Travelers: Danielle Gervalis with Mike Ramsden and Kat Calvitti
When: June 2017
If you like camping and enjoy the beach, then Assateague Island National Seashore is for you! The miles long pristine beaches are perfect for setting up your beach spread: chairs, towels, coolers, music and games and settling in for a full day of fun. Did I mention the packs of wild ponies roaming around? You’ll get to meet them too!
It’s a 37-mile long barrier island along the Atlantic Ocean, covering two states, Maryland and Virgina. The northern majority of the island is in Maryland and includes camping facilities, bays, a famous lighthouse and best of all…..wild horses! Geographically, the island has experienced shifting sands over the years. Initially connected to another island off the coast of Maryland, a 1933 hurricane separated the landmasses and then manmade jetties were installed which made this new formation permanent. Assateague was then protected via legislation in 1962 when the National Seashore was formed and is now managed by the National Park Service, Maryland State Parks and the Fish and Wild Life Service. Note: While you can visit the Virgina side of the island, you can only camp on the Maryland side.
When to Visit
Believe it or not, the National Park Service allows camping year round at their sites. I can pretty much guarantee you will have a quiet stay if you visit during the off-season. We went in the middle of the summer and the beaches and camp sites were busy. The weather was still enjoyable enough to have a fire in the evening but you will wake up in the morning in your own tent sauna.
I would recommend late summer as the best time to visit, as the crowds will thin, the mosquitos will decrease and it won’t be as hot in the evenings but still warm enough during the day so you can take a dip in the frigid Atlantic Ocean.
I reserved a spot through the National Park Service’s website literally five months in advance. I had been hawking the site for a few weeks hoping a weekend would open up and lo and behold on February 8th, I reserved a campsite for July 15th. So plan ahead! The website is user-friendly and allows you to search by date, location (beach/bay), specific site number, and.or type of site (tent/camper). You can also search by the camp site map to ensure you get the spot closest to the beach.In my opinion, site #47 is the best spot. It’s a little secluded so people aren’t walking through your setup and it’s closest to the ocean. If you are camping during the summer, be aware the mosquitos are much worse on the bay side.
At the Park and Campsite
Assateague Island National Seashore truly has an exceptional setup. The entire park is clean and well maintained. Once you arrive, you will check at the Ranger Station and pay a $20 fee (in addition to the fee you paid to reserve the site). They will give you a map, parking pass and if you are friendly might even tell you some stories about pony bites. You are allowed one car per walk in site, but there is overflow parking near the Park Ranger Station.
There are no shortage of activities, you can hunt for seashells, surf, rent canoes, kayaks and bikes. There are well-marked biking and running trails throughout the island. Additionally, there is a beach shack where you can purchase ice for your coolers as well as miscellaneous snacks and soft drinks. Finally, you MUST purchase firewood from the Ranger Station. They do not allow people to bring in their own. You’ll need at least four bundles to make your dinner and get through the evening.Each tent campsite is numbered and equipped with a picnic table and fire ring. There is potable water, bathrooms and showers nearby each grouping of sites. The walk-in sites are close to the beach which is lovely at night when you can hear the waves as you are laying in your tent!
Things to Pack
Like any camping trip, you’ll want to bring whatever you need to be comfortable in the great outdoors. That being said, beach camping adds a different dynamic to those efforts. It is in that spirit I provide the following packing list for this unique environment:
- Latchable, hardsided cooler. Apparently the ponies are getting smarter and have no shame kicking your cooler around and stealing your food
- Strong mosquito spray is an absolute necessity, despite what side of the island you are camping on (the stuff with deet)
- Extra long tent stakes. We used the regular ones that came with our tent but if it was an extra windy day, we would’ve been in trouble.
- Beach umbrella – remember you are camping on the beach so there isn’t much shade to be found
- Muscles or a cart/wagon to haul your stuff from your car to your walk in site
- Sunblock, SPF 50 or higher
About those Ponies…
You’ll see signs of the ponies presence around before you set eyes on them, so walk gingerly (fortunately, it doesn’t smell). There I was sitting on the beach reading my book. I finally look up and all of a sudden there are 4-5 wild ponies just standing by the water. I didn’t even hear them walking around! They truly are majestic creatures and you’ll find yourself stalking them to take countless photos.During the day, there are at least two volunteers walking with the various herds. They are happy to talk with you about the horses and keep them from getting into too much trouble. However, we did see the ponies getting into one unhappy beachgoers cooler, so make sure to keep your food contained. Even though they look docile, they are wild animals and will kick and bite if you get too close!
Good to know
- As this is the Atlantic Ocean, the water is cold but refreshing
- You can also request a campsite via the Maryland State Park site
- Don’t forget to look up and enjoy the night sky!
- Driving through Maryland? You would be remiss if you didn’t stop at a crab shack for hardshells!