Camping With the Wild Ponies on Assateague Island
Assateague Island offers a unique camping experience. You get to camp along the beautiful Maryland beaches while sharing the island with the native wild horses, or “ponies” as they are often called. Assateague Island runs through two states - Maryland and Virginia. The Virginia side is Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge which doesn't allow camping. There's camping available in private campgrounds on nearby Chincoteague Island, but not in the National Refuge itself. However, the Maryland side has camping available in Assateague Island National Seashore and Assateauge State Park. The wild ponies roam freely throughout these adjacent parks, and if you camp here you will often find these beautiful animals right in your campsite!
Where did the Wild Ponies Come From?
There are two different theories on how these wild horses first came to Assateague Island. The more romantic of the two tales is that a Spanish galleon carrying a cargo of horses was shipwrecked, and that the horses swam to the island. There seems to be some supporting evidence of this. The Hidden Galeon, a book written by John Amrheim Jr., claimed that the Spanish ship La Galga encountered a hurricane and was shipwrecked off the coast of Assateague Island in 1750. This was later proven to be true, and there have been remains salvaged from the wreck. Since there were horses on the ship, they very likely could have sought refuge on the island. A more mundane explanation is that the horses were brought to the island to evade the fencing and taxation laws of the late 1600s. I guess there's no way to actually prove either explanation, but let's face it – the shipwreck theory is certainly more dramatic, and was promoted in the popular “Misty of Chincoteague” written by Marguerite Henry.
There are about 300 wild horses on Assateague Island. The horses are physically separated by a fence on the Virginia/Maryland border. The Virginia herd is maintained by the Chincoteague Fire Department. Every year they swim the ponies across the channel between the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and Chincoteague Island. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allows the Chincoteague herd to graze on the Chincoteague National Refuge, but they must keep the herd to 150 horses. They reduce the herd by selling ponies off at an annual pony auction, and use the proceeds to maintain the remaining horses. The Maryland herd is maintained by the National Park Service.
Pony Safety Tips
Keep your distance from these wild horses. There are warnings posted throughout the national and state parks that these animals kick and bite, so don't get too close! There are some pretty grim pictures posted of children who have gotten nasty bites. Also, don't feed the horses. People were feeding the ponies from their cars, and as a result the ponies would approach oncoming cars and get hit.
Our Camping Experience on Assateague Island
My husband and I just returned from a wonderful six day camping trip on the island. We spent three days in Assateague Island National Seashore and three days in Assateague State Park.
1. Assateague Island National Seashore
Assateague Island National Seashore doesn't offer water, electric or sewer hookups, so you are basically dry camping there. If you have a generator, you can run it anytime from 6 AM until 10 PM. There are oceanside and bayside campsites. We camped in the bayside campground. Our campsite was very spacious, and we had a nice view of the bay. The horses were all over this campground! A couple of times they were right on our campsite grazing on the grass. Our only complaint was that with horses - and the inevitable manure they leave behind - you have lots of flies. There are also plenty of mosquitoes on Assateague, so bring an ample supply of insect repellant!
2. Assateague State Park
In Assateague State Park all the campsites are on the ocean side. All but one loop is primitive camping, with no water, electric or sewer offered. There is one electric loop (Loop H) , but until next year the only loop you can bring pets into is the J Loop. We have an Old English Sheepdog as our constant traveling companion, so of course we stayed in J Loop. I loved being so close to the beach. You only have to walk a little bit down to road to get to the beach entrance, so my husband and I were able to take lots of walks on the beach with our dog. There were fewer flies and mosquitoes camping on the beach side. We only saw one group of ponies in the campground, although there were some pony droppings on the beach and in the campground that suggested that there were more. Assateague State Park has electric fences between the beach and the campground, and I think that keeps many of the ponies off of the campsites. We really enjoyed this campground, and will be returning next year for two weeks. We look forward to once again sharing Assateague Island with the wonderful wild ponies.
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© 2012 Margaret Perrottet