Off Season at Assateague
Unseasonably warm weather is the perfect excuse for a quick trip to the beaches of Assateague Island National Seashore.
With much of the east coast experiencing warmer than usual temperatures, we saw an opportunity to get the camping gear out a little earlier this year. Seeking some solitude, we headed to Assateague Island for some beach camping, not your typical destination for a weekend in late February.
Assateague Island, located a stone's throw from the bustling boardwalk of Ocean City, Maryland, is best known for its herds of wild horses that roam the 18,000 acres of dunes, shoreline, and salt marshes. The 37 mile long barrier island is managed by several agencies. Maryland's northern half is comprised mostly of Assateague Island National Seashore, with Maryland operating a smaller state park as well. Travel south into Virginia and you enter the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Opportunities for camping are all located in the Maryland sections, so that was our destination this visit.
The National Seashore has both oceanside and bayside campgrounds, including walk-in tent sites, as well as some opportunities for backcountry camping. In the off season, expect some of the campground loops to be closed, though that shouldn't pose much of a problem. While we weren't alone camping alongside the dunes, I could count the number of occupied sites on one hand.
The island provides a wide range of recreational activities. From your oceanside campsite, you can take a stroll on the beach, bike along the park road, or explore several nearby nature trails. Be sure to wander away from the beach and check out the bay side of the island, where a diverse ecosystem of marshes, pine forests, and grasslands can be found. Visitors can even collect clams and blue crabs from the tidal marshes when they are in season. Fishing is also allowed, as well as driving along the shore in the Over Sand Vehicle zone (see the NPS website for details). As the sun sets, head down to the shore for a campfire on the beach (set up below the high tide line) and look to the sky for some decent stargazing by east coast standards. And then of course there are the horses.
The horses of Assateague are most likely the descendants of domesticated animals brought to the island as early as 1669. Over the 300 years they have lived on the island, the horses have adapted to the uniquely harsh environment, growing shaggy and short in stature, giving them a distinctive look. The herds on the Maryland side of the island are free to roam, and can be found throughout the park. During the summer, they are often found along the shore, avoiding the bugs in the cool ocean breezes. In the off season, they graze through the marshes and forests. Drive slowly along the park road or hike the nature trails and one can often find them with ease. As is the case with any wildlife, view them from a distance and never feed them.
Before the summer crowds descend on the park, Assateague is quiet and bug free, making for an ideal place to stretch your legs after a cold winter.
Where to Poop: The park campgrounds have well maintained pit toilets and open air showers, as well as potable drinking water.
NPS Assateague Island National Seashore website