Living inside the DC Beltway can be constricting. Amid the fast-paced political climate concatenate with being in and around the nation’s capital, at times, the experience is a bit overwhelming. The clanging of construction and heavily trafficked roads within the urban terrain is often enough to encourage a quick getaway from the chaos.
Fortunately, residents from DC, Maryland, and Virginia fondly referred to as the “DMV” can escape to Assateague Island, a U.S. National Park less than 4 hours from the White House. But of course, visitors are welcome from around the world. Campgrounds on the island provide a magical mix of ecosystems creating an ambiance attractive to those looking for the quintessential rustic escape. Lush green spaces bordered by oceanic terrain create the ideal locale for nature-seekers looking for a combination of places to trail hike and beach comb. It’s an easy place to plan a quick daytime backpack stroll through the woods with just enough time to fold out a lounge chair in the evening and stargaze on the beach without obstruction.
Assateague’s campgrounds are an expansive space south of Delaware divided between Maryland and Virginia. The island’s 37-mile eastern shore touches the Atlantic Ocean with white finely-grained sandy beaches. Some of the beach sites can be a bit challenging to get to by car. But there are a variety of places to choose from some with better accommodations than others. Depending on the reservation, there are outdoor showers, fire pits, bathrooms, and some have electrical options. Those who don’t want to stray too far from their cars can drive down the Maryland side where there are several beachfront camping areas all of them with the potential to inspire a camper’s inner explorer.
The beachside tranquility is only part of Assateague’s allure. Other attractions that make this campground standout from others are its featured four-legged friends. Wild horses roam the area usually in packs grazing on indigenous plants throughout the island. They are an awesome sight to see, but don’t get too close! Ubiquitous signs adjacent to campsites warn that the horses can bite if provoked, so it’s better to admire them from a distance. It’s believed that the ponies got to Assateague Island when a Spanish galleon cargo ship carrying the horses sank just off the coast. The horses swam to shore and have existed there uninterrupted for decades. Other theories surmise that the horses were brought to Assateague by early colonial settlers that allowed the equines to roam the island to feed on dune grasses, wild (read: organic) persimmons, saltmarsh cordgrass, bayberry twigs, and rosehips. But it’s also advised that campers secure their food at night just to be safe. Horses have an acute sense of smell.
With such a unique feature to observe on Assateague’s campgrounds, it’s no wonder that reserved spaces tend to get booked up fast. It’s a bit easier to make reservations on the bay side of Assateague or at one of the beachside group areas that allow campers to park their cars and take a short hike (we’re talking just a few yards here) to pitch their tents at a reserved spot. Many campers find these areas convenient because they allow for easy access to camping essentials while using their cars as backup storage or refuge.
If there were any detracting qualities of Assateague, it could be the persistent presence of mosquitos and horseflies. Being that this is a natural wildlife reserve, insects can populate without much control. To minimize the annoyance from winged marauders eager to dine (on you), it may be better to camp out in the earlier months before the official summer such as May when there are occasional but not prohibitive thunderstorms or just wait until later in the year. The summer’s warmth provides ideal conditions for hungry energetic pests, but their numbers seem to wane towards October. Regardless, it’s worth it to bring a preferred insect repellant.
Assateague offers more than just a place to grill steaks and toast s’mores over a firepit; however, surf fishing has been steadily rising as an angler’s activity of choice with areas fit for crabbing and occasional clamming at specific coastal inlets. In some areas, four-wheeling is allowed on the beach. And for more athletic activity, Assateague is one of the best places to surf and swim on the northeastern seaboard. It’s recommended to check the water temperature in the earlier months because it can be quite nippy, but temperatures tend to warm up later in the summer with help from the Gulf stream. Campers can also rent bikes at the Assateague Island Visitor Center.
The more popular times to camp out at Assateague Island are from May to October but campgrounds are open throughout the year. The park’s official site provides a list of restrictions and information about what to bring to help campers accommodate Assateague’s unique environment and landscape. So, bring a tent, hiking boots, fishing gear, a surfboard, binoculars to stargaze and watch for wild horses or even a kite! There’s so much to do on Assateague Island that it’s guaranteed to be a camping trip to be remembered for a lifetime.