What is the Longest Beach in Maryland?
Nestled off the coast of Maryland and Virginia, Assateague Island National Seashore is a breathtaking expanse of seashore. As the longest stretch of beach in Maryland, it spans approximately 37 miles. Two-thirds are within Maryland state lines, and one-third are within Virginia state lines.
This barrier island is a hotspot for wildlife enthusiasts, beach lovers, and even wild horses. Its history, diverse geology, and unique geography combine to create a distinctive environment that continues to draw and inspire visitors from near and far.
Assateague Island National Seashore
The history of Assateague Island National Seashore is interwoven with indigenous culture and immigrant settlement. Indigenous people inhabited the region approximately 10,000 years ago, up until the 18th century when they emigrated from their native lands due to the European settlers’ influence. Native American tribes, such as the Assateague, lived harmoniously with the land, sustaining themselves with the island’s abundant natural resources. For food, they hunted, fished, grew crops, and traded with tribes as far away as New York and Ohio.
European explorers first encountered the island in the early 16th century. They were drawn to its bountiful landscapes. By the 17th century, European settlers established themselves on the mainland nearby, introducing their agriculture and trade to the area.
Assateague Island bore witness to numerous shipwrecks in the centuries that followed, adding an aura of mystery to the already captivating area. Local folklore tells tales of legendary horses, thought to be survivors of these maritime disasters, roaming the island freely and wild, further enhancing its mystique with dramatic tales.
By the early 20th century, the island had become a popular summer destination for vacationers seeking respite from city life. In the 1950s, it was zoned and sold as a private resort community. Within 5 to 10 years, the housing development firm that managed the land quickly realized the island was too unstable to sustain buildings and roads. In the 1960s, they sold the land to the federal government. To protect its unique ecosystems and wildlife, Assateague Island was designated as a national seashore in 1965, managed jointly by the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Department of Natural Resources. This designation ensured the preservation of its natural wonders as well as for future generations to cherish and enjoy.
Geology and Geography
Assateague Island is a dynamic and ever-changing landscape shaped by the forces of nature. Over its long evolution, it has come to home the longest beach in Maryland. The island itself began to take form around 15,000 years ago, during the end of the last Ice Age. The melting glaciers caused sea levels to rise, flooding low-lying areas and creating the barrier island. The island is part of the long chain of barrier islands stretching along the Atlantic coast, serving as a natural buffer between the ocean and the mainland.
Its geological foundation consists primarily of sand and sediment as erosion and run-off from the Appalachian Mountains. The longshore drift has moved and continues to move the sand, building and shaping the island’s length. As a result of the natural barrier process during storm activity, the island is continuously evolving westward. As water washes over the island, particularly during large storms, it sends sand backward toward the bay, which creates a rollover effect. This process is also accelerated by climate change and rising sea levels.
Assateague Island’s geography is characterized by its diverse ecosystems, including marshes, forests, shrublands, grasslands, dunes, and sandy beaches. As mentioned earlier, the island divides into two parts. The Maryland district to the north covers about two-thirds of the island, and the Virginia district to the south covers the remaining one-third. The state line between Maryland and Virginia cuts through the island, adding an interesting geopolitical dimension to its conservation management.
Flora and Fauna
The coastal bays, estuaries, and salt marshes surrounding the island provide essential habitats for a plethora of wildlife species. The island is renowned for its birdlife, attracting birdwatchers eager to catch glimpses of migratory species like sanderlings, piping plovers, and red knots. Additionally, the island is home to a remarkable diversity of fauna, including wild horses, white-tailed deer, red foxes, raccoons, black rat snakes, fiddler crabs, and various other animals found on land and in the Atlantic Ocean.
However, the most iconic residents of the longest beach in Maryland are the wild horses, famously known as the “Chincoteague Ponies” in the Virginia district and the “Assateague Horses” in the Maryland district. These horses are believed to be descendants of early settlers’ domesticated horses, which either escaped or were abandoned and left to roam the island freely. Their captivating presence and unique adaptation to the environment of the surrounding islands have made them a symbol of the island’s untamed spirit.
How to Get to Assateague Island National Seashore
You can get to the Assateague Island Nation Seashore through two different entrances. Once on the island, no road connects the entrances, so you must re-enter the mainland to access either. They include the north entrance, 8 miles south of Ocean City, MD, at the end of Route 611. And the south entrance, two miles east of Chincoteague, VA, is at the end of Route 175.
Things to Do at Assateague Island National Seashore
Assateague Island National Seashore beckons with its diverse natural beauty, abundant wildlife, and, most prominently, its sandy beaches. It offers a plethora of activities that cater to every season and preference. From iconic wild horses to ranger-guided programs, multiple hiking trails, and water-based adventures, this barrier island promises an unforgettable experience for those seeking its shores.
Major Points of Interest on Assateague Island National Seashore
The wild horses on the longest beach in Maryland are a sight to behold. Wild horses on sandy beaches in the United States are not a common sight. Thus, this island is a destination for viewing wild horses. These majestic creatures roam freely along the beaches and marshlands, creating an enchanting and rare opportunity to observe them in their natural habitat. Remember to keep a safe distance and refrain from feeding them to maintain their wild behavior and preserve their well-being. They are wild animals and will defend themselves if they feel threatened.
Adjacent to the National Seashore southside, the Assateague State Park offers additional recreational opportunities. The park features a serene bay-side beach, hiking trails, picnicking areas, and camping facilities for those seeking a closer connection with nature.
Assateague Island National Seashore by Season
Spring and Summer
As nature awakens from its winter slumber, spring brings a sense of renewal to Assateague Island. The mild weather and blooming wildflowers create the perfect setting for hiking and biking along the island’s trails. Birdwatching enthusiasts will be delighted by the abundance of migratory species that stop by during their journey north. Furthermore, spring perks include pleasant sunny weather with cool temperatures, less intense crowds, and little to no bugs. The water may be colder, but wetsuits are available for water activities.
Summertime is a beach lover’s paradise! You can enjoy swimming and sunbathing on the expansive sandy shores or try your hand at surfing as the waves roll in from the Atlantic Ocean. Don’t forget to pack a picnic and savor the scenic beauty of the dunes and salt marshes! Moreover, summer perks include bright and sunny weather with hotter temperatures, and summer programs and activities are in full swing. However, the crowds are at their peak, especially on holidays and weekends.
Autumn and Winter
Autumn casts a warm glow on Assateague Island, making it an ideal time for camping under the stars. October also marks the tri-annual wild horse roundup, where the wild horses are rounded up to receive veterinary care and attention. The wild horses are also rounded up in April and July for the same purpose. Furthermore, autumn perks include similar pleasant and sunny weather experienced in the spring, with cooler temperatures, the surf is optimal, there are few bugs, and the crowds are light.
Although colder, winter offers a tranquil and secluded experience for those seeking an experience with the most amount of solitude with nature. The island’s quieter atmosphere provides an excellent opportunity to enjoy the company of wintering wildlife. Winter perks are similar to fall perks but a bit colder. The temperatures can range from the 20s to the 40s degrees Fahrenheit, the surf is still optimal, there are no bugs, and the crowds are at their lightest.
Best Time to Travel to Assateague Island National Seashore
To avoid heavy tourist traffic, consider visiting the longest beach in Maryland in the shoulder seasons (spring and fall). During these times, the weather is pleasant, and the island is less crowded, allowing for a more intimate connection with its natural wonders. Additionally, the mild temperatures and reduced insect activity in spring and fall make outdoor activities more enjoyable.
Popular Activities at Assateague Island National Seashore
The National Park Service offers a range of informative and entertaining ranger-led programs, including guided hikes, various tours, and wildlife talks. These programs provide valuable insights into the island’s ecology and history.
Assateague Island National Seashore offers plentiful camping opportunities within the Assateague Island National Seashore Campgrounds. Camping options include tents, trailers, and recreational vehicles with both ocean-side and bay-side camping opportunities. Sites often have a picnic table and a fire ring with a grill. There are camping opportunities year-round. So, if beach camping is your forte, look no further! Fall asleep to the sound of waves crashing on the shore, and wake up to breathtaking sunrises over the Atlantic Ocean.
Photographers, birders, and nature enthusiasts can immerse themselves in the splendor of expansive wildlife that calls Assateague Island National Seashore home. From wild horses to rare bird species, there are wildlife viewing opportunities 365 days a year.
Fishing and Crabbing
Fishing and shellfishing enthusiasts will delight in the abundance of opportunities to cast a line into the open ocean or the tranquil bay waters. Crabbing is also popular, with blue crabs being a local delicacy.
Hiking and Biking
Explore the island’s diverse ecosystems through one of three trails spanning across the island. Whether you prefer a stroll or a vigorous hike, Assateague Island National Seashore has something to offer every level of adventurer.
If you have your horse and trailer, you can enjoy a leisurely ride across the Assateague Island National Seashore. Traverse sandy trails and beaches while connecting with the island’s wild spirit.
Swimming and Surfing
The stunning beach invites visitors to cool off in the chilly waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Surfing enthusiasts will find suitable waves to catch along specific stretches of the shoreline, particularly during the autumn and winter seasons when the surf is at its best.
Overall, Assateague Island National Seashore offers a symphony of natural wonders and outdoor adventures throughout the year. From the untamed beauty of wild horses to the tranquility of marshes and the delight of water-based activities, this barrier island provides a haven for those seeking an intimate connection with coastal nature.
Animals Found at Assateague Island National Seashore
Assateague Island National Seashore is a haven of natural wonders. It boasts its iconic wild horses that we’ve discussed at length and teems with a rich variety of aquatic and terrestrial life in its surrounding waters and along its pristine shores. From graceful sea turtles to playful dolphins, the island and its coastal ecosystem are home to various fascinating marine species. Below are some of the animals you can find in the water and around the longest beach in Maryland.
Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus)
The Atlantic bottlenose dolphin is a charismatic and intelligent marine mammal. It graces the coastal waters of Assateague Island National Seashore. These mischievous creatures are year-round residents. You can see them partake in acrobatic displays, often leaping out of the water and riding the waves. Keep your eyes peeled during a boat tour or from the shoreline. You may be lucky enough to spot these delightful dolphins frolicking in their natural habitat.
Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta)
The loggerhead sea turtle is a magnificent reptile. It nests on the beaches of Assateague Island National Seashore during the warmer months. They are the most common sea turtle species found in the area. You can spot them basking in the sun near the shoreline or in the waters close to shore. These migratory animals travel long distances between their nesting and feeding grounds. And the island is an essential part of their life cycle.
Blue Crab (Callinectes sapidus)
The blue crab is a true delicacy of the Chesapeake Bay region and is a prominent resident of Assateague Island’s coastal waters. These crustaceans reading on the longest beach in Maryland have a vibrant blue color. Crabbing is a popular activity for locals and visitors, and many enjoy catching and feasting on these delectable creatures. Moreover, they are a local delicacy due to their sweet and succulent meat.
Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)
From the skies of Assateague Island National Seashore, the osprey is a remarkable bird of prey inhabiting the coastal areas. With their keen eyesight and powerful talons, ospreys are skilled fishers, swooping to catch fish with impressive precision. You can also observe their nests via the platforms erected for conservation nesting purposes, providing a fascinating glimpse into their nesting and parenting behavior.
Snowy Egret (Egretta thula)
The snowy egret is a stunning wading bird that frequents the shallow waters and marshlands of Assateague Island National Seashore. With its striking white plumage and elegant posture, this bird is a sight to behold as it delicately hunts for fish, crustaceans, and other aquatic prey. Keep your camera ready to capture the graceful movements of this beautiful avian resident.
Atlantic Bluefin Tuna (Thunnus thynnus)
The Atlantic bluefin tuna is a highly migratory species. You can find it in the waters off Assateague Island National Seashore. These powerful fish can grow to impressive sizes and swim at incredible speeds. This makes them popular targets for recreational fishing enthusiasts. However, due to overfishing and conservation efforts, catching these majestic creatures is regulated to protect their populations.
Diamondback Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin)
The diamondback terrapin is a unique species of turtle reading at the longest beach in Maryland. It inhabits the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, including the Assateague Island National Seashore. With a striking pattern on their shells, these turtles are fascinating to observe. Additionally, they are one of the very few turtle species you can find on Assateague Island. Sadly, they face threats from habitat loss and are often involved in roadkill accidents. Conservation efforts are crucial for their survival as they are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List with decreasing populations.
Atlantic Horseshoe Crab (Limulus polyphemus)
The Atlantic horseshoe crab is a living fossil that has been around for millions of years. It is a horseshoe crab species you can find along the Assateague Island National Seashore. Additionally, their blue blood contains a substance used in medical research for various purposes.
Plants Found at Assateague Island National Seashore
The longest beach in Maryland has a rich flora population. It plays a crucial role in shaping its unique coastal landscape. Below are some plants you can find along the Assateague Island National Seashore.
Saltmeadow Cordgrass (Sporobolus pumilus)
Saltmeadow cordgrass is a resilient plant that thrives in the salt marshes surrounding Assateague Island. This grass species plays a vital role in stabilizing marshland soil with its extensive root system. Its stems provide shelter for small animals and nesting sites for coastal birds. Moreover, it is a food source for various creatures.
Seaside Goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens)
Seaside Goldenrod is a vibrant perennial you can find in the sandy dunes and coastal meadows of Assateague Island. This plant’s bright yellow flowers contrast sharply against the blue waters, beige sand, and green foliage. Its nectar-rich blooms attract bees, butterflies, and other pollinators, contributing to the island’s rich biodiversity.
American Beachgrass (Ammophila breviligulata)
American beachgrass is a vital dune-stabilizing species found along the sandy shores of Assateague Island. Its extensive root system helps anchor the dunes, preventing erosion caused by wind and waves. This grass plays a critical role in stabilizing the island’s shifting sands and protecting the coastal ecosystem. As the wind blows sand over its stems, it continues to grow. Its roots can sometimes span over 40 feet into the ground due to accumulating sand buildup.
Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
Red cedar is also known as eastern red cedar. It is a coniferous tree you can find in the island’s woodlands and maritime forests. Its evergreen foliage provides shelter for wildlife, while its berries serve as a food source for birds and small mammals. The red cedar wood is also prized for its durability and is used in various applications.
Assateague Island National Seashore stands as the longest beach in Maryland, spanning approximately 37 miles. It is a gorgeous stretch of coastal land that beckons nature enthusiasts and beach lovers alike. With its pristine sandy shores, diverse ecosystems, and enchanting wild horses, this barrier island is a paradise of natural beauty and ecological treasures. It is a destination where past and present converge. From the delicate flora that stabilizes the salt marshes to the charismatic fauna that roams freely along the beach, Assateague Island National Seashore is an example of the power and resilience of nature. It is a coastal jewel of constant evolution, where you can create unforgettable memories with each passing wave.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © nathaniel gonzales/Shutterstock.com
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