Ecotourism, Chincoteague and Assateague Style
by Sam Serio
What do Chincoteague and Assateague have to offer the ecotourist? The Famous Chincoteague ponies, of course. But these islands just off Virginia's eastern shore also have magnificent bald eagles, falcons and osprey soaring overhead in search of prey. Their waters are home to porpoises, humpback and sperm whales, dolphins, and stingrays.
Their shores and remote areas shelter blue, ghost, and horseshoe crabs; white-tailed deer and sika; red foxes and river otters. The islands' location along the Atlantic flyway attracts more than three hundred species of shore and sea birds, waterfowl, and wading birds. The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island is, in fact, an intricate maze of covers, inlets, wet and woodlands, and miles of unspoiled waterways for ecotourists to explore to their hearts' content.
If your idea of the perfect vacation is one far from the madding crowd, Chincoteague and Assateague ecotourism is the answer. Spend hours, or entire days, wandering their coves and forests. You'll soon exhaust the possibilities along the seven miles of road on Assateague. If you want to view the wild Maryland ponies herd in its native habitat, along with all the island's other natural wonders, you'll have to do it in true ecotourism style on foot or by water.
Even at the height of summer and Pony Penning Week, you can still find solitude and unspoiled vistas along one of the Wildlife Refuge's five hiking trails. At other times of the year you can simply begin trekking along the beach, from Toms Cove on the Virginia side or North Ocean Beach on the Maryland side, and feel the 21st century dissolve into the surf at your feet after a few hundred yards.
Spend your nights on Assateague at any of its six back country campsites. You'll find one located at the state line about thirteen miles from Tom's Cove. The other five campsites require less of a hike, but if you'd prefer to skip the walking altogether, you can reach the Pine Tree, Pope Bay, Tingle's Island, and Jim's Gut camping areas by canoeing or kayaking the peaceful waters of Chincoteague Bay. A hint: the paddling is much easier in morning, before the afternoon sea breezes create a headwind.
Finally, if your adventure in ecotourism doesn't allow for overnight camping, you can still learn an amazing amount about the natural history of Assateague by hiking each of the half-mile trails at North Ocean Beach on the Wildlife Refuge's Maryland side. Each of the three trails will introduce you to one of Assateague's three distinct biospheres: the Life of the Dune, the Life of the Forest, and the Life of the Marsh. Both the Life of the Marsh and the Life of the Forest are accessible to disabled visitors.
If you have time for only one of these trails, the observation deck on the Life of the Forest trail will feast your eyes on miles of island forest and a sweeping vista of Chincoteague Bay. Ecotourism adventures abound on Chincoteague and Assateague, whether your escape lasts for weeks, or only hours!