You and I own all of Assateague Island, which is completely occupied by the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and the Assateague Island National Seashore, and thus jointly administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service. Of the island's 37 miles, 12 are in Virginia. Wildlife on this end is afforded a higher degree of protection than in the Maryland sector. In fact, a fence at the state line keeps Maryland's wild horses and other critters away from the Virginia side.
Bird-watchers know Assateague Island as a prime Atlantic Flyway habitat where sightings of peregrine falcons, snow geese, great blue heron, and snowy egrets have been made. The annual Waterfowl Week, generally held around Thanksgiving, takes place when a large number of migratory birds use the refuge.
The Wildlife Refuge -- You first enter the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, which is open May through September daily 5am to 10pm, April and October daily 6am to 8pm, November through March daily 6am to 6pm. The refuge accepts the America the Beautiful entrance passes issued by federal agencies; otherwise, admission is $5 per vehicle for 1 day, $15 per vehicle for 1 week, free for pedestrians and bikers.
Unless you're here exclusively for the beach, start your visit at the refuge's Herbert H. Bateman Education and Administrative Center (tel. 757/336-3696), on the left, 1/4-mile east of the bridge, where you can watch a video about the refuge and its wildlife. It has wildlife and birding programs, which are great for kids. The center is open daily 9am to 5pm during summer, to 4pm off season (closed New Year's Day and Christmas).
You may see some of the wild ponies while driving to the beach, but the best place to see them -- your chance is greatest at dawn -- is on the paved Wildlife Drive, which runs for 3 1/4 miles through the marshes. This one-lane, one-way road is open to pedestrians and bicyclists all day, to motorized vehicles after 3pm. The Woodland Trail, a 1.6-mile hiking loop, is another good place to spot the wild ponies grazing out in the marshes. But be advised: This area is infested with mosquitoes, so bring and use insect repellent.
The most informative way to see the multitudinous wildlife is on a Wildlife Tour (tel. 757/336-3696) in an air-conditioned bus. The 1 3/4-hour narrated rides depart the visitor center at 10am and 4pm daily Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, and on weekends in March, April, September, and October. The tour costs $12 for adults, $6 for children under 13. Buy your tickets at the visitor center.
If your heart's up to it, you can climb the 198 steps for a terrific view from atop Assateague Island Lighthouse, built in 1867 to warn ships of the shoals offshore. It is open to the public from 9am to 3pm Thursday through Monday from mid-June through September, on weekends from mid-April to mid-June and in October and November. Admission is $4 adults, $2 children under 13.
Note: Hours and days for the wildlife tours and lighthouse can change from one year to the next, so call ahead to make sure. For that and other information about the refuge and visitor-center seasons and programs, contact the Refuge Manager, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, P.O. Box 62, Chincoteague Island, VA 23336 (tel. 757/336-6122; www.fws.gov/northeast/chinco).
Pony Rides -- You can't bring a child to Chincoteague without letting him or her ride a pony -- perhaps one of Misty's descendants -- at the Chincoteague Pony Centre, 6417 Carriage Dr. (tel. 757/336-2776; www.chincoteague.com/ponycentre), off Chicken City Road south of Maddox Boulevard. This small-scale equestrian center is open Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day daily 9am to 10pm, with pony rides ($6) 9am to 1pm and 3:30 to 6pm, with a pony show Monday through Saturday at 8pm. Spring and fall hours are Friday and Saturday from 9am to 6pm, with the pony show Saturday at 8pm. Admission is $8 adults, $5 for children. The gift shop sells all things pony, and you can even buy a pony.
Book Early for the "Pony Penning" -- The famous wild ponies -- they're actually small horses -- have lived on Assateague since the 1600s. Legend says their ancestors swam ashore from a shipwrecked Spanish galleon, but most likely English settlers put the first horses on Assateague, which formed a natural corral. Separated by a fence from their cousins in Maryland, the Virginia horses are now owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department, which rounds them up and sells the foals at auction during its famous Pony Penning on the last Wednesday in July. Make your hotel reservations well in advance of this extremely popular event.
The National Seashore -- The beach itself is in the Assateague Island National Seashore, operated by the National Park Service. You'll find a visitor center, bathhouses, and summertime lifeguards. In addition to swimming and sunning, activities at the beach include shell collecting (most productive at the tip of the Tom's Cove spit of land, on the island's southern tip) and hiking. You can ride a bike here from Chincoteague on the paved bike path beside the main road (or make a detour along Wildlife Dr.) to the Tom's Cove Visitor Center, which has a splendid view over the marshes. Rangers give programs such as wildlife viewing, aquarium talks, nighttime hikes, and campfires. The visitor center is open daily 9am to 6pm in summer, 9am to 5pm spring and autumn, 9am to 4pm in winter. It is closed Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Several regulations apply. Pets and alcoholic beverages are prohibited, even in your vehicle. In-line skating is not allowed, nor are off-road vehicles. Surf fishing with a Virginia state license is allowed except on the lifeguard beach at Tom's Cove. Climbing and digging in the sand dunes is illegal. No overnight sleeping is allowed anywhere (backcountry camping is permitted on the Maryland end, a 12 1/2-mile hike from the Virginia-side visitor centers). And finally, thou shalt not feed the horses.
For information about the national seashore, contact the Superintendent, Assateague Island National Seashore, 8586 Beach Rd. (P.O. Box 38), Chincoteague Island, VA 23336 (tel. 757/336-6577; www.nps.gov/asis).
The large airstrip you pass on the way to Chincoteague on Va. 175 is part of NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, a research and testing center for rockets, balloons, and aircraft. The facility also tracks NASA's spacecraft and satellites, including the space shuttles. Across the highway is the NASA Visitor Center (tel. 757/824-2298; http://sites.wff.nasa.gov/VC), one of the best places to park the kids on a rainy day. They will get kicks out of seeing a practice space suit from Apollo 9 and watching videos -- mysteriously projected onto a sphere -- about the moon and the planets. Admission is free. The visitor center is open July 4th through Labor Day daily 10am to 4pm; March through June and September to November Thursday through Monday 10am to 4pm; December to February Monday through Friday 10am to 4pm. The center is 5 miles west of Chincoteague.
On Maddox Boulevard, between the traffic circle and the bridge to Assateague, are two small marine-themed museums. The Oyster and Maritime Museum (tel. 757/336-6117) tells the area's history and the role played by the vital seafood industry from the 1600s to the present, with examples of marine life (some of them live). The highlight is the original lens from the Assateague Lighthouse, which mariners could see 23 miles offshore from 1865 to 1961. The museum is open Memorial Day to Labor Day Monday through Saturday 10am to 5pm, Sunday noon to 5pm, and on weekends during April, May, September, and October. Admission is free; donations are accepted.
Virginia's Barrier Islands Center & Museum
Chincoteague and Assateague are but two of Virginia's 23 barrier islands, those long slivers of sand separating the Atlantic Ocean from the bays and backwaters along the eastern seaboard. They are now owned by governments or by organizations such as the Nature Conservancy, which are protecting them in their natural state. People once lived on the islands, and rich and famous folk like President Grover Cleveland came out to hunt and fish. But no more.
The former residents and their water-oriented life-style are fondly remembered at the Eastern Shore of Virginia Barrier Islands Center & Museum, on U.S. 13 just north of Machipongo (tel. 757/678-5550; www.barrierislandscenter.com). That's 20 miles north of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, about 55 miles south of Chincoteague. The white-clapboard building looks like a farmhouse standing in the fields beside the highway, but in fact it was built by Northampton County as the Almshouse Farm at Machipongo -- a place for poor people to live, in other words. The barrier island residents and their descendants donated the many artifacts on display, and resident historian Jerry Doughty leads 30-minute museum tours twice daily. Admission is free, with donations encouraged. Open Tuesday through Saturday 10am to 4pm, it's well worth a brief stop.
You can cruise through the narrow channels and take a walk on a deserted barrier island beach with Capt. Buddy Vaughn of Eastern Shore Adventures (tel. 757/615-2598; www.easternshoreadventures.com), whose wife, Laura Vaughn, is director of the Barrier Islands Center & Museum. Call Buddy well in advance to make arrangements.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.