Assateague offers quiet alternative for beachgoers


For many people, it just wouldn't be summer without a trip to Ocean City.

Every weekend, sun- and fun-seekers travel by carloads over the Bay Bridge, east on U.S. 50 and across the drawbridge over the bay, which leads to North Division Street, right in the heart of O.C. But wait. Back up about a mile west on Route 50. Instead of crossing that last bridge into town, hang a right on Route 611 and follow it until the roadway ends. There you'll find yourself at Assateague Island -- a different kind of beach retreat.

Assateague Island is probably best known as "the place where the ponies are." More than 300 wild horses roam the park year-round, and the annual pony swim from Assateague to Chincoteague is well-known. But there's more to Assateague than just wild horses. The island includes two parks: Assateague State Park, which you enter first via Route 611; and the Assateague Island National Seashore, which includes Chincoteague, Va., and is accessible either by driving through the state park on the Maryland side or by traveling through Virginia.

Both parks offer a variety of activities that you just can't do in Ocean City. You can pitch a tent by the ocean, build a bonfire, bring your dog, walk through a pine forest, take a peaceful canoe trip or ride a bike all day long. And if you're looking for a more tranquil and serene day sunbathing and swimming in the ocean, you'll likely find it at Assateague. The parks' beaches are usually a little quieter and less crowded than Ocean City's, most likely because you're in a park and not at a resort. If your idea of checking out the wildlife is not hanging out on the boardwalk and people watching, then Assateague may be the place for you.

What to do

Swimming and sunbathing: Lifeguards patrol designated areas of the beach Memorial Day to Labor Day, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. All other times, swim at your own risk. The sand on Assateague's beach has more broken shells than Ocean City, so you might want to wear water shoes if your feet are sensitive.

Wildlife and bird watching: In addition to the wild ponies, deer, foxes and more than 300 species of migratory and resident birds, including pelicans, falcons and American bald eagles, call Assateague home. The best time for pony-watching is usually at dusk, when the majority of people leave the park. If you're a novice bird watcher, park rangers lead guided bird-watching hikes almost every week. Check the visitor center for an activity schedule. Just remember to resist the urge to pet or feed the ponies. They may look fuzzy and cute, but they are wild animals and can bite and kick.

Camping: You can't just bring a tent to the beach and pitch it anywhere you want. Assateague has designated campsites that must be reserved in advance. The summer is almost entirely booked, but there may be a few slots open. Ocean-side campsites are available in the state park for $25 a night; $35 a night with electricity. The National Park Service provides year-round camping ocean-side and bay-side for $16 a night (no electric hookups). During the off season, these campsites are on a first-come, first-served basis. If you want to hike the backcountry or paddle around the island and camp, two ocean-side and four bay-side sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. A $5 backcountry permit is required.

Off-road driving: At last, a chance to use that sport utility vehicle or jeep for its intended purpose. There are designated areas of Assateague Island where you can leave the paved road and drive on the sand dunes. Permits to go off-road are $70 and are good for one year. All drivers must meet a list of vehicle specifications and carry required equipment in case of emergency, such as a shovel, tow rope, jack, etc. Call the park office for details.

Fishing: Surf fishing and sport fishing enthusiasts can fish in areas not designated for swimming and at the boat launch area. Maryland state fishing licenses are required.

Boating: There is a public boat launch near the visitor center before you enter the state park. Cost is $5. Parking is limited.

Canoeing or kayaking: The bay side of the park offers calm, peaceful water to paddle on. The water is shallow in many areas, so it's an ideal location for beginners. Canoe rentals are available at Old Ferry Landing in the national park. Thrill-seeking experienced paddlers can paddle in the ocean and battle the waves.

Hiking: In addition to its beach, Assateague offers more than 15 miles of trails through sand dunes, marshes and forests. There's even a trail leading to the Assateague lighthouse.

Bike riding: There's a separate path for bikers that follows the four miles of paved road. Bike rentals are available at Old Ferry Landing in the national park.

Pets: Pets are permitted in the national park only on the Maryland side (they can't even be in the car on the Virginia side) and must be on a leash no longer than 6 feet at all times. Pets are also prohibited in all backcountry camp sites, on nature trails and the lifeguard-protected beach.

Clam digging: Get out the rake and start digging. If you're not sure what to keep and what to throw back, or if you're worried about eating bad seafood, park rangers offer weekly seminars on clam digging and preparation. Check the visitor center for a schedule of activities.

Getting there

To get to the state park, follow Route 611 from U.S. 50. There are two entrances to the national park, either through the state park from Route 611 or at the end of Route 175, two miles from Chincoteague, Va. There is no direct vehicle access between Assateague and Chincoteague.


Call 410-641-2120 or 410-641-1441

Call 888-432-CAMP (2267) for camping reservations.

For state park information, visit http://www.dnr.state assateague.html.

For national park information, go to


The state park is free, but there is a charge to enter the national park. Cost is $3 per person by foot or bike or $10 per car. Entrance fees are good for seven days.

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