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Cumberland Island National Seashore

Over the Christmas holiday a few years ago, my wife and I took a mini-vacation, driving north from our home in Fort Lauderdale about 500 miles up the east coast of Florida and Georgia to the city of Savannah. On our return trip, we visited several of Georgia's offshore islands that are collectively referred to as "The Golden Isles." Among our stops included a trip to Cumberland Island, Georgia's largest and southernmost barrier island. Established as a national seashore in 1972 by the National Park Service, Cumberland Island provides a unique opportunity to view the flora and fauna of a natural coastal ecosystem as well as to learn about the coastal heritage of the region. Located about three miles off the mainland, the 18-mile-long island varies from less than one-half mile to three miles wide, with about 80% of the island owned by the National Park Service.

Sea Camp Visitor Center on Cumberland Island
courtesy of William Gardner

Getting to the Park

Unlike the nearby islands of St. Simons and Jekyll, which can both be reached by causeway, Cumberland is only accessible by ferry or by private boat. We booked our passage on the park service ferry several weeks in advance -- something I would recommend highly -- since the park allows a maximum of only 300 people on the island at any one time. By staying overnight in the nearby town of Saint Marys, it took us less than 10 minutes to drive to the park visitor center, which is located along the Saint Marys River. By 8:30am, there were already several dozen people mulling around, hoping to get on a waiting list or preparing to catch the ferry to Cumberland Island. Judging by the large piles of gear and equipment stacked along the dock, it was clear that most people were planning to spend at least a few days camping on the island. Armed with only a backpack and a camera, my wife and I looked conspicuously unequipped, even though we were only planning to spend the day.

The NPS ferry operates twice a day, leaving the mainland at 9:00am and 11:45am and departing Cumberland Island at 10:15am and 4:45pm. From March 15 to September 30, there is also a 2:45 departure from the island Wednesday through Saturday. From October 1 through March 14, there is no ferry service at all on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and no 2:45 departure from the island at all.

About 15 minutes before our scheduled departure, a park ranger gave us a brief lecture on the facilities on the island and issued the following warning: "If you hear the boat whistle at 4:45 and you're not on the boat, your status just changed from day visitor to camper." The scenic 45-minute ferry ride to Cumberland Island took us down the mouth of the Saint Marys River and across the Cumberland Sound to the Dungeness Dock, located at the south end of the island.

History

Cumberland Island was inhabited by Indians as far back as 4,000 years ago, and more recently was the site of Spanish missions and British colonial forts. Revolutionary War hero Nathaniel Greene purchased land on the island in 1783 and his widow, Catherine Greene, built a four-story home that she named Dungeness. In the 1890's "The Settlement" was established at the north end of the island for black workers. The First African Baptist Church, established here in 1893 and rebuilt in the 1930s, is one of the few remaining structures of this community. In the 1880's Thomas Carnegie, brother of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, began building a mansion on the site of Dungeness, though he never lived to see its completion. Today, the ruins of the mansion remain on the southern end of the island. Plum Orchard, an 1898 Georgian Revival-style mansion built for son, George, and his wife, Margaret Thaw, was donated to the National Park Foundation by Carnegie family members in 1971.

Facilities and Activities

As the ferry slowly pulled into the dock at Dungeness, I spotted three of Cumberland's famous wild horses grazing in a nearby field. Originally left there by plantation owners, these horses have thrived on the grasses in the marsh areas and roam the island freely. Now numbering close to three hundred, the horses are a favorite of island visitors, but a source of controversy with environmentalists, since, among other things, it is believed that their overgrazing may impair the ability of some island grasses to reproduce.

The beach and dune area on the Atlantic Ocean provide a tranquil setting for swimming, beachcombing, or just relaxing
courtesy of William Gardner

After the boat docked, we immediately joined a ranger-led talk which included a short hike down a shell and dirt road through a canopy of live oak trees draped with Spanish moss. Passing under the arching trees with sunlight filtering through, we eventually ended up in front of the crumbling walls of the Dungeness mansion. A few minutes later, the ranger program ended, and we were left to explore the island on our own. Being from Florida, our first instincts were to head towards the dune and beach area, which was located about half a mile further east. From there, we headed south about two miles along the Atlantic shoreline down to the southern tip of the island, where a long jetty protruded into the ocean in area known as Pelican Banks. Along the way, we explored the beach and marveled at the fact that there wasn't another person in sight as far as the eye could see. Along the shoreline, we explored a variety of shells, sand dollars, and driftwood that the tide had brought in, and watched a flock of sandpipers and gulls walk lazily along the water's edge. Upon reaching the southern tip of the island, we were actually less than a mile from the Georgia/Florida state line and had a beautiful view of Fort Clinch State Park at the northern tip of Amelia Island in Florida.

On our return hike across the island, we spotted squirrels, raccoons, and even an armadillo scurrying across the dirt path under a cluster of cabbage palms. Cumberland Island is, in fact, home to a variety of wildlife, including whitetail deer, wild pigs, alligators, and birds. It even serves as a feeding ground for bald eagles. We later passed along the Ice House Museum and headed north along the River Trail, winding up at the Sea Camp Visitor Center. Here we watched a video presentation on Cumberland Island as a critical nesting habitat for the loggerhead sea turtle.

By now it was almost 4:30, and just about time to catch the ferry from back to the mainland. I was slightly disappointed that we hadn't had more time to explore the northern half of the island, where most of the hiking trails are located, but realized that there was only so much that could be covered in a day. Even with a full load of people coming over on the ferry, the island never felt crowded. In fact, there were stretches during the day when we didn't encounter anyone at all. I look forward to returning to Cumberland Island sometime soon to visit some of the areas that I missed on this trip.

If you are planning a trip to Cumberland Island, keep in mind there are no stores or restaurants, so you will need to bring your own supplies with you. The park does, however, maintain rest rooms and drinking water in four locations, a developed campground at Sea Camp Beach, and four primitive backcountry sites. Camping is limited to seven days and reservations are required. The park visitor center is open daily from 8:15am to 4:30pm. Fees are charged for ferry service, for entrance into the park, and for camping. For further information or to make reservations for ferry contact park at 912-882-4335. The information line is 912-882-4336.

Other resources:

Florida Division of Recreation & Parks
Florida Tourism
Georgia State Parks & Historic Sites Division
Georgia Tourism Division

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