April 22, 2023

Chincoteague and Assateague - Where Are the Wild Ponies?

This is the final post covering our recent snowbird trip to Florida, Georgia and Virginia.  (After this, I’ll zip back to Yosemite National Park and continue the series on our third cross-country National Parks trip.)  Alan and I enjoyed the fun and frolic of our late winter escape from the snow and cold weather at home, but we really did miss our travel trailer.  I’m happy to say that spring is in the air, the cover is off the trailer and we can now prepare for another year of camping adventures.  Yay!

The final stop on our 13 day snowbird adventure was Chincoteague, Virginia, a small and quiet island off the coast of the Delmarva Peninsula.  As its name would suggest, the peninsula contains portions of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.  Although Interstate 95 is the most direct route from the northeast to the southeast, Alan and I aren’t huge fans of the busy highway.  The traffic around Baltimore, Washington (DC) and Richmond is annoying, at best, and exhausting, at worst.  If we’re traveling up and down the east coast, we’ll either take Interstate 81 to the west of I-95 or traverse the Delmarva Peninsula to the east of it.  Despite the number of times we’ve traveled the peninsula, this would be our first stay in Chincoteague, the gateway to Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island.

Our transition from Savannah to Chincoteague included crossing Chesapeake Bay on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (CBBT).  The CBBT is always a treat for me.  It connects Virginia Beach and Cape Charles (both in the state of Virginia) via a combination of bridges and tunnels that’s over 17 miles long.  The CBBT opened in 1964, and replaced the ferries that had been transporting people back and forth across the bay since the 1930’s.  Traveling by car and with E-Z Pass, our toll was $14.00.  For less than the price of a pizza, we crossed Chesapeake Bay via this engineering marvel, enjoying the views along the way.  We’re especially fond of the enormous parking lot at the north end of the CBBT with access to restrooms and free overnight parking.  This stop is a favorite of ours when we’re on the move with the trailer - whether we’re traveling northbound or southbound through the Delmarva Peninsula.  It’s a day’s drive from home and it offers a cost-effective option for a quick overnight stay.  There’s nothing more cost-effective than free, right?

Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel toll plaza in Virginia Beach

I mentioned a couple of posts ago that Alan and I landed at the Comfort Suites Bayfront Resort on Chincoteague Island.  We were extremely impressed by the property and its staff, and the hotel proved to be an excellent base camp for our explorations during our short stay.  The weather was a bit chilly to be out on the water, and we only saw one boat cruising by while we were there.  When it passed by again the next day, we saw her name stenciled on the starboard bow – it was the Miss Mary.  No, I’m not kidding.

The Miss Mary heading south past Chincoteague Island

On our first full day in Virginia, we tooled around the small and quiet island of Chincoteague.  Chincoteague definitely has a small town feel; in fact, one of the hotel staff members said she had moved to the island because of its peaceful vibe.  After circling Chincoteague Island and not finding much to draw our interest, we crossed over to Assateague Island to visit Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.

Although we were hoping to spot some of the wild ponies on this southern end of the island, we knew going in that the chances were unlikely.  Rumor had it that this Virginia herd was much easier to spot from the water.  In the warmer weather, boat tours abound, but early March isn’t the best time of year to be out on the water.  We would have passed on a tour even if we had found one that was open so early in the season.  Instead, we headed toward the beach, keeping our eyes open for ponies along the way.  Evidently, it really is a small world.  We were nearly 400 miles from home, but the car we happened to park next to in the beach lot was from the city where we do most of our personal business, just 15 miles from our house.  Go figure.

There were some hardy souls hanging out at the beach!

Although we continued to poke around the island looking for ponies, the only critters we actually spotted were a heron, a few egrets and two scrawny raccoons.  We did stop for a close look at the Assateague Lighthouse, and she’s a beauty.  The original lighthouse, built in 1833, was replaced with the current one that was completed in 1867.  It remains an active navigational aid, and its light can be seen 19 miles out to sea.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service owns the lighthouse, but the U.S. Coast Guard maintains it.  Tours of the Assateague Lighthouse, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, are available from April through October.

Having come up empty-handed on our single item scavenger hunt (wild ponies!), Alan and I decided that the next day we’d take an hour’s drive to the northern end of Assateague Island.  We were pretty sure we’d have much better luck spotting ponies at Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland.  Up until then, we had succeeded in spotting them there on all of our prior visits, and we were hoping to continue our winning streak.

Lots of gulls on the bay side of Assateague Island National Seashore, but no ponies yet

The “wild ponies” on Assateague Island are actually considered feral horses, meaning they’re descendants of domestic animals that have reverted to a wild state.  Since the National Park Service can explain the ponies’ situation much better than I ever could, I borrowed the following from the NPS website (with full credit to the National Park Service, of course): “The horses are split into two main herds, one on the Virginia side and one on the Maryland side of Assateague. They are separated by a fence at the Virginia/Maryland State line. These herds have divided themselves into bands of two to twelve animals and each band occupies a home range. The National Park Service manages the Maryland herd. The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company owns and manages the Virginia herd, which is allowed to graze on Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, through a special use permit issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The permit restricts the size of the herd to approximately 150 adult animals in order to protect the other natural resources of the wildlife refuge. It is the Virginia herd which is often referred to as the ‘Chincoteague' ponies.”

Knowing that at least one band of ponies frequented the area around the federal campground at Assateague Island National Seashore, Alan and I prowled around their favorite haunts.  We figured we were on the right track when we came across a number of fresh piles of, uh, pony poop.  Sure enough, we ended up finding about a half dozen ponies during our visit.

The beach here at the National Seashore (and at Assateague Island State Park next door) is gorgeous, but the ponies are the real showstoppers.  They seem to think that the world revolves around them, and maybe they’re right.  During our visit last fall, we laughed when several of them commandeered the shade just outside the changing rooms at the south end of the beach, precluding anyone from using them.  Did the ponies care?  No.  They just enjoyed the shade while all the visitors stood around in the hot sun snapping pics of them – the National Park Service’s version of royalty.  During this visit, we found most of them wandering through one of the beach side camping loops, seemingly oblivious to what was going on around them.

Completing our single item scavenger hunt was a satisfying way to end our first excursion as snowbirds.  The next day would find us on the road to home and this:

I have to admit that we were both tempted to turn around and head back south.




  1. Haha!!!! I'll bet you WERE tempted to turn around when you saw the snow! What a great trip you had, capped off by the ponies. We've never been to Chincoteague/Assateague Islands but they've been on our list for a very long time. Thanks for the great tips for visiting, including "follow the horse poop," LOL!!

    1. The good news is that the snow has all melted, the trees have leafed out and all of the birds are back in the neighborhood. Still waiting for the first bear cubs of the season, but spring is springing! If you have bikes and/or kayaks at the time you visit Assateague Island National Seashore, do bring them. There is easy access to the bay for paddling, and biking on the Park roads is delightful!

  2. Mary,
    Great wrap-up! You and Alan would make great Southerners so, leave all that snow and ice and move south...everybody else is. Your pictures are great (as usual), and I especially loved seeing the horses. We went through DelMarVa a few years ago, but missed them, Thanks for sharing and have a great week! Joe

    1. Joe, could we be honorary southerners when we come down to visit? I am such a weather wimp. I'd be complaining about the heat and humidity down there as much as I complain about the snow and cold temps up here. There is just no making me happy! Hugs to you and Helen!


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