With large swathes of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge to roam, catching a glimpse of the fabled wild ponies of Chincoteague up close can be a challenge. Yet, after reading the famous children’s book Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry, seeing these wild ponies up close is what so many young horse lovers dream about. I set out to make this dream come true for my 10-year-old horse lover last spring.
About the Wild Ponies
The wild ponies of Chincoteague, Virginia and Assateague, Maryland, are rumored to be descendants of horses that survived the shipwreck of a Spanish Galleon ship centuries ago. While it is more probable that they are descendants of colonial horses brought to Assateague Island in the 17th Century by local planters seeking to avoid crop damage or taxing of livestock, today’s ponies roam free.
They are divided into two herds by a fence that runs along the Virginia/Maryland State line. The ponies that live on the Maryland side are maintained by the National Park Service, while the Chincoteague ponies are owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department.
Following a tradition started in 1835, each summer the firemen round up some of the ponies and swim them over to the mainland to prevent overcrowding. The Annual Pony Penning and Auction is held on the last Wednesday and Thursday of July each year, where some foals and yearlings are sold to benefit the town’s ambulance and fire services.
If you want to try your luck at spotting the wild ponies, you need to decide whether you want to visit the Assateague National Seashore in Maryland, or the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia, because the two entrances are about an hour drive apart and you can’t cross the border within Assateague Island. Since we were all about satisfying our Misty dream, we made our way south to the charming town of Chincoteague.
The first stop for any visit should be the Bateman Educational and Information Center at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge to pick up a park map and learn about the ecology of the area. Whether by bike, car or foot, as you make your way through the park, you may spot a few small pony herds in the distance so be sure to bring your binoculars. But as you are pony searching, don’t forget to stop and take a look around at the natural beauty contained in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.
The flat Woodland Trail will take you on a 1.6 mile loop through the woods, with a spur off to a viewing platform over the marsh where you just may spy a few ponies. If you aren’t up for walking, you can also drive the 3.2 mile wildlife loop from 3pm to dusk or take one of the wildlife bus tours, which run from April through November. While you are there, you might want to stop at the Assateague Lighthouse, where, for $5 for adults and $3 for children you can climb to the top for panoramic views of the island.
Fulfilling Our Quest
While the glimpses of ponies we saw at the refuge were exciting, we had come to Chincoteague wanting more – and determined to find it. To make this dream come true, we signed up for one of Captain Dan’s “Guaranteed Pony Tours.”
As a Chincoteague native, “Captain Dan” knows the ins and outs of the island and uses his 25’ pontoon boat to get you up close and personal with the ponies – while still being respectful of their independence. Even though he makes this trip multiple times a day from April through November, what impressed me so much about Captain Dan was his love for the ponies.
He knows where the different herds like to hang out and can recognize most of the stallions by sight from their markings and colorings. He’ll tell you how many mares are in each herd and who recently gave birth to foals. You can even look through his binder of photographs like a snorkeler with a fish identifier card to see if you can spot some of the herd’s more famous members.
Over the two and a half hours we spent on the boat, we observed four or five small herds, getting within a few feet of one group and happily watching a mother and her new foal in another. Since each boat is small, holding only six passengers, we didn’t have to fight for a spot at the rail to see the ponies or take some pictures like you might on a whale watch or dolphin cruise. It was well worth the $40 per adult and $35 per child fee to be able to satisfy our quest and fulfill this childhood dream.
[Insider Tip: If you go, be prepared to get a little wet on the ride out to see the ponies. Wear clothes that dry quickly or pack some dry clothes to change into when you return. Also don’t forget your sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat.]
Not only were we able to see so many of Misty’s relatives, but we also got to visit with Misty herself – located downtown right near Captain Dan’s boat dock.
If you go:
To reserve a boat tour with Captain Dan, call 757-894-0103. Children must be five years of age or older.
This is a guest post by Tamara Gruber. Tamara is passionate about exploring the world with her husband and tween daughter and writes a family travel blog at We3Travel.com to provide families with tips, destination information, and inspiration to help make family vacation planning easier.