It’s road trip time! J and I took a ride across the Bay Bridge and over to Worcester County. I’ve always wanted to visit Assateague Island but never wanted to deal with the humidity and the Ocean City crowds. My solution? Go to the beach in January! It might not be everyone’s cup of tea but I absolutely loved being at the beach in the winter. It felt like we had the whole world to ourselves and we saw the wild horses almost as soon as we parked! It was a magical day and I highly recommend checking out your favorite summer haunts in the off season!
THE HIKE: Assateague Island National Seashore – Beach hiking & Short trails
Elevation Gain: Flat
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
Trail use: Hiking, Biking, NO PETS
Parking: Large lots throughout park, $25 entrance fee, valid for 7 days
Assateague Island National Seashore is located in Worcester County along the Atlantic Ocean. It’s only a few miles away from its much more popular neighbor Ocean City. The island is separated into two sections, the state park and the national park. The state park offers 2 miles of beaches and campsites and is open for a number of activities including swimming, camping, biking and fishing. The National Park side of the Island is 35 miles of preserved beach and salt marsh habitat spanning Maryland and into Virginia. The Maryland side (apart from the state park) is managed by the National Park Service and the US Fish & Wildlife Service cares for the Virginia end (which is called Chincoteague)
The National Park is open all year round from about 7am to sunset. Be aware that there is no road connecting the Maryland and Virginia districts of the island so if you wish to visit both, it’s about an hour drive from one visitor center to the other. On our visit we opted to explore the National Park. The entrance fee is usually $25 per vehicle (which is valid for 7 days and includes both the MD and VA sections) but we used our America the Beautiful NPS pass to get in for free. I know I’ve said this before, but definitely invest in this pass if you think you’ll be going to more than one park in a year. It covers so much more than I realized and we’ve already used it for Shenandoah, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Harper’s Ferry, Great Falls, and now Assateague! It’s only $80 for the whole year. Okay end of my pitch.
When you first get to Assateague, stop in at the Visitor Center before crossing over the bridge. We were able to get maps, talk to a ranger, and explore some museum displays. It was a great way to prepare us for what to expect on the island. It’s also a great place to use the restroom; there’s only vault toilets on the island! Also you can park at the visitor center and walk over to the park but this would add a few miles to your day and you’d be better off saving your energy.
Once we crossed over and showed our pass, we pulled into the first beach parking lot. There was rain forecasted for the day and I wanted to get as much done as we could before the chilly day turned into a wet chilly day. We really lucked out because as soon as we parked, we noticed about five horses hanging out in the brush by the beach! I couldn’t believe that we were able to see the horses at all let alone first thing in the morning! They were so beautiful but without a fancy camera lens, we weren’t able to get close enough to take good pictures. But trust me, we saw them!
Walking on the beach was probably my favorite part of the day. I’ve never seen such a long stretch of sand with no other people anywhere in sight. It really was magical. We did about a 2 mile out and back along the water before it started raining. If you do go in the winter, make sure to bundle up! It was about 40F that day but the wind on the beach made it feel SO much colder. We had on leggings under our hiking pants, sweatshirts, and big winter coats.
After walking on the beach, I wanted to do some of the small trails along the island. There are three loops all focused on different habitats found on Assateague. We started at the furthest point and worked our way back. Also a side note: there is an Over Sand Vehicle (OSV) area which can be accessed by permit through the NPS. We didn’t pursue this but it sounds really interesting! So we started our hiking at the Life of the Dunes trail which is a short 0.8 mile loop that highlights the dune habitats. It’s full of interpretative signs, viewpoints, and even a walk along the asphalt road from the 1950’s when developers tried to inhabit Assateague. This trail was probably my favorite of the day. Although it was short, it was a completely different world from the hikes we usually do and I loved seeing the different plants and trees. Also walking on the sand is quite the workout!
Next we did the 0.5 mile Life of the Forest trail which mostly followed a raised boardwalk. The views along this walk were incredible. It looks out over the Sinepuxent Bay and we spent so much time just watching birds swoop around. Next, we explored the Life of the Marshes trails which was also a 0.5 mile raised boardwalk. This was probably the best spot for watching birds and we even saw some horses in the distance. Part of the boardwalk leads right onto a small beach which was so peaceful and had some of the clearest water I’ve ever seen. We got a lot of walking in around Assateague but unfortunately by this time even our winter coats were soaked through so we needed to call it a day.
A couple things to note about visiting Assateague: it’s very windy so it will feel colder than on the mainland. The trees are fairly short so there’s no shade on sunny days. In warmer months, the heat and humidity bring out a lot of mosquitoes and biting insects. Finally, make sure to pack water and snacks and don’t leave food out. We kept everything in our car and threw our trash away at the visitor center. Remember to always Leave No Trace!
THE BEER: Sinepuxent Brewery Company
Address: 8816 Stephen Decatur Hwy, Berlin, MD 21811
Distance from Trail Head: 4.4 miles, 7 mins
Food?: Snacks, seasonal juice & smoothie bowls
H&H Rating: 4/5
THE BEER: Burley Oak Brewery Company
Address: 10016 Old Ocean City Blvd, Berlin, MD 21811
Distance from Trail Head: 8.5 miles, 14 mins
Food?: Seasonal Taco Truck
H&H Rating: 5/5
The best part about doing an overnight trip? I feel no guilt in trying out two breweries for one hike! Our first stop was at Sinepuxent Brewing Company which boasts a sprawling outdoor venue as well as an indoor taproom. Honestly I wish it hadn’t been snowing at this point because the outdoor area looked so nice! There were fire pits, picnic tables, games, and animals. This place must be hopping during the summer! Thankfully we got there when we did because the owner wasn’t sure about opening up since the weather was looking grim. Luckily for us we were able to snag a small table and try pretty much everything on tap. Everything was pretty good but I think J’s favorite thing was the popcorn machine. I’ve never met someone who loves popcorn as much as him! My fav brew here was the IPA, it was a solid, no frills kinda ale which really hit the spot! Also I really love their logo. It’s an old seaman with a beard made of hops, so original!
Later on that evening, we also checked out Burley Oak Brewing Company in Berlin. I was super excited to go here because I had been hearing a lot of buzz about them in the Maryland craft beer world. Their space was rustic and cozy, also with a large outdoor space. It had started snowing so we opted to stay inside. Guys, this place makes so much beer! I honestly had a hard time choosing. Which of course means we have to try as much as we can. My favorites were the Aboriginal Gangster IPA which had the sweetness of a hazy without the thickness, and the Rude Boy which had a delightfully sweet malty flavor. All in all, this was a bucket list trip and I’m so glad we got to check out an incredible hike and have some good brews along the way! And if you’re looking to stay the night during the off season, I highly recommend the Atlantic Hotel. Our room had a claw foot tub!
Burley Oak Brewing
- Bunker-C – Porter – 6.6%
- Aboriginal Gangster – IPA – 6.6%
- Rude Boy – Imperial Red Ale – 8.2%
- Pear Gingerbread J.R.E.A.M – Sour Ale – 4.8%
Sinepuxent Brewing Company
- Hefeweizen – Wheat Beer – 5%
- IPA – 6%
- Double IPA – 8.5%
- Stout – 8%
- Pilsner Sin Brew – 4.8%
SUM UP: The beach isn’t just for summer! Assateague Island is located in Eastern Maryland and is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and Sinepuxent Bay. It offers some of the most unique landscape in the state and is very well known for the wild horse herds that roam freely around. If going in the winter, dress warmly and be prepared to hike on sandy paths. After you’ve had your fill of wildlife, be sure to check out Sinepuxtent or Burley Oak breweries (or both)! Definitely consider staying the night in historic Berlin, known for its small town charm and plethora of antique stores.