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Assateague Island

Go where wild horses run free on the beach

This long, skinny barrier island off the Maryland-Virginia border faces the restless Atlantic with 37 placid miles of sand, backed by loblolly pine forests and salt marshes. Famous for its wild ponies, Assateague is home to a wide variety of wildlife, from sika deer (actually miniature elk from Asia) to migratory hawks that soar through in the autumn.

Two-thirds of the island is in Maryland, where a good portion of the 2.5 million annual visitors gain access. Assateague State Park offers two miles of gentle beaches and on the western side of the island, visitors use canoes and kayaks to explore salt marshes in Sinepuxent Bay. The rest of the Maryland section falls within the Assateague Island National Seashore, a wilder stretch of shoreline with backcountry campgrounds and a route for off-road vehicles (permits required) to the state line.

The southern third of the island consists of Virginia’s Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, famous for the scruffy wild ponies that are its charming draw (technically, they’re not true ponies but actually stunted horses, but try telling that to a ten-year-old). It’s generally easier to see them on the Maryland side, where they tend to linger closer to the walking trails and roads, and often roam the beaches in the evening. Most of the refuge is beach, accessible only by foot, and if you sign up for a tour with a park ranger you can see the ponies in a different light—sometimes up close and personal—during your walk through the wild.

Assateague can be crowded on summer weekends, especially given the Maryland end’s proximity to Ocean City with its mass of high-rise hotels, amusement park rides and three-mile boardwalk. If this isn’t your cup of tea, consider a sojourn in the less commercialised town of Berlin, 10 miles inland, with a cluster of antiques shops and cafés, and the town gem, the three-storey Atlantic Hotel. The restored 1895 Victorian inn boasts an acclaimed restaurant and 17 rooms that combine armloads of Old World charm with New World amenities.

This trip idea can be found in:

1,000 Places to See in the United States & Canada Before You Die®

Trip idea text ©Patricia Schultz. For contact information about the places mentioned and many more USA trip ideas, see Patricia Schultz's blockbuster book.

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