It’s a short ferry ride from St. Marys, Ga., to Cumberland Island National Seashore, and it’s like a trip back in time. Plum Orchard, a Georgian Revival mansion built in 1898, stands as stately as it did more than a century ago.
But to travel even further back in time, rent a bike and pedal north on the dirt shell road known as Grande Avenue. Just 20 minutes of effort will leave the crowds behind. Head east to where a broad beach meets the sea. Now it’s 300 years ago — or 1,000. Odds are you’ll be the only person in sight — alone amid the dunes and oaks and sea foam.
Native Americans lived on Cumberland Island 4,000 years ago and European settlers arrived in the 17th century. Plantations growing rice, indigo and Sea Island cotton flourished between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.
Toward the end of the 19th century, the island became a winter playground for wealthy industrialists. Two families — the Carnegies and the Chandlers — eventually owned most of the island. Two former pieces of Carnegie real estate — Plum Orchard and the ruins of the Dungeness estate on the south end of the island — are popular attractions.
Congress established Cumberland Island National Seashore in 1972.
Things to do
Rent a bike — be quick off the ferry, rentals are first-come — and go north on Grande Avenue, traveling beneath an almost tunnel-like canopy of live oaks. It’s a great way to get to deserted beaches for swimming and combing the beach for shark teeth and seashells.
Learn a bit of local history by taking an hour-long ranger-guided tour of the Dungeness Historic District. The tours start at Dungeness Dock.
Walk south on the beach to the jetty where you can look across the water to Amelia Island in Florida.
Why you’ll want to come back
Your best chance at spotting a bobcat — reintroduced on the island in the 1970s — is early in the morning or at dusk. That means staying after the last ferry leaves and that means camping out on the island.
Flora and fauna
Cumberland Island National Seashore teems with wildlife, but most visitors come to see animals that aren’t supposed to be here. Wild horses, descendants of livestock belonging to earlier residents, roam the island, doing considerable ecological damage.
Other wildlife you may see includes whitetail deer, armadillos and alligators.
Birders will be giddy visiting Cumberland Island National Seashore. It’s home to more than 330 species including the least tern, Wilson's plover, American oystercatcher, black skimmers and pelicans.
The beaches of Cumberland Island are visited each summer by nesting sea turtles. Cumberland Island has the largest nesting population of loggerhead sea turtles on the Georgia coast, averaging more than 200 nests each year.
By the numbers:
- Website: Cumberland Island National Seashore
- Park size: 36,347 acres or 57 square miles
- 2010 visitation: 91,996
- Busiest month: July, 21,221 visitors
- Slowest month: January, 2,026 visitors
- Funky fact: While July recorded the highest number of total visitors in 2010, March saw the most campers with 2,345 overnight visits.