Assateague Island

Assateague Island


Assateague Island is a 37 mile long barrier island located off the eastern coast of Maryland and Virginia. It is best known for its herds of wild horses, pristine beaches, and the Assateague Lighthouse. Bridge access for cars is possible from both Maryland and Virginia, though no road runs the full length of the island.

Assateague Island National Seashore, Assateague State Park & the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge

There are 3 agencies on the island, Assateague Island National Seashore and Assateague State Park in Maryland, and the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia. The Refuge was established in 1943 to provide habitat for migratory birds, primarily snow geese. Assateague Island National Seashore was established in 1965 to preserve the barrier island, surrounding waters, and provide recreational opportunities. The United Nations has designated Assateague as a World Biosphere Reserve. The U.S. Department of the Interior has designated it a National Natural Landmark.

Human Use of the Island

The National Park Service allows Off-road vehicles with permits in certain areas. Car camping sites are available in both the National Seashore and Assateague State Park by reservation. Backcountry sites are also available from the National Seashore. There is no camping available from the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Pets are prohibited in all areas except certain parts of the National Seashore. Check with each agency to find out the specifics. Kayak touring is a popular way to see the wildlife, especially on the calmer bay side. The best time to backcountry camp is in the spring and fall. Summer months are known for heavy mosquito populations, particularly on the bay side.

Assateague State Park comprises almost 800 acres and lies in Maryland within the National Seashore. The state park is the most developed area on the island with 350 campsites. Most of the water around the island is within the boundaries of the national seashore. The island has a land area of 63.21 km² (24.4 sq mi) and has no resident population in either Maryland or Virginia, though a few retained rights properties existed until 2006. These were mainly hunting camps.

The Wild Horses of Assateague Island

Though commonly called "ponies" the animals are actually horses. The National Park Service provides information about these charismatic animals through brochures and internet. Made famous by Marguerite Henry in her book Misty of Chincoteague, generations of visitors make the pilgrimage each year to see these wonderful creatures. The Maryland horses are owned and managed by the National Park Service who have carefully followed the population over generations. In Virginia, the horses, known as the Chincoteague Ponies are owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department. Once a year in July, Salt Water Cowboys round up the Chincoteague Ponies for auction on Pony Penning Day. The Maryland and Virginia horses are kept apart by fencing at the border between the two states.

The National Park Service no longer refers to the island horses as feral. Experts in wild horses maintain that though the horses are descendants of domesticated animals, their behaviors are entirely consistent with their ancient ancestors.

To keep their numbers under control on the Maryland side, a federal contraceptive program has been in place since 1994. In Virginia, the auction keeps the horse population at levels required by agreement with the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.


Large populations of birds also inhabit the island, including American Oystercatcher, Great Blue Heron, and Snowy Egret. There are over 320 species that are known to inhabit the island during some portion of the year. These include gulls, terns, and other shorebirds along with raptors, waterbirds, and waterfowl.

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