Ponies and Pirates: Visiting Assateague Island

There is something in most of us that thrills at the idea of pirates who sailed the seven seas. It’s a built-in thirst for adventure and daring. Most people looking for a vacation spot may not know that tiny Assateague Island, Maryland (just a few miles from Ocean City) is known for its supposed pirate encounters. It’s easy to believe; there are countless dunes, woodland and swampland that have likely changed very little since pirate days, and they would make great hidey-holes for these men of the sea.

Even if the pirate story is sprinkled with myth, one thing is for sure; Assateague Island is a beautiful place. As you drive or bicycle along, you will see beautiful natural scenery like streams, flora and fauna, and of course the famous Assateague ponies. Legend has it that a shipwreck many centuries ago “marooned” these magnificent creatures and they took up residence here. While that may or may not be true, the ponies have been a major island appeal for decades.

One thing that it’s important to remember (especially if you are traveling with small children) is these ponies are not as cuddly as they look. It’s always dangerous for humans to have too much contact with these wild ponies and accidents do happen. It doesn’t need to be provoked; I happen to remember being stopped alongside the road and having a pony amble over so close that he almost stuck his head in the car window.

Watching for ponies can be a fun activity for kids; sometimes they are hard to spot, hiding behind bushes, down by marshes, or in a clump of trees. There is something wild and beautiful about the sight. As long as you don’t get too close, most of Assateague’s ponies are extremely photogenic; they will make some photo memories you won’t soon forget. Remember that luring them onto the road to get pictures of them is dangerous; both to oncoming traffic and to the ponies, who don’t know how to protect themselves.

Some families choose to camp here, and the island is certainly a lovely place to do so with numerous campsites. It is secluded and quiet with little activity. Every time we have visited, we have seen numerous people taking advantage of this vacation experience. Be warned that although you will be able to “sleep in the wild,” so to speak, there is nothing prohibiting a pony (or any other kind of animal) from coming right up to the camper or tent as you sleep. So don’t be surprised to have furry visitors! If you plan to take your camper, you will want to check on the admission fee and general rules of thumb for when you visit.

The Assateague Island visitor center is a great little place to go in and brush up on the history and ecology of the area. There’s also a gift shop where you can buy things like patches, coloring books, and bookmarks. Watch for the exhibits on undersea life. If you are curious about something regarding the park or surrounding areas, this is a good place to talk to someone who will most likely be able to answer your questions.

One of the best times to visit Assateague Island is in the early evening, preferably at sunset. I remember one vacation where we bought supper and drinks and drove out to Assateague to dine. This is one of my best memories of the island and is a super idea, especially for kids who love take-out food. You can also sit out at one of the picnic tables at the section of the island that tapers down to the water; but unless you want to share your food with wildlife, it’s probably a better idea to eat in the car!

The path down to the water is a peaceful place. Try walking down here when the island isn’t full of people; perhaps morning or early evening. Once you get off the path and walk along the water’s edge, you will find a completely different Assateague. Don’t forget to look for shells. Although I remember mostly broken shells, I’m sure there are still some beauties to be found. Letting warm water lap over your bare feet is one of the best feelings in the world. Kids will be sure to enjoy this exploration of the water’s edge. Look out for snakes and other pests, but other than that, there should be nothing to stop your fun.

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