This post may contain affiliate links.

Backpacking the Dunes of Assateague By Michael Martin (U-Turn)

Assateague’s beaches offer backpackers an experience unique in the Mid-Atlantic
Assateague’s beaches offer backpackers an experience unique in the Mid-Atlantic

All the time, we hikers and backpackers look the ordinary little dangers of the outdoors in the face. And we laugh.

Blisters, sunburn, and chafing; scrapes, cuts, and abrasions; poison ivy, stinging nettle, and assorted brambles; hornets, ants, and mosquitoes—they are the usual little discomforts that accompany the delights of hitting the trail. But, one March weekend, I stood around a campfire along the barrier island of Assateague, and I felt the ocean slowly creeping around my toes. My friends and I exchanged uneasy glances. We realized that, though the ocean tide was retreating, the bay side was rising. (Landlubbers all, we were unaware of how the narrow inlets between the bay and the Atlantic would affect the tides.) This was a particular problem since we were pitched, oh, a scant few millimeters above the waterline. We began to entertain visions of floating off into the Atlantic on rafts stitched together from Thermarests and Expeds.

Most know Assateague as beautiful place to visit the beach for the day; car-camp at the developed sites; or watch the ponies frolic in the dunes. For a backpacker in the right frame of mind, however, the long barrier island offers a 28-mile point-to-point route from the park visitor center at Assateague to Toms Cove, Virginia. Between these two points, you’ll encounter some of the most pristine and isolated beach you may ever see and overnight at your choice of a number of glorious backcountry campsites on the Maryland-side of the state line.

Backpacking this beach turns many of our expectations on their heads, formed as they are by our more ordinary surroundings of forest, mountain, and stream. There is no elevation gain for the entire journey, and the navigation is straightforward enough. (Get to the beach. Turn right. Walk 28 miles. Keep surf on your left.) But walking on the beach isn’t precisely easy. An oft-reported aphorism is that walking 5 miles on Assateague is equivalent to walking 10-12 miles in the mountains. I don’t know that I would quite agree, but there are definitely tricks to this rather long walk on the beach. It helps to be light. And, while hiking with a receding tide is glorious, as the retreating water leaves nice firm sand in its wake, a rising tide will drive you ever farther back into the soft dunes and force you to detour around the newly formed inlets.

A rising tide creates a wet labyrinth for hikers to plot their course around
A rising tide creates a wet labyrinth for hikers to plot their course around

But, oh the rewards! The surf will pound relentlessly on one side, while the dunes pass you by on the other. The miles take on a quality that is mesmerizing, almost as if you’re walking in a dream. Though the ponies were scarce on my trip—we spotted a few at the park gate, but that was all—there is a variety of wildlife in this distinct ecosystem that will surprise even the most experienced backpackers. In the right season, I am told that one can even find bio-luminescent critters in the surf. And then there is the beach-combing, which offers fascinating diversions.

When the sun nears the horizon, Assateague gives you a choice between ocean-side campsites, tucked away in the dunes, or several more on the bay, which are often reached by kayakers. In our case, we turned off at Pope Bay, and set up a comfortable camp in plenty of time to watch the sun set over the water.

Around the campfire that night, we chuckled uneasily about the rising waters and a few people moved their shelters away from the encroaching shoreline, but we guessed we’d be okay. What could possibly go wrong? A few trail names were declined, emphatically, while others were given and accepted. It turns out that one of the members of our party, whose vehicle was parked in Virginia, had left her keys in Maryland. Silence fell as we contemplated what that meant for our return journey. Our friend will forever more be known as Shuttle.

The border between Maryland and Virginia. Obviously, we couldn’t complain about the weather.
The border between Maryland and Virginia. Obviously, we couldn’t complain about the weather.

When dawn came, no one had floated off, so we struck camp and walked down the beach in the early morning light. Before the sun had climbed too high into the sky, we reached the border between states, which is marked by a barbed wire fence.

If you thought the beaches in Maryland were lovely and isolated, those that stretch along the remaining miles into Toms Cove will leave you breathless. With no ATVs, no camping, no mile posts, and no easy access, they are almost as untouched as any beach you will find on the East Coast. For hours, you’ll walk, as if spell bound, through this landscape. The only thing to break the spell of your splendid seclusion (and signal the end of your journey) will be the first hiker headed north from the visitors center.

Backpackers enjoying the final stretch of sun and surf as they near Toms Cove, Virginia.
Backpackers enjoying the final stretch of sun and surf as they near Toms Cove, Virginia.

For full details of this hike and others in the Mid-Atlantic, check out my book AMC’s Best Backpacking in the Mid-Atlantic: A Guide to 30 of the Best Multiday Trips from New York to Virginia.

Michael Martin
Michael Martin

About Michael Martin

MICHAEL MARTIN has been backpacking since he was a child. He grew up on the trails in Texas, Arkansas, New Mexico, and Colorado, and points further west; in more recent years, he has piled on several thousand miles (and a few hundred nights) in the Mid-Atlantic. His more exotic trips have taken him to Sweden, France, Nepal, Peru, and Iceland, where he completed a north-south crossing of the island—his most ambitious trip to date. He leads, organizes, and teaches for the DC UL Backpacking group. When he’s not on the trail, or plotting new ways to sneak away and get on the trail, he’s often writing, learning how to make his camera work, or trying to limber up his rusty video-gaming skills. His more permanent residence is Old Town, Alexandria. You can also follow Michael on Facebook.



  1. Michael, Did you encounter the giant horse fly’s that are often found around there? Do you have a time of year that would be better then another? Getting the sand out of all you gear was it a challenge for you?

    • Hey Bob, in March, we saw not a single bug, so yes, I would say this trip is best done before those humid days that usually coincide with the bugs hatching. I don’t recall having any problem getting the sand out of my gear, but we did camp at the Pope Bay site, which isn’t so sandy.

  2. You’ll need to go before May and after Sept to miss th horse flies. They’re wicked bad. I would’ve mentioned Pine Tree Island as a sweet overnight camp spot. Nothing like spending the night on a 2 inch bed of pine needles surrpounded by tall Virginia pines. The ponies visited me on my last trip.

    • Agree, Old School. I timed my trip for March to get the cooler temperatures and to make sure the insects wouldn’t devour us. The bugs can be pretty Biblical. I actually think this makes a pretty awesome shoulder-season (even winter) trip, though it does make swimming less attractive.

  3. Great place to visit– how did you handle firewood? Enough to scavenge or did you carry with you?

  4. This sounds awesome. I’ve never backpacked on the beach, but I may have to try this when cool weather hits. How was the ATV traffic on the MD side in March?

    • Hi there! Sorry to be a bit behindhand in my response, but I was off in Corsica doing the GR20 (a wickedly fun trail)! Just returned Sunday evening … You know, we had zero ATV traffic on the MD side in March … but I understand that can be a problem at other times. Timing is everything, I suppose.

  5. Thanks for te response,Michael. This trip is my list for the fall or spring. I just picked up your Mid-Atlantic backpacking book. There’s a good mix of hikes that were on my radar & trips that Inhadnt heard of

  6. Hi Michael!
    My husband and I just did a short trip on Assateague’s back country last weekend, but we plan to go back during the less buggy season and do the whole stretch down to VA. My main question about doing the 28 miles is what to do about water? Did you guys just carry it all in your packs, or did you have an alternative and less labor intensive method? Would appreciate your advice!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *