Long walks on a beach, breathtaking sunrises and wild ponies… if any of those are your thing, you must visit the Assateague island.
Read below about general winter camping information at Assateague, ponies, hiking, winter beach camping tips, food/drink places around, and backcountry camping.
This is a dream destination for many Marylanders, but stars just weren’t aligning for us this summer. After reading this blog, I had my heart set on going to Assateague in winter. I pitched the idea to my boyfriend and our friend… and off we went.
Assateague island stretches for 37 miles between the Atlantic Ocean and the Chincoteague bay. You can enter from the Virginia side or the Maryland side, but there are no places to camp on the Virginia side. On the Maryland side, there’s a State park and a National Seashore.
The State park is smaller, with 2 miles of beach, but with better facilities (proper showers/restrooms). The State park is closed in winter.
The National Seashore has 35 miles of beach, two campsites (Ocean side and Bay side) with summer showers and vault toilets, and is open all year round.
The Visitor Centre is located just before the bridge to the island. It is worth visiting before entering the island, but it closes at 4pm, and we arrived on Friday late in the evening, so we could only stop by there on our way back. Great souvenirs and a lot of information.
As you enter the island and drive up to the National Seashore, you have to pass through the entrance booths. Entrance fee is $25 for 7 days, free with America the Beautiful pass. If you arrive after hours, you just drive through and pay the next day at the rangers station. The station is located to the right of the entrance booths and is open 9 am – 4:30 pm.
While in summer booking a spot in the park’s campsites is close to impossible, in winter they are first come-first serve basis. The walk in site is closed, but both the Oceanside and Bayside are open. We chose the Oceanside campground. It wasn’t empty, we had at least 3 more cars in our loop, but we managed to snatch what I think was the best spot – loop 1, side 9. It was close to the vault toilets, literally a stone throw away from the beach, and walking distance from the rangers station.
If you arrive after hours, just drive to the campground, pick a spot, and check in at the rangers station next morning before 11am.
The island is famous for its wild horses which freely roam around. You are not supposed to feed, pet, or come close to them.
We saw a lot of the ponies! The do come very close to the cars.
Option 1 is to just walk along the beach. There are 35 miles of beach, and walking there in winter is a surreal experience. You feel like you’re alone in the world.
I would definitely recommend getting up early for the sunrise! The ocean side of the park is on the east side, so you get an amazing sunrise.
Option 2 is to explore the trails. There are 3 trails: Life of the Dunes, Life of the Marsh and Life of the Forest. They are under a mile each, so it’s totally possible to do them all in one day. Due to renovation, only Life of the Dunes was open, and we enjoyed walking it very much.
The trail is short, easy and has a lot of information plaques along the way. I think it would be great to walk those with children.
I learned about the efforts to build a resort town on the island. The structures were destroyed by a big storm, and the island was turned into a National seashore.
WINTER BEACH CAMPING TIPS
Here’s what we learned from experience:
1. It can get windy.
On our second night, we got 17 mph wind with gushes up to 20 mph. No biggie, we just cozied up in the tent with snacks and boardgames. Do check the forecast though.
Bring good tent stakes! We replaced the ones that came with the tent with the MSR 7.5 inch ultralight tent stakes (not affiliated), and I’m sure they played a role in keeping our tent secure!
2. It’s going to be cold.
The wind and the proximity to the water makes it chillier than on the mainland. We came prepared with winter gear and hand warmers, and we were nice and toasty (my tips on how to stay warm).
3. There won’t be time for campfires.
There’s just so much to do on the island (ponie watching, bird watching, beach walking, trails) and around the island (breweries, little town exploring – read below), that we didn’t have much time in the evening.
A discovery for me, this product (not affiliated) really helped!
4. Sand will be everywhere.
Just embrace it. Ideally, wear high hiking boots (not sneakers).
5. No need to bring a change of clothes.
It’s too cold to change anyway, so just layer up.
FOOD/DRINK PLACES AROUND
It is a microbrewery with a remarkable selection of very good beer, located only 6 mins drive from Assateague. The place is rated 4.8 ⭐️ on Google maps, and rightfully so!
They also sell sandwiches, hot dogs and snacks. The food was unimpressive, but after a good hike I can eat anything.
Also, they sell wood! I don’t remember the price, but it was reasonable. You can’t buy wood on the island in winter, so that was helpful.
Burley Oak brewery
Another highly rated brewery nearby (15 mins drive). We didn’t have time for this one, next time for sure!
The Sterling tavern
Looking for a place to eat before we start driving back on Sunday, we came across this place. Food was good, drinks were amazing, and the place gave a nice cozy vibe.
The Sterling Tavern is located in Berlin, a nice town just 15 mins drive from the park. We took our time exploring the little shops filled with unique clothing, books and knick knacks.
Start driving from DC a after work (around 5:30 pm).
Arrive to the island around 9 pm, with all the traffic.
Set up camp, quickly eat a simple meal, bedtime.
Wake up to see the sunrise (6:30 am)
Walk to the ranger station just by the park entrance. Check in, pay the camping fee.
Walk the trails.
Drive 15 mins to the Sinepuxent brewery. Have lunch and a few beers.
Drive back to camp, boardgames (these are my favourite camping games), dinner, sleep.
Wake up, go on a long walk on the beach.
On the drive to DC, stop at a nearby town called Berlin for lunch and some holiday shopping.
There’s an option to backpack on the island. You arrive to the rangers station at least 2 hours before dark, get a permit for the group with a fixed itinerary, and off you go.
There are backcountry campsites (no fresh water, so you’ll have to carry it), and you can thru hike all the way from Maryland to Virginia. More information here.
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