I recently went on a quick weekend trip to the Eastern Shore of Virginia. I was looking for a convenient getaway within driving distance of New Jersey, and Chincoteague Island made the list.
It’s got water, good seafood, wild ponies, and – of course – some great running routes.
Things to Know About Chincoteague and Assateague Island, Virginia
The Eastern Shore of Virginia is a little strip of land jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean, south of Delaware and Maryland. When I first looked at it on a map, I actually thought it was Maryland. The main peninsula sits between the Chesapeake Island on the west and the Atlantic Ocean on the east.
Chincoteague Island and Assateague Island are two small islands off the east coast of the peninsula, sandwiched between Chincoteague Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. The area is known for a type of wild horse – the Chincoteague Pony.
Chincoteague Island is populated, and it resembles any typical shore town. There’s a historic downtown with some newer buildings, and an older section that reminds me of an old Jersey shore town. There’s a museum, some nifty shops, a few old dives, and a few more upscale restaurants.
Assateague Island is a giant park and wildlife refuge. You can drive through parts of it, or you can access the trails by bike or foot. This is where the ponies actually live, and there are a few places you can go to try and get a glimpse of them. There’s also a beach on the Atlantic side.
Where We Stayed in Chincoteague
Like any shore town, you’ll find a ton of places to stay. We visited in late March – before the season really picks up – and the town was still a bit on the empty side. But I’m sure that during peak summer season, the place is packed.
We stayed at the Fairfield Inn and Suites. It’s on the western side of the island, right on the bay. Our room had a balcony overlooking the pool, the dock, and the bay. There’s free breakfast in the morning, coffee in the lobby, and a decent restaurant right next door. There’s also a small fitness room with a treadmill, if the weather isn’t good.
I’m a Marriott fan, and you can read more here about using credit card points to travel to running destinations. But, if you’re not tied to Marriott there are plenty of hotels in the area.
The one downside to the Fairfield Inn and Suites is that it’s downtown – and that means a bit further from the park on Assateague Island. From the hotel, it was about two miles to the marshy area on the approach to the park. The Best Western is as close as you can get to the park – your front doorstep would basically be the marsh. Although you’d still be about a mile from the entrance to the park itself.
Running to the Park on Assateague Island
There are a few different places to run on Assateague Island. You could drive in and park on the island, which requires payment of a daily fee, or you could run in on foot, which is free.
I chose to run in. From my hotel, I ran about two miles along the bay and through downtown before I reached the edge of the park. From there, it was a mile across the marshland and the channel to get to the actual entrance of the park. It was a total of 3 miles to the Wildlife Loop Trail Parking Lot – which is a great starting point.
From the parking lot, I took the Wildlife Loop Trail to the west. This is about a three mile loop, if you just want to run there and head back. It circles around Snow Goose Pool, and you’ll likely see some birds around. The ponies aren’t in this area, though.
Next, I saw a sign for the Black Duck Trail, and I took that west. It goes through a wooded area and connects to the main road near the South Pony Corral. Turning left at the road, I saw the pony corral come up on my right. The first day, I headed back at that point.
But the next morning, I took the same route and continued on to the Woodland Trail. It’s about a two mile loop, with a few openings where you can see out into the pony territory. I got lucky, and one was hanging out right by the fence! Otherwise, it’s kind of hit or miss whether you’ll see some ponies up close.
On the way back, I took the main road. It runs along the pony enclosure on your left, so you’ll get another good view across the area.
Shortly before you get to the exit, I saw a sign for the Lighthouse Trail. I didn’t run up it – but I came back later in the day with my wife and we took a short hike up to the Lighthouse. It’s just a quick out and back, maybe a quarter mile. It’s worth it if you’re Lighthouses – but otherwise it’s too short to bother with for a run.
Round trip, the shorter route was around 9 miles and the longer route ended up being 11. If you’re looking for a shorter run, I’d suggest driving to the parking lot and heading out from there.
What Else is On Assateague Island?
We drove in to explore the island a bit more. There’s a visitors center near Assateague Beach, at the southern tip of the island. It’s got some little plaques with historical and environmental information, and the beach is nice if you want a place to relax.
You can also run along the beach either north or south for a bit. If you go from the entrance of the park to the beach, you can string together a pretty good long run in the park.
If you head east and north off the Wildlife Loop, you’ll get to the North Pony Corral. There’s a larger group of ponies on the northern end of the island here, but it’s a bit of a hike. If you really want to see the ponies, and you didn’t have luck down south, you’re supposed to have a better chance here. But just be ready to go for a nice long run as you explore.
I was happy to find that the park had decent facilities. There were two bathrooms at the parking lot by the Wildlife Loop and another one by the South Pony Corral. They’re kind of like permanent porta-johns – but decently maintained.
Note that most of the trails in the park are paved – so no need to bring your trail shoes. The Lighthouse Trail is packed dirt, but that’s about the only unpaved area that I encountered besides the beach.
Last Thoughts on Chincoteague Island
We really enjoyed our trip. I got to go running through the park, my wife got to enjoy a brief hike through nature, and we got to see some wildlife.
But we also got to eat some great seafood. The first night, we went to the Ropewalk Restaurant which is directly next to the hotel. It was pretty good – looked a bit like a casual chain, but it was on the pricey side. The next night, we walked down the street to Bill’s Prime Seafood and Steaks. It was also on the pricey side, but it had more of an upscale vibe. Regardless, we ate well both nights and enjoyed ourselves.
I think Chincoteague will be on our list of places to visit again in the future.