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Where the Wild Ponies Roam; Chincoteague, VA, the jewel of the Eastern Shore and the Mid-Atlantic

The Mid-Atlantic region of the United States is a blessing for those who like to experience a great amount of diversity without having to travel very far. For example, living between Baltimore, Maryland and Norfolk, Virginia, one can be in New York City, Baltimore, Washington D.C., or Virginia Beach in a matter of hours. One of the jewels of the Mid-Atlantic is a sleepy stretch of beach-bordered barrier island in Virginia, called Chincoteague.

The Old Chincoteague Drawbridge entering the Town from the Mainland

Granted, Chincoteague is not a well known major tourist draw like Williamsburg or Roanoke. But this outwardly appearing sleepy, backwater town is steeped in history and legend, and has enough activities to keep any family busy for a full week-long vacation.The name "Chincoteague" is popularly accepted to be an Indian name meaning "beautiful land across the water," and the name definitely befits this charming island.

Chincoteague is 37 square mile island about one mile from the mainland of Virginia. The long, low island is connected to the mainland by a causeway slightly elevated above a tidal marsh dotted with oyster beds and rocking fishing boats. The decaying vegetation and marine life forms a black muck rich in nutrients, which serves as a protected nursery for fish and shellfish that lay their eggs among the phragmites and other marsh plants. The same decay also provides a treat for the senses; the first time you smell the marsh, you may think you just passed some hidden roadkill. One word of warning: while crossing the causeway, beware of the swooping gulls, as they frequently crash into unsuspecting vehicles, as one did to our RV on one trip.

Sunrise over the Channel in Chincoteage, VA

The banks of Chincoteague island offer water sports like kayaking and boating, and fishing. Crabbing for the famous Maryland Blue Crab is easy when using a crab pot, available for rent or purchase at most shops. Simply place chicken parts in the middle of the chicken-wire pot, and toss the into the water after tying to a nearby dock post. Check your pot periodically for some of the tastiest crabs ever boiled. Some crab-catching purists rely only on a chicken neck tied to a piece of string to lure the crabs from the brackish water. Toss out the "hand line", and reel the string slowly back to the dock. A quick tug means you have a crab on the line. This is a fun activity the kids love!

The Assateague Lighthouse near Tom's Cove
Chincoteague is also the gateway to one of the Nations most visited National Wildlife Refuges: Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island. The refuge receives over one million visitors per year. Like most refuges, the wildlife is abundant. The denizens include Osprey, Bald Eagles, the Delmarva Peninsula Fox Squirrel, ducks, geese, and more. Nature programs are free at the brand new Visitor's Center, and Interpretive Rangers lead bird nature walks.

Across from the visitors center is a small parking area with a trail leading to the Chincoteague Lighthouse. Built in the 1800's, the lighthouse is located at what was once the Southernmost tip of Assateague Island. Now one of the few lighthouses still working in the United States, the lighthouse is about 6 miles from the southern edge of the island due to the erosion of the beaches to the north. The Coast Guard opens the lighthouse to the public on most days for a small fee. You can climb the steps to the top for a gorgeous view of Chincoteague and Assateague Islands.

The refuge is also home to a herd of wild ponies, rumored to be descendants of survivors of a 17th Century Spanish shipwreck. Like the Assateague Park herds, the ponies are supposed to be contained in an area of salt marsh dotted with Lob Lolly pines, but they frequently escape and can be seen roaming parking lots, searching for the remnants of picnics. The ponies were the subject of the famous children's book, Marguerite Henry's Misty of Chincoteague. Currently the ponies are owned the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department.

Following a devastating fire in the town, the Fire Department started auctioning off the foals in 1925 to raise funds for equipment. The VFD swims the ponies across the channel separating the islands once a year, on the last Wednesday of July. The swim and auction is a huge draw to the town, and resorts are booked for months in advance.

You can see the ponies and two types of deer (Whitetail and Sika) on your way to the family beach on the Eastern edge of the island. Get there early during busy summer days, as parking is limited and fills up quickly.

Looking to escape the hustle and bustle of crowded beaches? Carry a pack (with lots of water and sunscreen) up the relatively deserted beach north of the parking area. Although the fresh salt air and sandy stretch of beach may give you the urge to get back to nature and shuck your swimsuit, beware that rangers frequently patrol the out-of-way areas and nudity is strictly prohibited.

Don't feel like walking to a less crowded beach spot? Then visit the off-road vehicle (ORV) area on the southern part of the island. A registration sticker, available for a fee, can be purchased for the ORV area. Before heading out to the beach, be sure to visit the Park Service website for a list of required items you must have in your vehicle to gain beach access (a ranger will check to make sure you have these in your truck). Also, leave early, as entrance to the ORV area is limited, and fills up quickly.

Perhaps one of the best ways to see the refuge is to pedal your way around the trails by bicycle. Do not worry if you forget to bring your bike; rentals are available on the main road into the Refuge. You can ride your bike over from the mainland on the roadside bike path, then cross to the beach on the Wildlife Loop Trail and, when open to the public, the Swan Cove Trail. This trail runs along the backside of the dunes for about one mile, before ending at the northernmost beach parking lot at Swan Cove. The cove is named for the hundreds of swimming Whistling Swans that call the pond home, rumored to be able to break a man's arm with their powerful wings. However, the chances of this happening are next to impossible, unless you are foolhardy enough to wade out into the cove.

After a day of roaming the beach collecting shells, you can retire at your waterfront campsite at one of the islands two campgrounds: Maddox Family Campground and Tom's Cove Campground. From your campsite, you can watch the flash-flash-pause signal of the lighthouse, which is across the channel from both campgrounds.
Chincoteague Oysters

Fishing fanatics will be able to take advantage of boat rentals or fishing trips in the channel or Atlantic Ocean. Flounder, Rockfish, and offshore Tuna fishing are abundant. You can also try your hand at clamming by treading or tonging for the elusive mollusks. The one bill of fare that Chincoteague is famous for is the oyster. Chincoteague oysters are supposed to be some of the sweetest, perfectly flavored of all oysters, and are available in most restaurants and many roadside stands.

Before leaving for home, when back on the mainland, take a few minutes to stop at the NASA visitor's center, right across from a huge NOAA facility sporting several large satellites, located where the causeway meets the mainland. Local gossip is that there may eventually be a space shuttle lift-off from the nearby NASA Wallops Island facility.

Chincoteague will always be one our favorite spots to visit, as this is where we met after the famous pony auction, in 1992. I was a Federal Law Enforcement Officer, working and living at the Refuge, while Rich was visiting on business and stayed for the pony penning festivities. We were married on the beach two years later. Maybe we'll see you at Chincoteague sometime; we go back every year on our Anniversary!

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