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Wild Island Hiking

Hear wild horses thunder through camp. Look for wolf tracks in the mud or eagles' nests in the cliffs high above. Cast off the workaday world and go hike an island paradise.

East And South   Maryland/Virginia

Assateague Island
Drifting On The Edge Of A Continent

The first time I laid eyes on Assateague Island, I was sitting on my father’s shoulders, straining to see the horses made famous by Marguerite Henry’s classic children’s tale Misty of Chincoteague. To a small girl, the island seemed far away and rather magical, a place set aside from the bustling mainland where only wild ponies were permitted to live.

Thirty years later, Assateague still feels wild and magical. Summer brings crowds, but in any other season you’ll share 37 miles of dunes and beach grass, saltwater marshes, and loblolly pine forest with just the ponies and the ever-present wind.

Assateague sits off the coast of the Delmarva Peninsula, with bridges linking both ends to the mainland. During a late-November visit, I hiked from the empty north-end parking lot to a bayside campsite 5 miles distant. With pants rolled high in the Indian summer heat, I waded along the hard-packed beach while a gaggle of shorebirds carved boomerangs in the sky. In the distance, brown and black ponies painted with white spots grazed on stubs of beach grass.

Weather roared in the next morning like a runaway herd. On the beach, great gusts crashed against the waves and whipped their spray back toward the sea in frothy white manes. As I leaned into the buffeting wind under a blue-black sky, Assateague no longer felt tethered to the edge of a continent, and I grinned as I rolled up my pants for another day of wild island hiking.

Casting off: Assateague’s north entrance is at the end of MD 611, 8 miles south of Ocean City, Maryland. The south entrance is at the end of VA 175, 2 miles from Chincoteague, Virginia. A $5 entrance fee and $5 backcountry camping permit are required.

Guides: A good source for information is the Assateague Island Handbook (877-628-7275; www.nationalparkbooks.org; $7.95). A free map is available from the park headquarters (see Contact below).

Hidden treasure: Escape off-road vehicles and personal watercraft by paddling to the Pope Bay and State Line campsites.

Contact: Assateague Island is divided into a state park and national seashore on the Maryland end and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on the Virginia end of the island. Only the national seashore allows overnight backcountry camping. Assateague Island National Seashore, (410) 641-1441; www.nps.gov/asis.

Island Hopping

East and south

Ten Thousand Islands, Everglades National Park, FL:

Actually, there are just 200 of these mangrove keys, but all are blissfully deserted, with white sand beaches and abundant waterfowl and offshore fishing. Be sure to coordinate your paddling with the tides. Contact: Everglades National Park, (305) 242-7700; www.nps.gov/ever.

Cape Lookout National Seashore, NC:

A beachcomber’s paradise, the three islands that make up the national seashore are home to endangered loggerhead turtles, eagles, peregrine falcons, and wild horses. Contact: Cape Lookout National Seashore, (252) 728-2250; www.nps.gov/calo.

Matagorda Island State Park, TX:

The 43,893-acre state park and wildlife area on this barrier island is critical habitat for more than 300 species of birds, plus alligators and snakes. Hike over the dunes or walk miles of lonely beaches. Contact: Matagorda Island State Park, (361) 983-2215; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/matagisl.

-Michele J. Morris, Northeast Editor

Bonus Web Destinations

See Island Hopping, in sidebar at right, for four more great island trips, including beach walking in the Virgin Islands, paddling in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, marsh exploration on Georgia’s Cumberland Island, and lava trekking on Hawaii’s Mauna Loa.

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