Assateague Island National Seashore

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Assateague Island National Seashore
IUCN category V (protected landscape/seascape)
Assateague fg03.jpg
View of a beach on Assateague Island
Map showing the location of Assateague Island National Seashore
Map showing the location of Assateague Island National Seashore
Map showing the location of Assateague Island National Seashore
Map showing the location of Assateague Island National Seashore
Map showing the location of Assateague Island National Seashore
Map showing the location of Assateague Island National Seashore
Location Worcester County, Maryland & Accomack County, Virginia, USA
Nearest city Ocean City, MD & Chincoteague, VA
Coordinates 38°05′00″N 75°12′30″W / 38.08333°N 75.20833°W / 38.08333; -75.20833Coordinates: 38°05′00″N 75°12′30″W / 38.08333°N 75.20833°W / 38.08333; -75.20833
Area 41,320 acres (167.2 km2)[1]
Authorized January 1, 1965 (1965-January-01)
Visitors 2,105,419 (in 2011)[2]
Governing body National Park Service
Website Assateague Island National Seashore

Assateague Island National Seashore is a unit of the National Park Service occupying about half of Assateague Island, located off Maryland's eastern shore on the Atlantic Ocean. The park covers an area of 41,320 acres (16,720 ha). The portion of the island designated as national seashore extends South of the Ocean City inlet to the Maryland/Virginia state border. In addition, a one-mile portion of the VA district including the recreational beach and interpretive facilities is managed by the National Park Service. Over 2.1 million people visit the park each year. The park was created in 1965 after a strong nor'easter (the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962) destroyed the planned, but never built, resort community of Ocean Beach, Maryland. The national seashore is famous for its white sand beaches and wild ponies.


The park is located on a barrier island shaped by the stormy seas and gentle winds along the coast of the Delmarva Peninsula. The island is approximately 37 miles (60 km) long, yet never more than a mile wide. The park is divided into the Maryland District in the north and the Virginia District in the south. It is not possible to drive down the island from one district to the other. All automobile traffic must enter the mainland before traveling to the other end of the island.

The Maryland District of Assateague Island National Seashore runs from the Ocean City Inlet in the north to the Virginia state line. This district contains a visitor center, campground, three nature trails, a life guarded beach, and the park's headquarters. The smaller Assateague State Park sits within the borders of this district. The only access to the Maryland district (and the state park) is via the Verrazano Bridge on Maryland Route 611.

The smaller Virginia District of Assateague Island National Seashore on the southern extremity island contains a visitor center and lifeguarded beach. While it is staffed by National Park Rangers, the land is within the jurisdiction of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and owned by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. However, about a one-mile portion including the recreational beach is managed by the National Park Service based on various agreements and Memorandum of Understandings between the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service. This should not be confused with Chincoteague Island, which is a different island with a residential community on it. One must drive through Chincoteague Island in order to reach the Virginia District.

Geology and hydrology[edit]

Assateague Island is part of a chain of barrier islands that extend from Maine to Texas. The island is built from sand that moves south via longshore drift to distribute sand along the island's length. The source of the sand is run-off from the Appalachian Mountains. The island is moving westwards, the result of rising sea levels and waves rolling over the island during storms.[3] This condition is most pronounced at the northern end of the island, where Ocean City's jetties have stabilized the islands north of the Ocean City Inlet and have starved Assateague of new sand. As a result, Assateague's beach is shifted several hundred meters westwards compared to Ocean City's. The inlet was formed during the 1933 Chesapeake–Potomac hurricane, separating Fenwick and Assateague islands, and a jetty was immediately constructed to stabilize the inlet. After severe nor'easters in 1998, a sand replenishment program was undertaken to restore a sand supply to the north end of Assateague and to ensure a continuing supply.[4]


Before the national seashore was created in 1965, the island was going to be turned into a private resort community called Ocean Beach, Maryland. Some 5,000 private lots comprising what is now National Park Service property were zoned and sold for resort development in the 1950s. However, the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962 halted the plans for development. The nor'easter destroyed the few existing structures on the island that had been built and ripped the roads apart. Realizing that the island was too unstable to build upon, the housing development firm sold all of its land to the federal government. To this day, it is not possible to drive the entire length of the island; one must travel on the mainland to journey between the National Seashore in Maryland and the National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia.


Since the park's creation, several improvements have been made to aid the public in recreation. The park maintains a 2-mile (3 km) stretch of road on the island that travels through the state park in order for visitors to reach the National Seashore. A new visitor center was built in 2010 which is located on the mainland before visitors cross over the bridge to get to the island. The visitor center hosts several ranger-led programs and exhibits for the public. The park service also opened a new ranger station on the island in 2012. The building is powered by new solar panels that built in a nearby parking lot.


The park service maintains 148 campsites for both tents and recreational vehicles. On the Maryland side, campers have the option of an oceanside campsite on the west side of the main dune, or a bayside campsite on a peninsula projecting into Sinepuxent Bay.[5] While the oceanside campsites have quick access to the beach and ocean, the bayside campsites offer better views of the wetlands, often with horses grazing there throughout the day. The park also offers six backcountry camping sites, four of which can be accessed by canoe or kayak, and the other two sites must be backpacked to. No fresh water is available at any of the backcountry sites. The bayside sites see high populations of biting insects in summer. No camping is available on the VA portion of the Island however there are several surrounding campgrounds on the mainland.[6]


The national seashore has three short hiking trails, each of which are a half mile long. Each trail focuses on a different ecosystem: the marsh, the forest, and the dunes respectively. The marsh trail is the only one that has a boardwalk for the entirety of trail.


While visitors can swim anywhere in the ocean, the National Park Service provides a lifeguarded beach for those wishing to use it in both MD and VA. Access to it is located at North Ocean Beach in MD. The national seashore is also a popular destination for surfers.


Saltwater surf fishing is a very popular attraction in the national seashore. Starting in 2011, all anglers must purchase a valid Maryland fishing license before going out.

Over-Sand Vehicle Zone[edit]

The over-sand vehicle (OSV) zone is designated for four-wheel drive vehicles to drive on the beach. The Maryland OSV zone extends from the main camping area in the park to the Virginia state line where the horse fence prevents access into the national refuge. A permit and a verified list of equipment are required for access to the OSV zone.[7] OSV access is limited to 145 vehicles at any time in Maryland, enforced by automatic gates, and 48 in Virginia, unless the Tom's Cove Hook is closed, when Virginia access is limited to 18 vehicles. An overnight fishing permit allows overnight stays for fishermen.[8]


The national seashore provides habitat for a variety of plants and animals adapted to the coastline environment. The coastal salt marsh environment attracts wading birds, seabirds and amphibious mammals, as well as animals that have adapted to the harsh environment.


Shorebirds and wading birds are abundant at Assateague. Breeding birds include piping plovers, great egrets and red-winged blackbirds. Seabirds include brown pelicans and several species of gulls and terns. Wooded habitats shelter ruby-crowned kinglets and white-eyed vireos. During the winter the area shelters northern birds, including brant geese and northern saw-whet owls.[9]


Bands of feral horses, commonly known as a Chincoteague Pony or an Assateague Pony, freely roam on Assateague Island. Although local legend claims that the horses are descendants of animals that survived a shipwreck on the coast, it is more likely that the horses are descendants of domestic horses confined on the island by local residents in lieu of fencing them in on the mainland, where fences were taxed. The salty low-nutrient diet of saltmarsh grasses has resulted in the ponies' short stature and bloated abdomens.[10]

Ponies at Assateague Island National Seashore in August 2015

Two herds are kept separate by a fence at the Maryland-Virginia border. The horses in Virginia are kept in large corrals and owned by the Chincoteague volunteer fire company. These are the famous ponies that are herded every July and then swim to nearby Chincoteague Island as a fundraiser. In order to ensure healthy ponies to auction off, the firefighters provide them with food, water, and vet care. The Maryland herd is treated as wildlife and are not rounded up or removed from the island,[11] nor do they receive veterinary care. The Park Service uses birth control to manage the herd size, injecting a vaccine using darts to control pregnancy and to keep the size of the herd under 125 ponies.[10]



  1. ^ "Listing of acreage as of December 31, 2011". Land Resource Division, National Park Service. Retrieved 2012-03-19. 
  2. ^ "NPS Annual Recreation Visits Report". National Park Service. Retrieved 2012-03-19. 
  3. ^ "Coasts/Shorelines". Assateague Island National Seashore. National Park Service. Retrieved 17 January 2013. 
  4. ^ "Assateague Island National Seashore North End Restoration Project: Introduction" (PDF). National Park Service. Retrieved 17 January 2013. 
  5. ^ "Assateague Island National Seashore Campground Map" (PDF). Assateague Island National Seashore. National Park Service. Retrieved 18 January 2013. 
  6. ^ "Backcountry Camping". Assateague Island National Seashore. National Park Service. Retrieved 18 January 2013. 
  7. ^ "Over-Sand Vehicle (OSV) Use". Assateague Island National Seashore. National Park Service. Retrieved 18 January 2013. 
  8. ^ "Assateague Island National Seashore Over-Sand Vehicle Use". Assateague Island National Seashore. National Park Service. Retrieved 18 January 2013. 
  9. ^ "Birds". Assateague Island National Seashore. National Park Service. Retrieved 22 January 2013. 
  10. ^ a b "The Wild Horses of Assateague Island" (PDF). Assateague Island National Seashore. National Park Service. Retrieved 17 January 2013. 
  11. ^ "Assateague's Wild Horses". Assateague Island National Seashore. National Park Service. Retrieved 17 January 2013. 

External links[edit]