Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland

Photo: brownpau via flickr

After a very long winter, it’s finally time to go to the beach. You’re looking forward to the warm sunshine, the sand between your toes, and the sound of crashing waves. You’re even more excited when you hear that you’re heading to an island and a protected national seashore. Plus you’ll get to see wild horses. It sounds like the perfect day trip.

It may seem a little early for a beach trip. The weather report hasn’t been consistent this spring. Sweaters still take up valuable real estate in your closet. You haven’t even had to turn on the air conditioner. But spring—or fall, if you prefer to wait—is the best time to visit Assateague Island, where the crowds and, more importantly, the mosquitos have yet to arrive.

Assateague Island is a 37-mile-long barrier island off the east coast of Maryland and Virginia. The uninhabited island is divided between the Assateague Island National Seashore and Assateague State Park on the Maryland side, and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on the Virginia side. Two bridges, one in each state, connect the mainland to the island. But the roads don’t extend very far. White-sand beaches, windswept sand dunes, and quiet coves line the coast. Pine forests, marshes—both fresh and saltwater—and a lone lighthouse fill the interior. While birds and those feral horses are among the few who call the island home.

Photo: Bonnie U. Gruenberg (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
After crossing the Verrazano Bridge, you start the morning by kayaking in Sinepuxent Bay on the island’s calmer west coast. As the tide starts to rise, you explore farther up the creeks and the coves. American oystercatchers, with their long orange beaks, and wading great blue herons greet you along the way. A flock of brant geese fly north overhead. Tiny ruby-crowned kinglets sing high-pitched songs from the trees. While a white-tailed fawn sticks close to its mother, who stands still in hopes of not being noticed.

When you climb out of the kayak, you decide to check out the three short trails—they’re each a half-mile loop—on the Maryland side. The Life of the Marsh trail is lined with a wooden boardwalk and tall grass. Berry trees surround the Life of the Forest trail. While paw prints dot the Life of the Dunes trail. Those prints get bigger as you move toward the beach. You follow them all the way to the edge of the water on the Atlantic coast. The gorgeous beach extends as far as the eye can see. Lifeguards will start patrolling on Memorial Day weekend. Right now, seagulls greatly outnumber people.

Suddenly, horses do, too. A small herd is walking up the beach. Their long manes blow in the wind. Two males neigh and snort as they jockey for the lead position among the group. A wobbly foal plays in the waves and jumps away from the foam as they crash. You watch the majestic animals from your beach towel spread out near the dunes. Lunch will have to wait. But you’re glad a beach day didn’t have to.

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