Backpacking Assateague Island National Seashore
Rather than head north into the Catskills, Whites, or Adirondacks for another winter hike in the mountains, I decided to try something a little different for my next trip. Recently, I headed 4.5 hours south to Maryland to backpack two nights on Assateague Island.
For those of you that aren't familiar with Assateague Island, it is a 37 mile long barrier island off the coast of Maryland and Virginia. Although it's 37 miles long, it never reaches more than a mile wide. The island is divided into 3 parts, Assateague Island National Seashore and Assateague State Park on the Maryland side, and the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on the Virginia side. Assateague is well known for the wild horses that inhabit the island.
The island has wide sandy beaches on the eastern edge facing the Atlantic Ocean. The western side facing the mainland is predominantly salt marshes, maritime forests, and coastal bays.
Here is a google maps image so you can see the general shape of the island:
A 12 mile stretch of the National Park is set aside for backcountry use. You can hike in, or kayak in on the bay side. Part of the area allows for OSV's (Over Sand Vehicles) to travel into the backcountry along the top edge of the beach. Fortunately, I didn't see any while I was there.
There is no trail system in the Assateague backcountry; backpackers just hike along the beach for the most part. When crossing over to the bay side it is easier to find an OSV (Over Sand Vehicle) path to ensure you stay on solid ground and don't end up in a marsh. Since I couldn't make it to the Ranger Station in time to get my backcountry permit on Friday (office closed at 4 pm), I camped on the beach, not far from the Ranger Station on Friday night. Early Saturday morning, I went to the Ranger Station to get my backcountry permit and headed out.
Although I usually travel light when backpacking, this trip required a heavy pack. You must pack in your own firewood and all of your water since there aren’t any fresh water sources on the island.
This is a picture of my camp on Friday night. It was great to fall asleep to the sound of the crashing waves.
Eager to head out, I got up early to get my backcountry permit. I was also able to catch part of the sunrise Saturday morning. However, it was not nearly as beautiful as the sunrise I would be treated to on Sunday.
Once I got my backcountry permit, I parked in the lot designated for backcountry use. I was the only car there when leaving and when returning. I also didn’t see anybody other backpackers or OSV’s my entire time out there. It boggled my mind that I had over 41,000 acres of coastal backcountry all to myself. While Assateague is known to attract droves of beachgoers in the summer, it makes sense to backpack here in the winter. By doing so, you will find seclusion, avoid the buggy season, and find that the hard, frozen sand makes for a less tiring trek. The only caveat is that you must have a tolerance for cold, the proper equipment, and a certain level of know-how to safely sleep outside in sub-zero temperatures. My thermometer dipped below zero on both nights but I was able to stay comfortable.
Heading out, the frozen sand made for an easy going trek. Not to mention no elevation gain/loss and no need to ever look at a map or compass; if the ocean is on your left you are heading south, on your right and your heading north.
After a few miles I saw a stretch of woods close by, on the inner part of the island. I decided to hike through the woods for a while. As I was hiking I entered a small clearing and encountered a family of five wild horses. They were about 30 feet away when I stumbled upon them. They were the size of full-sized horses, but had the look and shape of ponies... giant ponies. Only one paid any attention to me and stared a lot. I assume he was the stallion feeling protective of its mares. One strange thing happened was seeing one lay on the ground about 30 feet from me and rolling on its back. He/she then stood up and shook itself clean. I've witnessed my dog do this before, but it was strange seeing a wild horse do it. There is a clip of this in my video at the end of the report.
This is the one that was grilling me. I thought it was Sebastian Bach for a moment.. but wait, Skid Row broke up years ago didn't they? Turns out, it was a wild horse.
I didn't want to disturb these beautiful, majestic creatures too much, so I left them after snapping a few quick pics and videos. There is some video footage of the horses in the video at the bottom of this report. You may be wondering how these wild horses got here. The most common theory is that they are survivors from an offshore shipwreck from the 1600's.
I headed back to the beach and finally came across the sign for the “Little Levels” campsite. Well, besides the sign, there wasn't anything. No assigned sites, no picnic tables, no fire rings, etc. So I walked around the dunes looking for a good, somewhat sheltered spot to pitch camp. I came across this sunken-in spot between two dunes. While the wind was pretty calm the whole weekend, the breeze off the ocean is extremely cold. This spot sheltered me from the ocean breeze keeping me a little warmer.
After pitching the tent, I ate lunch before heading out to explore for the day. I decided to explore the bay side of the island and check out the Pine Tree campsite which is on a forested peninsula. The bay side is a mix of salt marshes like this and maritime forests.
Walking on the bay side, bands of wild horses can be seen all around grazing in the salt marshes. They were all pretty far out in the distance this time. I didn't encounter any close-up except for that one time earlier in the day.
Wild horses grazing in the salt marshes.
I found a path that led to the “Pine Tree” campsite. Apparently the horses like this path.
The Pine Tree peninsula was peaceful and serene. The bay side is on the west side of the island so there was a great view of the sunset. I regretted not camping one night on this side of the island. It would have been nice to camp one night on the beach and one night on the bay.
The sun setting over the frozen bay.
I started walking back after sunset and took a nice night walk on the beach. It was a clear night and the moon lit the beach pretty well. I eventually found my way back to camp (I would have never found it had I not dropped a waypoint in my GPS) and had dinner. Before going to bed, I leaned back against the dunes and stargazed into the clear night sky while listening to the sound of crashing waves.
I took a morning walk on the beach before packing up my stuff. Clouds were rolling in and there was a 70% chance of snow starting around noon so I played it safe and headed back early. Part of me wanted to experience hiking on the beach during snowfall though.
Looking out from near my camp a few minutes before sunrise.
One last shot of my campsite Sunday morning.
After I packed up and headed out to the beach for my four mile hike back, the sky changed it’s hues and coloration for about an hour and a half straight. It was one of the best sunrises I’ve seen and I almost felt guilty that I had this all to myself.
I also used some of the video footage I took to make this short 3 minute video (below). Thanks for letting me share my trip with you.