That Sunday in early April felt ambivalent, when the day’s occupants are caught in the changing, swirling tides of Winter and Spring.
Yes, the sunshine radiated. Yes, at times it felt like April’s promise of warm afternoons and wildflowers was approaching. It was also true that the wind off the ocean sliced, and the temperature of the water numbed bare feet.
The boys, their mother, and I made a side trip to Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia. Although the trio of boys wanted to get home after four days at a nearby Airbnb, I wanted them to sense a preview of the summer to come and a wild national parkland right there in the mid-Atlantic.
Okay, maybe I wanted those things for myself. It’s fine to admit it. If the children experience a little joy while parents chase their needs for a time along the ocean, well, that can’t be so bad, right?
The Delmarva Peninsula, a stretch of land between the Chesapeake Bay, the Delaware Bay, and the Atlantic shaped like a curled up raccoon with a long tail (just use your imagination), has more to it than one might imagine. Yes, you have the immensely popular beach towns like Rehobeth and Ocean City, but with a little effort, one can find the charms of small towns like Chincoteague and a little bit of nature’s tranquility among the barrier island known as Assateague.
To get to Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, take Route 175 eastward from Route 13, the main artery in the lower Delmarva. And yes, as you head toward the ocean, that is a NASA facility you pass. Continue on through the town of Chincoteague, remembering to stop later at one of the ice cream and coffee shops afterward, until you reach the entrance of the refuge. Entrance fee is $10 a car, a bargain honestly.
Whach’a going to do there with the kids? Here are the highlights:
Five things to know about Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge
- You have paved hiking and biking trails a plenty, and while enjoying the marshes and forests of the 14,000 acre refuge operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reason enough, be on the look out for the area’s wild ponies. The herd, it’s believed, has been roaming the island since the 18th century. Bring binoculars or a telephoto camera lens because chances are the ponies will be grazing from a distance. But I’ve visited Chincoteague at times when the herd hangs near the roads and trails, and these creatures have a sublime nobility to them. Many theories abound about how they arrived, one including the ancestors swam to shore after a Spanish galleon sunk. Either way, the ponies are the main attraction and worth the time spent searching for their whereabouts in the refuge.
- While the searching for and finding the refuge’s wild ponies is an incredible experience in its own right, one secret to Chincoteague’s appeal is its bird population. Situated right along a main migratory route, if you come in the calm of a weekday evening, you’ll see an aviary show like few others. Egrets, bald eagles, oyster catchers, peregrine falcons, geese, cardinals, herons, and much more can be spotted.
- The red-and-white candy striped Assateague Lighthouse is worth a stop. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m undeniably attracted to lighthouses and their historic purpose, to guide mariners from danger toward safe harbor. This lighthouse is accessible from a short trail through the pines. The structure dates back to 1867, rising 142 feet high, and post-COVID pandemic, the refuge may open it again for tours. And here’s the amazing thing — it’s still operational. Not just oohing and aahing tourists either. According to the refuge, “the U.S. Coast Guard continues to maintain the light as an active aid to navigation.” Take that, GPS.
- Yes, there’s a beach. It’s one of those thin lines of Atlantic sand known as barrier islands, and here, if you want a spot free of boardwalks and Ferris wheels, where you can spread out and enjoy a beach day before someone invented ocean resorts and tourist traps, you’ve found it. The beach is part of the National Park Service’s Assateague Island National Seashore, a popular point for beachcombers during the Summer that also seeks to preserve much of its natural appearance. If you’re used to the jammed pack beaches of Ocean City, Md., or Myrtle Beach, S.C., this will be a different experience, but worthwhile. Unpack your stuff, keep an eye on your kids, and enjoy the freedom that comes from one of nature’s best playgrounds.
- Go at sunset. Yes, the beach is amazing during July afternoons when you need to cool off. But the main event, honestly, is sunset, especially during off season when the temperatures are cool, the crowds are thin, and the biting insects one might find in the marshes are all but gone. The serenity of dusk in Autumn is nothing short of grand, when birds are abundant, the wild ponies are grazing, and the Atlantic softly touches the shoreline.
Dave Pidgeon is the author of Pidgeon’s-Eye View, a blog about living a writing and photography life while also being Dad to three young boys. He lives with his family in Lancaster, Pa., and can be reach at firstname.lastname@example.org.