Frequently Asked Questions

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is one of the most visited refuges in the United States, providing visitors with outstanding opportunities to learn about and enjoy wildlands and wildlife.  Chincoteague Refuge includes more than 14,000 acres of beach, dunes, marsh, and maritime forest. Established in 1943 to provide habitat for migratory birds (with an emphasis on conserving greater snow geese), the refuge today provides habitat for waterfowl, wading birds, shorebirds, and song birds as well as other species of wildlife and plants. The refuge also provides wildlife-dependent recreational opportunities such as fishing, hunting, wildlife photography and observation, interpretation, and environmental education.


Crabbing is one of the most popular activities at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Crabbing is permitted in designated areas in Swan Cove and along Beach Road, as well as from the boardwalks near the entrance gates.

Blue crabs make a tasty meal, and catching these feisty creatures only requires a few tools: a crab line, a net, and a bucket for your catch. Don’t forget bait! Chicken necks are a good choice – the smellier, the better! When crabbing, remember to observe state limits on size and quantity. Each person is allowed one bushel of hard crabs per day.

Crabbing sizes and limits are enforced by refuge law enforcement. Please visit this site to ensure you know the regulations:


Fishing is an enjoyable activity at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Visitors can choose to fish in designated areas of Toms Cove and Swan Cove or from the beach, outside of life-guarded areas. State regulations must be observed. Visitors may fish after hours by procuring an overnight fishing permit from the Toms Cove Visitor Center.

Anglers age 16 and older must possess a valid Virginia Saltwater Fishing or Potomac River Fisheries Sport Fishing license

Anglers who are exempt from licensing and holders of out of state reciprocal licenses must register (free) with the Virginia Fisherman Identification Program (FIP)

Fishing regulations are enforced by refuge law enforcement. Please visit this site to ensure you know the regulations:


Clamming is an activity that can be enjoyed by all ages at Toms Cove. All you need are a bucket or basket and a clam rake. Look for the tell-tale “key hole” in the mud, or just pick a spot and start digging. There are several different types of clams that can be found in the waters around the refuge, including hard-shell clams (also known as “quahogs”), soft-shell clams, and razor clams, which have a long and narrow shell.

Visitors may take a maximum of 250 clams in one day. There are also multiple commercial and private clam beds in the waters around Chincoteague and Assateague Islands. These areas are prohibited for recreational clamming. Resale of clams taken from the refuge is prohibited.

>Clamming regulations are enforced by refuge law enforcement. Please visit this site to ensure you know the regulations:

These Frequently asked questions about Chincoteague offer insight on some of the attractions around the island. Click here for more information.

Refuge Hours:

Q. What are the refuge hours?
A. The refuge is open 5:00 A.M. to 10:00 P.M. from May through September, 6:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M. from November to April and 6:00 A.M. to 8:00 P.M. the months of April and October.

Q. Where can I go crabbing, clamming, or fishing?
A. The best places to go crabbing are Swans Cove or in Assateague Channel by the bridge (use map when showing where to go). Toms Cove is a place to go to dig for clams. Surf fishing is popular along the beach although it is not permitted in closed and protected swimming areas. White perch can be caught in Swans Cove. Night fishing on the beach is allowed when you obtain a special permit from the NPS at Toms Cove Visitor Center or from a FWS Refuge Law Enforcement officer.


Q. How many ponies are on the island?
A. Approximately 150 on the Virginia end and 140-150 in Maryland.

Q. Why aren’t the ponies allowed to roam freely on the Refuge?
A. The ponies are located in two, fenced compartments on the Refuge to prevent them from adversely impacting sensitive barrier island habitats such as the dunes. Since the ponies and several native species are in competition for the same food source this also helps ease this problem.

Q. How did the ponies get on the island?
A. There are several theories, but the most popular is a legend that a Spanish galleon carrying a cargo of horses sank off Assateague in the 1600’s and some of the horses were able to swim to shore. A more plausible theory is that Assateague, as well as many other barrier islands, served as a natural correl or pen for horses owned by colonial settlers. It is thought that these horses eventually became wild. The Colonists also used the island to graze other livestock to prevent having to pay a livestock tax and to erect fences.

Q. Are all ponies fat, or why do they look so fat?
A. Most foals are born in spring or early summer. Most ponies look fat because they eat mainly salt marsh grasses which cause their bodies to retain water and become bloated. Depending on the time of the year, the mares may be pregnant.

Q. How do ponies survive winters on the refuge?
A. They grow a very, heavy coat for warmth. When necessary, they also move into the wooded areas of the refuge for protection. Access to food is not a significant problem because snow rarely covers the ground for any length of time. Actually, summer is harder on the ponies than winter due to the intense heat, insect pests and a higher level of visitor/vehicle activity.

Q. Why can’t I feed wildlife (deer, ponies, waterfowl, etc.)?
A. When you feed any wild animal you help them to lose their fear of people. When this happens they become more dependent on people and therefore less willing to survive naturally. They also become potentially dangerous as well as a nuisances and traffic hazards to people. This is especially true for the ponies that will bite and kick. Refuge animals are capable of finding plenty of food on their own. They don’t need people food which is unhealthy for them anyway.


Q. When is the best time of the year to see birds on the refuge?
A. It depends on what you want to see. Spring is an excellent time because summer residents return and migration brings large numbers of shorebirds and warblers passing through on their way north. Many shorebirds remain visible through much of Summer, depending on the weather and water levels. Southward moving shorebirds are seen again in early Fall along with Peregrine Falcons. Wintering waterfowl also begin to arrive with peak numbers occurring from November through February.

Q. Are there Bald Eagles on the refuge?
A. There are 2 pair of nesting Bald Eagles on refuge property. They can be seen flying over the refuge.

Visitor Services:

Q. What programs and activities are offered on the refuge?
A. Activities and programs vary from year to year and from season to season for both the FWS and NPS.

Q. Where can I launch or land a boat?
A. There are no boat ramps on the refuge but a small boat or canoe can be carried over and launched in Toms Cove. After unloading, vehicles must be parked in one of the designated spots in one of the parking lots. Boats may be launched or landed at the Town Dock or Memorial Park on Chincoteague. Check with town office for fee and regulations. Boats may also be landed at the designated areas northeast of Assateague Point. Boats may be landed on Fishing Point only when Hook is not closed (September 1 – March 14).

Q. Where can I go camping?

A. There is no camping permitted on the refuge. Camping is available in the town of Chincoteague. The NPS does allow camping in the Maryland end of Assateague .

Q. Is hunting allowed on the refuge?
A. Yes. Deer and waterfowl hunting are allowed every Fall. The Sika Elk on the island have no natural predators, so the population would become too large if we did not have a hunt to control the population. The Sika Elk hunt runs from October to January and includes a bow and a gun hunt. Waterfowl hunting is permitted on Wildcat Marsh, Metompkin Island, Assawoman and Morris Island. Rail hunting is also allowed on the islands of Metompkin and Assawoman. Waterfowl and Rail hunters must obtain written permission from the Refuge Headquarters.


Q. What trails exist on the refuge?
A. The refuge has 15 miles of trails open to the public use. About half are paved while the rest is open to foot traffic only. The Wildlife Loop is a 3 1/4 mile loop around a fresh water impoundment and is a great place to observe wildlife, especially waterfowl and wading birds. It is always open to walkers and bikers but vehicles are only permitted to drive on it from 3:00 P.M. till dusk. The Lighthouse Trail is a 1/4 mile foot path through the woods to the historic Assateague Lighthouse. It is for walking only. The 1 1/2 mile Woodland Trail takes hikers and bikers through a beautiful pine forest and leads to an overlook where you can sometimes see wild ponies. Swans Cove Trail which branches off of Wildlife Loop Trail is about 1 1/2 miles long and takes you to the beach. Black Duck Marsh Trail also branches off of Wildlife Trail. It is about 1 mile long and provides you with access to Woodland Trail. These two trails are only for walking and biking. Besides these trails foot access is permitted on the 7.5 mile service road. Access to the beach from this road is allowed.

Seashore Information:

Q. Where can I drive my four-wheel drive vehicle?
A. Four-Wheel drive vehicles are allowed in a designated area on the southern part of the refuge.

Q. Why is Toms Cove Hook closed?
A. Toms Cove Hook is closed to all public use from March 15 through August 31 to protect the Piping Plover, a threatened species. This threatened species needs undisturbed beach areas to successfully nest. The sand colored shorebirds lay sand colored eggs, which hatch into sand colored chicks thus making them hard to spot even by walkers.

Q. Where can I look for and /or collect seashells?
A. You can go shelling on the beach anywhere that is not posted or closed. The best places to look are the areas north and south of the Lifeguard-protected beach because they are less traveled. Please do not collect more than a one-gallon container full in any one visit.

Q. Why can’t I walk on the dunes?
A. Dunes are the island’s first line of defense against waves and storms. The beach grass helps keep the sand in place, thus maintaining the dune line. Beach grass is very fragile and will die if people step on it. Beach grass also has an intricate underground root system so that even though you may not step on the plant above ground, you can still destroy the grass by crushing its underground roots. To help avoid this problem, please use only the designated crossovers to get on the beach.

Q. When are the high and low tides?
A. There are two high and two low tides a day, a little over six hours apart. Tides run on about a 25 hour cycle, so the times advance by about one hour a day.

Miscellaneous Information:

Q. Can you go up in the lighthouse?
A. The Chincoteague Natural History Association conducts Lighthouse tours March through Thanksgiving weekend. Friday, Saturday, Sunday 9AM to 3PM. Adults $4.00 & Children (2-12 yrs.) $2.00 .Call (757)336-3696 for more information.

Q. Why is the lighthouse located where it is-so far inland and away from the beach?
A. When the lighthouse was built in 1830’s, it was located in the southernmost tip of the island. It was used to warn ships of the dangerous shoals in the area. Since that time, the island has grown southward as a result of the continual movement and deposition of sand, leaving the lighthouse well inland and far from the tip of the island. This deposition of sand is a natural process that occurs on barrier islands.

Q. Are pets allowed on the refuge?
A. No. To avoid problems or disturbance to the wildlife, no pets of any kind are allowed on the refuge.

Q. Can I drive the island from here to the northern end?
A. No. To get to the northern end, you take a one-hour drive back to the mainland.

Q. Why can’t I inline skate, or use my skate board on the refuge?
A. Inline skating and similar activities have not been determined to be compatible with the refuge’s purpose, which is to provide protection and habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife that live on the refuge. The staff is concerned about the possible number of inline skaters which would cause additional disturbance to the wildlife which use these areas close to the public trails. These activities are also considered to be inconsistent with the public use objectives of the refuge, since increased use would create a safety hazard on the already crowed trails and would disturb visitors taking advantage of the wildlife viewing opportunities. Wildlife being the main objective on the refuge, public use activity such as inline skating takes a second position.

Q. Why is the refuge called the Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge instead of Assateague National Wildlife Refuge?
A. A refuge is either named after the town from which it gets its mail or after a specific person or wildlife species.

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