Cumberland Island National Seashore

Shady road, early morning, crystal clear blue sky – walking south from Brickhill Bluff Campsite. Crossing a bridge over a low tide mud flat marked with alligator prints and tail marks I round a corner and spot a wild horse on the road ahead. One quick look, a photograph and it disappeared – leaving only a feeling of wild nature and mystery. Cumberland Island Georgia – in 30 seconds.

The largest and most wild of the Sea Islands along Georgia’s 100-mile coast, Cumberland Island stretches 17 miles from south to north and encompasses salt marshes, mudflats, tidal creeks, inter-dune meadows, maritime live oak forest and long beaches. For reference, it is roughly the same size as Manhattan. Designated in 1972 as one of only ten National Seashores (National seashores and lake shores are coastal areas federally designated as being of natural and recreational significance as a preserved area) the island is administered by the U.S. National Park Service.

Access to the island is by a regularly scheduled ferry which runs from St. Mary’s Georgia. The trip time to the island is approximately 45 minutes and is pedestrian only. Schedules fill up quickly and so a reservation, available online, is recommended. The ferry lands at the south end of the island on the west side opposite the Seacamp Campsite.

The island is very flat with the high point near Terrapin Point being approximately 50 feet above sea level. This permits the use of hand wagons which many campers borrow from the ferry landing site to transport their gear to the southernmost Seacamp Campsite. It also means that the many hiking trails across the island are easy going which allowed me to take a list of luxury backpacking items including a camp chair, hammock, as well as a full kit of camera gear with tripod. I even brought my kite!


The island is divided approximately half way up with the northern half holding a Wilderness designation (“ an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions” – U.S. Wilderness Act, 1964).

Camping is permitted on the Island at one of five locations (Seacamp, Stafford (non-wilderness) and Yankee Paradise, Hickory Hill and Brickhill Bluff (wilderness)). Full flush toilets and cold showers are available at Seacamp and Stafford whereas at the other three, no facilities are provided other than a non-potable water supply which must be treated.  Camping permits can be booked for a nominal charge on the website for the island. Visitors must check in at the NP Headquarter in St. Mary’s in the morning before taking the ferry and receive a briefing at the ferry dock on island rules and leave no trace principles. St. Mary’s is a beautiful coastal town with ample accommodation options for an overnight stay prior to a morning ferry as well as free long-term parking for island permit holders. The closest fly-in point is Jacksonville Florida which is thirty miles away from St. Marys.

I spent five days on the island and stayed at Stafford, Yankee Paradise and Brickhill on the north end of the island. The short distances between campsites allowed me to pack up and leave late, arrive at my new campsite for lunch and then spend the afternoon day hiking all over the island.
My two days at Stafford were occupied with an attempt at bird photography, shore and inland (no luck with the warblers. Too quick for me!). The island hosts a large variety of birds as a major stopping point on the transatlantic migratory flyway, with over 335 species of birds recorded including threatened and endangered species such as the Least Tern, Wilson’s Plover, and American Oystercatcher. During my stay, the shoreline was busy with the spring shorebirds and the ponds and tidal flats with Wood storks, white Ibis, and several species of herons and egrets.

I also stalked a very large pileated woodpecker near Plum Orchard Manor but it was too crafty for a good photograph.

 

By staying at Stafford two nights I was able to take in a long day hike on my second day. I walked five miles south down the beach to the ruins of Dungeness, the home of Thomas Carnegie.

Thomas Carnegie was the brother of Andrew Carnegie and co-owner of Carnegie Steel, subsequently U.S. Steel. Dungeness was built in the late 19th century and boasted 59 rooms and a total square footage of 37,000 square feet. The Dungeness complex covered over 250 acres and included 20 outbuilding including a two-story games pavilion with indoor pool. It was occupied until 1925 and then was abandoned during the Great Depression. In 1959 it was the victim of an alleged arson arising from a poaching incident on the island.

After walking the beach to the ruins I walked north to Stafford Campsite via the main island road which is a beautiful shaded single track dirt road running up the west side of the island.

Completing my round trip of twelve or so miles I returned to Stafford for afternoon tea at the campsite, dinner and then some sunset wandering in the nearby forest.

 

The next morning I moved a short 4 miles north to the Yankee Paradise Campsite. While there is little to recommend at the campsite it is near Plum Orchard Manor, another Carnegie property on the island. After setting up at Yankee I packed my lunch and camera gear and walked over to the Manor.

The Manor is a former Carnegie “cottage” built in 1898 and is owned and maintained by the National Park Service. Tours are provided free by an onsite caretaker. The Manor is styled as an Arts and Crafts cottage and is fully furnished with original items and many Tiffany light fixtures along with all the “modern conveniences” of the time. The link below sets out the history of the Carnegies on the island.
https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/cuis/dilsaver/chap2.pdf

On day four day I packed up again and hiked north to the Brickhill Bluff campsite on the west side of the island. Overlooking the inter-coastal waterway, the campsite is the prettiest of the sites I stayed at and, because of its western exposure, had the most spectacular sunset. From there I set out to explore the north end of the island. Along with the wild horses and abundant birds, Cumberland is home to a large population of armadillos. Having never seen one in the wild before I diligently photographed my first one, less so for my second and, by the end of the day on the north end of the island my sightings were reduced to “oh, look, another armadillo”

Less abundant, thankfully, were alligators which, other than a few tidal flats with evident tracks and tail marks didn’t put in an appearance. The north end of the island (“The Settlement”) was historically populated by the servant and caretaker groups employed by the Carnegies. The African Baptist church and High Point Cemetery are worth a look if you are up in that area. Late that afternoon (after getting lost on the multitude of dirt roads near The Settlement I found the Terrapin Trail and followed it along the coast and back to Brickhill Bluff for a final, glorious, sunset on my last night.

The next morning I set out early and walked the 10 miles (complete with wild horse sighting) back down the island to the Seacamp dock to catch the 2 pm ferry back to the mainland.

A very enjoyable trip with stunning scenery, oceanfront isolation, and living history. Perfection.

For more pictures check out my Flickr album for the trip at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/63848148@N04/albums/72157694694802795at:

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