Barrier islands are reconfigured by the powerful Atlantic Ocean on an unfathomable time schedule. Hurricanes, winter and spring storms, and the daily flow of the tides combine through the days, months, and years to move sand with dramatic surges or minute pulses. This unpredictable dynamism makes these islands fascinating to visit again and again. Assateague Island, at 37 miles, is the longest barrier island on the Delmarva Peninsula.
The many barrier islands that dominate the Mid-Atlantic coastline are long, relatively straight ridges of sand lying parallel to the main coast; their formation is favored by the wide, gently sloping continental shelf, abundant sediment, and a relatively low tidal range. In their natural state, barrier islands have wide sandy beaches, prominent dunes, and back-island mud flats, salt marshes, and lagoons. Waves striking the coast at an angle create currents that carry sediment along the shore, removing or depositing sand, or extending spits in a down-current direction.
The northern two-thirds of Assateague Island, including Assateague Island State Park near the northern end, are in Maryland, while the southern third of Assateague belongs to Virginia. (The Virginia portion of the island is protected by the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.) It is a 55-mile drive on the mainland from one end of the island to the other.
Upon crossing the Sinepuxent Bay bridge in the north, your first decision will be whether to drive straight ahead to the state park (from which it is a 6-mile walk north along the beautiful beach to Ocean City Inlet) or to drive south along Bayberry Drive to the National Seashore parking area, campground, and ranger station. From this spot, there is a wooden walkway across the dunes to the ocean strand. Scan the ocean for Bottle-nosed Dolphins, Brown Pelicans, and, in winter, Northern Gannets and other seabirds. Shell collecting and beachcombing are good at the seashore, and sometimes excellent after a heavy blow. Birdwatching is invariably rewarding, perhaps best in fall; the falcon migration can be particularly good.
Many seashore visitors come to see the islandís wild ponies, which roam freely and often prefer the breezy, mosquito-free open beaches in summer. The famous ponies share beach to bay habitats with a host of other mammals and nearly 300 species of birds. Fishermen will find Striped and Channel Bass, White Perch, Atlantic Croaker, and Black Drum. Canoeing is a wonderful way to explore the leeward side of Assateague, and many visitors enjoy wilderness camping, but you must make plans in advance. Contact seashore officials about boating and camping regulations, suggestions, and precautions. (Mosquitoes, in particular, can be horrendous in the marshes.) Rangers lead daily nature walks during the summer months and regularly give campfire talks and slide programs for evening and overnight visitors.
Have you been to this park? How many stars would you give it?