Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague, a children’s novel published in 1947, sure did make the ponies of Assateague Island famous, but it still remains a bit of a mystery as to where the ponies actually came from, and when they first arrived on the island. Some say the ponies are descendents of an 18th century shipwreck, whereas others say they are descendents of colonial horses, brought to the island by early settlers of the eastern shore.
While we may never solve the mystery of their origin, we do know that the herd on the Virginia side of Assateague Island is owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. And since the land they graze upon is managed by the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, the fire company maintains a special use permit with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allowing them to graze up to 150 ponies on the refuge.
The quaint town of Chincoteague Island is surrounded by a multitude of water trails of varying scenery, distances, and difficulty levels. The trail that leads to where the ponies are most frequently sighted is only 1.5 miles (one-way), but it is rated at an intermediate level due to the potential for heavy boat traffic.
The best place to start your pony-viewing journey is at Veteran’s Memorial Park, located on the south end of Chincoteague Island. The park’s boat ramp does have a fee, so be sure to have $5 in cash handy. You’ll also want to time your paddle to be near high tide. The higher the tide, the further up the marsh creeks you’ll be able to paddle, maximizing your chances of viewing some of those world-famous Chincoteague ponies.
As you head east and cross the channel, boat traffic could be heavy, particularly in the peak summer season. Once you’re across the channel and closer to the marshes of the refuge, you may feel the need to hug the marsh banks to stay away from boat traffic, but oyster beds can be a hazard to kayaks, even at high tide, so it’s best to follow channel markers. There are several small coves and creeks that you could explore, but we recommend this one:
And even when you’re way up the creek, particularly when it’s high tide, be prepared to be sharing the waterway with tour boats along the way.
If you are lucky enough to spot some of the herd, it’s important to keep your distance, even if the ponies are standing in the water. The rule of thumb is to remain at least 40 feet (the length of a school bus) away from them, and remain in your kayak at all times. Although picturesque, these guys are wild, and they can come with a powerful kick and/or bite! For more information on the rules and regulations of the wildlife refuge, please visit their website.
Now let’s say you’ve gotten your fill of pony-viewing, and you’re ready to see what else the area has to offer. Well you’re in luck because the marshes of the refuge offer some world-class birding opportunities! As you’re making your way in and out of the creek, you’ll likely spot black skimmers, snowy egrets, tricolored herons, least terns, and bald eagles And all along the way you’ll be able to hear the call of the shy clapper rail, hidden within the marsh grasses.
If you choose to explore further down the channel and into Tom’s Cove, please be aware of the restrictions in landing a kayak on various beaches. Be sure to check out the refuge’s super handy boat use map in advance.
As you make your way back to Veteran’s Memorial Park, you’ve probably worked up an appetite! Be sure to grab some fresh seafood from any of the island’s local restaurants. And top off the perfect Chincoteague evening with some ice cream from either Mr. Whippy or the Island Creamery! Happy water trails!
About the Author: Laura Scharle lives on the Eastern shore of Maryland and is a frequent paddler in coastal Virginia. She is a Virginia certified ecotour guide and is an independent marketing contractor with a focus in ecotourism and heritage tourism. Laura can be reached through our Eastern Shore ecotour guide listings.