The humidity slowly smolders out my fire until I’m sitting under the glow of moonlight. I decide now is a good time to crawl into the sleeping bag. I walk towards my tent and hear a rustling in the brush. I sweep my headlight across the night and a pair of floating eyes flickers in the darkness. For a moment the animal is frozen under the beam of the light but then loses interest, slowly lumbering away. It’s a possum and it’s the first I’ve seen in the wild. Today, in total, I have seen more animals than people, which is always a promising start to any backpacking trip.
It’s the middle of January and I am spending a few days on Cumberland Island, a national scenic seashore off the Georgia coast that is renowned as much for its natural beauty as its history and lore. Over the centuries the island has hosted inhabitants ranging from indigenous people to Spanish missionaries to wealthy industrialists like the Carnegie family. Fortunately, in 1972 Congress declared the island a protected national seashore. To this day it remains largely undeveloped and only accessible by ferry, meaning all the nuanced history, beauty, and mystique are well preserved.
As a Northern escaping the cold in Florida, the allure of spending a few nights camping outside was too great to ignore and I booked passage to Cumberland Island. I had heard of the island previously but didn’t fully comprehend the grandeur of the place. Prior to leaving I thought to myself, this will do. As I discovered, a trip to Cumberland does more than simply suffice. With its rich history, abundant wildlife, storybook forests, and miles of deserted shoreline and pristine sand dunes, Cumberland Island leaves visitors spellbound with a once in a lifetime experience.
GETTING TO THE ISLAND
While it’s directly off the coast of Georgia, the island retains that elusive hush of seclusion. Feral horses roam the island, appearing silently on the trail like benevolent specters. What few roads exist, are nothing more than upturned dirt. For me, stepping foot on Cumberland Island was akin to passing through a threshold. Here a person leaves behind the modern world, that stifling reality of cell phones, internet, traffic, deadlines, distractions, media, etc., to enter an equally potent, but divergent realm of nature. Walking into the shaded maw of the maritime forest, with its woven canopy of oak limbs, one can’t help but feel they are entering a sacred cathedral.
Part of this is due to the logistics of reaching the island, which requires passage by ferry. Getting to Cumberland Island, unless you have a small plane of a private boat in Florida, requires a ticket on the Cumberland Queen passenger ferry boat which is docked in the quant town of St. Mary’s, Georgia. All information can be found on the website.
In addition to making a memorable experience, the ferry filters out the casual visitors, meaning only the truly eager make it to the shore. A journey to Cumberland Island is not another mindless stop on the turnstile highway sightseeing tour. Arriving here entails a fair amount of intention.
The ferry ride also acts as a primer, exposing a person to the wide-open sky, the slip of the waters, and the minerally perfume of the Atlantic coast. By the time a person reaches the docks near Dungeness Ruins, the transformation has already begun.
The island features an array of primitive/semi-primitive camping options and a dedicated backcountry wilderness area. Reservations are recommended year-round and can be made with the National Parks Service. The closest campsite to the dock is the Sea Camp, which can be reached in .5 miles. With cold running showers, bathrooms, picnic tables, racoon bins, and fire rings, Sea Camp is the most developed of the campsites on the island. While it is not directly on the beach, it’s only a short walk away. The campsites themselves are nestled within walls of palmetto under a storybook canopy of live oak. Sea Camp is well-suited for the family get-away or the no-fuss tent camping experience. Those looking for more privacy or a longer hike may opt for one of the backcountry sites further north on the island.
I stayed at the Stafford Camp, which entails a 3.5 miles hike along the uber scenic Parallel Trail. Stafford Camp features 10 primitive campsites, along with a bathroom facility, and running non-potable water. It is important to plan for your drinking water (treat, boil, or filter). Aside from the possum, and the occasional armadillo, I enjoyed the first night at Stafford Camp all to myself. After setting up camp, I wandered down to the shoreline to watch the sun set. A bitter January wind sallied off the frothy winter waves. To my right and left, like an illusion of two mirrors facing each other, stretched miles of deserted pristine beach. Where else could a person have this all to themselves? I thought to myself, this time somewhat ironically, this will do. That evening, after my campfire smoldered out, I fell asleep in the tent, lulled by the brushing of palmettos and the faint swoosh of the ocean.
EXPLORING THE ISLAND
HIKING: Over 50 miles of well-marked trail cross-cross the island. through the island’s lush maritime forests, historic districts, marshland, and remote scenic beaches. The Parallel trail, which I took from Stafford Camp to Cherry Orchard, passes through thickets of palmetto and underneath sprawling canopies of gnarled wind-twisted live oak. Long wisps of Spanish moss diffuse the light, lending the scenery all the qualities of a dream. Every new vantage on the trail seems like a revelation and I found myself stopping every 100 yards to take more pictures, slowing my pace by half. The island and its trails are also teaming with wildlife. The nine banded armadillos are as numerous as prairie rabbits in the springtime. A hiker may also encounter, as I did, a band of the much-celebrated feral horses that still roam the island.
Beach Access: While many stretches of the southern coast have been fully developed, Cumberland Island offers an unparalleled stretch of pristine coastline. Several designated access points spill out into the white sand dunes, and open to miles of wild beach.
History: The whisper of history is audible everywhere on the island, from the sprawling ruins of the Dungeness Mansion to the immaculately preserved Plum Orchard Manor to the First Baptist church. A visitor the island would be remiss if they didn’t listen in, even briefly. I will not soon forget emerging from the verdant tangle of the forest to the perfectly manicured and seemingly abandoned estate at Plum Orchard. Majestic oak trees accent a regal courtyard the size of a football field leading up the towering ivory white front doors of the intact mansion, that was originally built in the 1900s. Here, not only can the thirsty hiker find potable water, but can also take a tour of the building, guided by one of the volunteers who occupies the mansion year-round.
I managed to pack a lot into my brief stay on the island, but I know I barely scratched the surface. I left feeling that the island’s mystique runs deep, and certain nuances are revealed only with time. Not only does this island warrant another visit, I can see why, throughout history, people have wanted to claim it as their own. For anyone seeking a one of a kind experience, Cumberland Island will certainly do.