora and fauna to see. It’s not limited to the feral ponies that the island is most known for–you’ll also have the chance to get up close and personal with river otters (<3), meadow jumping mice, and bottle-nose dolphins.

What to See & Do at the Seashore

Hike, bikes, kayaks–oh, my! There are dozens of ways to experience Assateague:

  • Take a Hike: The island offers 37 miles of open beach and march hiking options. Personally, I enjoyed the short, flat Life of the Forest Trail that takes you into the marsh.
  • Ride a Bike: Bring your bike (or rent one from the rental stand by the Assateague Island National Seashore Visitor Center) and ride up and down miles of paved island trails.
  • Go Kayaking: Rent a kayak from Assateague Outfitters to get a unique glimpse of the island from the water. They also offer guided wildlife tours for groups and paddleboards.
  • Catch Some Crabs: Maryland is known for its blue crab and nothing is fresher and more satisfying than a crab you caught yourself.
  • Take the Road Less Traveled: If you own a vehicle with all- or four-wheel drive, you can put your drivetrain to the test as long as you secure an Over Sand Vehicle (OSV) permit.

If you’re planning to stay more than just the day, reserve a camping spot ahead of time and settle in for some of the best stargazing you can get on the east coast. Be sure to read up on long-exposure photography (there are cellphone apps for it).

Important Tips for Your Visit

Do not forget your sunscreen. There is very minimal shade on the island. Whether you’re kayaking on the bay, hanging on the beach for the day, or exploring the dunes, you will have virtually no shade to escape from the sun in.

Keep a bus-length’s distance from the horses. Seriously. Feral animals, though descendent from domesticated animals, are much more connected with their wild roots and aren’t afraid to show it. There are plenty of documented cases of visitors being kicked and bitten to deter you. Most cell phones have exceptional zoom capabilities nowadays–that 40-foot safety gap won’t affect your photo quality, I promise.

Drive painfully slow. Speed limits on the island max out at 25 miles an hour mainly for the safety of the horses. Thankfully, this limit has reduced the annual pony death toll to just one horse a year, but that’s still too many when the speed limit is this low.

Unofficial Apricot Suggestions

Pack in & pack out. This is a good rule to follow in general, but it’s going to be essential for your trip to Assateague. Because the island is a barrier island and the topography changes frequently, there aren’t many permanent structures (snack shacks, restaurants, etc.) on the island. 

But you can bring as many coolers as you can fit in your car if that’s your thang. Pack enough food for the day and be sure to bring any trash or scraps back out with you. If you plan to stay on the national seashore side (not the state park side), you can also bring your booze!

Bring a small bag for shells. There is an abundance of shells on the bayside of Assateague Island, and I love a good shell. The National Park Service allows visitors to collect some free souvenirs from the island as long as you limit your shelling to one gallon or less of shells total. 

You’ll also want to double and triple check that the shells you pick up are uninhabited. The National Park Service is about preservation after all.

Bring a portable charging bank. You wouldn’t believe how much faster your phone battery drains when it’s in the sun. Most phones are not supposed to be exposed to temperatures exceeding 95 degrees Fahrenheit which is not atypical for a mid-July day at the beach.

I’d recommend bringing along a power bank to plug your phone into especially if you plan to take a lot of pictures or play music.

Have a Swell Time Down by the Seashore!

Have the best time soaking up the sun at Assateague Island National Seashore, and don’t forget your National Park pass!

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