I've written before about the national forests, Bureau of Land Management areas, and Corp of Engineers campgrounds where you can stay and use your Federal Senior Pass. In doing so, I have overlooked one more division of the Department of the Interior – national seashores and lakeshores – some of which also provide camping opportunities. Here's my experience with Assateague National Seashore camping.
Assateague Island is on the Atlantic coast just south of Ocean City, Maryland on the DelMarVa peninsula forming the eastern side of Chesapeake Bay. Like its better-known sister island, Chincoteague, it's home to herds of feral ponies put there by early settlers as a tax dodge – the first tax assessments were based on the extent of your livestock holdings, so any animals you could hide would save you money on your tax bill. When the tax collector showed up, into the boats went the ponies to cool their heels out on the island, where they could forage for themselves, be safe from predators, and be reasonably easy to round up when it was time to go find them again. However, over time inventory control problems developed, and the ponies established their own herd out on the islands.
The Assateague Island National Seashore is readily accessible and fairly close to the I-95 corridor. We stopped by in the fall of 2010 on our way down from Maine during our first year of fulltiming, and spent two weeks. Campsites are just over a low dune from the beach itself, so you're right on the water, and rates were very reasonable – $8 a night with our Federal Senior Pass. In true Federal fashion, there are no hookups – you get a paved area to park on, a picnic table, and a fire ring. There's water and a dump in the park, and groceries and a laundromat are available in nearby towns. Our kind of camping.
Despite the proximity to populated areas, we had the place to ourselves during the week in mid-October, and the weekend entertainment would show up in the form of rookie campers every Friday night. The ponies are as wild as the park staff can make them – they don't want you to give the ponies access to fresh water, for instance. This is not a petting zoo.
Despite strenuous efforts by the park staff, people feed the ponies often enough for the ponies to know people mean food, so there are misunderstandings and people get bitten when they interact with the ponies in ways the ponies don't like, which is pretty much anything except forking over the edibles expeditiously. They will go right into your vehicle and cooler unless you take precautions. One weekend camper across the road from us put all their food out on the picnic table, and the ponies much appreciated the buffet. The camper's dog, which had been barking at everything non-stop since they got there, decided it would be a good time to cower under the picnic table and be quiet. Smart dog.
Assateague is a beautiful place to spend the waning days of the camping season, and I imagine it would be nice in the spring as well. I'm not much for mid-summer beach camping myself, but I suspect it's packed here during the peak of the summer. During our October stay, the mornings and evenings were cool, and we'd get days when it would struggle to get up to 65 as the fall weather made its way into the area. But there's nothing like the solitude of the beach at dawn and the sounds and smells of the ocean to put your mind at ease.