Assateague Island National Seashore, a 37-mile long island along the coast of Virigina and Maryland, boasts some of the best beaches on the East Coast. Assateague Island is known for its wild ponies, excellent surf, and popular beach camping. Families will enjoy the nature center and lifeguarded beach. Bird watchers can enjoy over 320 species of birds in this protected sanctuary. Best of all, this popular beach is easily accessible for East Coast residents.
Wild Ponies on Assateague Island
I really had high hopes of seeing the wild ponies when we visited Assateague Island and worried that we might miss them. The ponies greeted us in the parking lot by poking their noses in our car as soon as we opened the back of the van. They tried to open bags and coolers looking for food and were fairly agressive. There are signs posted everywhere warning you not to feed the horses ($100 fine) and not to pet or ride them. Remember these wild ponies are wild, and they will bite so keep your distance. Plan to keep your food in zippered bags or secure coolers.
These horses are used to people and are not shy. I watched them kick and head butt one another and then wander over and poke their heads right under someone's beach umbrella. Watch young children around the ponies to keep them safe.
Tips for Assateague State Park
Assateague State Park is a great day trip for East Coast residents, or a vacation destination in itself. We came to body board, surf, and play in the sand, and we loved our two days visiting the island. There are large bathrooms with changing stalls and showers to clean off before you head home. The park also has a camp store, grill and ice cream shop. Here are my tips for enjoying Assateague State Park:
- Bring mosquito repellant and plenty of sunscreen. My only complaint about the beach was the biting flies and pesky mosquitos that bothered us.
- Maryland State Parks are trash-free, so bring garbage sacks and plan to pack your trash in and out.
- Arrive early on busy weekends. This popular beach will fill to capacity on holiday weekends and many other summer weekends. When the parking lot is full, they will not allow anyone else to enter the park.
- Occasionally you will find umbrellas and chairs available to rent but it is not a regular service so do not count on it.
- Assateague State Park is open from 7:00 a.m. until dusk. The swimming beach has life guards from 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
- Great surfing for beginners. My husband and teenage daughters love to surf, so Assateague Island is our favorite beach for a day-trip from Washington D.C. The surfing area is much less crowded (and therefore less intimidating) than Ocean City.
Reservations are recommended six months in advance for the popular beach camping at Assateague Island. If you haven't tried beach camping, it is an experience quite different from mountain camping. Some families love beach camping and make it an annual event. Families who are used to mountain camping sometimes complain about the sand everywhere and the hot sun and lack of shade.
Beach camping is only available on the Maryland side of the island at Assateague State Park. Reservations are required for camping April 15-October 15 and the reservation system becomes available six months in advance. Nearly all weekend reservations fill up the day they become available. Make reservations through the reservation line at 1-877-444-6777 or visit www.recreation.gov.
Assateague Island Visitor Center
We couldn't pull our kids away from the beach long enough to enjoy the Visitor Center, but our friends who stopped at the Visitor Center gave rave reviews of the excellent marine aquariums, touch tanks, and film about the wild horses of the island. This would be a great place to get out of the sun for a few hours for families who are camping on the beach.
Assateague Island is a nature preserve and a great place for those looking to enjoy the beach in a very natural setting. For those who want more entertainment, Ocean City, Maryland, is just nine miles north of Assateague State Park. You can find water parks, mini golf, Tanger Outlet stores, and plenty of other entertainment as you head toward Ocean City. The boardwalk at Ocean City is fun for families looking for more entertainment.
Where to stay if you are not beach camping? The nearest hotels are in Berlin, MD, or there are a few hotels on Route 50. These often fill up early during summer weekends. You can stay about 30-40 minutes away in Salisbury or Ocean City, MD.
Good to Know
Location: Assateague State Park, 7307 Stephen Decatur Highway, Berlin, Maryland 21811
Cost: Maryland State Park fees apply. Cost is $5 per vehicle, plus $5 per person (non-resident). Maryland residents pay $3 per person. Kids in car seats or booster seats are free.
Amenities: Bath house with showers. Camp store, grill and ice cream shop.