I couldn’t believe it when I heard there are wild horses just 3 hours away from DC in Chincoteague or Assateague! (Some call it the Ponies Island!) After some research, I was pretty confused about where the best spot would be to see the wild horses. So we went to both islands in March to check it out and report back!
Bottom line up front: We saw the wild horses much closer and in their natural habitat at the Assateague Island National Seashore National Park. It is only 10 miles from Ocean City, MD on the north part of the island and we got to see the horses right along the road! We also saw them on a couple of hikes which I share below. The boat ride we took from Chincoteague Marina in Virginia was interesting but we couldn’t see the horses very closely.
Below are our experiences with some tips from our trip. My daughter read the Newberry-winning book Misty of Chincoteague before our trip and was thrilled to see them up close! (TIP: Watch the 1961 movie is on Amazon Prime Video before your trip.) This website uses affiliate links for Amazon Associates and Booking.com. This means that if you make a purchase, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.
Chincoteague or Assateague?
Chincoteague and Assateague are barrier islands in the Atlantic Ocean protecting Maryland and Virginia. The wild horses (also called wild ponies) are technically “feral” as they are the descendants of domesticated horses that arrived on the islands. The most probable theory is that they survived a shipwreck of a Spanish ship, the La Galga in 1750.
Chincoteague Island is smaller at 7 miles wide with a town, hotels, and restaurants. The wild horses are actually all on the Assateague Island but many people stay in the town of Chincoteague while they visit. There are also lots of horse ranches on Chincoteague and boat tours that depart from Chincoteague to see the horses on Assateague.
Assateague Island is uninhabited unless you are camping there! There are 3 main areas of Assateague Island to see the wild horses. The island is 37 miles long and very narrow so it can get confusing!
3 Different Parks on Assateague Island
- The north half of the island is Assateague National Seashore National Park and in my opinion, the best spot to go to see the wild horses. More below all on where in the park we saw them! (Shaded in green on the NPS map below)
- Also, right next to the National Park is Assateague State Park which is operated by the state of Maryland. It costs $5 per vehicle. This is not the place to see wild horses but is Maryland’s only oceanfront park. (Hard to see but shaded in grey in top right section)
- The southern half of Assateague Island is the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge which is oddly on Assateague Island! You can visit both the National Park and this Reserve with the same $25 7-day pass. (shaded in beige on map below)
Note: You cannot drive all the way through Assateague Island. You have to drive back to the mainland to go between Assateague National Seashore and Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge which is about 56 miles.
3 Ways to See the Wild Horses on Assateague Island (aka Ponies Island)
So now that we know the wild horses are all on Assateague Island, I’ll share exactly how to see them! We did the first two and read great things about the third.
1) Driving to Assateague National Seashore NP
After crossing the long bridge to get onto Assateague Island from the mainland, you turn right onto Bayberry Drive. We got lucky and saw a couple of wild horses right off the road even before the Entrance Station! We saw them on the way there and then again on the way out of the park in the afternoon. The best way to see if they are in the area is their droppings and if they are fresh…sorry for TMI!
After paying the $25 pass (lasts 7 days and also includes entrance to Chincoteague Wildlife Reserve), we asked the Park Ranger the best spots to see them for this time of year. She suggested the Life of the Marsh Trail (1/2 mile and wheelchair accessible) and the Life of the Forest Trail (/3 mile and wheelchair accessible).
We love the Life of the Marsh boardwalk trail! It was easy for kids and safe with high gates all around. I loved the boardwalk down the white sand beach!
We used our amazing SkyGenius 10 x 50 Binoculars to see 4-6 wild ponies into the marsh! My husband and I kept saying how amazing these binoculars worked and even the kids could use these. We now keep them in the back of the car for any spontaneous adventure.
2) By Boat from the town of Chincoteague
The next day, we drove 1.5 hours south from Bethany Beach to Chincoteague, VA, and took a tour on one of the many tour companies from the Marina.
It was a very informative tour but honestly, we couldn’t get that close to the horses. We did see a bald eagle’s nest and some other cool birds. The best part of the trip was listening to stories of the annual Pony Swim in July (canceled for 2021) by our guide who is a saltwater cowboy. He has helped round up the horses many times a year and knew a lot of local history.
3) Over Sand Vehicle from Assateague National Seashore Park
A third way to see the wild ponies is through a tour company that has a permit with the National Parks to operate an Over Sand Vehicle on the beaches of Assateague. This looks like an incredible option for a splurge or professional photographers because you can get places on the 37-mile island where there are no other people or even roads. Check out Assateague Island Tours on Instagram for stunning photos.
Where to Stay on Chincoteague or Assateague
- We stayed in Bethany Beach, Delaware which I was surprised to learn is only 25 miles from the Assateague National Seashore! We did a day trip there and then the following day drove down to Chincoteague Island. You can read about our oceanfront hotel and my full Bethany Beach Family Trip Guide here.
- Another option is to stay in Ocean City, MD as it is only 10 miles from Assateague National Seashore! Tons of options from high end resorts to budget friendly hotels.
- Staying in Chincoteague is a great option for any Misty fan or if you want to explore the bay and amazing beaches. There are lots of hotels with views of Chincoteague Bay including Hampton Inn & Suites that was voted 2nd best in the country including free breakfast and indoor pool.
Misty of Chincoteague Books and Spots to Visit on the Ponies Island
My daughter loved reading the original Misty of Chincoteague book by Marguerite Henry in 1947. They also have an updated series called Misty Inn that takes place on the island in an elementary age chapter book. The story is fictional although the characters still live in the town of Chincoteague! Paul and Maureen Beebe were real and their ranch still exists which you can visit!
- Museum of Chincoteague Island (which has Misty and Stormy via taxidermy)
- Beebe Ranch offers tours through contacting them via Facebook.
- The Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce has a great map of 8 stops on the Misty Trail you can check out including the Carnival Grounds where the movie was filmed.
The books are on Amazon and the movie is free for members on Amazon Prime Video.
Beyond Chincoteague or Assateague
And if you want to check out our favorite beach town in Delaware, Maryland, and VA, check out my full family trip guide on Bethany Beach below!