Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Cumberland Island

Hike: Cumberland Island
Location: Cumberland Island National Seashore
Nearby Town: St Marys, GA
Elevation (Max): Negligible
Elevation Gained: Negligible
Mileage: 16.7
Difficulty: Moderate
Trailhead: Cumberland Island is Georgia's southernmost barrier island and is only accessible by ferry. The ferry departs from St Marys' waterfront. To reach the ferry: Take Exit 3 off I-95, Head E on Hwy 40, Follow Hwy 40 until it ends at the waterfront in downtown St Marys, the National Park Service building and ferry are on the waterfront. Parking is available along the street.
Fees: To preserve the ecosystem of Cumberland Island, the number of daily visitors is limited to 300, so you must make a ferry reservation, and if you plan on camping you have to make a reservation for that, too. The ferry ride costs $17 round trip for an adult, $12 for children, and $15 for seniors. The fee for the developed campground is $4. The fee for backcountry camping is $2. Furthermore, everyone visiting the island must pay a $4 entrance fee (fee waived for those under 16)

Cumberland Island is a truly extraordinary place. Some of the majestic things you can see during your visit include sea turtles, dolphins swimming close to shore, bobcats, pelicans diving into the water, wild horses, and the ruins of a Carnegie mansion. Because there is a lot involved in visiting Cumberland Island, such as the logistics of a daytrip or camping, rules, geography, and things to see, I strongly suggest you do some research before making the trip. A good place to start is the National Park Service website linked above. More information is available on Wikipedia.

E and I made this trip in a 19-hour drive from Connecticut during our senior year spring break. We arrived in St Marys for the 9am ferry and had a few minutes to kill before the ferry departed so we stopped in one of the restaurants on the waterfront and got a couple sandwiches to take with us for lunch. We noticed people milling about by the ferry so we joined them, and a ranger was outlining some of the rules and regulations of the island. While standing there listening to the ranger's talk, we came under attack by a vicious army of no-see-ums, which are tiny, annoying midges. They were so intolerable, I began entertaining the idea of giving up on this whole adventure, and getting right back in my car. Fortunately, once the boat got underway, the no-see-ums ceased their attack, and I am very happy to say that they were nowhere to be found on Cumberland Island. The ferry ride is 45 minutes along a winding river (appropriately named Crooked River) and then up Cumberland Sound. It first made a stop near the Dungeness Ruins (an old Carnegie mansion), which is where many of the daytrippers departed. After, the ferry continued up the coast to the Sea Camp Dock, where we disembarked.

Cumberland Island Ferry

Pelican in St. Marys

From the dock, it is a short walk to the Sea Camp, which is the developed campground on the island with toilets, running water, and showers. Also at the Sea Camp dock is the ranger station where backcountry campers have to check in. There are four backcountry camps, and you must sign up for your desired camp at the check in on a first reserved, first choose basis. Luckily, E and I were one of the first groups to make our reservation so we got our desired campsite, Stafford Beach. Stafford is the closest backcountry camp to the Sea Camp dock (3.5 miles). The other camps, in order from nearest to furthest, are Hickory Hill (5.5 miles), Yankee Paradise (7.5 miles), and Brickhill Bluff (10.5 miles).

Oaks and Spanish Moss at Sea Camp Dock

After checking in and getting our backcountry tag, we set out down the main road, Grand Avenue, which is a crushed stone road that extends from the Dungeness Ruins in the south of the island to the northern terminus. Occasionally, we had to move aside to allow pickup trucks through because, though this is a national seashore, there is an inn on the island (the beautiful Greyfield) and a handful of private residences that were grandfathered into the park boundaries. E and I were very excited at the prospect of seeing wild horses, but the first wildlife we saw (aside from several pelicans on the boat ride over) was an armadillo. E and I being New Englanders, we found the armadillos to be magical, exotic creatures, and a thrilling sight. We took Pratt's Trail as a shortcut to the Stafford Camp, and almost immediately after leaving the main road we came upon two wild horses grazing in the woods. It was pretty awesome--E was particularly excited. Although they were wild, they paid no attention to us and just kept right on chowing down, and we waited for them to move away from the trail before proceeding to our campsite.

On Grand Avenue on the way to Stafford Beach

Armadillo! We would see dozens more before our trip was done

A horse on Pratt's Trail

Another horse on Pratt's

Although the Stafford Beach camp is listed on the park map as backcountry/undeveloped, it is essentially a developed campground like Sea Camp, with the exception that its water is a bit sulfuric (Sea Camp's water is treated), so filtering the water would be a good idea. Other than the water, though, Stafford has about a half dozen tent sites with fire pits for each, men's and women's restrooms, and cold showers. We pitched our tent, dumped all the stuff we wouldn't need for walking around the island into the tent, and then set out exploring. The great advantage of Stafford Beach is, you guessed it, it's next to a beach. It's about a five minute walk from the camp through the pretty impressive dunes to the beach. And my, what a beach. E and I are big beach people, but New England beaches are very different from what we found here. For one, beaches in New England tend to be small, as in there isn't much real estate from dunes to water, but the beach at Cumberland has probably about a football field's length of beach between the dunes and the ocean. Another difference: we are used to going to the beach and sharing it with dozens or even hundreds of other people, but when we emerged from the dunes onto the beach, we looked right, looked left, and didn't see a soul. It doesn't get much better than that.

Our tent site at Stafford Beach with fire ring and makeshift bench

Pitched the tent

Stafford Beach

We decided we would do the 3.2 mile walk on the beach down to the Sea Camp beach access (beach access trails are marked with black and white striped poles on the dunes). Along the way we saw a group of dolphins swimming just off shore, pelicans plummeting into the water for fish, and a very large washed up buoy. When we got to the Sea Camp access, we turned inland, climbed on the most gnarly tree I've ever seen, and walked through Sea Camp until we reached Grand Avenue. We then turned left (south) to walk down to the Dungeness Ruins. About halfway there, the Nightingale Trail breaks off on the left, which we took to do a loop to the Dungeness (we returned via the main road, Grand Avenue). You are not allowed to go into the Dungeness Ruins, but it was not hard to enjoy it from the outside, especially with a couple armadillos chasing each other around the grounds for entertainment.

Some dolphins

Big washed up buoy

Sea Camp beach access with striped pole

Boardwalk over the dunes to Sea Camp

Awesome tree, some of its branches travel underground

Grand Avenue


Dungeness from the main road

We then began the 4.5 mile hike back to our camp at Stafford Beach. We began on Grand Avenue, but decided to take a different route from before so we turned right onto the Parallel Trail which is a smaller hiking trail that basically parallels the main road. At this point, E and I were getting very hungry and tired, and the hike seemed much longer than it felt before, so we felt a thrilling relief when we finally arrived back at camp. We quickly put the rice and beans on the stove (an MSR PocketRocket), built a campfire, and kicked off our boots. I don't know if rice and beans ever tasted so good. Once the sun went down we walked down to the beach to stargaze, but unfortunately, we had a full moon which outshone everything else, but was plenty impressive in itself. When we got back to our tent, we packed everything away and fell asleep almost instantly. I was pretty amazed at how well I slept that night considering I did not have a sleeping pad, but since the ground is a little sandy, I think that made for a comfortable sleep. I did wake up at about 4:30am, though, to the sound of a pack of coyotes yipping and howling, which was a little unsettling, but mostly just a neat experience. In the morning we took very quick cold showers (nothing is better for promoting water conservation than the lack of heat) to make ourselves acceptable for the public since we were leaving the island and driving up to Savannah. Once we packed everything up, we walked back down Grand Avenue to the Sea Camp dock where we waited for our ferry, checked back in with the ranger, and enjoyed granola bars on the deck of the ranger station. The ferry ride back was very relaxing--I fell asleep for some of it--and our last view of Cumberland Island was of a horse walking along the shore on the marsh part of the island. This is a wonderful place.

The Parallel Trail back to Stafford Beach

Horse walking down the road

Making dinner


  1. I love this! Cumberland definitely is a magical place. And those horses were AWESOME! They could have cared less if we were there, yet they were totally wild.

  2. Sounds like a perfect trip. When was this? You said spring break, I'm just wondering about the date because I'm planning a trip for April and am worried about the bugs.

    1. Hi David! Thanks for your comment. We went in mid-March, and the bugs were really terrible on the mainland in St Marys, but we didn't notice any bugs at all on Cumberland Island, so I would go ahead with your trip plans!