Thru-Hiking Assateague: A Sandy Saunter

If you like untouched beaches, horsies, camping amongst pine trees, and quaint beach towns- this is the hike for you! The Assateague National Seashore is a protected barrier island off the coast of the DelMarVa peninsula, just south of Ocean City, MD. It shares close proximity to Chincoteague Island, which has shops and lodging. Assateague is designated as a National Seashore and is home to all the wildlife you’d expect plus a managed herd of horses!

To “thru-hike” the island is to hike between the ranger station in Maryland and the Tom’s Cove ranger station in Virginia, a distance of approximately 25 miles. Cars are allowed on the Maryland side of the beach but the Virginia side is currently closed to cars. Camping is allowed in designated campsites on the Maryland side, there are developed campgrounds and back country sites. Hunting is also allowed on the island so be aware of hunting seasons and wear bright colors during the season.

The nitty gritty – Know Before You Go

This is best done with two cars if you plan to hike from end to end. I do not know if there are “shuttles” in the area, but I’d guess not… We were the only backpackers and everybody we met seemed surprised to see us. There might be Uber/Lyft in the area, but I wouldn’t count on it, you’re surrounded by farms and small beach towns with not much going on in the off season. Plus, it’s about an hour-long drive between ends. We parked our southern car at the Assateague Lighthouse parking area. If we were purists, this would have been wrong as we got off the beach several miles before the Toms Cove visitor center in order to get there. In practicality this was great because, as I will explain later, we were happy to get off the beach when we did. Our northern car was parked in the big parking lot across from the Maryland ranger station.

You have to get permits for backcountry camping and these can only be obtained from the national park ranger station in Maryland. This is a pretty important step. You have to pay $10 a person, carry and display your permit, sign a waiver, and display a permit on your parked car. You also get permitted for a specific campsite, so know your plan when you go in there. Campsites are only on the Maryland side. From the border to the Virginia side visitor center is about 12 miles. In Maryland campsites are all about two to four miles apart. (More info about back country sites can be found here-

There is no fresh water on this island! It is ocean on one side and brackish bay on the other side! You must carry *all* the water you think you will need for your entire trip. We started off thinking it might take us two nights so we had about 7-8L a person (ouch), but we wound up only taking one night so we dumped a lot of water… however, it was very cold. If it was warmer, we probably would have drunk more.

There is no shade on the beach! The “trail” is just following the shore, so you will be walking on the beach almost the whole time. “Bayside” campsites are amongst pine trees and have shade. “Ocean side” campsites do not have trees, are not shaded, and are directly on the beach, so plan your tent/stakes accordingly. All of the campsites have picnic tables and privies, although the one ocean side campsite we saw had sand partially submerging the picnic tables…

This hike is best done in the cooler months, not only because of the shade but also because of the BUGS. The island is mostly marshland, so the skeeters are prolific when it gets warm. Basically, after about Easter it’s a bug war zone until late fall. However, winter months are cold. The island does get snow. It is windy. We had pretty high winds and temps around 40 during the day, below freezing at night.

Also, it’s important to realize you’re walking on sand the whole time. We decided the cold and wind helped pack the sand down, so it wasn’t quite as slippy as we expected but it was still challenging. We were definitely feeling it by the end. Plan accordingly, you might move slower than usual on the sand.

Once you get into Virginia there is a service road on the interior of the island (thanks to the nice shell collecting couple who clued us into this!) If it’s, say, gotten extremely windy and you no longer want to be on the beach, you can cross the dunes at several access points (easy to see on Google maps or Gaia) and get to a gravel road that will join with the “wildlife loop” and eventually the main island road.

Finally, we were surprised to find that we had service almost 100% of the time we were on the island. This made navigation pretty easy. In addition to Google maps and Gaia, I found a map on Avenza maps and saved a photo from the NPS website detailing the location of the campsites.

I think that’s all the logistical highlights. Let’s get into the fun part!

What was it like to hike Assateague?

“Pristine” is the first word that comes to mind. For much of the hike it was just us, the birds, and the waves. I’ve never seen so many shells in my life. The dunes were ever changing and the shoreline was surprisingly dynamic. We never had any “elevation” to speak of, but we’d find ourselves in sections with wavy sand or all of a sudden we’d have to veer up the beach so we didn’t walk straight into the surf because the shoreline curved sharply. The beach would get narrow and steep or wide and flat, sometimes slowly, sometimes suddenly. It was such a unique experience to be on a beach that’s just a beach and hasn’t been trampled on or changed to make it more enjoyable for vacationers.

Walking out of the parking lot and on to the beach I’d say we were each harboring some apprehension. It was windy and chilly, we were preparing ourselves for challenging conditions. But the sun was shining and we had plenty to be happy about- we’d just seen some cute ponies by the ranger station, we were happy to be reunited with our AZT buddy Soul Slosher, and even if we had a difficult hike ahead of us- it was still good to have our backpacks on and be outside.

Pretty quickly we realized we had hit the jackpot and conditions were pretty close to perfect. The wind was at our backs, the sand was hard packed and easy to walk on. Even though it was a Saturday there were minimal cars, so it wasn’t like walking on a highway. While it was mid-40s at best, the sun and the walking were enough to keep us pretty comfortable. The walking came easy as we chatted away and admired our surroundings. Before we knew it, we’d hiked eight miles and had made it to the turn off for the Green Run campsite, just as the sun was setting.

The campsite was a little tricky to find. It was well marked from the beach, but then the sandy “road” we were following ended at two roadblocks with no signage. Slosher pulled out his map and was able to easily figure it out, we just had to go around the rope “gate.” This next section of road led us between some marshes, we felt like we were in Florida!

Just as I was starting to think maybe the map wasn’t so reliable after all, we saw a clearing ahead and some buildings. One was the privy (it had *toilet paper*) and the other, larger building, was probably an old hunting lodge.

The campsite was large and had three big picnic tables. They each had some sort of cabinet beneath them, we think maybe for food storage? They didn’t look very secure to us, we did not use them… We were a little disappointed that the tree cover blocked our view of the end of the sunset over the bay, but we clambered through the trees to the shore to take it in for a few minutes.

In preparation for this trip, I had gone to REI to get some bigger stakes, thinking we might be setting up on the beach. We brought our big free-standing tent, again thinking this would fare better on sand. However, this campsite was in a pine forest and had soft dirt rather than sand, so the stakes were overkill. We even could have easily used our trekking pole tent. The ground was relatively flat and very cushy, once we flung away a handful of pinecones and sticks.

The wind wasn’t bad overnight, but it was pretty chilly. In the morning we had some slushy ice water, so it definitely got below freezing. The cold slowed us down getting out of camp as we lingered over our hot coffee and took our time getting out of our sleeping bags. Even so, we were walking back onto the beach by 9:00 a.m. Our timing was perfect- we were greeted with a huge pod of dolphins frolicking in the waves ahead of us!! We followed them for almost an hour and were treated to several dramatic flips and flops- we think they were intentionally showing off for us. It was pure magic.

Green Run campsite is about four miles from the MD/VA border, we got there in about an hour and a half. We saw three cars, they all waved at us and when we spoke with the passengers, they were surprised to learn that we were backpacking and had camped overnight. We briefly checked out the falling down house just beyond the dunes, took a short break and then crossed the border! The gate on the fence was locked, so the boys climbed over and I crawled under.

The Virginia side was even better than the Maryland side. We were walking on completely untouched sand- no car tracks, no footprints other than from the wildlife that had come down over night. We saw so many little tracks- deer, raccoon, possibly fox or coyote, rabbit, many bird prints.

The most striking thing was how many giant conch shells we saw!

Because not many people walk on this section of the beach it hadn’t been picked over. We also saw a gazillion dead horseshoe crabs throughout the whole beach. We aren’t sure why there were so many, we think they must have gotten stuck when the tide came in and then gotten too cold and slow to get back in the water. The birds seemed pretty happy to have the easy meals, but we felt bad for all the crabbies. It felt like walking through a graveyard.

By about noon we were feeling pretty tired and the wind had turned- it was now blowing straight into our faces and had gotten considerably stronger. We were getting worn out fast, so when a couple told us about a gravel road we could access, we were happy take the detour off the beach. We took a break hidden between the dunes, out of the wind, just long enough to eat lunch and drink some hot coffee. Then we struck out for our last two miles on the beach. It was tough going with strong winds trying to push us back with every step. We were relieved when we finally saw a pole marking the path through the dunes.

It was pretty cool seeing the beach from up on the top of the dunes. We admired the view then high tailed it out of the wind. It was a little sad leaving the beach and nearing the end of the hike… but our legs were tired and our noses were cold. The path led us into the trees and through more marsh. Unfortunately, we were unable to get through it with dry feet. It had been impossible to not wind up with sand in our shoes and now we had wet, muddy sand in our shoes. Yuck.

Pretty quickly we got onto a dry gravel road, the turn off was right next to some pony pastures (with no ponies). The road took us through pines and between marshes. Slosher was doing some research on the island the night before and learned that the rectangular bodies of water we were passing were not naturally occurring. They had been dug at some point in the early 20th century to try to control the mosquito problem… instead it just gave them more places to breed.

We passed a few other people out for a walk, one was carrying a huge tripod, we think he was trying to get some wildlife photos, but the wind couldn’t have been making it a great day. After maybe another two miles we made it to the edge of the “wildlife loop”- a driveable loop around another wetland. Now we had to dodge cars coming up behind us, luckily they were all going pretty slowly. Another mile or so later and we had made it back to the car!

We had to take the quick walk up to see the Assateague Lighthouse for a photo op to celebrate our finish.

To reward ourselves for a hike well done we headed across the bridge to Chincoteague for a big oyster dinner.

Chincoteague is a super cute little beach town, it would be a fun option to stay there for a night before or after this hike, you could probably get a cheap off-season rate at the one big hotel on the island. There aren’t a ton of places open in the off season, but we did have a few dinner options. We still had to go retrieve our second car at the northern end after dinner. It takes about an hour to drive around and then we were about 20 mins outside of Ocean City, so we opted for a hotel room up there.

It’s been a few days since we got home, and I still find myself thinking often on how cool of an experience this was. This hike has been on my radar for a few years and I’m really glad to be able to check it off the list. I can definitely see myself coming back and doing it again!

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Comments 1

  • James Townsend : Feb 22nd

    Fun idea! I love Assateague, grew up with it as our beach of choice and it’s so quiet this time of year.


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