Northeast

A Gathering of Horses – Maryland’s Assateague State Park

Maryland’s Assateague State Park Hosts a Herd of Wild Horses and Much More.

Centuries ago, a different breed of sea horses washed ashore on the windswept Maryland barrier island that is now Assateague Island National Seashore. Today, herds of wild horses co-habitat with visitors seeking a unique beach experience and easy, family friendly camping. This is a spot where you’ll want to return.

Assateague Island – the ponies greet the dawn at water’s edge, frothy ocean foam lapping at their fetlocks, tails flicking in the morning breeze.

At first glance, they appear magnificent and scruffy and surreal, like statues scattered across the sand. Slowly, they saunter along the damp hard-pack — as comfortable here as the seagulls and sandpipers that patrol the beach.

On this windswept barrier island, part of the Assateague Island National Seashore, these ponies are truly at home.

Beach horses RVAssateague Island represents a unique sanctuary to wild horses. It’s the campers who flock to Maryland’s only ocean state park who are outsiders, a curiosity to the resident horses.

“I never quite get used to seeing them, and yet I never tire of it,” acknowledged Julie Bower, of Washington, D.C., who sat in the sand one late-summer morning to study the equine parade.

Like many we met, Bower, is an Assateague devotee — committed to bringing her fifth-wheel to this unique setting at least once a year. She’s drawn by the beach, the novelty of the ponies and the sheer affordability of camping here. And on Assateague Island, those with campers or motorhomes enjoy distinct advantages against the elements.

“It’s the ponies,” Bower chuckled. “They pretty much run the place. If you leave food out at your campsite, they can chew a hole through a nylon tent to reach it. And they’re smart — they even know how to open coolers.”

It’s not unusual to awaken to a snuffling muzzle just outside your screen door or ponies grazing beside your RV. In fact, you have to remind yourself that they are, indeed, wild and have occasionally been known to bite or kick.

Since the animals enjoy a protected status, feeding and petting them is prohibited. That can make for some odd encounters, especially when they wander alongside your picnic table or roam the roadways at night, like over-sized raccoons.

Still, there is something about the freedom of these horses — wind-tossed manes, the haughty confidence that they’ve earned the right to be here — that visitors find mesmerizing.

“I think they represent something that we all yearn for — an unfettered quality, a fundamental wildness, perhaps — that I find really appealing,” Bower said.

Camping Among Horses

Legend holds that horses first came to Assateague when a Spanish galleon loaded with equine cargo went down off the Maryland coast, sometime in the 1600s. Today’s wild ponies are thought by some to be the offspring of the horses that survived to swim ashore, or so the story goes.

What is certain is that horses have grazed the beach grass and nearby salt marshes here for at least three centuries, inspiring the children’s novel, “Misty of Chincoteague.”

There are now thought to be at least two separate herds of wild horses that roam 37-mile-long Assateague Island.

The name Assateague derives from a Native American word that roughly translates to mean “the marshy place across.” The island presents a unique ecology, flanked to the west by Sinepuxent Bay and to the east by the Atlantic Ocean.

Campsites bring you closer to the ocean than the marshes and backside bay waters — a welcome location. The ocean breeze helps keep biting black flies and mosquitoes in check. Campgrounds stretch across an open setting, with more low brush than trees and few privacy barriers. Still, you’ll see plenty of birds and other wildlife, including small Sika deer.

Signs urge you to stay off the sand dunes and to watch for horses and deer on the roads. Pets are not allowed.

Gaze across most camping loops and you’ll see a scattered mix of low nylon tents, pop-up trailers, motorcoaches and other RVs tucked snugly next to each other in apparent harmony.

Assateague State Park offers 350 campsites within a series of 10 camping loops tucked among dunes and hillocks only a short walk over a sand berm to the seashore.

Close your eyes at night, and you can hear the hard, whisper crash of waves — the perfect evening lullaby. Open your windows to feel the cool ocean breeze.

Each campsite offers a fire ring and picnic table, with paved RV pads readily available. With nine centrally located bathhouses, hot showers and working toilets are never far away.

Only one camping loop (Loop H) has electric hookups, and those sites fill fast. But with the casual, kicked-back feel to the campground — and handy bathhouses — you may not miss that added convenience.

Many campers we met were repeat visitors who call a year in advance to secure their spots. We were able to find a campsite without amenities with only a week’s notice.

(Insider’s Tip: The rounded tops of the camping loops closest to the beach are considered prime real estate.)

To some, Assateague is an acquired taste. Nearby salt marshes give it a reputation for being “buggy.” Biting flies can be bothersome, and wind gusts will make you glad you’re in a RV. But with preparations, they’re no problem. Experienced campers bring bug spray and extra long sand stakes for screened outdoor tents or sunshades.

Camping season opens in early April and closes the end of October, but day access remains available throughout the year, and year-round camping is available nearby.

To reserve a campsite in Assateague State Park, call the Maryland State Parks Reservation Center at 888-432-2267 Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. or visit: http://reservations.dnr.state.md.us

The National Park Service also offers more primitive year-round camping in Assateague Island National Seashore campgrounds in Maryland. Campsites there offer drive-in pads but no hook- ups, fire grills and picnic tables. They’re available first-come, first- served from mid-October through mid-April. Reservations are recommended and may be made by calling 800-365-CAMP (2267) or at http://reservations.nps.gov.

Horses beach RVWhat To Do

Assateague Island consists of three major areas: Assateague State Park, Assateague Island National Seashore and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Entrance fees are required in all areas.

The island stretches south of Ocean City, Md., like a wrinkled index finger — a natural barrier island replete with marshlands, silky sand beaches and acres of water for recreational pursuits.

One of the easiest ways to reach it is to take U.S. Highway 50 toward Ocean City, veering south onto Route 611 for eight miles and crossing the Verrazano Bridge — a wonderful overlook that lends an attractive visual orientation. You can also access Assateague Island from the south by way of Chincoteague, VA.

Once there, it’s time to explore — walk the beach, find a hiking trail or unpack the bicycles. Near the visitor’s center, you’ll find a bridge for pedestrians and cyclists. The island is relatively flat and offers miles of hiking and biking along paved roadways.

Canoe or kayak the bay waters or try your hand at clamming, crabbing or surf fishing. Surf-fishermen may fish all night on the beach in Maryland, which is accessible 24 hours.

In Virginia, fisherman must get an overnight fishing permit at the Visitor Center. To remain on the beach overnight, you must be actively fishing. As a clerk at a local grocery store (a good place to stock up on supplies) in nearby Berlin, Md., eagerly pointed out, Assateague is also enormously popular with ATVers. Both Maryland and Virginia host off-road vehicle areas year-round, though each state limits the maximum number of vehicles that can be on the beach at any time.

An off-road permit is good for a year on both the Virginia and Maryland ends of Assateague Island. There are no weekly or other short-term permits issued, and off-road vehicles must be “street legal.”

When you check in at Assateague State Park, pick up a free “Guide to Bird watching in Worcester County, Maryland” and a birders checklist, as the region boasts some 350 species — more than you’ll find in any other county in the Maryland.

Tired of surf and sun? Backtrack into Ocean City — scout for fresh produce stands along the way — to take in what the Travel Channel has dubbed “one of the Best American Boardwalks.”

Constructed in the early 1900s, the 2.9-mile stretch of shops, restaurants and amusements has something for everyone, from para-sailing to miniature golf and the nation’s oldest continually operating Herschel-Spellman carousel.

In Ocean City, consider parking at the West Ocean City Park and Ride and catch a tram ride into boardwalk attractions or ride a city bus all day for one low fee.

Don’t forget to try the famed seafood buffet at Jonah and the Whale or Phillips Seafood Restaurant. Or grab a hot Maryland crab cake sandwich and drink at Waterman’s Seafood Company, where you can also pick up fresh seafood for your own kitchen.

A Sacred Space

Sprawled in a beach chair, Mary Laymon plunges her feet into the warm sand, tips her face to the sun and smiles. She knows this place, this camping spot, these grains of sand, very well.

“The Queen of Assateague, that’s her,” jokes her friend, Mark Rickerson.

In truth, Laymon has been coming to this park since she was 6, when her own mother brought the family tent camping every summer.

“It was what she could afford,” recalled Laymon, who today lives in Pennsylvania.

In time, Laymon picked up the camping tradition with her own son, John. Assateague has become their pilgrimage — the place they loyally return to for summer vacations. It’s where John loves hunting ghost crabs on the beach at night and Mary recharges her batteries.

The hum of the surf…the proximity to nature . . . there is something about this island, she says.

“I call it my sacred space — the place I really get connected with my own spirit again,” Laymon said.

“Plus, the park offers fantastic programs — yoga on the beach, tie-dye Tuesdays, sand castle-building contests, aquariums in the nature center,” Laymon said.

Don't Forget

“They post schedules for the week in the bathhouses, and there’s always something worth checking out.”

Ted Peterson, also from Pennsylvania, is another repeat visitor. He started coming to Assateague years ago because it was a hit with his children. Now, he’s back on his own, with a pop-up camper. “It used to be, this was the only place that the kids wanted to go,” he explained. “We’d suggest trying something new, but they insisted on coming here again and again.”

Though the kids have flown the nest, Peterson now finds himself enjoying Assateague on his own time, his own terms . . . taking in the soft colors of the sunrise in a camp chair with a hot cup of coffee. Kicking back in the sand.

“Old habits die hard, I guess,” he said with a laugh.

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