Assateague Island National Seashore is a 38-mile barrier island on the East Coast between Maryland and Virginia. This beautiful area has been preserved by the National Park Service and is home to many activities, such as kayaking, windsurfing, and camping, but what draws in visitors from around the country each year is the wild ponies that roam. Yes, you read that right, there is an island on the East Coast of the United States that has wild ponies roaming around on the beach that you can camp with. Does it get much better than that?
We love camping at Assateague. We go often, and have spent many nights listening to the waves crash on the shore. In doing so, we’ve learned a lot of things about the island; what enhances the experience, what takes away from it, and general tips and tricks you’ll want to know before you set up your tent and enjoy some time away from it all.
Getting a permit to camp at Assateague
First things first… you need to plan your trip to Assateague in advance. Why? Because The National Park service has limited campground space, and people from across the country travel to Assateague to camp on the beach. What does that mean for you? You need to start planning your trip now.
Campsites are allotted on a first come, first serve basis. You can reserve campground space on the recreation.gov website.
Pro Tip: Don’t stay bay side unless you want to be eaten alive by mosquitos. I know what you are thinking, just use mosquito spray… trust me, it doesn’t work. Also, try to stay in Oceanside Drive-In Loop 1 or 2, it’s really handy to have all of your supplies in your car with you. And, don’t do the outer loop for tent camping (you’re literally on the beach, in the sand). It’s beautiful. It’s “aesthetic.” It’s sand EVERYWHERE. The inner loop is just as close to the beach, but located on grass.
Getting to Assateague
Traveling to Assateague is easy enough. You’ll be coming from the west, and that means you’ll be taking US Route 113. This portion of the drive isn’t anything too special, however, when you turn on MD-376 (Assateague Road), the views become more enticing. At this point, you can follow the road signs that point you directly to the National Park, and don’t forget to stop at one of the firewood stores you see while driving.
Pro Tip: You’ll need firewood while camping on the island, and you shouldn’t bring wood from back home. Buy it where you burn it (don’t take my word for it, ask these guys: https://www.dontmovefirewood.org/). Once you get on MD-376 you’ll see tons of places to buy firewood (and even before that). Be sure to stop at one of them and load up.
Cooking on the island
If you’re car camping, like we always do, you should pack a cooler of supplies in advance. The reason we recommend car camping is that you can leave your food in the car and away from the ponies. Isa and I have made a tradition of going to Trader Joe’s before driving to the beach to gather tasty ingredients so that we’re all set for the 2 or 3 day adventure.
We have a few go-to recipes:
- Hot dogs cooked over the fire;
- Cheese quesadilla over the fire;
- Bacon and eggs over the fire;
- Literally anything that tastes good, cooked over the fire, especially smores.
Car camping at Assateague can be a bit luxurious. You have running water on the campgrounds, all your supplies in your car, and friendly and welcome neighbors that will even invite you over for dinner. Beach camping at Assateague is an absolute blast, and cooking your favorite dishes over the fire only makes it that much more fun.
Pro Tip: Never leave food outside of your car. Isa and I have seen it happen too many times… The wild ponies will come and they will scavenge for food. Honestly, that’s the best case scenario. There’s all sorts of other wildlife on the island, and you really don’t want to attract any of them with the scent of your food. Keep it in the car.
Amenities on the island
The campground at Assateague has nice amenities. Considering how remote the island is, it’s nice to have shower stalls, running water from a spicket, and compostable bathrooms. You’re living on a beach for a few days, so don’t expect to be as clean as you would be at home, but other than that, you have what you need to be comfortable on the island.
The best time of year to go Camping at Assateague
This depends. Do you want the island to yourself, or do you want to see ponies galore?
If you want the island to yourself, we highly recommend traveling to Assateague in late April. There are fewer ponies out and about, but there are also fewer people on the campgrounds. On one recent trip, Isa and I had the beach to ourselves for an entire weekend. You’d look in both directions down the coastline and you couldn’t see anyone. It was incredible. There are also much fewer mosquitos at this time of year. Keep in mind the temperatures swing a lot during this time of year (it gets warm during the day, and very chilly at night). Pack accordingly!
However, if you’re more interested in seeing ponies, go later in the summer. This is when the ponies are most active. It’s important to recognize that the mosquitos are also most active then, and the island is more “bustling” with other visitors.
Keep in mind, anytime you are at Assateague is a great time.
Assateague Camping Dos and Don’ts
Here is a comprehensive list of “pro tips,” when it comes to camping on Assateague:
- Don’t stay bay side unless you want to be eaten alive by mosquitos. I know what you are thinking, just use mosquito spray, nope.
- Do Oceanside Drive-In Loop 1 or 2, you won’t regret it.
- Don’t do the outer loop for tent camping. It’s beautiful. It’s aesthetic. It’s sand EVERYWHERE. The inner loop is just as close to the beach, but located on grass.
- Do bring baby powder. Lots of it. Rubs off the sand and makes your life easier.
- Do bring a dustpan; you will be much happier with this option than flipping your tent.
- Do keep all food and coolers in the car, DO NOT PUT ANY FOOD IN YOUR TENT. Nothing is safe; the horses will even go for your beer cooler so stash that under the picnic table.
- Don’t be afraid of the horses! The last thing you want to do is chase them down, but don’t run away from them. Keep a respectable distance, the rule is 40 feet.
- I have even seen people build bonfires on the beach that the horses then hang out around.
- Do assemble your tent before leaving, this insures you have all pieces required to set up.
- Do bring a portable stovetop. Great investment. Cooking over the fire is great until it unexpectedly rains and you no longer have usable firewood for multiple days.
- Do bring sand stakes for your tent if you op to camp on the outer loop, regular tent stakes will not be enough.
- Do some of the hikes! My personal favorite is Life of the Dunes, its very easy to do and to get to.
- Do bring materials for smores and a fire, the campsites come with a fire pit, make use of it!
- Do bring your dog. Just make sure to bring proof of vaccinations. There’s something pretty special about seeing your dog and a pony all in one sightline.
- Do bring fire starter. You don’t want to look like a fool in front of your experienced, outdoorsy girlfriend!
- And last but not least, do relax and enjoy this beautiful island.