What’s the Difference between Chincoteague Island and Assateague Island?
Most people in the Mid-Atlantic region know of Assateague Island, but they are often confused by its sister island Chincoteague. The two islands sit right next to each other in Virginia’s coastal waters and many people believe that they are one and the same.
Chincoteague is a barrier island, formed thousands of years ago by sand deposits. The island is approximately seventeen miles long and three to seven miles wide, with an average elevation of about fifteen feet above sea level. It lies within Accomack County on Virginia state’s Eastern Shore. Chincoteague was once a thriving lumber and farming community, but today it is mostly known for its wildlife refuge and proximity to Assateague Island.
Chincoteague’s landmass was once part of the mainland, but ocean currents have eroded the island until it became what we know today. Chincoteague Bay separates Chincoteague from Assateague to the south.
Assateague, on the other hand, is a barrier-spit island located just off of Maryland’s coast in Worcester County. The island is 40 miles long and runs from Virginia to Maryland. Assateague sits in a strategic location in the Atlantic Ocean, which has made it a hot spot for pirates throughout history. During the colonial days, John Smith (of Pocahontas fame) was captured by pirates in 1610 and taken to Assateague Island.
Assateague is the more developed of the two islands. There are resorts, tourist attractions, shops, and restaurants on this island. The local economy is largely based on tourism because Assateague lies within Maryland’s borders. Although the island is only accessible by car or ferry, its location on the Atlantic makes it very popular for visitors and residents alike.
Assateague is approximately seven miles long and a half-mile wide at its widest point. It has an average elevation of about 37 feet above sea level. The highest elevation on the island – Salt Lick Hill – is about 100 feet above sea level. And, of course, Assateague’s landmass once sat on the ocean floor until ocean currents joined it with Chincoteague over 10,000 years ago.
The two islands are actually part of a much larger system of barrier islands that stretches from Cape Cod to Florida. The best thing about barrier islands is that they are relatively undeveloped, which makes Assateague and Chincoteague popular tourist destinations.
Chincoteague Island has long been known to be a haven for wildlife. It was once the winter home for millions of wildfowl. Today, thousands of tourists visit during the annual Pony Swim in July to see the wild ponies swim from Assateague Island to Chincoteague.
Chincoteague remains a great place for hunting, fishing, boating, kayaking, and birding. The island’s wildlife refuge provides habitat to shorebirds and rare species like the Delmarva fox squirrel. White-tailed deer are abundant on Chincoteague, as are wild turkey and fox.
The Pony Swim is actually the longest-running event on the island. It draws crowds of over 50,000 people to Chincoteague each year for one of America’s great celebrations of wildlife and friendship between man and horse.
Chincoteague offers visitors a taste of what life was like in a small town on the Chesapeake Bay. The island hosts several festivals and special events throughout the year, including Mardi Gras and Crab Festivals.
As we can see, both islands offer great opportunities for outdoor recreation and relaxation. However, Assateague is much busier than Chincoteague. Visitors should expect to find a variety of accommodations on Assateague – from historic bed and breakfasts to modern resorts. Chincoteague is a great place for outdoor adventures – it’s just not as developed as its neighbor.
If you’re more interested in quiet, natural experiences, then the undeveloped Chincoteague is likely your best choice. If you’ve got the time and money to spend on things like resorts and amusement parks, then Assateague is probably your best bet.