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Assateague National Seashore: Six Tips for First-Time Camping on the Island of Wild Horses

By Jenneth Dyck

One of the first things I did when I graduated college was hit the beach. And not just any beach: Empty stretches of sand and a rising sun over the ocean’s horizon, where you’re isolated alone on an island seemingly in the middle of nowhere—and are those wild horses?

Assateague Island, a 48,000 acre vacation oasis, is shared between Virginia and Maryland, and is relatively untouched by human civilization. The secluded nature and wild island horses feels like a scene straight from your collection of Walter Farley Black Stallion books you had as a kid.

This was my view from the shore on a morning walk. I visited the island at the end of May from a Thursday to a Friday, so I managed to miss most of the weekend crowds. Still, the campsites are almost all secluded around brush and foliage, so even if you’re camping right next to someone, you may not even see them.

I discovered Assateague in May when two friends I knew in high school contacted me asking if I would like to road trip with them once summer hit. The plan would be to drive to the Maryland side of the island and camp on the beach that night. We’d enjoy the campsite, cook our own meals over the fire, and then hit Ocean City’s boardwalk later the next day before heading home: the perfect two-day road trip.

Our campground was just over the hill from the water and near the restrooms and parking lot

Being a brand new college grad and a pretty big introvert, traveling with friends and camping in the middle of nowhere was probably the most adventurous thing I’ve ever done. I had no idea how to camp and, to be honest, I didn’t really know where this island even was until about five minutes before hitting the road (thank you, Apple Maps).

So if you’re like me and you’re down for taking a camping quest to a wild horse island, here’s six things you should totally do to make your vacation the best:

Buy firewood before you get there.

Firewood huts can be found all along the road until you reach the park entrance. Most of them are unmanned, so you just put cash in the lockbox and pick your bundle. Make sure you bring extra bills and double check to be sure the wood is dry!

As you get closer to the National Seashore on the Maryland side, you’ll start seeing sign after sign urging you to buy firewood. Listen to those signs. Obey those signs. Don’t be like us and drive past every single option until you’ve passed up the opportunity. We thought it was best to get to the campsite first, set up the tent, and then worry about wood, but by the time we made camp, we were already hungry and it was starting to get dark.

Firewood on the side of the road typically went for about $6 a bundle and each roadside stop was set up as an honor system. The wood sat on shelves outside small-town shops or on carts in people’s yards, and all you had to do was leave the money in a locked box before selecting your bundle. Be sure to bring single bills and not twenties so you aren’t stuck with four bundles of wood you won’t need.

Also, as common knowledge as this seems, make sure your wood is dry. More on that later….

Bring kindling, fire starters, matches, and a fire breathing dragon.

We didn’t bring our fire breathing dragon, but some neighboring campers let us have a couple giant matches they called “Matchsticks of Doom” to help us get a flame going. Fire starters, newspaper, and dry kindling can also help, because even if your wood is slightly damp, it’s not gonna burn on its own.

Honestly, a fire breathing dragon would be the most ideal. It took us an embarrassingly long while to get a fire started, even with the fire starter blocks we brought along. Before we arrived, there had been a short rain shower that lightly dampened everything in the immediate area, so the outside of the wood refused to catch.

Some things that would have made our progress easier would have been to bring kindling. There’s a lot of natural brush around the campsite, but most of it is too green to get a fire really going. When you make your trip bringing newspapers or dry kindling from home could help you get your fire burning without sacrificing your Graham crackers box for fuel.

Wake up to see the sunrise.

This sunrise was totally worth missing a few extra hours of sleep.

I’m not a morning person by any stretch of the imagination, but after figuring out that the sun would rise directly over the ocean’s horizon, I determined that I wouldn’t miss it. At five in the morning I managed to wiggle out of the tent and take the short hike down to a lone park bench overlooking the water. With the exception of an occasional jogger’s silhouette running parallel to the shore, I felt like I was the only person on the island.

Needless to say, the sunrise was breathtaking, and photos do not do it justice. I grew up in Washington DC, so I’m not used to the vast expanse free of buildings and power lines. But a sight like this…it was an entirely new experience for me.

If you plan to spend any time on Assateague, don’t pass up the chance to glimpse a brand new sun just for a couple more hours of sleep in a sandy tent.

Cook your own meals.

Breakfast on the beach is super fun and rewarding. Be sure to bring bacon, eggs, and anything else that would make a perfect beach breakfast.

If you have the equipment to make it happen, breakfast on the beach is a must. The campsite provides a picnic table and a fire pit with a grill rack, so you can fry bacon and scramble eggs for a perfect breakfast.

Not to mention, cooking your own meals is cheaper and more authentic feeling than driving out to your nearest McDonald’s for a McMuffin. Keep the adventure going by making your own.

Take a selfie with a horse.

In the morning, the horses had wandered from one of the neighboring camps into the park parking lot where we got to see them up close. You aren’t allowed to pet or ride them, but taking a selfie is the next best thing.

If you’re lucky, horses might wander into your camp (or in our case, someone else’s). According to Travel and Leisure, the free-roaming horses are said to be descendants from domesticated horses that survived a shipwreck in the 17th Century (coolness!).

Unfortunately, you can’t actually touch these horses (though the Virginia side offers horseback riding year ‘round), but getting a selfie with one is the next best thing.

Check out Ocean City before you leave.

Ocean City’s boardwalk is probably one of the coolest boardwalks I’ve been to. There’s hundreds of shops, restaurants, and attractions to visit, and if you hang out long enough, you might even find a few artists or street performers attracting a crowd.

Once you check out of your campground, take the thirty minute drive to Ocean City and stroll along their boardwalk. With almost three miles of shops, restaurants, ocean, sun, and street performers, you could spend the rest of the afternoon entertained.

Also, if you want seafood for lunch, Crab Stop on Philadelphia Avenue is a great hole-in-the-wall crab house that’s one of the highest rated restaurants in the area. The entire store is run by a friendly guy who likes to sit on the porch outside his shop and talk with tourists when he’s not serving customers.

We caught the second half of Daniel Israel’s street show, where he managed to free himself from a straitjacket while atop his unicycle.

The camping trip to Assateague combined with a day’s excursion to Ocean City made for the perfect summer getaway after graduation. Considering the beautiful ocean, sunrise, adventure, and the Ocean City’s boardwalk, a trip to Assateague National Seashore is definitely the place you’ll want to visit next.

If you enjoyed this amazing guest post by Jenneth Dyck, check out her full blog at jennethdyck.wordpress.com!

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