WILD HORSES AND GHOST SHIPS OF CHINCOTEAGUE AND ASSATEAGUE

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With summer inevitably slowly coming to an end, I was still desperately trying to squeeze in just one more trip before the kids’ school year started. We did not have enough time for any grand cross-country road trips. But I was sure I could find something fun and interesting close by. With wildlife and nature at the top of our list, one such destination kept popping up in my searches – Assateague and Chincoteague. These islands are nature preserves with wild horses roaming free, and white sandy beaches lining the coast with plenty of camping options. 

Although I had been there once before, almost a decade ago, it was far enough in the past that I was intrigued to visit again because no two experiences are ever the same.

I was lucky enough to secure all the necessary campgrounds - 3 nights at Assateague Island National Seashore, 3 nights on Chincoteague Island and 2 nights at Kiptopeke state park. Full 8 days of adventure were coming up!

 

ASSATEAGUE ISLAND NATIONAL SEASHORE

DAY 1

As far as road trips go, this time around we only had a relatively short 4 to 5-hour drive to our first campground at Assateague Island National Seashore. Just before reaching the park, we noticed all the firewood being displayed along the roadsides. And what kind of camping is it without a campfire?! Of course, we made a stop to hand pick the best logs for our fire. 

As we approached the park entrance, we witnessed the most iconic sight of the whole trip – a herd of wild Assateague horses greeting us right by the park sign! What a welcome!

Camping at Assateague National Seashore is split into two campgrounds – the Bayside Campground and the Oceanside Campground. I purposefully divided our stay between the two in order to experience and see both. Neither has electric or water hook-ups, so we were about to have our first ''boondocking'' experience with our new RV.

We started out with our first two nights at the Bayside Campground. Our site (C48) was wonderful – green, open and with our own little path leading to the bay and marshlands. 

As the day was still early, we decided to grab our bikes and go explore the island. I have to say that Assateague Seashore has the most amazing bike (run / stroller / scooter…) path system! The bike paths are mostly separate from the main roads making them safe even for little kids. 

We hadn’t even left our campground yet as we encountered a horse right by the roadside grazing its way towards our camp. Of course, we had to stop and admire it! These horses are fearless and do not avoid people, yet they are still wild and cannot be approached or touched. We were totally in awe about this lone creature and felt very fortunate to have stumbled upon it… At the time we did not know yet that this would be just one of countless horse sightings we would have during our stay.

After some 10 minutes we pressed on and eventually biked our way towards the ocean and beach. Lo and behold, another herd of horses was yet in front of us again! Very determined, they were making their way through the sand dunes going towards a destination known only to them… No doubt we stopped, parked our bikes and stood there (along with many other park visitors) watching the horses go by.

We had biked nearly 7 miles (12km), and with evening approaching, it was time to make our way back towards the campsite and start thinking about dinner. I think by now you might guess how the ride back went! Yes, we were blocked by yet a different group of horses plucking some grass blades right by the road and bike path. Although we stopped to give them some space, they had no intention of moving much, so eventually we just had to carefully squeeze our way through. 

At the campground we startled a lone deer who had come out of the woods in search of some fresh grass. 

One of the perks of the Bayside Campground is that it faces west which offers beautiful sunset views. After dinner, I made the short 3-minute bike ride to the bayside beach area (should I mention there were more horses here?) to watch the setting sun. Although the colors weren’t all that impressive this evening, it was still a beautiful place. 

This is also where you can rent kayaks and paddle boards during the day and head out to explore the bay. 

While I was watching the sunset, my husband and kids had started a campfire but were soon chased away by the mosquitoes. It was dark outside anyway, so we just decided it was time to go to bed.

 

DAY 2

We had a pretty busy activity schedule planned for day 2. We started out with a 4-mile (6.5km) bike ride to the Assateague Island Visitor Center. They had various aquariums there, exhibits, a souvenir shop and a movie theater where we watched 2 different movies about the park. A short boardwalk led to a beautiful overlook of the bay.

The boys also picked up a Junior Ranger booklet to fill out and earn their Assateague Island badges. 

On our ride back, we saw more horses - grazing in knee-deep water eating marsh grass. There was even a little foal. 

And would it be Assateague Island if we didn’t see even more horses?! A herd of little bullies had decided to take a nap literally on the roadway! I have no idea why they thought a road would be a great place to sleep! The cars had just 1 lane left available on a 2-directional road. It was so funny, and the horses just did not care! Eventually a park ranger arrived to rectify the situation.  

Upon arriving back at the RV, we had just enough time to grab a quick lunch and then jump back on our bikes.  We headed to the Old Ferry Landing for a ranger-led crabbing program. While I initially thought this would be fun for my kids, I was not expecting to be equally as invested in the process as they were. But crabbing was just so exciting! There was bait and a net, and after a short explanation and demonstration, everyone headed to the boardwalk to catch some Maryland blue crabs.

Once we got the hang of the process, it was a competition to see who would catch more! Luckily for crabs, it was a catch-and-release only program. The ranger also showed us how to differentiate between male and female crabs. And my boys even caught the famous one-claw crab who, apparently, gets caught here fairly frequently. I guess the crabs don’t learn from their mistakes. 

An hour went by very quickly, and we could have kept crabbing if not for the ranger calling it quits. 

Right next to the crabbing spot was Life of the Woods boardwalk trail, so we went to explore it. We saw deer, bunnies, various water birds and… more horses. But by this point we were actually almost more excited about the bunnies than horses!

Our last stop of the day was Life of Marsh boardwalk trail where we saw more water birds, fish, Maryland blue crabs and even a pair of horseshoe crabs. A few local families were out here trying to crab and fish.

Upon returning to the campground, we noticed that our neighbor had an unexpected visitor – a horse. It didn’t seem bothered at all by the fire or smoke, and people said it had been hanging out there for the past 20 minutes.

And it looked like this wasn’t the only campsite invaded by a horse. Just a few feet farther up, some unsuspecting campers had a visitor of their own.

This had been a long and eventful day. Apart from biking some 15+ miles (24km) all around the island, we had learned to catch crabs, had seen lots and lots of wildlife, explored the Visitor Center and walked some trails. The boys had definitely earned some fire-grilled hotdogs for dinner, which they devoured in one breath and then asked for seconds. All my men were too tired for any more adventuring and I couldn’t talk anyone into accompanying me to go see the sunset. But that’s alright. I need my solitude every once in a while, so I went by myself.

 

DAY 3

This morning we had to switch up the campsites and move to Oceanside. But before doing so, we wanted to take advantage of the very calm morning and go paddleboarding around the bay. We had brought along our SUP boards, and this was the perfect opportunity to put them to good use. 

The kids hopped on, and my husband and I paddled through marsh grasses and little channels weaving through them. There was so much life – crabs, oysters, mussels, turtles, birds, little fish, horses wading through the grasses in the distance, and we even saw a cownose ray peacefully gliding through the water. 

As we felt the wind pick up and currents get stronger, it was time to head back ashore. We packed up and made the short drive across the road to our new Oceanside Campground. Camping here is quite amazing and an experience on its own! We were literally camping in the sand watching the ocean waves from our picnic table!

But before heading to the beach, there was something else I wanted my boys to do. We had done crabbing the day before, so today was time for clamming! It was another free of charge ranger-led program quite popular with visitors. We were given some crazy looking clamming rakes and sent into the mud flats in search of clams. Of course, the boys were completely taking advantage of the situation and ''accidentally'' tripped in the water all the way to their necks. They were having fun – when else would they get to go in the water with clothes and shoes on?! 

Although they were trying, clamming is actually very hard work as rakes filled with mud get extremely heavy. So my husband and I had to go help. Now all 4 of us were wet. But we found clams! Luckily for clams, this was another catch-and-release program as well. 

Once the clamming program ended, I was going to hop back on my bike to head back to the campground. However, the boys discovered that clamming program was followed by a crabbing program (again). There was no way they were leaving because they had set their minds on crabbing again. And I did not object, because it was really fun. And I was happy that my kids had taken such an interest in ranger-led programs. 

Just as the day before, we were quite successful at catching several crabs… none of which we were allowed to keep. 

Crabbing, clamming and biking aside, it was finally beach time! We had been here for 3 days but had not spent any considerable amount of time on the beach, so it was finally time to do so! Once we walked down to the shore, to my shock and astonishment, a herd of horses was hanging out right by the water’s edge.

They were hot and bothered by mosquitos, and this was their way of escaping – the crashing water cooled them down and the mist from the waves kept mosquitoes at bay. Needless to say, the sight of them here drew quite a crowd. 

My kids were interested in horses for exactly 30 seconds and then turned their attention to building sand forts. It worked out for everyone involved – I could watch horses to my heart’s desire and take hundreds of photos while my boys preoccupied themselves by building forts, castles and moats. 

We stayed at the beach long after the horses walked away and up until it started to get dark. 

 

DAY 4

I was woken up by a strange sound outside. Upon closer inspection, it was a horse making its way through our campsite. As I could not fall asleep anymore afterwards, I decided to walk out and watch the sunrise right from our campsite. What a magical and beautiful place this island is!

This was our last morning on Assateague. We had breakfast, packed up our RV and soon enough were ready to hit the road. We made a short stop at the Visitor Center again so the boys could hand in their filled out Junior Ranger books and receive their Assateague Island National Seashore badges to add to their collection.

Check-in at our new campground in Chincoteague wasn’t until 3PM, so we had quite a few hours to kill in-between. Although the weather did not seem too promising for the afternoon and some rain was in the forecast, we decided to do an hour’s drive out of the way to go see Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

The Visitor Center here was very informative with lots of exhibits, interactive displays, live-streaming bird cameras and birding scopes. This was probably one of the very few visitor centers where I could not get my boys to leave. They loved running from scope to trying to find various birds and nests far in the distance.

With the approaching rainstorm, however, we did not have too much time to waste. We had planned to bike the 4-mile-long (6.5km) Wildlife Drive and wanted to do so before the rain caught up with us. We picked up the Junior Ranger booklets again and then headed out for the bike ride. The Wildlife Drive can be driven, biked or walked and takes visitors along the Blackwater River. It offers excellent views of the local wildlife and has several viewing platforms, boardwalks and side-trails to explore. 

Although we are not big into birding, we were quite amazed at the variety of birds we could see here close up. At the top of the list were ospreys, eagles, and big herons.

Apart from birds, you can also see deer, Delmarva fox squirrels, muskrats and turtles. 

As we had made it half-way through the drive, we could feel raindrops slowly starting to hit us. So, the decision was made to play it safe, turn around and pedal back to the RV. It proved to be the right choice! The second we reached the parking lot it started pouring buckets! We waited out the rain by having some lunch in our RV, and the boys finished filling out their Junior Ranger books. I just love our RV – it is like our own little house anywhere we go! Even if it is just a random parking lot. 

Once the rain subsided, we did not want to take any chances and opted to complete the Wildlife Drive by car. A short stop at the Visitor Center to pick up the boys’ new junior ranger badges and we were ready to get on the road. 

Right before reaching our campground in Chincoteague, I had one more stop on the list – NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility Visitor Center. It contains exhibits highlighting past missions conducted at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility as well as gives an insight into space exploration in general. 

Boys love everything cars, planes and trains, so this was a fun place for them. Although small, the Center had plenty to see for a quick stop.

Our camping experience in Chincoteague was a lot different from the past three nights of remote boondocking in Assateague. I had booked a Jellystone campground here with our kids in mind. There were playgrounds here, and jumping pillows, and pools, and golf carts running around and even a waterpark! And so many people! It was far from what my husband and I would have preferred for our camping experience, yet we had 2 little boys and sometimes it had to be about them as well. So this was our sacrifice. And, to top it off - although I never asked, somehow we got upgraded (free of charge) to a more fancy campsite complete with a paved patio, swing chair and colorful picnic table / chair set. Why we got upgraded - that is still a mystery to me to this day. But we enjoyed it!

As it was already fairly late in the evening, we just walked around the campground to get the layout of the land. We went to the docks to get our first glimpse of Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in the distance across the marshlands. 

Soon after it got dark, so we retreated to our RV. As much as I always prefer remote, quiet camping where there is nature all around, I do have to admit that it is very nice to have electric hook-ups after dark, and unlimited running water for those hot showers. You win some you lose some. 

 

CHINCOTEAGUE NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE

DAY 5

Although the kids would have very much preferred to spend the day at the waterpark, I had different plans. 

The location of our campground was a perfect kick-off spot to go explore Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. It protects beach, dune, marsh, and maritime forest habitats and has over 15 miles (24km) of hiking and biking trails. Chincoteague is also home turf to about 150 wild ponies – some of which are the descendants of the popular book and movie hero 'Misty of Chincoteague'. 

We started our Chincoteague tour with a stop at a lighthouse. The original lighthouse was established here in 1867 and its current form is still in operation today.

Our next stop was Toms Cove Visitor Center. And we were right on time for their ranger program. They were having Horseshoe crab talk where the park ranger told various facts about horseshoe crabs that can be found in this area. They also let the kids touch one. 

Did you know that horseshoe crab blood is blue and that they are 200 million years older than dinosaurs?! They are literally what is called a 'living fossil'.  Some pretty amazing stuff. And the opportunity to touch and pet a crab was definitely at the top of the fun list for the boys. 

Chincoteague’s 3.5-mile-long (5.6km) Wildlife Loop is closed to cars every day until 3PM and is only open to foot or bike traffic. We wanted to use this opportunity and headed out in search of wildlife.

Before we even got to the more secluded areas, we were greeted by several bunnies and sika deer right at the start. Sika deer looked absolutely adorable with their white dots and looked like little Bambies. 

Deeper into the park we finally reached the marshy areas where several different water birds had settled in for the afternoon. 

We even got to see a muskrat digging in the shallow dunes and searching for food. It was not bothered by our presence at all and kept going about its business. So we stood and watched it for some 15 minutes. 

By now everyone was getting very hungry, and our snack supply was running low, so we decided it was time to bike back to the campground. Besides, it was approaching afternoon and we still had plans for later in the evening.

To switch up our activities and get off our bikes for a bit, I had booked Cpt Dan’s 'Around the Island' boat tour to, hopefully, go see the wild ponies. It was about a 2-mile (3.2km) walk from campground to Chincoteague harbor where the tour started, so we figured the long walk would give us an opportunity to see a little bit more of the town and island. 

Chincoteague definitely had a very beachy / coastal vibe. There were colorful cottages with bright wall murals. Lots and lots of various flowers planted all around with seashell and wind chime decorations surrounding the yards. A wooden boardwalk led along the central harbor area and Misty statue proudly displayed in the center of the town. 

There wasn’t much to do here, but it was a nice stroll… 

Once we finally reached the harbor, we were right on time for the tour. It was a semi-private tour with just the 4 of us and one other couple. So the captain said we could customize our trip however we wanted. We started out by just cruising past the town, taking in the views from the water. 

But of course everyone’s main objective was to find the ponies. We had seen the Assateague herd countless times while camping there the first 3 days. But the Chincoteague herd had stayed pretty elusive. We saw it just once when biking earlier in the day, but they were very far away in the distance.

Today, however, was our lucky day! As we approached the marshy wetlands – they were all there! Standing in knee deep water, the ponies were feeding on the juicy marsh grass while at the same time finding some relief from the day’s heat. 

There were three separate herds standing a little distant from each other. And farthest from all was a momma mare with her young foal. 

Apart from getting stuck in the marsh grass a few times, the captain did a great job maneuvering the crazy maze and labyrinths of these coastal salt grasses and reeds.

The rest of the tour took us along the edge of the refuge where we could peacefully observe the island and its surroundings. 

Afterwards, another 2-mile (3.2km) walk though town led us back to the campground. By the time we reached it, it was already dark outside.

 

DAY 6

Today was the waterpark day! After 50+ (80km) combined miles hiked and biked over the past 5 days, I think it was time we let the boys relax and have some kid-fun. And I am sure my husband appreciated the day off as well. 

Although Maui Jack’s waterpark is not owned by the campground, they have an agreement that all the campground guests get to use the waterpark free of charge during their stay. So, the opportunity could not go wasted. 

We were at the waterpark from its opening to closing. While I mostly enjoyed lounging in a chair with a book (and getting some tan on), the kids found some new friends (also from the campground) and spent the day doing all the slides and floating down the lazy river over and over and over again. 

To top it off, after dinner we walked over to a local candy store for some fudge, jellybeans and ice cream! 

This was a great and memorable way to end our time here on Chincoteague Island!

 

KIPTOPEKE STATE PARK

DAY 7

In the morning, we were bidding farewell to Chincoteague, yet we were not yet quite leaving the area. Just an hour’s drive south is Kiptopeke State Park which was going to be our home for the next 3 days. But before heading there, we decided to make a little side-trip along the way and go explore Cape Charles. It is a quiet beach town situated on Chesapeake Bay that has been attracting more and more vacationers and outdoor enthusiasts every year. Chesapeake Bay Magazine even picked Cape Charles as one of its top 2023 destinations. The new popularity had attracted more businesses – boutiques, breweries, cafes, and crafts & arts stores. 

We walked down the main street and admired the ''beachy'' colorful architecture.

The road led us towards the waterfront where the sandy shore was full of people. Today was an exceptionally hot day and it felt like 100 degrees! I think the whole town was at the beach! And it was kind of funny too - it was low tide and there was more mud than water! 

We walked on the pier and boardwalk, but no matter how much I love hot weather, today was too miserable even for me. We decided to go find cold drinks and air conditioning. And while my husband and I were taking our sweet time picking out the flavors of ciders, our boys found some board games to entertain themselves with. 

Cooled off enough, we walked back to the RV to complete our drive to our next campground. Kiptopeke is a simple state park with no luxurious amenities, but it attracts its visitors with a wide, sandy beach. There are many ways to stay here – from renting a house, a yurt or a cabin to RV sites and tent pads. 

Once we settled into our designated campsite, we decided to take a walk down to the shore in time for sunset.

Once we made it out there, I was shocked to see ship after ship dotting the coastline just a few hundred feet away. I had completely forgotten about Kiptopeke’s ghost ships. It was one of the reasons I booked this park, but then the ships had completely slipped my mind. 

These ships were made of concrete in World War II and are now lined end to end along the Chesapeake Bay here, called Kiptopeke Breakwater or The Concrete Fleet. The ships were brought here and intentionally sunk to serve as breakwater and protect the area from tides and rough waves. It was a pretty surreal sight, but the shipwrecks serve as nesting grounds for various bird and fish species. And they also make for quite dramatic sunset scenery.

We decided that we would definitely explore the ships closer the next day because it was already getting dark. All that was left for tonight was dinner and bed.

 

DAY 8

As we woke up in the morning, the sun was shining, and it promised to be another beautiful day! The boys wanted to go to beach and play, so we obliged. We packed up and made the short stroll towards the water. A raised wood boardwalk took us over the dunes and onto the white sand.

There were already several other groups of campers here, yet there was plenty of room for everybody.

I love beach-walking, and while the boys were digging in the mud and my husband enjoyed a relaxing beach chair, I headed out to explore.

From any location here, you could see the ships lined up near the shore. Many people were taking their kayaks and SUP boards over to the ships to see them up close. So, I decided this would be as good of a time as any, went to get our SUP board and set out on the water towards the ships. They are quite spooky but amazing at the same time – left here to weather away, destroyed by water and salt air, they were still home to hundreds of birds and fish.

And as I was slowly gliding along the ships, a movement just a few feet away caught my eye. It was a pod of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins! A great number of them spend summers here at Chesapeake Bay. It was very special to see and hear these amazing animals right beside me.

By the time I got back ashore, my husband and kids had left the beach. Apparently, they were all hungry and decided to go back to the campground. I was very impressed by the ships and told my husband he had to go see them as well, which he happily did. Although, by now the winds had picked up and paddling the board had gotten harder - he still had a good time.

As the day was just half-way through, we decided to go explore Kiptopeke State Park visitor center exhibits, earn Kiptopeke Junior ranger badges, and then go on a bike ride on the various park’s trails. 

By now, it was late and our last night of the trip. We lit up a campfire, grabbed a book and enjoyed our last evening of the vacation.

 

DAY 9

Without too much rush, we packed up the camp, loaded the bikes and SUP boards, and eventually turned our RV home-wards. Yet - not without a few more stops along the way! 

The first stop about an hour and a half into the drive was Yorktown Battlefield Colonial National Historical Park.

Although we did not have enough time to make long walks around the battlefield, we did explore the Visitor Center. They had a very neat exhibit – a walk-through ship with lots of information about the battlefield and past events. Even my 2 boys who usually breeze through museums without much though were quite mesmerized here. They also earned their Junior Ranger badges here.

Afterwards, a few closed roads, some utility work and detours unexpectedly took us through the town of Yorktown. The main district of this little town was so adorable that we had to make a short 10-minute stop just to walk down to the water to snap some photos. The waterfront, the bridge, the colorful flowers and yachts… it all made for such a scenic setting, and we were glad about the unplanned detour.

The last stop on our itinerary was Historic Jamestowne.  It is the cultural heritage site that was the location of the 1607 James Fort and the later 17th-century town of Jamestown in America. Although part of it is overseen by the National Park Service, we discovered that the archeological site is privately run and requires entry tickets. With everyone tired and worn out already, we decided to forego the paid section of the park and explored what we could see for free. 

This was another site where the boys could earn their Junior Ranger badges! This was their 5th and final badge of the trip! And although sometimes it can be a little bit of a struggle to have them complete the tasks in the booklets, in the end, they are always happy to proudly show off their earned badges on the display board at home! And it serves as a little souvenir and keepsake from all the trips we have taken. 

From here, we had about 3 hours left to get home which would mark our summer adventure officially complete! And with that, the summer itself was officially over as well – the following day was the 1st official school day for the kids, which they refused to accept until the next morning. 

And I am just happy that between all the busy things we had to do this summer, we managed to squeeze in this one last summer trip before hunkering down for the chilly Virginia winter. 

 

Expenses:

  • Gas: $239.16 (675 miles / 1090km)
  • Assateague National Seashore campground: $45 (3 nights, no hook-ups)
  • Jellystone campground Chincoteague: $358 (3 nights, full hook-ups + water park)
  • Kiptopeke State Park campground: $90.04 (2 nights; water & electric)

 

More photos from Assateague Island can be seen here:

Assateague Island National Seashore

 

Our other RV travel and camping stories:

Camping Trip in Search of Hawaii - Onslow Beach, North Carolina

Our First RV Road Trip - Georgia's Southern Charm vs Colors of the Great Smoky Mountains

Escaping Thanksgiving - Fun and Sun in Florida

A Different Kind of Getaway - Camping in Bellows and Ho'omaluhia in Hawaii