Assateague Island Activities
Assateague Island is a Barrier Island which lies to the east of Chincoteague Island. Assateague Island protects Chincoteague Island from the Atlantic Ocean. Assateague Island is approximately 38 miles long. The entire Island is a wildlife sanctuary, protected from development. The northern portion of Assateague Island is in Maryland, the southern portion is in Virginia. Visitors can access the north end of Assateague Island near Ocean City, MD. The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (CNWR) is located at the southern end of Assateague Island, near Chincoteague Island. A short bridge connects Chincoteague Island to Assateague Island. Entering Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, visitors are immediately surrounded by the splendor of unspoiled nature. Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge includes more than 14,000 acres of beach, maritime forest, saltmarsh, and freshwater marsh. The Refuge is home to a spectacular variety of migratory birds, plants, and other animals. Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is one of the most visited refuges in the country, receiving approximately 1.5 million visitors each year. Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge offers a variety of outstanding outdoor recreational opportunities.
Click here for Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge entrance fees.
Assateague Island Recreational Opportunities
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Assateague Island offers perhaps the most beautiful beach on the Atlantic Coastline. During the summer season swimmers and sunbathers flock to this white sandy oasis. The beach parking lots fill up fast, so be sure to get there early. A good rule of thumb is to get there before 10am or after 2pm during the peak summer season. Many beachgoers enjoy shell collection (limit one gallon per person per day). Over Sand Vehicles (OSV) are permitted in designated areas of the beach, which is subject to unexpected closure due to overwash or nesting species. An OSV permit is required and is available at the Tom's Cove Visitor Center. For more information OSV use on Assateague Island, including any current closures, OSV permit fees, and OSV regulations click here. Horseback riding is allowed along the beach in the OSV zone. Click here for information about the horseback riding use policy and a map of the horseback riding area. A campfire is a great way to end a day in the sun. Open campfires are allowed only in designated sites located along the beach and certain regulations must be followed. Visitors may obtain a fire permit, free of charge, and a site assignment from the Toms Cove Visitor Center. For more information please contact them at (757) 336-6577. Surfing is also a popular activity at the recreational beach on Assateague Island.
Wild Pony Viewing
Wild ponies have inhabited Assateague Island for hundreds of years. While some have suggested that the wild ponies on Assateague Island trace their origin to horses released to forage on the Island by early settlers, the circumstantial evidence suggests that they are indeed the descendants of the survivors of a Spanish galleon which wrecked off the coast of Assateague. A fence along the Virginia/Maryland State line separates Assateague Island's ponies into two herds. The Maryland herd is owned by the National Park Service. The Virginia herd is owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. The US Fish & Wildlife Service allows the Fire Company to maintain a herd of approximately 150 adult ponies on Assateague Island. About fifty of the adult ponies are fenced into an area just to the south of the main road and can be viewed by the public. The other hundred adult ponies are kept in an area further north which is only accessible by scenic tour boat or wildlife bus tour. The Fire Company controls the herd size with a pony auction on the last Thursday in July. Each year tens of thousands of spectators come to watch the Saltwater Cowboys swim the pony herd from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island.
There are multiple boat tours that leave from Chincoteague Island and explore the back bays and marshlands of Assateague Island. Each of these tour boat operations has a Commercial Use Authorization Permit from the National Park Service which allows them to operate their tours within the boundary of the Assateague Island National Seashore. These boat tours a great way to explore the hidden beauty and natural splendor of Assateague Island! They are also one of the best ways to get close to the wild ponies on Assateague Island. Click here for more information about Assateague Island Boat Tours.
Hiking or Biking the Nature Trails are an excellent way to immerse yourself in the natural beauty of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and to observe the magnificent wildlife of Assateague Island. Assateague Island offers several miles of trails for either hiking or biking. About half are paved while the rest are open to foot traffic only.
Click here to download a trail map.
The Wildlife Loop is a 3.2 mile loop around a moist soil management unit and is a great place to observe wildlife, especially waterfowl and wading birds. It is open to walkers and bikers throughout the day, but vehicles are only permitted to drive on it from 3:00 P.M. till dusk.
The Lighthouse Trail is a .25 mile foot path through the woods to the historic Assateague Lighthouse. It is for walking only.
Swan Cove Trail, which branches off of the Wildlife Loop, is about .5 mile long and leads to the beach. Swan Cove Trail is open to both walkers and bikers.
Black Duck Trail branches off of the Wildlife Loop. It is about 1 mile long and provides access between the Wildlife Loop and the Woodland Trail. This trail is for walking and biking.
The Marsh Trail is a .5 mile looping trail along the Wildlife Loop. This unpaved trail, open only to walkers, includes an observation platform overlooking Snow Goose Pool.
The 1.6 mile Woodland Trail takes hikers and bikers through a beautiful pine forest and includes an overlook where you can sometimes see wild ponies.
The new Bivalve trail is .25 miles and lies just off the beaten path of the Woodland Trail. Take this self-guided adventure through the maritime forest leading to a section of Toms Cove where you can catch a glimpse of the old lifesaving station or engage in clamming. *Most visitors are unaware of this new trail as it is not yet marked.
Besides the above trails, foot access is permitted on our 7.5 mile Service Road. Cars and bicycles are not permitted on the service road.
The historic Assateague Lighthouse was built in 1867 on a natural bluff 22 feet above sea level, providing more height and visibility. Orginally the lighthouse stood adjacent to the open sea at the Chincoteague Inlet. Due to the natural shifting sand southward on Assateague Island since 1850 the lighthouse now stands almost 5 miles from the Chincoteague Inlet.
The Assateague lighthouse was built, along with many others along the Atlantic Coast, to combat the alarming number of shipwrecks that were occurring as coastal shipping commerce grew.
The first light was an oil-burning, fixed Fresnel lens, visible for up to 18 miles. This Fresnel lens is now located in the Museum of Chincoteague Island. In 1961, it was replaced by the DCB-36 rotating beacon which is still in use today and is visible for 22 miles. Inside the brick tower, a cast iron staircase leads up to the lens tower.
Each lighthouse along the East coast has a unique color pattern, used by mariners during the day to identify the lighthouse. Likewise, each lighthouse flashes a unique pattern at night, which mariners use to identify the lighthouse at night.
The Assateague Island lighthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2008, restoration of the lighthouse began to preserve this historic treasure. The Assateague Lighthouse is open for visitors to climb from April through November. Take the lighthouse tour and get a bird’s eye view from the top of the Assateague Lighthouse.
The lighthouse tour is Free to the Public. The lighthouse can be accessed from the first parking lot on the right after entering Assateague Island.
Click here for current lighthouse tour schedule.
Refuge Trek Bus Tour
The Refuge Trek bus tour is offered April thru November. The tour accesses areas of Assateague Island that are normally only open to foot traffic. The tour covers approximately 15 miles and lasts about 90 minutes. Each tour is accompanied by a knowledgeable interpreter/guide. The interpreter will fill you in on tales of the island’s rich cultural history, as well as provide insight about the wildlife and ecology of Assateague Island. You can expect to see Chincoteague Ponies, White-Tailed Deer, Sika Elk, a variety of Birds and other wildlife. The bus has a capacity of 30 visitors and is air-conditioned for visitor comfort. The tour bus is also equipped with a wheelchair lift to enhance accessibility.
Check out this informative article about the Refuge Trek bus tour: The 'Refuge Trek' bus tour, a great way to see the North side of Assateague
For current information regarding wildlife tours, inquire at the refuge visitor center, call the CNHA office at (757) 336-3696, or click here.
Herbert H. Bateman Educational and Administrative Center
The Herbert H. Bateman Educational and Administrative Center offers an information desk staffed by Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge employees and volunteers, where visitors can pick up brochures and trail maps, get directions and suggestions, purchase passes, and ask any other questions about Assateague Island. There are a variety of exhibits and displays in the visitor center about the history of Assateague Island, and the plants and animals that can be found at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. There are also several child-friendly interactive exhibits. The live eagle camera is extremely popular! Videos are shown daily in the visitor center auditorium, and programs on a variety of topics are offered during the summer. Inquire at the information desk for further details. The visitor center includes a gift shop, which offers a selection of books, clothing items, and jewelry. The Herbert H. Bateman Educational and Administrative Center is open 7 days a week. The hours of operation are:
Toms Cove Visitor Center
The Toms Cove Visitor Center is located on the south side of Beach Road, prior to the beach parking areas. The Toms Cove Visitor Center offers beachcombing exhibits, educational brochures, a marine aquarium and touch tank. A bookstore, lost and found, emergency services and permits (overnight fishing, over-sand vehicle, campfire) are available. Regularly scheduled park activities are available seasonally. Education programs for schools are given spring and fall. Information is available upon request.
The Toms Cove Visitor Center hours of operation are:
Assateague Island consists of a variety habitat, including beach, saltwater marsh, freshwater marsh, and maritime forests of pine and oak. This habitat supports an extensive array of bird species. In addition to the birds that live in the area, many additional species use Assateague Island during migration. Because of its position on the Atlantic Flyway, Assateague Island is an ideal place for birds to rest and refuel during migration. Thousands of brant, geese, and ducks spend their winter on the refuge. Spring and fall are exciting times for birders that love to watch the migration of the shorebirds and waterfowl. Throughout the spring, summer, and fall visitors will find many herons and egrets the shallow ponds on Assateague Island. Some of the popular sites to observe birds are at Swan Cove Pool along the Beach Road. Herons and egrets can be seen in the borrow ditches around the refuge, and the hunting blind in Tom’s Cove, near Beach Road, is a favored perch for some birds, including double-crested cormorants. The Woodland Trail is an excellent place to observe songbirds, and Snow Goose Pool, in the Wildlife Loop, is a popular spot for many bird species. Visitors may borrow a pair of binoculars, free of charge, from the refuge visitor center, to help with their birding experience.
Click here to download a checklist of birds that have been identified on the refuge.
Click here to download a map of the impoundments where you can find the most waterfowl and shorebirds.
Fishing, Crabbing & Clamming
Surf fishing is a very popular activity at the beach on Assateague Island. Surf fishing is permitted outside the life-guarded areas. Fishing is also permitted in designated areas of Toms Cove and Swan Cove. Anglers age 16 and older must possess a valid Virginia Saltwater Fishing or Potomac River Fisheries Sport Fishing license. Anglers who are exempt from licensing and holders of out-of-state reciprocal licenses must register (free) with the VA Fisherman Identification Program (FIP). State regulations must be observed. Visitors may fish after hours by procuring an overnight fishing permit from the Toms Cove Visitor Center. Some of the fish common to the waters around Assateague Island are bluefish, striped bass, flounder, croaker, spot, and drum.
Crabbing is another very popular activity on Assateague Island. Crabbing is permitted in designated areas in Swan Cove and along Beach Road, as well as from the boardwalks near the entrance gates. Steamed Blue Crabs with a generous amount of Old Bay Seasoning is one of the Eastern Shores most famous delicacies. When crabbing, remember to observe state limits on size and quantity. Each person is allowed one bushel of hard crabs per day. To learn how to eat crabs click here. Clamming is permitted in Tom's Cove.
All of the required supplies for fishing, crabbing, and clamming can be purchased on Chincoteague Island. Fishing, crabbing, and clamming regulations are enforced by Refuge Law Enforcement (they will fine you). To ensure you know the regulations click here.
Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge offers a variety of guided programs, predominately during the summer months. At the refuge visitor center, presentations are given on a variety of topics, including the wildlife and the cultural history of the area, as well as other subjects relating to the refuge. During the summer, refuge staff lead craft and game sessions that are perfect for children of all ages.
The refuge also offers several programs that allow visitors to explore the outdoors under the guidance of a refuge employee or volunteer. These programs include the popular bird walks, crabbing and surf fishing demonstrations, marsh walks, photography hikes, and beach campfires.
School groups can arrange to visit the refuge and learn about wildlife, plants, and their habitats. Teacher workshops are also offered during the year.
Special programs may be offered throughout the year. Please call the refuge for updates or additional information at (757) 336-6122.
Boats are permitted to land on designated areas of Tom's Cove Hook from September 1 through March 14.
Big game, waterfowl, and rail hunting are available by permit during desinated periods and only in certain areas.