Have you ever read the children's classic "Misty of Chincoteague?" Did you know that there are still wild horses in Chincoteague? There sure are, and we took off on an adventure to see them for ourselves!
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When we first received an invitation to the Grand Opening of the Wild + Free Farm Village, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to pull off this side trip shenanigan. The town of Chincoteague is nearly six hours from the farm. But, what is six hours when you’re already that far East?! So, after a delightful weekend in the Blue Ridge Mountains we took off for the eastern edge of the country and Assateague Island National Seashore. We had read the story of Misty (one of my childhood favorites) over the summer and the kids were so excited to see the wild horses for ourselves. I knew that our time would be short, but I had high hopes that we would see the horses. We had prepped for our trip by studying the Chincoteague Pony and the geography of Chincoteague itself. However, I had packed for our whirlwind trip in such a hurry that I forgot to bring any of our seashell guides.
An engineering feat.
Our route to Chincoteague had two options, north of and around Washington D.C., or go south to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. I opted for the tunnel, obviously, because a twenty mile bridge with two tunnels is way more fun. There is a bridge fee of $20 each way. Steep, however I felt it was worth it. Unfortunately, the restaurant and public fishing pier halfway are closed due to construction. I wasn’t aware of that when we took off, and I had hoped to stop and get out to take in the views. Because of the construction, once you are on the bridge system there are no stopping points, except for emergency pull offs. There are two tunnels, both one mile in length. The northbound bridges, causeway, and tunnels were completed in 1964 and the southbound in 1999. In 1965 the bridge system was declared one of the seven engineering wonders of the modern world. It was incredibly fun to us and well worth the cost to drive over (and under).
First steps in the Atlantic.
Once we reached Chincoteague it was only few minutes to head out to Assateague Island National Seashore. We have a National Parks Pass, which is $89 for the year and well worth the purchase if you visit National Parks often. Active Duty members of the military are eligible for a free annual pass. Or, if you have a child in the fourth grade, they are eligible for free pass for your entire family for the year!
At the beach, we quickly found a parking spot and took off for the water. I had the kids change into their swimsuits at the bathroom at the visitor center before we hit the beach. The visitor center bathroom is a one stall, pit toilet located on the boardwalk. I would advise bringing a large towel to change behind, or change before you arrive.
It wasn’t long and my kids were running full force to the ocean waves. It was such a thrill to see them running into the Atlantic, just as they had done with the Pacific Ocean in California last month. They shouted that the water was cold, but not as cold as the Pacific. Moments later they were soaked and laughing as they bodysurfed in the shallow surf.
Due to our long drive, the sunset was fast approaching. The beach was not crowded at all and we enjoyed scouring the beach for shells in the quickly fading light. The sun sets to the bayside of Chincoteague and there was a slight haze that day, which led to quite possibly one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen. It was impossible to capture it in a photo. We built a sandcastle in the golden hour and played until it was almost too dark to see.
I usually use the Hotels.com app to search for places to stay, and was able to find a Fairfield Inn for a really great last minute deal. The Fairfield Inn on Chincoteague is located on the bay side, just to the south of the historic main street. The room we booked was wonderful! It was clean and spacious, with a gorgeous balcony that overlooked the bay and the pool. In the busy season, I am sure that it would be noisy with the Ropewalk restaurant next door, but we enjoyed a peaceful night and following morning.
On our way back to the beach for the morning, we were treated with a great surprise! The wild horses of Chincoteague! We were all speechless with excitement when we saw them. Then, to our great surprise and joy, we saw a mother and baby. At that point I think I was perhaps a bit more excited than the kids, and I choked back tears thinking about this magic moment; a moment when a childhood dream of mine came true, right alongside my own children. When a story that had been woven into my own heart as a child, and shared with my children, became a real and tangible part of our history. We all laughed at the white bird perched on the back of one of the horses. We giggled as the white foal flopped down from exhaustion (or the heat). We held our breath and etched the moment into our memories as the horses munched on the saltgrass, unaware and unbothered by the onlookers.
Always wear swimsuits.
My kids’ swimsuits were still soaked, so I asked that they wear regular clothes and play in the surf only up to their knees. Well, that was a rookie mistake that I shouldn’t have made. We hiked two miles down the beach in search of shells, and I think it was less than a quarter mile in and my kids were completely soaked. I’m not one to sweat over the small stuff, so I let them play. I made them aware of how uncomfortable they may be on the way back, but that they could make their own choice. It was such a beautiful morning on the beach, and walking a mile or so down the beach got us away from the crowd and into the wild part of the coast. There is an over sand vehicle road and backcountry camping allowed, but I just didn’t have time this trip. The next time we go we will air down the tires and take off for some backcountry, beachfront camping.
The shell collecting was not quite what we had expected, though, admittedly I did not do enough research about where to find shells. Generally, an hour before or after either low or high tide is a great time to look. I had timed our morning visit to be an hour after high tide, but all we could find were broken shells. Some of the fragments were quite large; large clams and a few pieces of whelk shells. There were several large horseshoe crabs washed ashore, one or two of the sheds and one or two dead crabs. My daughter also found a skate egg case, sometimes called a “mermaids purse.” She knew what it was from her Junior Ranger book. We had stopped at the visitor center to pick up the booklets just prior to our hike. They are such a valuable resources, whether you homeschool or not. Everytime I journey through those guidbooks with my children, I learn just as much as they do.
Official Junior Rangers.
A few hours later, and much to my children’s dismay, it was time for us to turn back. Soaking wet clothes and sand everywhere, but we packed up and headed to the visitor center to complete their Junior Ranger program. The ranger who walked through their book with them was so patient and kind, as most park rangers are. She answered all of my questions too! I learned so much about whelks, which I did not know are vastly different than their often confused with counterpart, the conch. My advice for anyone visiting a national park: take the time to chat with the rangers and definitly do the Junior Ranger program if there is one available. At Assateague, my children left with a certificate and a badge to add to their growing collection.
If you have a few hours:
- We visited the Virginia side of Assateague Island National Seashore, but there is so much more than that! However, if you’re short on time, I would recommend stopping on the Virginia side.
- The lighthouse is just a short hike and you can see it from the road (beware of massive amounts of aggressive mosquitos in summer months)
- Tom’s Cove Visitor Center – Pick up Junior Ranger badges and check out the touch tank. There are also some really charming hand painted nature guides.
- There is also a wildlife viewing loop in this part of the park.
- Park at the beach and go explore!
If you have a whole day:
- Go for a hike on the beach. The beach gets more wild just a short walk away from the lifeguard stands and has plenty of opportunities for beachcombing and wildlife viewing. Be sure to take along some water and sun protection.
- Check out both visitor centers on the Virginia side of the park.
- Take in a ranger led hike or guided nature program.
If you have multiple days:
- Go camping in the Maryland side of the park at the established campground.
- Check out the over sand vehicle route and drive along the wild part of the beach.
- Beach camping on the over sand vehicle route or backcountry camping.
A few things to remember:
- Remember to bring a form of sun protection and to use reef safe sunscreen.
- Please practice Leave No Trace principles when exploring the wild coastline.
- Do not feed the wildlife, including the horses.
- Keep a safe distance from all wildlife, including the horses.
- When camping, food should be kept inside a vehicle or food storage container.
- Clean up after yourself and leave your area better than when you arrived.
- Be sure to carry water with you when beach hiking.
- Check tide charts and ocean currents before swimming.
Another one for our adventure book.
Assateague Island National Seashore was an incredible trip. I cannot wait to go back. The day and a half we had to explore simply was not enough! Have you ever been? I would love to hear about your experience!
You can also read about one of our other studies come to life when we took an adventure out west on the Santa Fe Trail.