Assateague Island, Maryland/Virginia
Administered by the United States Department of the Interior, Assateague Island National Seashore, 7026 National Seashore Lane, Berlin, MD 21811 Tel. 410-641-1441 and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, P.O. Box 62, Chincoteague, VA 23336 Tel. 804-336-6577
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About the SeashoreAssateague Island National Seashore is located on one of the wildest stretches of barrier island remaining on the Atlantic Coast of the United States. The seashore offers over 37 miles of sand beach for seaside hiking and backpacking, as well as a number of backcountry campsites, both among the dunes on the ocean beach and on the side of the island fronting Sinepuxent Bay. The bayside sites are also open to canoe campers.
Assateague is a barrier island, formed by the buildup of sand by winds and ocean tides close to the continental coastline. This phenomenon is common along the U.S. Atlantic coast from Massachusetts to Texas, but barrier islands occur on only 10% of coastlines worldwide. Barrier islands are, in geologic terms, temporary features, piles of sand waiting to be erased by the sea, anchored in place only by a thin veneer of vegetation. Scientists believe that a succession of barrier islands preceded Assateague, forming well out to sea from the current island's shores.
For a temporary landform, Assateague has a rich history which would be hard to do justice here. Highlights include numerous shipwrecks and strandings; of these, the plight of Colonel Henry Norwood and his party in January 1650 stands out. This saga comes complete with betrayal, wolves, starvation and cannibalism. A detailed account can be found in Norwood's A Voyage to Virginia. Legend also has it that the ancestors of Assateague's wild horses were stranded here by the wreck of a treasure-laden Spanish galleon. It is more likely that they hail from stock driven to the island by colonial farmers to avoid the expense of penning them on the mainland to prevent crop damage.
Assateague was once threatened with intensive development by humans. In the late 1950s, speculators succeeded in laying the groundwork for a major complex of resort homes, hotels and shopping centers comparable to the present-day Ocean City, Maryland located just to the north (which is also built on a barrier island). This speculation was headed off in March, 1962 by the island's biggest storm of this century. The Atlantic surged all the way across the island in several places and virtually destroyed all the houses, electrical lines and roads. Appeals by developers for federal action to safeguard the island against the elements were denied, paving the way for the National Seashore designation in 1965.
NOTE: There are still private property in-holdings on the island. Please obey restrictions at these posted properties.
WeatherTwo major considerations for beach hikers, at any season of the year, are sudden weather changes and wind. Coastal storms can be severe; watch weather forecasts and reconsider your trip if storms are predicted. Be prepared for chilly, damp weather whenever you go; even on the hottest summer weekend, a sudden storm with wind and rain can produce potentially hypothermic conditions for a backpacker miles from the nearest shelter.
Speaking of shelter, your tent should be able to withstand strong winds. Your tent stakes should be long and sturdy, with a lot of surface area to provide proper anchorage in sand against the frequently relentless wind. The thin skewer stakes used with most tents will not do. Snow stakes and pickets used for winter camping and mountaineering are much better. Some people make their own out of long wooden dowels. Take heed. I know about Assateague winds from experience; a sudden gust at Sinepuxent campsite (now closed) once turned my tent upside down - - with my brother in it.
The absence of readily available shelter is a critical consideration in a thunderstorm. When you see lightning or otherwise sense that a storm is imminent, GET AWAY FROM THE WATER; take shelter among beach dunes. Remember that you are the highest object on the beach; lower your profile as much as you can, but DON'T get under a conspicuously tall object such as a large, isolated tree. If you shelter in a forest, choose a stand of trees of roughly uniform size. Avoid the biggest tree in a stand.
Summer is the peak time for backpackers, as it is for most beachgoers. (You are still unlikely to see many people in the "backcountry".) The warm temperatures make the surf inviting and mitigate the chilling effects of rain. But spring and fall can be spectacular times to hike on Assateague, with brisk breezes, warm temperatures and crystal skies. However, it is more important to prepare for bad weather during these seasons. Winter days can be pleasant, but are more likely to be cold and damp. Prepare as you would for winter walks elsewhere. It DOES snow on the beach; I once found an accumulation of half a foot or so right up to the tide line.
About the area......Assateague offers a wilderness atmosphere on an ocean beach - a rare opportunity today, particularly along the crowded Atlantic seaboard. The island's size and absence of paved roads make most of its area inaccessible except to canoeists or walkers. (The Maryland portion allows off-road vehicles to travel the beach, provided they have a permit.) A backpacker starting from the south a Tom's Cove (Virginia) and hiking to State Line, the nearest backcountry campsite in Maryland, will walk 13 miles. For at least ten of those miles he will see very few other people, and for six or more in the middle of the trek, he will probably see none.
The island is host to a variety of wildlife. The famous wild horses, popularly called "ponies," are always in evidence. Even if they don't show themselves, their droppings litter backcountry campsites. The chances of seeing them are good, particularly in summer. They frequently retreat to the surf to escape biting insects. Although the ponies will allow close approach, they are wild enough to punish those who would try to get too familiar with bites and kicks. Be advised. These ponies are wild animals, not domesticated farm animals.
The horses share the island with such critters as raccoons, red foxes, endangered Delmarva fox squirrels, river otters, whitetail deer, and sika deer, a species of elk introduced from Japan in the 1920s and now outnumbering the whitetail on the island. Bottlenose dolphins and other marine mammals may be seen from shore. (Three species of seals are rare visitors; the southernmost recorded births of gray seals have occurred on Assateague's Maryland beaches.) Birds abound; a number of unusual species are visible to beach walkers, including the oystercatcher, the ruddy turnstone and the fish-eating osprey and brown pelican, the latter only recently reestablishing itself as a breeding species this far north. One of Assateague's most spectacular sights, worth a visit by itself, is that of a flight of pelicans pausing over a school of fish then dropping to the attack, hitting the water headfirst, one by one.
Other critters will demand your attention: biting insects. You must respond effectively to enjoy an Assateague backpack. Insect repellent is ESSENTIAL, possibly more so even than sunscreen, at least in camp. Greenhead flies, the small midges known as "no-see-ums," and several species of mosquito are present in numbers that must be experienced to be appreciated. Greenheads are large, day-flying, solitary raiders with painful bites; they can attack all the way to tide line, but usually go after stationary targets. As long as you're moving, they aren't generally a problem. No-see-ums can be annoying, and are a good reason to make sure your tent has no-see-um netting.
Greenheads and no-see-ums, however, are but pale imitators of Assateague's infamous mosquitoes. They can be active at any time of day, but particularly so from dusk to dawn. They attack in large groups, with a disconcerting purposefulness, settling simultaneously at several locations on the chosen victim. Swatting them requires developing a sense of priorities with regard to bodily parts. Commercial repellents, preferably with a substantial DEET content, are probably the best bet. Even these may not be adequate to ensure comfort at bayside sites in summer. (Canoeing or hiking into bayside sites is most comfortably done during October through April, and is strongly encouraged by the Park). If strong breezes and sunshine did not effectively discourage mosquitoes from invading Assateague's beaches, it would be impossible to recommend backpacking here at all to any but the most intrepid. During cloudy, windless weather, however, you can find them (rather, they can find you) on the beach too. If this sounds bad, it is.
As if the preceding weren't enough, ticks can be found among dunes and in grassy areas and shrubbery on Assateague. Read up on ticks and Lyme disease, and take the necessary precautions. In closing this less-than-pleasant passage: It is most definitely possible to enjoy a backpack on Assateague. Protecting against bugs is primarily common sense; the preceding is to emphasize that here the precautions are NOT optional. People who didn't take them have been hospitalized as a result. Forewarned is forearmed!
Trails worth hiking?The beach itself is the main trail on Assateague. Park Service roads (unpaved and pleasant to walk) are available for those wishing to backpack to bayside sites otherwise only accessible by canoe. Signs directing hikers to the roads are posted on the beaches. (Keep in mind that mosquitoes make bayside camping tough in summer!) Signs also designate the ocean beach campsites. Camping in locations other than designated backcountry campsites is STRICTLY prohibited.
Two ocean-side backcountry camp sites and four bay-side sites are available, and ALL are on the Maryland portion of the beach. NO camping whatsoever is permitted on the Virginia side. The two ocean-side sites are open year-round. The four bay-side sites are open year-round except during Assateague's shotgun and black powder hunting seasons. Check with the Ranger to identify the specific dates of these seasons. They vary from year to year.
Maryland departures to the following camp areas must begin no later than 5pm (daylight savings), or 4pm (non-daylight savings):
Jim's Gut (bay side)
Maryland or Virginia departures to the following backcountry camp areas must begin no later than 2pm:
State Line (ocean side)
(NOTE: The Sinepuxent bay-side site originally located north of the Maryland entrance is now permanently closed due to regular "overwash". DO NOT use this site.)
Ocean side camp areas are marked with signs diplaying the international "Hiker" symbol. Bay-side sites are marked with the international "canoer" symbol.
Trips of a variety of lengths are possible using the network of campsites. One can take a nine-mile roundtrip jaunt from North Beach in Maryland to Little Levels campsite, or go on a 26-mile overnight from Tom's Cove in Virginia to the State Line site and back. A multi-day trip using a combination of ocean and bay sites is also possible. For those individuals interested in departing from Virginia, A fence at the state line contains a stile allowing hikers to pass through to campsites in Maryland.
For those interested in a shorter hike, or a short introduction to the island, the Park has constructed three excellent interepretive trails of a half-mile length each. The trails have exibits and a booklet that explains the three different habitat environments being traversed. The three trails are called Life of the Dune, Life of the Forest, and Life of the Marsh. They depart from their own parking lots from the Maryland end.
It would be wise to put aside one's preconceptions about beach walking before attempting a backpack on Assateague, particularly a long one. This is not nearly as casual as might be imagined. Most of the walk will be right at the tide line, where the sand is firmest, which means that wet feet are constantly part of the trip -- pleasant in bare feet or sandals, but a problem if one chooses to wear the conventional boots and socks. Consider running shoes or sports sandals. Either wear socks or bring lots of sunscreen - and use it. Badly sunburned feet can virtually cripple you. If you do opt for socks, make sure they are of a fabric that sheds water and dries readily, such as wool, polypropylene or a technical polyester like Patagonia's Capilene. Cotton socks are NOT recommended.
The relative infirmity of the sand combined with the weight of a backpack can make walking tougher than a casual beach stroll, especially toward the end of a 13-mile day. And the pack will be heavy. All water that you will need on the trip must be carried, in summer approximately a gallon per person per day. In the words of a ranger: "Hiking five miles on Assateague is as strenuous as hiking ten or twelve miles in the mountains." To add to the problems, the absence of shade and the heavy exertion produce sweat in quantities that make liberal and frequent application of sunscreen imperative in summer. I recommend a high-SPF waterproof, sweatproof sunblock. (I once used an entire bottle of sunscreen in a day -- and still burned badly.) To maximize enjoyment and get accustomed to the difficulties, pick a short jaunt for your first Assateague overnight.
As is true with any wild shore, beachcombing is exceptional here, and even a short hike can be eventful and exciting. You literally never know what will turn up. I've seen everything from sand dollars to small boats. On my last trip I found a "whelk graveyard," with over a hundred intact shells lying in a depression among the dunes, apparently thrown there by a violent storm. Whales strand themselves occasionally. Among my most lasting memories are the dead spider crabs that washed up, one after another, near the State Line campsite on my first Assateague trip. Near the end of 12-plus miles of sweaty, blistering, fly-tortured walking in near 100-degree temperatures, the experience had almost a hallucinogenic quality.
PermitsRequired are a camping permit (one per party) and an overnight parking permit for each vehicle. These can be picked up at the Toms Cove Visitor Center in Virginia or the North Beach campground office/ranger station in Maryland. No fees apply for backcountry camping but a $4.00 entry fee is charged for vehicles at both locations. For current information contact the Seashore, telephone number (410) 641-1441 or the Campground Office at (410) 641-3030.
Campsites Backpackers wishing to start from the Virginia side should be aware that the road onto the Chincoteague Refuge from the town of Chincoteague is gated at night from 10pm to 5am. Once your car is inside the locked gate in the parking area, you can't get it out until the following morning. The Maryland side is not gated.
HuntingAllowed in season. Bay side campsites are closed during shotgun and black powder season. Anyone wandering over the dunes from the ocean-side campsites during hunting season should wear brightly colored clothing.
Mountain BikingOn paved roads only. Mountain Bikes are not allowed on the beaches. (Besides, would you really want to rust out your bike in the salt water?)
CanoeingBayside campsites can be reached by canoe. As with backpacking camping, canoe camping is not permitted in the Virginia portion of Assateague. Remember, all bayside sites are closed during shotgun and black powder hunting season. Check with the Ranger for specific dates.
CampfiresLegal, but don't depend on one, as an adequate supply of dead and down wood is needed, and it may not be available. Bring a backpacking stove for meals and hot drinks. If you want a fire, and the wood is there, build over the dead coals of previous fires instead of making a fresh scar. (Bayside sites have fire rings that must be used.) PUT OUT THE FIRE when you leave. No excuse not to; the ocean and the bay provide you with plenty of water. DO NOT use sand. The windy conditions at Assateague cause sand to blow off covered campfires. Seemingly "smothered" fires can quickly rekindle.
AccessThe quickest access from Washington, D.C. is to take U.S. Route 50 east from the Capital Beltway, U.S. 495.
TO VIRGINIA (Toms Cove): Take Route 50 east to Route 13 south. Take Route 13 into Virginia to VA Route 175. Turn left; follow Route 175 to the town of Chincoteague on Chincoteague Island. Take the first left in Chincoteague; after about 0.4 miles, turn right on Maddox Boulevard. The road proceeds directly into the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (entry fee); follow signs to Toms Cove Visitor Center to obtain your backcountry camping permit.
TO MARYLAND (North Beach): Take Route 50 east to MD Route 611. Turn right. Route 611 will pass the Barrier Island Visitor Center on the right after three miles. Permits for backcountry camping may be available here. Otherwise proceed across Sinepuxent Bay on the Verrazano Bridge (named for the first European explorer in these waters). When on Assateague, make the first avaiable right turn (Bayside Drive). Proceed to the North Beach parking area and campground/ranger station to obtain permits.
Also Of InterestThe book Walks and Rambles on the Delmarva Penninsula, by Jay Abercrombie (Backcountry Publications, Woodstock, VT, updated 1990) describes in detail a four-day backpacking trip on Assateague, as well as numerous other hiking opportunities in the Delmarva region ("Delmarva" is derived from the states of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, which share the peninsula). It also provides interesting information on the natural and human history of the area (particularly about Colonel Norwood's misadventure on Assateague). The seashore and refuge visitor centers provide numerous other books of interest.
The MapDue to it's size, the trail map has been divided into two sections as follows: NORTH half (185K) , and SOUTH half (201K)