Can You Drive To Assateague Island? +How To See The Ponies

Mare & foal walking along beach, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge

Assateauge Island lies on the East Coast of the United States. This protected barrier island is home to wild ponies, long beaches, and the famous Assateague Lighthouse. This pristine National Seashore and State Park is a hit with travelers, but before visiting, many people wonder, can you drive to Assateague Island?

There are two ways to access Assateauge Island via road—the north or the south entrance. Each entrance is found at the end of a state highway. Maryland Route 611 leads directly to the north entrance of Assateauge Island, and the south entrance is found at the end of Virginian State Route 175.

While there are roads that lead directly to the island, to fully enjoy the nearly 25 square miles Assateague Island has to offer, most travelers don’t have time to visit both the north and south sections of the island. So, it’s important to know what’s available on different parts of the island, as the north and south entrances are not connected. Here you’ll find what you need to get the most out of a visit to Assateague Island.

Driving to Assateague Island

Assateague Island has activities and sites to keep visitors busy for as long as they want to stay. Planning the perfect trip to Assateague Island is all about knowing what you’re looking for and how to find it while driving on the island. First, travelers will need to drive to one of the two entrances to the island. The north entrance to Assateague Island is located eight miles south of Ocean City, Maryland. The south entrance can be found two miles outside of Chincoteague, Virginia.

Assateague Island is split between Maryland and Virginia. About two-thirds of the island is in Maryland, and the southern third is in Virginia. The island is run by the National Park Service and is designated as a National Seashore, which provides maintenance and access to the beautiful beaches along the island.

Sika deer, a small member of the Elk family is often seen at dawn and dusk

The southern portion of the island contains Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, which is accessible through the south entrance. The wildlife refuge is dedicated to preserving and supporting the local wildlife population while offering visitors a chance to explore the natural habitats of the area and possibly view waterfowl, deer, dolphins, and wild ponies.

From the north entrance, drivers transition from Route 611 to Verrazano Bridge, which connects the mainland to Assateague Island. Initially constructed in 1964, the bridge has a two-way traffic flow. Additionally, there is a section of the bridge that runs parallel to the road that is specifically designated for bicycles and pedestrians.

Verrazano Bridge spans a small section of Sinepuxent Bay

The bridge spans a .25-mile section of Sinepuxent Bay. This location is one of the narrower sections of the bay, and from the bridge, you can see several sandbars and small islands dotted throughout the water. For walking or biking visitors, the entrance to Assateague Island is free. For vehicles, the entrance fee is $25 and includes a 7-day pass to both Assateague Island National Seashore and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.

John B. Whealton Memorial Causeway

The John B. Whealton Memorial Causeway connects the mainland to Chincoteague at the southern entrance. This causeway contains a total of 5 bridges that cross creeks, marshes, and sounds. From Chincoteague, there is a short bridge to Assateague. There is no bike path from the mainland to Chincoteague, but there is a dedicated bike path along the bridge from Chincoteague to Assateague Island.

Though at the south entrance, visitors pass through Chincoteague before getting to Assateague, they only pay once, which is paid upon entering Chincoteague.

Though both entrances require fees, neither require reservations to cross onto the island. For much of the year, the island is open 24 hours, but there are certain times when the hours are reduced.

Both entrances are found at the end of major state highways, which means both entrances are easy to reach, which makes it simple for travelers to locate even if they’ve never visited the area before. However, since the entrances are easily accessible from major highways, this makes the island very busy during peak travel season each summer.

Six horses and foal running down gravel road

Road Trip Answers Fun Fact: One of the most popular times to visit Assateague is to witness the famous Pony Swim. Each summer, some of the wild ponies from Chincoteague Island, just south of Assateague, are herded and then swim across the channel to Assateague Island. The Pony Swim is the crowning event after a week of festivities, including a festival, carnival, and concert.

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Can You Drive the Whole Length of Assateague Island?

No road stretches the whole length of Assateague Island. The Maryland and Virginia entrances each explore different parts of the island, but they do not connect. Therefore, if road trippers want to visit both the north and south sections of the island, they must do so one at a time, returning to the mainland to access the other entrance.

Since both entrances don’t connect, the island’s 37 miles of pristine protected shoreline are largely unaffected by human development, and some areas are only accessible by foot.

Since many travelers don’t have the time to visit both sections of the island, comparing the activities available via the different entrances is helpful when deciding which entrance is best for you.

Group of wild horses grazing on lush marsh grass near water

Maryland (northern) entrance places of interest

  • 2 miles of easily accessible beaches with activities like swimming, surfing, and fishing
  • Explore the shoreline by kayak (rentals and tours available)
  • Various activities and celebrations throughout the year
  • A larger area of the island to explore

Virginia (southern) entrance places of interest

  • Educational Center that includes wildlife information, exhibits, and activities and also a gift shop for souvenirs
  • Climb to the top of Assateague Lighthouse, originally constructed in 1867 (weather dependent)
  • Visit remote parts of the island on the Refuge Trek Tours, where guides point out animals like deer, elk, birds, and a variety of other wild critters (reservations required)
  • Recreational Beach with fine sand, shells to collect, plenty of room to lay out, and lifeguards on duty
Red and white striped island lighthouse surrounded by trees

Both islands also have many common activities like camping, beaches reserved for over-sand vehicles (OSVs), and wild pony viewing. Though it’s not possible to drive the whole length of Assateague Island, each section provides fun activities to suit all ages and interests.

Can You Stay on Assateague?

To enjoy staying for more than just a day trip, visitors to Assateague Island must stay at campsites as there are no hotels on the island. Camping is only available in the Maryland portion of the island. If sightseers want to stay in the Virginia area of the island, they can stay in Chincoteague, a city that travelers pass through just before coming to Assateague from the southern entrance. Chincoteague has bed and breakfasts, hotels, and vacation rentals.

In the northern portion of Assateague, there are many easily accessible campgrounds. The campsites range from areas that accommodate horses, tents, and trailers (without RV hookups), and large groups. Campsite reservations (required from March 15th through November 15th each year) open six months in advance, and the weekends fill up quickly, usually the day the reservations open. So, if you are planning a camping trip, book a campsite as soon as they open.

Assateague Island also has a limited number of backcountry camping spots, which require a permit. The permits are issued on a first-come, first-served basis. Backcountry campers must pack in their water, food, fuel, and shelter.

Chincoteague, the city directly adjacent to Assateague Island, provides comfortable camping alternatives for those not ready to rough it beachside or in the wooded campsites.

How Do You Get Around Assateague Island?

The most common and convenient way to get around Assateague Island is by personal car. However, bikes and taxis are also frequently seen on the island’s roads. Additionally, those excited to visit away from the crowds can get around the island on various hikes and nature trails.

Group of thirsty wild horses drinking at water hole

What Time of Year is Best to See Wild Ponies on Assateague?

Many wild ponies can be found throughout the entirety of Assateague Island. For the northern part of the island, there is no guaranteed place to see ponies. Since they are wild, they are free to wander the island as they please. Nevertheless, visitors usually see plenty of wild ponies. Some of them are along the side of the road near the northern entrance, and others see them along the Life of the Marsh Boardwalk Trail if they bring binoculars.

Another option is to check out Assateague Island Tours. This company has permits to drive Over Sand Vehicles in specific places on the island, and those on the tours frequently have incredible encounters with wild ponies.

The annual Pony Swim in July is the best (and busiest) time to see ponies in the southern section of the island.

In all interactions with the majestic wild ponies on Assateague Island, it’s important to remember they are wild animals and to give them space.

The Highlight of Your Next Road Trip

Road trips are some of the best ways to explore unique parts of America, like Assateague Island. One of the most beautiful sections of the coast in the Eastern United States, combined with beautiful wildlife, could be the highlight of your next road trip.

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There are numerous natural and man-made wonders I'm ready to find and explore, from Maine's rugged coast to California's Big Sur cliffs and everywhere between.