Let me tell you a tale of a wild and pristine place that doubles as a beach vacation destination and triples as a backpacking spot. Whether your passion is nature, hiking, history, or just plain relaxing; there will be something here for everyone. Ladies and Gents and my fellow hikers: let me introduce to you…. Cumberland Island.
Georgia is pretty well-known to backpackers as the start of the Appalachian Trail, but few have heard of an island backpacking destination further south. Cumberland Island is protected as a National Seashore and has both historical and natural significance. The 36 000+ acre island is located off the coast of St Mary’s, Georgia. It is a home to many critters, including various species of birds, deer, wild hogs, armadillos (literally everywhere), gators, snakes, feral horses and most importantly the endangered loggerhead sea turtles, which come ashore to lay their eggs each May-Sept. The islands diverse terrain includes sandy dunes, salt marshes with diverse ecosystems and maritime forests that resemble a wild tropical jungle. Oh and beaches… loads and loads of untouched beaches. Thick palmettos carpet the forest floor, giant oaks reach to the sky and are draped in thick Spanish moss. Vines dangle from the forest canopy and tree roots weave over the sandy ground.
As you explore the island, you will see how history and nature weave together. Signs of the life that was once lived on the island have not yet been swept away with time. Old buildings, ruins and museums on the island give a glimpse into the historic life and times of the island. You could spend days here diving deep into the history of the island, and I recommend that you do. And while you’re there, why not combine your love for history with a bit of backpacking and a lot of beaching.
To get there, you will need to buy a ferry ticket to the island. If you plan on staying overnight, you will need to secure a camping or backcountry permit as well. DO THIS WELL AHEAD OF TIME! The spots book up fast and the number of visitors allowed on the island is limited. There are remote trails and campsites that offer a more rugged backcountry experience for the adventurous: Stafford Beach (3.5 miles from the Sea Camp dock), Hickory Hill (5.5 miles), Yankee Paradise (7.5 miles), and Brickhill Bluff (10.5 miles). There is also a developed campground (Sea Camp) with toilets, showers and running water close to the ferry for those who want to camp but aren’t ready to take it to the next level. Or if camping isn’t for you, perhaps a day trip is more up your alley.
The ferry ride is about 45 mins from St. Marys to the Sea Camp dock. On a sunny February day, the temps here were a pleasant 70 degrees and us Michiganders were sporting tanks and shorts for the first time in months. My guess is that this jungle oasis gets pretty steamy hot in the summer months. The hiking is on easy, level ground over soft sandy trails that wind through the forest.
I recommend making a quick detour to the Dungeness ruins before heading off on the trails going north to your campsite. The ruins of the Dungeness mansion are placed against a backdrop of distant marshes, where wild turkey and horses graze freely in the fields. The ruins are less than a mile from the Sea Camp dock along a main trail and are a magnificent sight.
If you plan on backpacking, I would recommend staying at Stafford beach for at least one night of your backcountry trip. It won’t feel particularly “backcountry” with flush toilets, cold showers and deep fire pits, but it’s literally a stones throw to the beach.. and some of the most EPIC sunrises on the island. I spent a good part of a day here watching the sun come up, collecting seashells, swimming, and sunning myself on the beach before heading out on a hike. It doesn’t get much better than that!
Spend another night at Yankee Paradise or Hickory Hill campground and take a day hike into the Carnegie’s Plum Orchard Mansion for a free guided tour. The tour guides are FANTASIC and so knowledgable. This is the best way to learn all about the history of the island and the Carnegie Family. Pack a picnic lunch to enjoy the beautiful grounds overlooking the marshlands. Go behind the mansion to find a swampy pond (you will hear its chorus before you see it). It’s a prime location for bird watching of all varieties. Don’t forget to fill your water bottles up at the Mansion or the tap outside as the water is far less sulfur-y here vs. the water source close to camp.
The island is a perfect and private oasis to enjoy a laid back adventure. This is not meant to be an intense backpacking trip, but one to enjoy the outdoors and slow down to the pace if island life. Pack some good food and drinks, hit the beach or hit the trail; either way – stay a while and see what the island has to offer for you.
H@H Tips for the backcountry on Cumberland Island
1) The further you venture into the wilderness, the more bugs you are likely to find. Don’t come to the island without your bug spray and long pants. Bees, mosquitos, ticks and chiggers were out in full force even in February. Do nightly tick checks!
2) If you want to do some reading up on the island before you visit, check out Carol Ruckdeschel’s book “Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland Island”. Her life as a conservationist on the island is fascinating. She has lived on and advocated for the island for over 40 years. If you are lucky you may even get to meet her there! I started reading this after my trip here and wished I would have done it before!
3) People laughed at us for hanging our food in the backcountry. “There are no bears on the island” they said.” There may be not bears but you are going to want to hang your food so that you still have some left in the morning. The island has a ton of hungry opportunistic critters; mice, raccoons, and possums looking for a late night snack. Bears or no bears, hang it up.
4) Cell service is very spotty as soon as you start heading into the backcountry, don’t rely on this as a guarantee.
5) The water at the backcountry sources (especially further north) has a pretty sulphur-y (is this a word?) taste and smell to it. I recommend a water filter as the best method of treatment as it helps remove some of the bad taste from the water.
6) Although I didn’t venture far enough north to the Brickhill Bluff campsite, I was told by several people that this is best spot on the island with the potential to spot dolphins and manatees in the water. Keep in mind that the further you head in the wilderness of the island, the more rugged the campsites and the terrain will become. Stafford is the only BACKCOUNTRY campsite that has toilets and where fires are allowed.
7) Make sure you get on the beach for sunrise at least one morning. The sun’s first light on the horizon over the water is nothing short of spectacular.