One of Georgia’s jewels are its lovely barrier islands, a series of islands just off shore that separate the mainland from the open ocean. Many of these islands have been at least partially developed and are popular vacation destinations; some, however, have been preserved to some extent. One such island is Cumberland Island, which is operated as a National Seashore by the National Park System. The park service seeks to preserve Cumberland Island in its natural state, so the island is left rugged and wild. That means that visiting the island is an adventure, but it’s one worth taking.
Most visitors take an early boat shuttle from the visitor center to the south of the island and spend a day there. We, however, chose to backpack further up the island and spend the night so that we could explore more of the island. Make sure if you wish to travel to the island that you make reservations early as they can book up during popular times.
Cumberland Island is made up of three different ecosystems: salt marshes, especially along the interior of the island, maritime forests, where moss covered live oaks and palmettos abound, and the beach with its large dunes covering the eastern part of the island. Each of the ecosystems is interesting to visit, and a short walk through any of them shows how wild the island still is. We began by walking north through the forest on the main trail, surrounded by live oaks and palms to such an extent that the bright sun barely penetrated the dense foliage. Our campsite was set amidst the flora in a small clearing underneath an enormous live oak whose branches extended over most of the site.
After arriving at our campsite, we were able to walk east, and we quickly came out of the forest and into the dunes. The forest gave way to brush before the brush thinned out as the sand dunes rose steeply above us. We walked through the dunes onto the shore of the beach, where light sand sloped gently to the ocean. We returned in the evening as the sun went down; we were all by ourselves on the beach and had a peaceful evening staring at the waves come in and listening to the ocean. However, we went to the beach when we did for a different reason. We visited Cumberland Island in July during the season when sea turtles lay their eggs. The National Park Service allows backcountry campers to look for turtles (so long as they don’t disturb them) and gives them red cellophane to put over their flashlights. Seeing a sea turtle lay its eggs is a rare experience, and we just happened to be in the right place at the right time when we went. We were able to catch a sea turtle on its way up the shore and witness her digging the hole for her eggs, laying them, and return to the sea. The experience was one that we won’t soon forget, and the trip was worth it just to see the sea turtle. We travel frequently, and seeing the sea turtle was one of our most memorable experiences we have ever had.
The next day we headed north along the main park road, which is used as a service road and as a means of transportation for the few people who live on the island. There are still a few private homes on the island, so be aware that you don’t trespass. On our journey through more maritime forest, we were again surrounded by dense foliage, but we were able to spot some of the island’s wild horses in a small field just a few yards away from us.
We finally arrived at Plum Orchard, a mansion built for George Carnegie in 1898. We were able to tour the house (we were the only visitors so we got a de facto private tour) and see some of the technology that the wealthy of the turn of the century were able to enjoy, such as an indoor swimming pool, squash court, and an ice cube maker. The house was interesting and enjoyable to tour, and we were glad that we made hike up to the house.
We returned from the mansion to the shuttle and returned to the mainland after an eventful two days. While we wouldn’t encourage going to Cumberland Island during the height of summer as the heat was almost unbearable, the island offers lots of adventure and a glimpse at what the barrier islands looked like before so much development. We highly encourage taking a trip to Cumberland Island; it belongs in the same category as some of the other National Park System gems.