A lesser-known Georgia gem, Cumberland Island is a place stuck in time. Preserved by visionary families committed to sharing its beauty, the National Park Service has maintained this southernmost barrier island since 1971 when it was designated a national seashore by President Nixon.
Today, Cumberland’s 56 square miles are a naturalist’s paradise. A prehistoric-looking maritime forest is home to wild horses, boar, deer, armadillos, bobcats, wild turkey and more than 335 documented species of birds. Seventeen miles of undisturbed beach boast sharks, dolphins, sea turtles and manatee. Marshes brim with shrimp and crab, fresh water lakes hold bass, blue gill and gators.
Aside from wildlife viewing, there is fishing, boar and deer hunting for the sportsman, and more than 50 miles of trails for the explorer. History buffs can tour the historic ruins of Dungeness, a 17th century tabby home built by Catherine Greene, wife of Revolutionary War hero General Nathaniel Greene; Plum Orchard, a maintained Georgia Revival mansion originally built by the Carnegie family in 1898; and the First African-American Baptist Church, site of the 1996 wedding of John F. Kennedy, Jr., and Carolyn Bessette.
Cumberland offers two developed campsites. Sea Camp, which is a half-mile from the ferry dock, has running water, bathrooms, fire pits and campsites on the edge of the beach. Stafford Campground, which is three and a half miles from the Ferry dock, also offers restrooms, showers and fire rings.
Additionally, there are three wilderness campsites further north on the island, but are better suited for minimalist camping as they require a long hike in and visitors must adhere to leave-no-trace principles (no fires, packing out trash and water treatment).
Finally, for those who prefer a luxurious end to their day of exploration, the renowned Greyfield Inn is a 2011 Conde Nast Gold List hotel and serves as the only public place to eat or stay on the island. A grand mansion, it was originally the 19th century retreat of Thomas and Lucy Carnegie, but was later converted to an inn in 1962. Rooms are expensive ($395-$595/night), but include breakfast, lunch, gourmet dinner, sporting equipment, tours and ferry transport.
Ferries run twice a day from St. Marys on the mainland. Plan to stay at the Riverview Inn the night before your departure for the best local ambiance. While day passes are always available, reservations to the camp sites are tightly controlled and fill up six months in advance.
Top right photo by National Park Service. All other photos by Hannah Beaver