Call of the wild: Seeking the famous horses of Assateague Island National Seashore

To avoid summer crowds and swarms of biting greenhead flies, we made it a November road trip. Spring is an equally good time for a family-friendly outing with your horse-crazy kids. As an added bonus, late spring is also foaling season. With luck, you might even spot a gangly-legged newborn colt. On a more practical note, off-season lodging is a bargain.

In the fall and spring, the wild horses of Assateague Island can often be found browsing at the edge of the marshes. David Lyon

From the visitor center, you can walk, drive, or cycle across the arching Verrazano Bridge that connects the mainland to Assateague Island. A paved, 4-mile-long road cuts up the middle of the barrier island. Turnoffs lead to sweeping sandy beaches on the open Atlantic Ocean or to bayside salt marshes, forest, walking trails, and sheltered kayak landings. Campgrounds are sprinkled throughout.

We humans are restricted to the segment of the island along the park road, but the horses range across the whole 23-mile stretch. As of last November, there were 82 of them, including six foals. The most romantic origin story holds that the herd is descended from survivors of a shipwreck off the Virginia coast. The more likely explanation is that the short, chunky horses are descended from 17th-century animals pastured on the island so their farmer-owners could avoid paying tax on their livestock. Over the centuries, the horses have become rather stunted, thanks to the poor nutritional quality and high salt content of the island flora. They have also evolved a distinct wild horse society, clustering in family bands of a stallion with a few mares and their offspring.

Coming from the north, the main entrance to the Assateague Island National Seashore is from the Maryland end of the island. David Lyon

The horses are easiest to spot in summer when they head to the beaches to escape the mosquitoes and flies that plague them in the marshes and scrub forest. We knew we wouldn’t see horses frolicking in the surf, tossing their manes in slow motion like a shampoo commercial. They actually spend a lot of time eating. We spotted small groups of two or three chowing down on cordgrass and marsh shrubs. During the spring, when annual rains bring a surge of fresh plant growth, many of the horses essentially live next to their buffet in the marshes.

Actually we could tell that the horses had been pretty much everywhere. Evidence of an unseen equine presence piles up along the trails, in the middle of the roads, across the dunes, and even on the beach. Assateague has no shortage of road apples.

The boardwalks at the Assateague Island National Seashore provide good views across the marshes. David Lyon

Looking for the horses makes a good point of departure for exploring the National Seashore’s natural beauty. We walked for miles on the beautiful white sand beaches, watched surfers in wetsuits paddle out to catch the breaks, and chatted with dog walkers. We also followed several of the nature trails devised by the National Seashore staff. In spring, there’s a good chance of spotting horses along the Life of the Forest and the Life of the Marsh trails. At only a half-mile each, they’re flat and easy to walk, making them perfect for families with young children. Be sure to pick up the trail guide brochures at the visitor center.

Along the forest trail, it was fascinating to see how the same loblolly pines that were stunted and twisted where they were hit with salt spray grew tall and straight farther from the water. Birds were the most active creatures here. Eastern Towhees — which look like a cross between a robin and a chickadee — made the forest floor rattle as they rustled through dry leaves looking for bugs.

The Ocean City beach is so uncrowded in the off season that a volleyball game can stretch out without a net.David Lyon

We’re suckers for the understated beauty of salt marshes, and most of that trail was elevated on boardwalks that allowed us to penetrate the inner recesses of the marshes. It was better than kayaking because we could see above the swaying grasses. Ducks, geese, and egrets populated the calm open water while Red-winged Blackbirds flitted among the cattails and reeds. Literally millions of small fry darted in the marshland shallows. It’s a place that teems with life.

We encountered Linda Merryman at the marsh trailhead. The six-year park volunteer was zipping around on a golf cart. She carried a binder with photos of all the horses and described them by their personalities, especially Chip, the dominant stallion. Even though she called them by name, she was quick to remind us that the horses are wild animals and that visitors should keep their distance. She likes to point to the “man in speedo and horses at assateague” YouTube video as a cautionary tale. Spoiler alert: Upon trying to pet a horse, the man is kicked firmly in the Speedo. Merryman told us that the horses often hang out at campsites looking for food. Because their salty diet makes them very thirsty, they have learned how to turn on the faucets (but not to shut them off).

Oceanfront suites at the Commander Hotel & Suites in Ocean City enjoy a front-row seat to dawn.David Lyon

We were a little bit sorry that we weren’t camping, but we couldn’t resist the off-season deals at the beachfront hotels in Ocean City, a 15-minute drive from the National Seashore. The area started to develop as a summer resort in 1875 but really took off in the 1960s. Our oceanfront room at the Commander Hotel was a third of what it costs in the summer and the two queen beds and pull-out sofa would have easily slip a family. The cooking facilities — microwave, refrigerator, toaster, and coffee maker — came in handy since many restaurants were closed in the off-season. We at just fine, between shopping at the supermarket at the edge of town and ordering restaurant takeout. It was hardly a hardship to dine on our waterfront balcony.

Dumser’s Dairyland has been a Maryland tradition for more than 80 years.Patricia Harris

Still, it might be a good idea to warn the kids in advance that a lot of the candy shops, hot dog stands, funnel cake makers, and amusement rides might not be open. That means fewer distractions from the nice long beach perfect for volleyball and less congestion for strolling or biking on the 3-mile boardwalk. After dark, surprise the kids with a visit to neon-lit Dumser’s Dairyland for ice cream. It’s been a local tradition for eight decades.

IF YOU GO . . .

Assateague Island National Seashore

7206 National Seashore Lane, Berlin, Md.

410-641-1441; nps.gov/asis

Visitor Center open daily, 9 am-4 pm

Park admission: 7-day vehicle and passengers pass, $25

Assateague Island Outfitters

Bike Stand at Visitor Center

443-365-7444, assateagueoutfitters.com

Bike rentals from $20 for 2 hours

Commander Hotel & Suites

1401 Atlantic Ave., Ocean City, Md.

888-289-6166; commanderhotel.com

Oceanfront suites from $186 in April

Dumser’s Dairyland West OC

12702 Ocean Gateway, Ocean City, Md.

410-213-7106; dumsersdairyland.com

Open daily, 11 am-9 pm

Ice cream from $2.91


Patricia Harris can be reached at [email protected] David Lyon can be reached at [email protected]

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