Beach Camping on Maryland's Mythical Assateague Island

At Assateague, primitive camping sites are just steps from the Atlantic coast
At Assateague, primitive camping sites are just steps from the Atlantic coast Stefanie Payne
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It almost sounds mythical—wild horses, campsites just steps from the shore, permission to build fires inside the perimeters of a U.S. National Park—but on Maryland's Assateague Island, this is just what you'll find.It's easy to fall in love with this island. Who wouldn't bask in the joy of building a post-dinner bonfire right on the beach and settling in to look at the stars; watching a large orange moon, sometimes called a _perigee _moon or a “supermoon”, rise unexpectedly from the horizon and reflect on the Atlantic Ocean; or meeting Assateague's wild horses for the first time as they silently approach you—by the fire, beneath the moon and stars, their shadows standing statuesque against the royal blue backdrop of the night sky. These are the moments that live beyond description and that remain in your memory forever.

An aerial view of Assateague Island on Maryland's Eastern Shore shows the narrow width of the barrier island
An aerial view of Assateague Island on Maryland's Eastern Shore shows the narrow width of the barrier island Wikimedia Commons

The fun on this barrier island trip begins on the drive in, as you pass by roadside shops that will be your lifeblood while visiting. Stocked with firewood, towels emblazoned with "Assateague" in bold lettering, ice for your cooler, fishing gear, local food items, farm-fresh produce, and camp-wear—you'll find everything you need for an all-American summer camping trip. Local steamed crab, check. Multiple varieties of bug spray, check, check. Once you are in the park, there is so much to do you won't know where to start. Hopefully, you have a campsite reserved because with so much to see and do at Assateague and nearby, it's not surprising that even with 350 sites, camp reservations can be hard to come by. The easiest reservations to nail down are at camping spots on the bay side of the island or at one of the group beach camp areas where you park your car and walk to your site with gear in tote. More difficult to come by, but worth putting in the effort, are individual camp spots with drive-up parking, which allows for easy access to gear throughout your stay. These spaces also sit just steps from the beach, offer a little more privacy, and are definitely worth holding out for on your first visit to Assateague.

An inlet to the bay side of Assateague Island peers upon wildlife viewing areas
An inlet to the bay side of Assateague Island peers upon wildlife viewing areas Stefanie Payne

Whichever area you choose, there are plenty of comforts—strikingly clean bathrooms, outdoor showers, and onsite fire pits, some spaces even have electric hookups. Regardless of these comforts, you'll do your share of roughing it. Take the bugs, for example. There are mosquitos the size of thumbtacks, and they bite. Deet and citronella pose no threat it seems, and their buzzing/biting presence is constant. It can be annoying but it is a nature refuge, after all. Short-lived thunderstorms aren't uncommon either and it can be very windy as well. In some ways, it's an attack to the senses. But you're a nature addict, love the outdoors, and want to rough it a little bit, right? Hit the aforementioned roadside stops and stock up on bug spray, throw some dried sage on the fire to send off the flies, and let the beauty of your surroundings and smart preparation guide the rest.

In addition to camping, the park also has a paved four-mile bicycle/pedestrian bridge along Bayberry Drive running the length of the island. Stretching farther to the neighboring community of Chincoteague in Virginia are three additional miles of loop trails. Note to self: Bring or rent bikes at the Assateague Visitor Center.

Beyond the bike path, the park offers_ _countless ways to explore. On the bay, you can head out on a marsh walk, try your hand at crabbing and clamming, paddle among reeds, and photograph wildlife such as water birds, deer, and of course, the feral horses that the area is famous for. Sun by the sea, swim the mid-Atlantic, comb for shells and ride 12 miles of Maryland beachfront on over-sand vehicles (permits required). This area also serves up perfect conditions for flying kites. Bring or buy a kite, check.    

Wild ponies spar beachside at Assateague Island
Wild ponies spar beachside at Assateague Island Wikimedia Commons

To maintain its beauty as a national park, Assateague has strict rules about pets, campfires, alcohol, gatherings, and even metal detection. Visit the park’s official site for a list of restrictions, as well as information about how to prepare for the harsh habitat found within the barrier.

Assateague is open year round; the most popular time to visit is May through October. Also in the area is historic small-town Berlin and the famous Ocean City boardwalk, both just under 10 miles away.

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