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Camping With the Wild Ponies on Assateague Island

Margaret is a retired software designer/developer who spends her time traveling, writing, and doing freelance web design and development.

Wild pony in the bayside campground of Assateague National Park

Wild pony in the bayside campground of Assateague National Park

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. On 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!

Wild Ponies in Chincoteague National Refuge

Wild Ponies in Chincoteague National Refuge

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.

Sunset on the bay - Assateague National Park

Sunset on the bay - Assateague National Park

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 Chincoteague Camping Experience

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.

These ponies were right on our bayside campsite in Assateague Island National Seashore.

These ponies were right on our bayside campsite in Assateague Island National Seashore.

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!

The beach in Assateague State Park

The beach in Assateague State Park

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 beachside.

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.

A mother and her foal in Assateague State Park

A mother and her foal in Assateague State Park

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Margaret Perrottet


Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on January 03, 2014:

The National Park lets you take the dog onto the beach and you can certainly walk around the park. The state park allows dogs in certain areas. J area is for pets, but the electric loop also has a pet section.

Jan on January 03, 2014:

Just a question- could you walk the dog around the park and on the beach? Thanks!

Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on July 25, 2013:

wabash annie - that bridge is a bit unnerving, although we've been through it quite often. Fortunately we don't have to go through it to get to Assateague, and the park is only about 2 hours away from our New Jersey home. We're going down for two weeks this September, and I'm looking forward to it. Thanks so much for stopping by.

wabash annie from Colorado Front Range on July 24, 2013:

The last time I was at Assateague Island was in the mid-fifties. I am sure it is much different now but would like to remember the way it was then. Besides I find the Chesapeake Bay Bridge a bit unnerving. Thanks for a great hub.

Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on June 03, 2013:

AleciaC - We're heading back there this September for two weeks. It's such a great place, and especially nice since you can take your dog on the beach at the state park. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on June 02, 2013:

This sounds like a great place to camp, mperrottet! I would love to visit the island, especially with my dog. Exploring the beach and watching the wild ponies would be wonderful activities. Thanks for the information and the interesting hub.

Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on April 17, 2013:

Kathryn - I read Misty of Chincoteague to my kids when they were little. I actually bought them the book when I was camping at Chincoteague, and so they really loved it. Glad you enjoyed reading about the area, and thanks for taking the time to comment.

Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on April 17, 2013:

rajan jolly - So glad you stopped by, and thanks for the votes and for sharing.

Kathryn from Windsor, Connecticut on April 16, 2013:

I would love to be near those ponies. I remember reading Misty of Chincoteague when I was younger. Thanks for sharing this with us. I enjoyed hearing about it.

Rajan Singh Jolly from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA. on April 16, 2013:

Lovely place and this was a pleasure reading about your enjoyable stay and watching these beautiful photos.

Voting this up, beautiful and sharing.

Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on February 02, 2013:

Au fait - so glad you enjoyed this hub. We love this place, and plan to spend a full two weeks there this September. Thanks so much for the comment and votes!

C E Clark from North Texas on February 01, 2013:

I think it would be so cool to explore Assateague Island. Your photos are great! The landscape and the horses are beautiful. Really enjoyed this article! Voted up, interesting, and beautiful.

Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on November 02, 2012:

Askme, I just checked about the ponies, and they say that the Chincoteague ponies seem to be OK, although the island has lots of damage. On the federal park side where we stayed there was even more damage, but the officials say that the ponies have been there for years, and weathered many storms. Thanks so much for the vote up - it's much appreciated.

Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on November 02, 2012:

Peggy W - so glad you enjoyed the hub. I'm not sure how the ponies are, but the national park was hit pretty badly. The damage that Sandy did is unbelievable. Thanks for reading and commenting!

Rebecca O'Reilly from California on November 02, 2012:

I love ponies and the beach! Beautiful hub and photos. Voted up and beautiful. I pray the ponies are okay after Sandy hit!!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on November 02, 2012:

What a wonderful hub! I truly liked learning about Assateague Island and the wild ponies that roam freely. Your photos add to the enjoyment. I am wondering if Hurricane Sandy has impacted this island as it has done to so much of the east coast. Have you heard anything about it? Up votes and sharing!

Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on October 15, 2012:

Thanks for reading and voting, timetraveler2. This park is well worth the visit, and I'm looking forward to staying there for two weeks next September.

Sondra Rochelle from USA on October 15, 2012:

As you know, I've been RVing for I'm amazed that I hadn't heard about this wonderful place! Thanks for the great info. Voted up and interesting.

Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on October 02, 2012:

I'm so glad this brought back good memories, pagesvoice. Thanks so much for stopping by and for the votes - I really appreciate it!

Dennis L. Page from New York/Pennsylvania border on October 01, 2012:

Voted up, useful, awesome, beautiful and interesting. Thank you for taking me down memory lane. One of my nicest camping experiences happened on Assateaque Island. It was so beautiful to walk from the campsite over the dunes and be on the beach. The whole experience there is so freeing. It is hard to describe to others who haven't been there, yet you did an exquisite job. What really impresses me is when the ponies swim to the mainland for auction and how some good Samaritans purchase them only to see to it that they are once again released to the island. Thank you again for such a great story.

Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on September 26, 2012:

For years and years, I've camped on Chincoteague Island, so camping on Assateague was a pleasant change. The campground is much less crowded than the private campgrounds, and we just loved being so close to the beach. Thanks so much for commenting and voting, shiningirisheyes - greatly appreciated!

Shining Irish Eyes from Upstate, New York on September 26, 2012:

Absolutely stellar job on this article! I only know about this place because of my parents. When Dad was alive it was an annually excursion for them and I always wanted to visit after hearing their descriptions.

Yours makes me want to go.

I commend you for providing me many added facts I was unaware of.

Voting up