Essential Summer Guide '14: Mix History And Wilderness At Cumberland Island National Seashore
Cast across more than 36,000 acres, Cumberland Island National Seashore is, as its name implies, on an island, the largest of Georgia’s Golden Isles. Make the ferry boat crossing from St. Marys and you’ll discover history of those long ago enslaved here, blueblood manses, about 18 miles of wave-swept beaches, and nearly 9,000 acres of official Wilderness. It’s an appealing setting for natural and cultural history, but one that requires a determined, strategic, approach as only 300 visitors a day can visit, and 120 of those slots are reserved for campers.
That’s right, just 300 a day, so crowds are not the same as those you might encounter on a summer day at Coast Guard Beach at Cape Cod National Seashore. Peak visitation, as it is, falls from March into June, and then September into October. Come in August and you just might have that ferry to yourself.
Looking for history? Tour the north end of the seashore, at the Wharf and the Settlement, to see how the islanders here, mostly blacks, lived a century ago. On the southern end of the island stop at Dungeness. This mansion, now in ruins, was built by Thomas Carnegie, brother of Andrew. It burned mysteriously in 1959. While you can’t go into the ruins, you can snap some nice photos.
If you’re looking to add to your birding life list, or just want to see some feathered residents, head down the Willow Pond Trail that crosses the island. But keep your eyes open for the alligators. The Marsh Boardwalk on the south end of the island also can be good for both birding (black skimmers, oystercatchers and pelicans are regulars, while fresh-water ponds serve as rookeries for wood storks, white ibis, herons and egrets) and tidal creatures.
Want to spend the night, but not on the ground? Try to book at room at the Greyfield Inn, a high-end bed-and-breakfast.
If you go:
You can make a ferry reservation six months’ out (877-860-6787, Mon-Fri 10 a.m.-4 p.m.). The first ferry departs at 9 a.m. (check in 30 minutes in advance at the seashore visitor center or chance losing your spot) for the 45-minute crossing. Plan to arrive by 8 a.m., so you can tour the seashore’s visitor center in St. Marys before boarding. While there, ask for a bird list for Cumberland Island.
There are a number of camping options, from the Sea Camp front-country area with 16 sites, cold water showers, running water, and fire rings, and the Stafford backcountry campground with toilets, non-potable water and fire rings, to the Brick Hill, Yankee Paradise, and Hickory Hill Wilderness campgrounds. You can reserve a site six months ahead of your visit. Spring and late fall are the high seasons (and less buggy seasons). All camping permits are assigned at the Sea Camp Ranger Station, which also assigns all backcountry, Wilderness, and Sea Camp campsites once you reach the island.