When we made reservations for our fall 2016 camping trip to Assateague State Park, we had to make them soooo far in advance that it seemed like the weekend was never going to come. To pass the months, our daughter stayed busy reading several of Marguerite Henry’s famed horse novels–including rereading her favorite, “Misty of Chincoteague.” When the date for our departure finally arrived, our horse-crazy Sweetpea was beyond excited–and after a hectic fall, we all were looking forward to some R&R with our camping buddies.
(This post contains some affiliate links. That means we receive a small commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you!)
Assateague State Park is Maryland’s only oceanfront state park and it is the perfect spot from which to explore Assateague Island. Our camping trip fell on a busy fall weekend but even then we found the campground quiet and peaceful.
Assateague State Park is located along Assateague Island, which has two distinct parts: the northern Maryland section and the southern Virginia section. There is no driveable way to get from one end of the island to the other without going inland first. We visited both ends and here are some of the things we observed:
On the northern Maryland portion of Assateague Island:
- Camping options include: Assateague State Park, the Assateague Island National Seashore campground, and backcountry hike-in or paddle-in sites.
- Pets are permitted on leash in many parts of both the state park and national seashore.
- Roughly 12 miles of over-sand driving is allowed with a permit.
- The wild ponies living here are managed by the National Park Service as “wild animals.”
- There is limited access to stores and restaurants.
On the southern Virginia portion of Assateague island:
- No camping is permitted here.
- Pets are prohibited in the entire Virginia portion, even in your car. It’s not clear whether full-time RVers passing through the area would be permitted to have pets in the RV, but I’m inclined to say that’s a no too. You would need to call ahead.
- Offers quick access to the touristy town of Chincoteague.
- The wild ponies living here are managed by the Chincoteague Fire Department (which is in charge of the famous annual pony swim).
Campground: With 350 campsites to choose from, selecting a site at this state park can be a bit daunting. However, if you are looking for an electric site then your choices are greatly narrowed to the H Loop because it is the only loop with electric sites. These spots get reserved quickly because some of them are also pet sites, making it a very popular loop. We were on the middle road of the H Loop and there was very little traffic–which meant the kiddos had a blast scootering back and forth. The sites were all very easy to back into (there are no trees to worry about) and were all pretty level. I only saw a handful of campers in the entire place that needed to use any sort of leveling blocks. We arrived shortly after a rainy patch, so some campsites had standing water on them. Because the campground is located in a sandy wetland right next to the beach dunes, mosquitoes are a continual problem–even when it was 55 degrees with a 20+ mph wind! So make sure you come prepared for the bugs!
The state park has many loops that are identical in their design, each centered around newly renovated bathhouses with hot showers. Each loop has one or more dune crossovers for quick access to the beach. The loops that did not have electric hookups allow generators, although generator use is not allowed during quiet hours.
Bathrooms: The bathhouses at the campground have all been updated by the Maryland Sate Park Service and were clean and welcoming. The state park campground is the only one on the Assateague Island that offers hot showers, so these are a very welcome amenity on the island.
Amenities: Each loop has two dish-washing stations next to the bathhouse as well as several outdoor showers to get cleaned up in summer months when you get back from the beach. There is a playground, nature center, and shelter house in the middle of the campground. Just outside the campground is a restaurant and camp store.
Touring: The reason why many people visit Assateague State Park and Assateague Island National Seashore is to see the wild ponies. Make sure you stop in the Northern Visitor Center and watch the Back to the Wild: The Wild Ponies of Assateague movie, which does a great job of succinctly providing a brief history of these unique horses. While there is no guarantee that you will see the ponies during your visit, it is likely a few will amble through the campground at some point. Make sure you heed the warnings about securing your food, because these horses will graze, and not just for grass! We saw ponies trying to get into an open truck door, pulling something out of an open window of a car, and then knocking over and consuming most of what was in a cooler. The ponies are smart–and conditioned to campers–but unpredictable. The rangers advise keeping at least one school bus length away from the ponies. However, it was pretty awesome for the kiddos to watch the ponies–and Sweetpea had fun naming each one that she spotted.
Within the state park, visitors will find opportunities for hiking, biking, swimming, surfing, fishing, or kayaking. An hour drive to the south and you will be on Chincoteague Island, home to the famous annual pony swim, as well as lots of small shops, restaurants, and other nearby attractions including:
- Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center
- Assateague Lighthouse
- Museum of Chincoteague Island
- Herb Daisy Decoys
- Island Creamery
- NASA’s Wallops Visitor Center
The visitor center at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is a great stop especially if you want to do some bird watching. The refuge, which includes more than 14,000 acres of beach, dunes, marsh, and maritime forest, is along the Atlantic flyway and an ideal nesting, feeding, and wintering spot for a variety of birds. The kiddos, however, were excited that one of the featured films playing at the center was an early edition of the Wild Kratts brothers exploring Assateague and Chincoteague Island.
From the visitors center, it’s a short jaunt over to the historic Assateague Lighthouse where you can climb 175 steps to take in sweeping panoramas of the island.
The view from the top of Assateague Lighthouse is awesome–and windy!
After leaving the refuge, we made our way back into Chincoteague to do a little more sightseeing. Along a quiet residential street we passed Herb Daisey’s decoy shop. Our friends had visited the shop years ago when they had previously visited the island, so after eating our lunch, we swung back by to take a look at the beautifully hand-carved and painted birds.
From there our hunt to find the “original” Misty of Chincoteague–preserved for posterity’s sake–led us to the Museum of Chincoteague Island. For $4 admission, children 12 and younger are free, you can tour this small museum chronicling the island’s history. After posing with “Misty,” the kids enjoyed completing a short scavenger hunt, but it’s not the kind of place that will really entertain kiddos for long. So we were soon back in the van, headed to our next stop.
Before heading back to the campground, we had to make one more stop at the Island Creamery, where the friendly staff dished up awesome homemade ice cream–and some of the most creative flavors we’ve tasted, like pumpkin spice latte!
We did not have time to explore the region north of the state park, but Ocean City, Md., is a quick drive away and would definitely be an area that we would want to explore on a return trip.
During our visit we also drove through the Assateague Island National Seashore campgrounds. All of the sites are non-electric. If you are looking for some shade, non-sandy sites, and you don’t mind more primitive camping (cold showers only) then look into the Bayside Campground (Loops A and C allow generators but Loop B does not). The national seashore takes reservations and we were told that for popular weekends, sites will book on the first day of the booking window (six months in advance).
Dates of visit: 10/20/16 -10/24/16
Cost of site: $50.55 per night including the online service fee