Assateague Island National Seashore
Assateague Island is a barrier island built by sand that persistent waves have raised from the ocean's gently sloping floor. Constant reshaping mirrors a restless origin, as steady winds continue moving trillions of sand grains, each a bit of erosion from the ancient Appalachian Mountains. Occasional storms drive waves and sands so forcefully that beach and shoreline change dramatically. But Assateague's summer mostly means the lure of beaches and mild surf where shorebirds trace the lapping waves down the beach. Inland, legendary herds of wild horses roam the marshlands.
Size: 37 miles long; 18,000 acres
Places Nearby: Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Assateague State Park, Pocomoke State Forest, Shad Landing Area State Park
Features: Long, even beaches with dunes protecting extensive marshlands along Chincoteague Bay. Diverse and rich wildlife, including picturesque herds of wild horses.
Activities: Surf fishing, camping, backcountry camping, wildlife and bird-watching
The National Park Service operates visitor centers serving both the Maryland and Virginia ends of the island. Visitor centers are the places to find out about naturalist activities, among other things. The Barrier Island Visitor Center near the Maryland entrance features hands-on aquarium and beachcombing exhibits (very popular with children), seashore films, a museum store, and park naturalists to answer questions. In Virginia, the Chincoteague Refuge and Toms Cove Visitor Centers offer similar opportunities. During summer the centers are a hub for information about the many educational programs provided by park rangers or refuge staff.
Hiking and Biking
Although the beach may be most familiar to Assateague visitors, other barrier island habitats should not be ignored by nature enthusiasts. Bicycle trails explore some of them in both states. Of particular interest in Virginia is the three-mile "Wildlife Loop" trail; only hikers and bicyclists have access to its solitude from dawn until 3 p.m. Then, until closing, vehicles can traverse the hard surface road. In Maryland, beautiful one-half-mile nature trails explore the lesser known marsh, forest, and dune environments. The "Life of the Forest" and "Life of the Marsh" trails have observation decks and hard surfaces, which are fully accessible to handicapped visitors. Bicycles may be rented on Chincoteague Island and from a concessioner (seasonally) at Assateague's Maryland end.
Seashore camping can be a memory to treasureor a bad experience for the unprepared. There is no shade and mosquitoes can be abundant from mid-May to October. High winds can pull short tent pegs out of sand. Campgrounds at the Maryland end can be full in summer and waiting lists are kept.
The multitude of birds found on Assateague Island is, at times, truly spectacular; nearly 300 species have been tabulated. Although birds abound throughout Assateague, birders usually find more opportunities in the Virginia portion of the island. Obtain a bird checklist from any of the island's visitor centers. Along the surf, particularly during spring and late summer, many kinds of sandpipers and other shorebirds probe the wet sand for food. The piping plover, a threatened species, nests at Assateague. Special nesting area restrictions may applyask at any visitor center.
From spring through early autumn the shallow bays host a colorful array of herons, egrets, and other marsh species, which stab at the many fish that swim in these fertile waters. Ospreys are common nesting inhabitants, and in recent years even brown pelicans and bald eagles have taken up residence.
In summer, the refuge's freshwater impoundments combine with marshes along Assateague to host a variety of herons, egrets, and other wading birds. Terns dive for fish and gulls and sandpipers work the beaches and mudflats. Warblers and other passerine species are found in shrub thickets and pine forests. Late summer brings migrating shorebirds and peregrine falcons to the island.
Thousands of waterfowl winter here, especially snow geese, black ducks, mallards, and pintails. Scooters, old squaws, and other sea ducks are sometimes seen in Toms Cove or Assateague Channel.
Canoeing the bayside waters is another wonderful way to explore the bays and salt marshes around Assateague. A concession rents canoes and bicycles on the Maryland end during summer and on spring and fall weekends. Clamming for hardshell clams and crabbing for blue crabs can work up an appetite for the delectable bounty that these protected waters provide. When the sun wanes on summer days, visitors often enjoy spectacular blood-red sunsets over the Chincoteague and Sinepuxent bays.
Programs to enhance your enjoyment of the island's environment and unique recreation opportunities are offered at both the national seashore and the wildlife refuge. The National Park Service offers guided walks, talks, children's programs, and seashore recreation demonstrations daily in summer and on weekends in fall and spring. Guided walks include explorations of Assateague's bird life, the beach, salt marshes, bay, and dunes.
Demonstrations include surf rescue and surf fishing. Clamming, crabbing, and canoe trips are available in Maryland. Check at the Barrier Island and Toms Cove Visitor Centers about programs at the island's Maryland and Virginia ends. The Fish and Wildlife Service offers wildlife-oriented interpretive walks and audiovisual programs for visitors of all ages. Some require advance registration (free) at the Chincoteague.
Assateague State Park
The State of Maryland owns 680 acres of Assateague Island that it operates as a state park. In 1996, National Geographic listed Assateague State Park as one of the ten best in the U.S. Its beach offers separate swimming, surf fishing, and surf boarding areas. Ask about these areas at the state park entrance. Bathhouses, a bait and a tackle shop, and food service facilities are open in summer, when lifeguards protect the beach. For information about the state park, write: Assateague State Park, 7307 Stephen Decatur Highway, Berlin, MD 21811, or call 410-641-2120.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication