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Assateague Island

Updated on June 24, 2014

Assateague Island - Maryland and Virginia

This page has Assateague Island visitor information including articles, pictures, links, gift ideas and more. Assateague is a pristine barrier island area along the Atlantic Coast of the USA, occupying lands of Maryland and Virginia.

The Virginia portion of the island is occupied by Assateague National Seashore and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Assateague Island is known for its fishing, beaches and world famous wild ponies.

Things to do at Assateague Island include swimming, sunbathing, collecting sea shells, surf fishing, clamming, crabbing, nature cruises, kayaking, eco-tourism, tours of Chincoteague National Wildlife refuge, bird watching, hiking and other activities.

Where is Assateague Island?

Assateague Island is located along the coasts of Maryland and Virginia. The Virginia portion of the island is occupied by Assateague National Seashore and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Assateague Island is also known for it's fishing, boating, beaches and world famous wild ponies.

Assateague Island Bird Watching

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Virginia's Eastern Shore, is popular with tourists for its history, abundant wildlife and rich refuge lore. More than 320 species of birds have been recorded on this barrier island refuge, which has been designated a Globally Important Bird Area and a National Audubon Society Top Ten birding hotspot.

The refuge maintains several miles of trails for hiking and biking and a loop wildlife drive. The Lighthouse Trail, a quarter-mile foot path through the woods to the lighthouse, is for walkers only. Adjacent Assateague Island National Seashore, managed by the National Park Service, offers beach parking and plenty of birdwatching.

The coast, marshes, wildflowers, fields and areas of brush on Assateague provide ideal nesting and feeding habitat. Other songbirds inhabit the tall pine forests there. Warblers, nut hatches, sparrows, red wing blackbirds and others nest in the summer, while cardinals, jays, woodpeckers and finches reside there during the winter months.

Herons, egrets, ibises, oyster crackers, march hens and other shorebirds are frequently spotted along the marshes. On the beaches, dozens of species of sandpipers, plovers, gulls and terns feed, nest and raise chicks.

Ospreys arrive in the spring to raise young and feed on the abundant fish stocks. As seasons change, some ospreys migrate south while other birds of prey arrive. American eagles, red tailed hawks and other large hunters are present in the fall thru spring. Other hawks such as sparrow hawks may be found year round.

Ducks, geese, brant and swans all make stops at Assateague Island. In the refuge, geese and swans take up residence year round. Other full time residents include black ducks, wood ducks and mallards which raise their young on the marshes.

As autumn arrives, ducks and geese migrate into the refuges and surrounding areas. Shoveler ducks, pintails, mallards, widgeons, teal, rudy ducks, canvasbacks, redheads, ring necked ducks, bluebills, and others fly in. Mergansers, buffleheads, goldeneyes and other diving ducks show up in the bay waters as cold weather sets in. Off the coast, rafts of sea ducks and small groups of oldsquaw ducks forage along the shoals over the winter.

The ocean waters near Assateague Island are visited by up to 30 species of pelagic birds including albatrosses, petrels, shearwaters, storm-petrels, phalaropes, skuas, jaegers, gulls, terns and alcids. These birds migrate along the offshore waters far from land. Many pass off the coast and never see Virginia's beaches.

Assateague Wild Ponies

The ponies are the property of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company whose famous "saltwater cowboys" round up the horses annually during the Pony Penning on the last Wednesday and Thursday of July.

Started in the early 1920's as a fundraising event, it now also serves to keep the population of the horses down to the 150 adult animals that the Fish and Wildlife Service deems appropriate to protect the island habitat from overgrazing.

The ponies are driven across a narrow part of the Assateague Channel at slack tide on Wednesday, corraled and auctioned off on Thursday. The "pony swim" is the highlight of the summer season.

Hiking Trails

Vacationers can enjoy the wildlife loop on foot or by bicycle while the park is open, or by vehicle from 3pm-dusk. The wildlife loop is 3.2 miles long. The woodland trail is 1.6 miles long, forming a loop thru the forest and to an overlook of the marsh. The overlook is one of the most reliable places to spot Chincoteague ponies, although they are often at a distance.

Photographers with high powered lenses will find this an excellent spot to photograph wildlife. The lighthouse trail leads up a hill to the Assateague lighthouse. This is a short hike with a spectacular view at the top. The lighthouse sometimes features tours and other events.

The black duck path leads from Beach Road thru the marsh and onto the wildlife loop. This is an excellent trail to search for herons, turtles and other marsh life.

The marsh trail leads along the western edge of the snow goose pool, inside the wildlife loop. This is a great trail for enjoying Chincoteague's waterfowl. The swan cove trail leads behind the beach and out onto the marsh on the east side of the wildlife loop.

The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge website and brochures provide safety tips concerning insects, poison ivy, interacting with animal life, etc. Both sources also have warnings on feeding wild animals and disturbing plant life.

Assateague Island Clean Beaches

In 2013, two Assateague Island National Seashore beaches were included in the Clean Beaches Coalition's annual list of clean, healthy, and environmentally well managed beaches.

The North Ocean Beach is located near Ocean City, Maryland. The beach at Tom's Cove is located on the Virginia portion of Assateague Island.

sika deer
sika deer

Assateague Island Sika Deer

Assateague Island Sika Deer offer visitors the chance to see wildlife up close. The deer are present on areas of Assateague National Sea Shore, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and other areas of the eastern shore of Maryand And Virginia.

Sika Deer are small, elk-like deer that inhabit marshy areas, underbrush and pine forests of Assateague. The deer tolerate visitors that approach slowly and quietly. Visitors can look for sika deer along the main road, along the short drive to the beach, and while hiking the many trails.

A good area to spot sika deer is the Wildlife Loop. The area is open to hiking all day and vehicles are allowed from 3pm to Dusk. The Wildlife Loop includes forest, marsh and lagoon habitat, allowing visitors to see a wide variety of wildlife.

Sika deer hunting is permitted in order to control the population. Hunters can find out more on seasons and restrictions by contacting the refuge.

assateague lighthouse
assateague lighthouse

Assateague Lighthouse

Assateague Island lighthouse is a familiar landmark to visitors and residents of Chincoteague and Assateague Islands in Virginia. The Lighthouse was originally built in 1833 to a height of 5 feet. Major reconstruction occurred in 1867, raising the structure to 142 feet high on a site 22 feet about sea level.

The lighthouse is owned by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and is still actively used by the United States Coast Guard as an aid to navigation. The keeper's quarters remains as well and houses refuge employees at times. The lighthouse is located within Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and is a popular tourist stop.

Assateague - A Stop Along the Atlantic Flyway

The Atlantic flyway is known as a migration path for dozens of species of ducks, geese, waterfowl and shorebirds. Waterfowl that stop at Assateague Island include Mallard Duck, Black Duck, Green-winged Teal, American Widgeon, Gadwall, Pintail, Greater Scaup, Redhead, Ring-necked Duck, Ruddy Duck, Bufflehead, Lesser Scaup, Shoveler, Lesser Snow Goose ,Common Goldeneye ,Common Merganser , Hooded Merganser Red-breasted merganser, Old Squaw, Black Scoter, White-winged Scoter, Surf Scoter, Tundra Swan, Canada Goose ,Greater Snow Goose and Atlantic Brant.

Eelgrass in Maryland’s Coastal Bays

A 2012 survey of underwater seagrass abundance in Maryland’s coastal bays found that the plants had decreased by 35 percent in less than year. The study was conducted by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Maryland Coastal Bays program, Virginia Institute of Marine Scientists, and National Park Service.

Long-term monitoring by Assateague Island National Seashore have indicated that water quality in Chincoteague Bay continues to decline. Although eelgrass in Maryland’s Coastal Bays have declined, Virginia’s coastal bays have continued to produce aquatic grasses. Virginia coastal bays are thought to fare better due to their proximity to cooler ocean water.

Seagrasses provide food and shelter for fish and shellfish. The plants are also an important food source for waterfowl during migration and over-wintering.

source: MD DNR

Nor Ida 2009

In November of 2009, a powerful noreaster, nicknamed Nor-Ida hit Assateague Island. The 3 day event devastated the beaches, obliterating parking lots and much of the traditional sunbathing beaches. Most beach access has been restored for 2010.

Things to Do at the Beach

Things to do at Assateague Island include swimming, sunbathing, surf fishing, clamming, crabbing, nature cruises, kayaking, eco-tourism, tours of Chincoteague National Wildlife refuge, bird watching, hiking and more.

Swimming and sunbathing are among the most popular things to do. Assateague Island offers excellent beaches, on both the Maryland and Virginia portions.

Collecting sea shells on Assateague Island is a relaxing activity for people of all ages. The beaches sometimes yield a wide range of shells including knobby whelks, smooth whelks, moon snails, periwinkles, bay scallops, quahog clams, jingles, limpets, cockles and others.

When visiting the Virginia portion of the island, a tour of Assateague Island lighthouse is another attraction for visitors. The lighthouse is located within Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge not far from the beach.

Hiking is a great way to explore the island. There are numerous trails throughout the Maryland and Virginia parks where visitors can see a wide range of wildlife. Several trails lead directly onto the beach.

Surf fishing on nearby Assateague Island is relatively inexpensive, requires little in specialized tackle and no boat is needed. Anglers can reach the surf on foot from Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge or Assateague State Park.

Exploring Tide Pools

This is a wonderful activity for kids of all ages, although the plain truth is that people of every age love exploring the shallows and learning about the creatures that live there. Tide pools are often home to interesting fish, crabs, shrimp and other sea creatures.

Assateague Feedback

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    • ILoveLegosToo profile image

      Tom Fattes 8 years ago from Naperville, IL

      I loved Assateague Island. We were through here during our last trip to Washington DC in 2006. It's ashame to hear about the 2009 storm. Lensrolled to my Family Vacation Lens, Chicago to Washington DC.

    • profile image

      heipet 9 years ago

      I have submitted this lens to "All 50 States"!

      Don`t forget to vote for it.

      heipet - SUMMER Group groupmaster

    • Kiwisoutback profile image

      Kiwisoutback 9 years ago from Massachusetts

      Beautiful lens! I've been near here in Virginia Beach.

    • profile image

      Andy-Po 9 years ago

      Welcome to the Wildlife Photography Group

    • naturegirl7s profile image

      Yvonne L. B. 9 years ago from Covington, LA

      Loved this lens. 5*'s and favorite. Thanks for joining the Naturally Native Squids group. Don't forget to add your lens links to the appropriate plexos and vote for them.

    • starlitparlit profile image

      starlitparlit 9 years ago

      hiking and birdwatching both sound like fun

    • profile image

      coopd 9 years ago

      Great lens! 5* Welcome to my Nature Lovers group :)


      Diana's Photography

    • isabella lm profile image

      isabella lm 9 years ago

      Your lens is a really good one! Bravo! We invite you to join the brand new World's Best Island Guide group.

    • profile image

      Travel-Nurse 10 years ago

      Vacationing to Chincoteague Island and going to see the wildlife on Assateague (and lounging on the beach) are still some of my fondess childhood memories. Assateague had one of the cleanest beaches I've ever been to.

    • profile image

      anonymous 10 years ago

      Thanks for joining my world travel group! World Travel Group

    • TonyPayne profile image

      Tony Payne 10 years ago from Southampton, UK

      A lovely lens, 5 *****.

      I don't know much else about the island apart from having watched Misty with my daughter, but it looks a wonderful natural place to visit. I hope I get these one day.

    • Classic LM profile image

      Classic LM 11 years ago

      Hello and welcome to my Nature and Environment Group! I have voted for this excellent lens a 5*! I will add it to my lensroll on my Albatross lens. If you get a chance, please visit my lens. Thanks and enjoy your evening!


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