Assateague Island Hiking Trails

by Jim Rapp

Jim Rapp explores Assateague Island, and the wonderful experiences for those wishing to take a short hike through the dunes, marsh and forest, or a multi-day backcountry hike on the beach.

Assateague Island, near Berlin, Maryland, is one of Delmarva's most visited and well-loved parks. The island is famous for its' white sand beaches and wild horses, but it also offers wonderful experiences for those wishing to take a short hike through the dunes, marsh and forest, or a multi-day backcountry hike on the beach.

There are three trails at Assateague Island National Seashore that immerse you in the barrier island's distinct habitat types. Each trail is just 1/2-mile long, with wide, flat paths and boardwalks for the novice hiker or families with little kids. Most trails are accessible for wheelchairs and strollers, too.

Located at the end of Bayberry Drive, about three miles south of the Verrazano Bridge, you'll discover the Life of the Dunes Trail. The rugged dune lands on Assateague are reminiscent of desert habitat in the American southwest, and the plants and animals that live here must be able to tolerate the shifting sands and salt winds blowing from the Atlantic. This is a tough place to call home, but the plants and animals of the dunes have special adaptations to help them survive.

American beachgrass and beach heather are two plants that help form the foundation for this harsh barrier island ecosystem. The network of underground roots and stems helps to stabilize the sand, and the above-ground parts of the plants trap more sand that builds up the dune.

Behind the protective dunes, trees and shrubs find shelter that enables them to take root and grow in the sandy soil. Trees that may grow more than 100 feet tall in other habitats are naturally pruned by the salt spray from the ocean. Black Cherries and Southern Red Oaks in the dunes appear as shorter, twisted versions of their forest relatives. Their low-spreading branches give cover for secretive dune birds and mammals, and their fruits and acorns provide food.

Dunes transition to forest through the scrubby thicket, where you'll find Bayberry, Greenbriar, and wild Muscadine grape. These plants also provide shelter and food for the animals of the dunes. During the autumn, thousands of Tree Swallows can be seen swarming over Assateague as they fatten up on the berries of dune plants to fuel up for their southern migration. Other birds live here year-round, including the Eastern Towhee, Brown Thrasher and Gray Catbird.

About a mile north of the dune trail back up Bayberry Drive, you'll find the Life of the Forest Trail. The plants and animals that live here are buffered a bit from the salty ocean winds, but the effects can still be seen. The maritime forest can be rare habitat on barrier islands, as the trees can only survive in wide areas of high ground between the ocean and the bay.

Loblolly Pines are the dominant tree in the maritime forest, and they grow straighter and taller than their cousins closer to the coast. Sweet gums, Red Maples and oaks are mixed in, and help shade the forest floor where shrubs and vines grow. Forest animals feed on the fruits produced by Highbush Blueberry and Serviceberry. Poison Ivy also grows here, and its berries are eaten by several species of birds.

Standing trees that are dead or decayed are incredibly important for wildlife habitat on Assateague. Woodpeckers feed on insects living in the dead wood and peeling bark, and excavate nest cavities in the rotting wood. Eastern Screech Owls may take over an abandoned woodpecker nest to raise their young, and other animals use these tree cavities to hide and sleep.

Towards the bay, the slight elevation required by the forest drops and transitions into open marshland. Trees disappear, and are replaced by Marsh Elder, Groundsel Tree, Black Needlerush, and Saltmeadow Cordgrass.

Assateague's Life of the Marsh Trail is located just past the Ranger Station as you enter the fee-based area of the park, off the south side of Bayside Drive. This trail is mostly a beautifully-maintained boardwalk, with wonderful elevated views of the marsh and Sinepuxent Bay.

Salt marshes are one of the most valuable and productive of all habitats. They support a wide variety of wildlife, including the birds, mammals, crustaceans, mollusks that can be found feeding in the high marsh and water's edge. The meandering guts and channels of the marsh are nurseries for many brackish and salt water fish. Decaying plant material from the marsh is a major component of the natural nutrients that flow into our coastal bays and Atlantic Ocean.

Saltmarsh cordgrass, also known as Spartina alterniflora, is the dominant grass growing in Assateague's marshes. It forms vast open meadows between the guts and channels. Other species of marsh grass can be found in the higher areas of the marsh.

Wading birds abound here in the spring and summer months. Several species of heron, egret and ibis invade Assateague's marshes during their breeding and nesting seasons to feed on the bountiful stocks of minnows, crustaceans and other invertebrates.

The white Snowy Egret can often be seen in the summer stirring up the mud with its bright yellow feet to disturb aquatic creatures, which it quickly grabs with its spear-shaped bill. The Willet is a large shorebird that nests in the marsh grass. Willets appear as a dull, grayish-brown bird when sitting, but they display a bold black-and-white wing pattern in flight.

For the expert backcountry hiker, Assateague also has 37 miles of Atlantic beach to explore. Long-distance hikers should be prepared for cold winds in the winter and spring. Even on a sunny, 70-degrees Fahrenheit day on the mainland in the spring, temperatures by the ocean can still dip into the 50s or lower due to winds blowing over the cold ocean water.

Distance hiking on Assateague in the summer presents different challenges, such as intense heat and humidity, biting insects, and sudden storms.

Smart hikers plan carefully for their Assateague beach hikes. Sunglasses, hats, sunscreen, and water are needed for long walks in any season. In the summer, a lightweight long sleeve shirt and insect repellent will help keep you comfortable.

Check the weather forecast before a long hike to avoid thunderstorms that can develop quickly along the coast. Make sure you know what time the sun sets to avoid getting stuck after dark with miles to go back to your car or campsite.

You should check with the park to know which areas of the island may be closed due to nesting birds, such as the federally endangered Piping Plover.

Remember that beach hiking is much more difficult than hiking on a hard surface. Sand is soft and uneven, and will wear you out quicker than a hike on a compacted trail. Visual distances over sand can be deceiving, and there are few landmarks you can use to estimate your mileage.

If you're prepared to hike over sand and camp on Assateague, there are two oceanside and four bayside backcountry camping sites available on a first-come, first-served basis for hikers and paddlers. Check with the park service before you plan a backcountry camping trip.

You don't need to be a long-distance hiker to appreciate a good walk on a barrier island. For most of us, the 1/2-mile trails through Assateague's dunes, forests and marshes will satisfy our need to spend time outside exploring one of Delmarva's favorite parks.

Visit this website for more information about Assateague's hiking trails.