Cumberland Island: 10 don't-miss activities for this undeveloped southern paradise
Thu, Jun 12, 2014 at 09:00 AM
All photos: Catie Leary
A trip to this gorgeous barrier island located off the coast of Georgia is a rewarding experience for anyone who is passionate about nature, history or conservation.
Established as a national seashore in 1972, Cumberland Island is teeming with wildlife and boasts multiple distinct ecosystems including maritime forests, salt marshes, freshwater wetlands, tidal creeks and undeveloped beaches. Over 9,800 acres of the island is a congressionally designated wilderness area.
There's some much to do on the island, whether it's hitting the beach, going for a hike, exploring historical ruins or just kicking back under the gorgeous live oaks. Continue below to see more reasons why you should consider a visit to this magical island.
1. Camping under a secluded, breathtaking canopy
While it's certainly possible to visit Cumberland Island as a day trip, the best way to experience all this remote destination has to offer is to stay overnight. There is a private hotel on the island, the Greyfield Inn, but the most economical option is definitely camping. Reservations for camping are strongly encouraged, especially in the peak season (spring and late fall).
The most developed campground, Sea Camp, is located near the ranger station and features restroom facilities with cold water showers. Each campsite has a grill, fire ring, picnic table and food cage to deter hungry wildlife. For more ambitious campers who are able to backpack several miles, there are backcountry and wilderness sites available. The backcountry campground, Stafford Beach, is located 3.5 miles from the ranger station and features restrooms and cold water showers. Farther up the island are the wilderness sites. Campfires are prohibited and there are no comfort facilities, so bringing a portable stove to treat water is a must.
2. Gaping in awe at the Dungeness ruins
Before this slice of paradise became a national park, Cumberland was first called home by indigenous peoples as far back as 4,000 years ago. After the native tribe, the Mocama, were driven off the island by colonial invasion and disease in the 17th century, the island spent several centuries under the private ownership of military generals, revolutionary war heroes, slave-holding plantation owners and, finally, the wealthy Carnegie family.
The lavish Dungeness mansion was built in the late 19th century by Thomas M. Carnegie, brother of industrialist steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. Thomas died before its completion, but his wife Lucy and their children continued to live on Cumberland until 1925. Dungeness remained empty for many years after that, and it eventually was destroyed by a fire in 1959. The ruins were acquired by the National Park Service in 1972 along with the rest of the island, of which 90 percent was owned by the Carnegies.
3. Spying on feral horses and other wildlife
Cumberland Island is filled with a diverse range of wildlife, including armadillos, wild turkeys, vultures, manatees, sea turtles, white tail deer, bobcats, otters and so much more.
One of the most exciting animals to spot, however, are the wild horses (and their babies!) that roam the island. Similar to the famous horses of the Chincoteague and Assateague islands, this band of feral equines are the descendents of horses brought to the island by the English in the 18th century. While they may be gorgeous creatures, under no circumstances should you approach or touch them. Due to disease and the rugged environment, the horses have a relatively short life expectancy. It's estimated that about 150-200 horses currently live on the island.
4. Having the beach entirely to yourself
Because Cumberland Island is a national seashore and requires reservations in advance, only a limited number of people are allowed on the island at any given time. Even when all the camp sites are filled up, the 17-mile-long tract of undeveloped, white sandy beaches is virtually empty, aside from chance encounters with wild horses, dolphins and sea birds.
5. Touring the island by bicycle
The only way to the island is by a 45-minute ferry ride, but since it does not carry cars, the only vehicles on the island are for ranger or private residential use. The quickest way to get around the island is by bicycle. While bicycles are not allowed on trails, they definitely come in handy when traversing Grand Avenue, the lengthy main road that runs between the Dungeness ruins and the Stafford Plantation.
Rental bikes are available at the Sea Camp ranger station for $16 a day or $20 for overnight campers. Personal bicycles are not permitted on the ferry, but they may be brought to the island through a private charter boat.
6. Exploring the island on foot
Cumberland Island boasts a total of 50 miles of hiking trails that run through maritime forests, marshlands, interior wetlands, historic sites and, of course, gorgeous beaches. One of the most popular and rugged hiking routes is the Parallel Trail, which runs about 6 miles from Sea Camp into the island's backcountry wilderness. For something a little shorter, the Dungeness and River Trails on the south side of the island are perfect for a lighter stroll.
7. Witnessing the most epic sunrises and sunsets of your life
Because the narrow island is flanked by the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Cumberland Sound to the west, it isn't difficult to find the perfect spot to watch a sunrise or sunset. The photo above, captured near the marshlands south of Dungeness, shows just how dramatic the horizon can get during a sunset over the Cumberland Sound.
8. Combing the beach for natural treasures
It's against the law to take wildlife (including skeletons) off the island as souvenirs, but visitors are permitted to collect sharks teeth and unoccupied sea shells. The best time to go beachcombing is right after a strong surf or storm. Also, keep your eyes peeled on the roads, which are conditioned using dredge fill from the ocean.
9. Doing absolutely nothing
While there are plenty of activities to occupy your time on Cumberland Island, sometimes the best thing to do is kick back and soak in the utter magnificence and beauty of the nature around you. Sometimes slinging a hammock across the branches of a gargantuan southern live oak and settling in for a nap is all that needs to be done.
10. Making "friends" with the local raccoons
If you happen to camp on Cumberland, you will become quite familiar with the opportunistic charm of the island's many raccoons. While Sea Camp sites provide cages (above) to store food and toiletries, it's important to keep constant vigilance. These critters are so bold that you might even spot them shamelessly circling your campsite in the broad daylight like vultures. Let your guard down (or your food unsecured) for just one night, and you'll be in for a rude awakening the next morning.
* * *
Related content on MNN:
Want to see more great photos? Check out MNN’s photo blog