If you are looking for a remote getaway in the southeast Cumberland Island is the place to go. Cumberland Island National Seashore is Georgia’s largest barrier island located the most southeastern reaches of Georgia. With the St. Mary’s River and Florida to the south and the Atlantic Ocean to the east Cumberland Island National Seashore is home to pristine beaches, rich history and, if you are lucky, wild horses!
From the park headquarters in the town of St. Mary’s Cumberland Island is only accessible by a 45 minute ferry ride up the St. Mary’s and Cumberland Sound (It is a good idea to reserve a ferry tickets and campgrounds ahead of schedule. Park rangers informed us that the park is normally packed most of the year). During our visit the weather was not ideal with flash floods, gale force wind warnings and a tornado watch but I like to see the glass half full and was happy to have the island practically to ourselves.
The ferry makes two stops, first at the Ice House museum for day visitors and the Sea Camp ranger station for all campers and backpackers. Sea Camp is the main campground and has the luxuries of potable water, bathrooms and showers a short walk from the docks. Carts are available for transporting gear. If you would like a more remote setting there are four backcountry campsites at Stafford Beach (3 miles from Sea Camp docks) offering bathrooms, potable water and campfire rings.
Cumberland Island’s history stretches well before Europeans discovered the Americas with the Timucaun people who left behind middens (piles of shells). During the 1500s the Spanish explored the area and built San Pedro de Mocama mission until the British took control of the Island in the 1700s and built defensive positions on the island. In late 1783 Revolutionary War hero Nathanial Greene purchased the land harvesting live oaks for building ships such as the USS Constitution. After his death his wife remarried and built a extensive four story mansion and called it Dungeness after a previous British hunting camp that had been in the area.
During the war of 1812 the British occupied the island and used Dungeness as their headquarters. In an attempt to weaken the United States the British offered to free and relocate enslaved residents of the island. Once landing on the island in January 1815 Admiral George Cockburn declared the island “occupied territory” and said that any enslaved Africans on the island were free. Slaves seeking freedom flocked to the island to join the British forces on Cumberland Island overwhelming available food, water and clothing supplies. News of the Treaty of Ghent signed December, 24th 1814 did not make it to the Cumberland Island until February due to the time it took for the news to cross the Atlantic. Cockburn loaded up his men and newly freed slaves and sailed for Trinidad where their decedents still live to this day.
In the 1880’s Thomas Carnegie began building on the Dungeness foundations as a winter retreat. The 59 room house was designed after a Scottish castle and occupied by the Carnegie family until the Great Depression. Today you can see the remains of this once great mansion which was devastated by a fire in the 1950s. Plum Orchard mansion to near the center of the Island was also owned by the Carnegie family and is open to the public on special days throughout the year.
Our plan was to backpack into the backcountry to Hickory Hill- just over 5 miles – but with the driving wind and rain we settled for camping at the “developed” Sea Camp. Now I must admit I am not one for camping in developed campgrounds but thanks to the weather we had a majority of the campground to ourselves giving us the backcountry feel with bathrooms easily accessible.
Once we set up camp we decided to try to make a fire. They had firewood for sale on the ferry but I wanted a challenge. The mission was to make a fire with wood that had been soaked with three days of wind and rain with just flint and steel. With a little help from our stash of dry toilet paper, palmetto “fur” and a dead wax myrtle (which drys fast and catches fire easily due to oils in the wood) we were able to start a nice warm fire to dry out more wood and warn up.
After we warmed up we took a hike through the thick maritime forest out to the beach. The island is inhabited by many animals but the deer and armadillos were the only animals who braved the elements. Once out on the beach we were blown around by the strong winds; they created large waves and thick mats of foam and washed sea life onto the beach.
Cumberland Island National Seashore is a great destination offering a remote island retreat. The quiet Maritime forests give you a chance to catch your breath and listen to the songs of the birds that fill the maritime forest. The giant moss covered live oak trees and palmettos offer a glimpse into the past and you can start to imagine what the world must have looked like when the early explorers first set foot in the Americas. While the weather wasn’t the best and the wild horses were elusive we had a wonderful time on Cumberland Island National Seashore. If you are in the area be sure to plan a day or more on this beautiful island!