January 22nd, 2017
The Refuge Trek is a bus tour that goes where few people are allowed, the entire 8 mile length of the Northern OSV (over sand vehicle) access road. The tour is approximately 90-minutes long. For many years, the road was only open to foot traffic and was driven by those on official refuge business. Today access is given to those with OSV permits or bicyclists, but only the refuge trek will provide access to the entire length of the road. Each tour is accompanied by a knowledgeable guide. The guide will fill you in on tales of the Assateague’s rich cultural history, as well as provide insight about the wildlife and ecology of Assateague Island. Given that it is a more remote area of the refuge, you can expect to see Chincoteague Ponies, White-Tailed Deer, Sika Deer, a variety of Birds and other wildlife.
You will need to reserve a space, or more depending on the number of people in your party. You can make reservations by calling (757) 336-3696. This will put you in touch with someone from the Chincoteague Natural History Association (CNHA), a non-profit, cooperating association established in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Their website www.piping-plover.org describes the tour as “a great way to see ponies and other wildlife without having to hike around on foot”. Prices for the Refuge Trek are $14 for adults and $7 for children 12 and under. They accept Visa, MasterCard, or Discover. There are seasonal discounts available for seniors and CNHA members. You can become a member by visiting their website and paying the subscription fee of $15. Note, you will still need to pick up a ticket the day of the tour.
In September, a slower time of year on Chincoteague, I reserved my spot a week and a half in advance. I would suggest that if you have several people in your party or are visiting the island during the peak months of June, July or August, that you reserve your spot at least a few weeks in advance. There may be only one tour on any given day, and the bus seats about 30 people, so space is limited.
On the day of my tour, I picked up my ticket at the Bateman Center, which is located at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. In order to access the Refuge, you will need to purchase a pass at the fee booth. Find out about the different passes at this link www.fws.gov. The Bateman Center is very easy to find, after you drive through the fee booth area, the Bateman Center is the second location on the left side of the road and has a very prominent sign and large parking lot. I arrived at the Bateman Center about 30 minutes before my scheduled tour. The Bateman Center has a very nice restroom inside. I would recommend that you use the facilities at the Bateman Center before the bus tour because there are no bathrooms on the bus or anywhere along the route of the tour. And maybe skip the extra-large soda or coffee beforehand too. After all, the tour is 90 minutes long.
Main Desk inside the Bateman Center
About 15 minutes before the schedule tour, I went outside and waited in line for my turn to board the refuge trek bus. WARNING! Bring BUG SPRAY! Unlike Chincoteague, which uses various methods of mosquito control, the wildlife refuge is not sprayed for the pesky little blood-suckers. I’m telling you, they are bad on the refuge. Forget it at your own risk. I did, and was swarmed while waiting to board the bus.
Refuge Trek ticket holders waiting in line to board the bus
Once we boarded I was pleased to escape the mosquitoes and happy to see that the bus was clean, cool and did not feel cramped. The A/C was working well. The cloth seats were also wide and comfortable for sitting for a long period of time. The P/A system was very clear and easy to hear. The windows were very large which made it easy to take pictures and sight-see. It was 10 am on a beautiful Friday morning in mid-September and I was looking forward to the tour because even though I’ve lived in the area since 1999, I had never explored the entire Northern access road. I wasn’t disappointed.
Our tour guide, Frank, was very pleasant and informative. The refuge trek bus went the entire length of the Northern OSV road, which is about 8 miles, and then it turned around and doubled back. In addition to our interaction with Frank, there was a pre-recorded part of the tour that talked about the National Wildlife Refuge and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services.
My favorite part of the tour was when we stopped and got out of the bus to take better photos. Our group decided to stop along the part of the trek where we saw a band of wild ponies. They were probably only 500 feet away.
Wild ponies were about 500 feet away
I found the tour to be very relaxing, and enjoyable. We saw various bird species and the wild ponies. I’m sure on any given day, you will see a mixture of either Eagles, waterfowl, Delmarva Fox Squirrel, Deer, Turtles or the famed Wild Ponies. Because of the price, exclusive access to the road, comfort of the bus and helpful tour guide, I consider this activity one that would be great for any adult or older child. I would definitely recommend that you reserve a spot for your next visit to Chincoteague.
There are some tour groups who will be lucky enough to see the Ponies inside of the Norther Herd corral during Pony Round Up time. My group only saw the empty corral during our Trek, however there are a few tours that get to see the ponies in the corral if they time their Refuge Trek right, specifically on the Monday of Pony Swim Week in July. Isn’t that cool?
The Refuge Trek bus on the North OSV road
If you can’t get a reservation for the Wildlife Trek and you really want to see the Northern herd of wild Ponies, I would definitely book a tour on a local scenic boat cruise. They have pony & wildlife tours that are wonderful. Click here to see a list of boat tour companies that we recommend on our website. Boat tours are about two hours long and prices vary. Depending on the touring company, they can bring you to the same area by boat to see the Northern Herd. Just ask them if they go to the Northern Herd area when you call for reservations.
If you’re not interested in a boat tour, you can actually bike up the North OSV service road for about 2 miles. Frank heartily recommended wearing a bike helmet because the road is not smoothly paved. It is made of gravel and is fairly bumpy. You still can’t go quite as far as our bus tour went, but you can turn off onto a trail that leads to the beach.
Mosquito repellent spray, weather appropriate clothing, and a camera are musts. By the end of the hour and a half, my legs and back were aching. I would recommend taking some ibuprofen if you have back issues like myself. I can’t blame it on the bus, which was very comfortable.
It depends. If your child can handle long car rides without a bathroom break then it may be okay. There is no eating or drinking on the bus, however, one could use the fifteen minute bus stop to drink or eat a quick snack. In my opinion, as a mother of young children, this might not be the best tour for them. Some children under 12 might not easily tolerate the 90 minute tour.
By Sara Daisey
~Sara and her husband Ted are the owners of Chincoteague.com. They are full-time residents of Chincoteague. They hope that their love of Chincoteague inspires everyone who visits their website to also visit their special island. Remember to visit www.chincoteague.com for everything you need to plan your next visit to Chincoteague Island.
Sara Daisey authors the Chincoteague.com Blog. She resides on Chincoteague Island with her husband Ted and three children, Garrett, Morgan, and Jenna.