Camping With Kids at Assateague

This past weekend was a first for our family.

So. . . we took a non climbing camping trip!  It was a weekend camping trip only a few hours from home and I am happy to say that the trip was a huge success.

Assateague Island State Park Camping

We drove 4 hours to the Maryland State Park on Assateague Island.  Assateague is known for both a state park and national park (Assateague National Park) hosting hundreds of wild horses, beachfront camping, and unparalleled undeveloped East Coast Seashore wilderness.

Camping is available at both the Maryland State Park and the National Park. Reservations are recommended (and hard to come by for peak season which is from May until September).  The State park campgrounds have a bit more on the amenities including hot water showers, clean bathrooms, and running water toilets.  The NPS facilities are more rustic and sufficient for those that aren’t picky about running water and indoor warm water showers.

Beachfront Camping on the East Coast

Beachfront camping on the East Coast is hard to come by.  When camping at Assateague, our site happened to be right up against the dunes, and only a quick walk over the dune path to get to the beach.  The National park also boasts ocean front campsites but you will want to look at the campsite map to find the appropriate site.  Bayside campsites are, as you would image “Bayside” rather than ocean front.

We lucked out with the weather – 70’s during the day and sunny. Evenings were a bit cooler with heavy jackets and a warm fire being needed for comfort.  Temps were probably in the 40’s at night.

At this time of the year, the camping was lovely with limited bugs and no humidity – my understanding is that the heat can get oppressive and the Assateague mosquitos and flies are quite aggressive and non responsive to bug spray.  As things heat up, the bugs become an issue.  With regard to sea gulls and other wild animals, we had limited interaction.  We did see some deer in addition to the wild horses.  Bird watchers will likely see a large variety of sea and East Coast birds.

A quick warning: Where we stayed, the water had a particularly rough shore break as the ground changes depth quickly and the waves break hard and shallow in the water.  While I’m sure that the summers account for this and folks are aware for swimming purposes, if you have difficulty swimming or young children, you will want to take particular care with the shore break.

National Park Camping, Assateague Permits and More

Assateague State Park and National Park border one another and you can walk from State to National without much effort.  Not sure how they patrol the state to national beaches, but I’m sure they must during the summer at there is a National Park Pass required to go onto National Park land.  The pass is valid for both Assateague and Chincoteague Island – Chincoteague is the Virgina side of the island and is host to only commercial campgrounds, though there are more summer housing rentals on that side of the island.  For $15, you can have a day pass, or $30 gets you the annual.

You can stop at the visitor center before you get over the Verrazzano Bridge.  We didn’t stop there but we did hear that there was a nature center with a number of hands on displays for the kids.  Pets are allowed in certain campsites and locations in both the state and national park but, as with all National Parks, they must be on a leash.

Firewood can not be brought from out of state, but is available within the county and can be purchased on your drive in – there are a number of stores that have it for sale and we recommend purchasing outside of the park as what we bought within the park was a bit greener than what we used from outside of the park (within the county).

Over Sand Vehicle DrivingDriving on the Beach

Assateague has miles of sand open for driving with an Over Sand Vehicle Permit.  The permits vary in price based on usage but we bought an annual pass for $90 to drive further down the beach.  Additional campsites are available in the backcountry that you can hike and/or drive to using your OSV permit.

The OSV permit has some caveats that you should be aware of.

1.  Only 145 vehicles are allowed in the NPS OSV area at one time.  That number fills up quickly during the summer and the limit was 3/4 full on our trip in April by the end of the day – I would imagine it is a difficult task to get in within the limit during the summer months.

2.  Requirements include a specific type of shovel, piece of wood or steel, tow straps, and tire pressure gauge as you must lower tire pressure to 15 and have the tools to get pulled out of sand should you get stuck.

For more info on the OSV, visit the NPS Assateague information page.

Going on a pony huntFinding the Assateague Horses

Finding the horses is a complete luck fest. . . They can be walking on the road, on the beach, in the campsite area, or in the parking lot.  . . Or you can go through the trails stumbling over pile after pile of warm horse manure with no horse in sight for hours.  It’s just hit or miss, but you are bound to see a few.  We made an adventure of following the horse trails through the woods a bit only to realize that we were probably making too much noise to surprise anyone.  It was a fun time, and the kids certainly enjoyed checking the horse scat to see how fresh it was an how “hot on the trail” we were.

So are the horses at Assateague horses, or ponies?  Well, you’ll see signs for both across the island.  We spoke with a local who said that they are ponies because of their size. . . they aren’t over a certain number of “hands” so they are considered ponies not horses.  So there you go.

The running of the horses occurs during the month of July when the horses swim from the mainland back to the island.  It’s likely not to be missed, but since we don’t do crowds, we opted to visit in a less popular month.


Things to do at Assateague Park

1. Watch the sunrise from your campsite

2. Hike along the beach and look for shells and horses.

3. Drive on the beach.  Stop for a picnic. Go on a pony hunt.

4.  Kayak or Canoe around the bay

5. Bring a paddle board (not sure if they had rentals)

6. Dig in the sand. Build Sand Castles

7. Visit the Nature Center

8. Hike on one of three nature trails; dunes, forest or marsh.

9.  Bike around the park with the kids.

bike ride on assateague islandBetween marshmallow roasting, hot dogs for dinner, digging holes in the sand, driving on the beach, going on a pony hunt, picnics, walks, and bike rides, we managed to fit a lot of activity into a short weekend – even if we didn’t go climbing even once!