Planning a trip to Chincoteague / Assateague Islands

Back to Assateague Island
Foal and mom

There's a lot of information on this website about Chincoteague and Assateague Islands.  There's excellent pictures too, if I do say so myself.  Its all a little disjointed, though.  I thought I'd put a page together talking about a few things that might help you plan a trip.  It isn't all inclusive but should help you get started.

This page is set up to scroll through all the information.  If you'd prefer to see a list of topics with links to the subject matter, click here.

Background

We've been visiting Chincoteague for 30 years.  Initially we went in the summer only but lately have enjoyed visits in the Spring and Winter.  Chincoteague has changed a good bit over the years but is still very similar to what it used to be.  Assateague is still our favorite beach but it has changed a lot.  The bath houses used to be on the beach, as did the Visitor's Center.  Now the bath houses are gone and the Visitor's Center is moved.  There used to be dunes there as well.  Winter storms kept leveling the beach and the park service surrendered.  The beaches are still very nice, though.  The new Visitor's Center is near the beach and is probably nicer than the old one.  Assateague is a barrier island and presents a lot of challenges to those caring for it.

I Will See Ponies Won't I?

Sure.  Well, maybe.  Several years ago, the ponies ran free on the island and could be anywhere.  Including the middle of the road.  Now, they are fenced in large areas to get separation from the people.  Its still common to see the ponies fairly close but not assured.  As you come onto Assateague Island you'll pass the visitor's center and the road makes a sharp left.  The area opens up on the left and right.  On the right is one of the best areas to see ponies.

I'd Like to See the Northern Herd 

The Northern Herd is easy to see but requires some energy. You have to walk it.  No driving, biking, etc.  Pull into the parking area for the Wildlife Loop.  Pack water, bug spray and cameras.  Head to the loop and turn left.  When you get to where the loop turns right, there's a gate ahead of you.  Go through it and enjoy the walk.  When you get to the area where there is a cattle guard (maybe pony) you're there.  The guard has rails that complicate the pony's attempts to get through.  Keep walking.  It can be very pretty up there with water on both sides.  It isn't unusual for there to be some good photo ops with ponies up there too.  Don't bother, pet or feed the ponies.  This walk is about an 8 mile round trip.  There is also a wildlife tour available that can take you up north as well.  The photo ops aren't as good but the walk is a lot shorter.

When Should I Visit?

The obvious time is July and August, I suppose.  The town is fully open.  The beach is open and the water OK to swim in.  The beach never gets real crowded.  Its pretty wide and there isn't unlimited parking.  The hotels are on their prime rates. 

We like to visit between Christmas and New Year's.  Its cold (or can be) but the snow geese are there.  The water levels in the ponds on Assateague can depend on what summer was like.  If you catch it right, there are birds everywhere.  We especially enjoy the snow geese.  We just dress warm and head around the wildlife loop with cameras.

Spring and fall are pretty nice too but the weather can be unpredictable.  Nice one day with wind and rain the next.  Still May and October trips have been fun.

When to Plan a Trip

You can almost always find a place to stay or camp in Chincoteague with very short notice.  A website like Chincoteague.com has names and contact information for many of the island motels.  If you call a few, you should find something.

There is one major exception.  When its Pony Penning time, you will have to plan ahead and expect a 5 day minimum stay.  Its a nice time to go but its the town at its most crowded.  It happens the last Wednesday and Thursday in July.  If you decide to go on short notice, check motels and campgrounds in town.  You might get lucky.

The 4th of July can get crowded too.  We went once and the campground was very noisy.  We started finding other things to do on that weekend.  We did make it to Pony Penning twice though.

Where to Stay?

You can only stay in Chincoteague.  There are NO accomodations on Assateague Island in Virginia and no camping. 

Chincoteague offers several hotels, new and modern and some smaller and older.  There are also houses for rent but we've never tried that.  One way to get a partial listing is to check Chincoteague.com.  They have links and information on some of the places to stay.  In the winter, we stay at the Hampton Inn and Suites.  Very nice place and you can watch the sunset from the upper floors but its expensive in the summer.  During the summer, we've stayed at the Waterside Inn, Refuge Inn and the Best Western Chincoteague.  All are nice places.  The Waterside Inn has nice views and you can walk to restaurants.  Other places are the Quality Inn and the Comfort Suites.  The Quality Inn is an older hotel that looks to have been upgraded when taken over by Quality Inn.  Comfort Suites is a nice hotel but we prefer Hampton.  Both are pricey in the summer.  Hotels not mentioned here are ones we haven't stayed in.  It doesn't mean there's anything wrong with them.

 There are 3 campgrounds in town.  Maddox Family Campground is the largest.  We've camped there several times.  Its nice enough but can get noisy at times, probably like most beach campgrounds.  We've also stayed at the Pine Grove Campground and Waterfowl Park.  When you think you hear a peacock, you do.  If you camp here, walk back into the area where the waterfowl are.  We've never stayed at Tom's Cove at the southern end of the island. 

Which Airport Should I Fly Into

We've never flown to Chincoteague so this is not something I have expertise in.  From Reston, VA and Bruceton Mills, WV, its a drive not a flight.  I'll tell you where the airports are and you can figure it out from there.  Kayak.com is a website than can be  helpful in finding reasonable flights.  If you fly, you'll need a rental car unless meeting friends.  No shuttle serice to Chincoteague that I know of.

Will I need a car?

You don't need a car in Chincoteague but I'm not sure how'd you get there without one.  You can rent a bicycle to see Assateague Island.  There's trolleys and taxis available within Chincoteague if you don't rent a bike.

What is the Pony Penning?

The Chincoteague Fire Department is responsible for the pony herd on Assateague Island in Virginia.  They need to limit the size of the herd and accomplish this by selling off the first year foals.  Its scheduled for the last Wednesday and Thursday in July.  On Wednesday, they swim the entire herd across the channel and move them to the large pen near the carnival area.  There's approximately 150 ponies there and its a chance to see them all.  On Thursday, they have the auction.  Most of the foals sold are taken off the island.  They usually designate one or two as hold-backs.  These stay on Assateague and are owned by individuals.  Surprising to me, these are usually the expensive ones.  It lets them replace ponies that might have died with the hold-back foals while raising money for the fire department.  Since these are the expensive ones, it must be OK.  On Friday they swim the southern herd (30?) back to Assateague and truck the northern herd (120?) back up to their turf.

Where Should I Watch the Pony Swim From?

We've only seen the pony swim twice and it was from kayaks.  As far as I'm concerned, you can't improve on it.  You're close to Assateague Island and not so far from the ponies.  The other boats have good views too but aren't as close.  You can also go to Memorial Park and watch from shore.  I think you have to get there very early to get a good spot.  Of course, you have to get to the kayak area pretty early too.  If you don't have a kayak but want to try, you might check with Wildlife Excursions or any other guides taking folks out.

I Want to Kayak While I'm There

You'll need a town permit to use their boat ramps.  There really isn't anywhere to put in other than the ramps so you need a permit.  The Police Station on Deep Hole Road is where you get them.  As you head out Maddox Blvd, watch at the stop light for Deep Hole.  Turn left.  Watch for the city buildings on the left and turn into the parking lot.  You can't miss them since the rest is housing.  The first building on the left is where you go.

They'll give you a map of the ramps but here's a link for now.  The sticker is for the vehicle, not the boat.  There's two ramps of primary interest.  One on Eastside Drive and one at Fir Landing.  Continue past the police station until the road makes a sharp right turn.  After that, you can drive straight into the Fir Landing parking area.  For the one on Eastside Drive, drive out Maddox and watch for Chicken City Road at a traffic light.  When you get there, turn right.  That will dead end into Church St.  Turn left on Church and it will change into Eastside Drive.  Stay on Eastside and watch for the asphalt parking area and ramp on the left.

If you are kayaking for the pony swim, I'll try to tell you where to go.  Put in from the ramp on Eastside Drive.  You'll need to be there early or the parking may fill up.  The ramp puts you in to what looks like a canal.  Put in and head to the right.  As you hit the more open water, angle to the left toward Assateague.  Be careful as you cross the water because there may be some cross traffic in the channel.  As you paddle, watch for the double line of boats ahead of you.  Aim for the end closest to Assateague.  As you get closer, you should see kayaks clustered in an area.  It might look like a sand bar or a mud flat depending on whether the tide is in or out.  Join that group.  When the swim is over, you might try to tour some of the area around Assateague before heading back.  Might as well let some of the power boats clear out of the ramp.

What Should I Take With Me?

Its a beach trip to a marshy island.  Take lots of mosquito repellant.  You can buy it there or take it with you.  In the summer, the little pests can be as bad as you hear.

If you're inclined, take  your best camera and a tripod if you have one.  Beautiful sunrises.  Wild ponies.  Many egrets and herons and an occasional bald eagle.  There are options to take many pictures on Assateague Island.

Beyond that, you should already know what to take for a beach trip.  Shorts, sandals, bathing suit, sunglasses, t-shirts, beach towels, etc.  Fishing gear for surf fishing?  A net and ice chest for crabbing?

What Is There to Do?

Most of the things to do involve exercise.  Some of the exercise may involve mosquitos so do have bug spray.  Here's a short list of things we enjoy.  We frequently are too exhausted in the evening to notice that there isn't much nightlife.

Where to eat?

There are more restaurants there than we've eaten at so I'll limit most of my thoughts to places where we've been.  Several places have closed and I assume new ones have opened.  Just because its not on this list doesn't mean you shouldn't eat there.  These aren't in any particular order.

Where is Memorial Park?

Memorial Drive is one of the spots to watch the pony swim.  Its also an interesting place to eat lunch and just watch the view.  Its pretty from there.  To get there, I'll start you from Main St.  Drive out Maddox and watch for Chicken City Road at a traffic light.  When you get there, turn right.  That will dead end into Church St.  Turn left on Church and it will change into Eastside Drive.  Stay on Eastside Drive and go past the Oyster canning facility.  Continue past the area where Etta's Restaurant is.  Watch for the entrance to Memorial Park on the left.  I don't recall how well marked it is.  The park is easy to recognize even if you drive past it had need to come back.