As someone who lived in the Salisbury area for over 7 years, I spent a lot of time at Assateague. So much so that I have a tendency to overlook this area when thinking about exciting places to visit and explore in Maryland. I managed to put this aside though and took a trip back to Assateague; my first in several years and a nice reminder of what a great spot this is for an outdoor adventure.
Assateague is a barrier island, which means it is a dynamic system that constantly changes. Barrier islands help absorb energy from storms and wave action, which allows for the inland formation of protected marshes and bays. Some of that energy actually pushes the sand (and ultimately the island) around so that Assateague Island is gradually moving southward.
In addition to the beach that most Marylanders are familiar with, Assateague is home to delicate dune ecosystems, coastal forests, and salt marsh ecosystems. The species living in these systems are influenced by the weather and ever present salt water, including the famous Assateague ponies.
If you want to visit Assateague, the first thing you should do is decide if you want to visit the State Park or the National Park.
If you’re going for a quick, one day trip, the State Park is your best option because it’s the easiest to get into and the cheapest. During the off season, Labor Day through Memorial Day, it’s $5 per vehicle to go to the state park and it’s usually on the honor system. From Memorial Day through Labor Day, it’s $5 per person.
For Assateague National Seashore, you cannot get a single day pass. The minimum cost is $25 per vehicle, which is good for 7 days. If you’re planning on visiting the park more than once throughout the year, it makes sense to purchase a yearly pass at $45. To learn more about other options, including military discounts and pricing for other forms of entry visit the park website here: https://www.nps.gov/asis/planyourvisit/fees.htm
If you’re visiting Assateague National Seashore, you may also be interested in the OSV (Over Sand Vehicle) area, where you can drive your vehicle on the beach if you have an additional permit. It’s a great way to avoid the crowds but it’s best done with an appropriate vehicle and the permits cost an extra $110-$200. There is a limit to how many vehicles are allowed on this part of the beach, so during summer months you will need to arrive early, otherwise there may be a long wait.
Another thing to consider is if you want to enjoy an adult beverage while you relax on the beach. Alcohol is not allowed in the state park but it is allowed in the Maryland portion of Assateague National Seashore.
You may also want to bring your dog with you and that can affect which park you visit. Dogs are allowed on certain beach areas (the ones without lifeguards) in the national park, but they are not allowed on the nature trails or in backcountry campsites.
In the state park, pets are not allowed on the beach during summer months, memorial day through labor day. They are allowed on the beach during the offseason and they are allowed in the marina area and specific campsite loops and the adjoining beaches.
And finally, if your goal is to see the famous ponies, keep in mind that the Assateague population has free range over the island and could be anywhere. There have been days where I’ve seen them at the base of the Verrazano Bridge, meaning I didn’t even have to enter a park to find them. There have been days when I’ve wandered the state park and national park for hours and not seen a single pony. If you’re lucky, they will be easy to find, but there is no guarantee. If you do find them, remember that they are wild animals and you are required to give them at least 40 feet of space because they will bite and kick.
I will be honest, I prefer to visit Assateague during offseason months, when there’s not a crowd. Even still, Assateague beaches tend to be less crowded than Ocean City beaches in the summer but you do want to arrive early to avoid traffic jams getting into the parks.
If you’ve never been to Assateague, or are coming to see ponies, I definitely recommend a visit to the Assateague Island Visitor’s Center. There are public restrooms, water fountains, animal displays, and a quick video about the ponies shown about every 15 minutes, so even if you don’t get to see the ponies in person, you’ll see them on screen and learn about how the National Park Service manages the Assateague population.
No matter what, there is something for everyone at Assateague, whether it’s soaking up some sun on the beach, surf fishing or surfing, exploring the nature trails, or even just enjoying the air conditioning in the Visitor’s Center. Even if you’ve been a hundred times or have never been, Assateague is worth the visit, so get out and explore!
– Dr. Kristen