Cumberland Island National Seashore – Full-Time RV Life

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The Cumberland Island National Seashore, located off the coast of St. Marys, Georgia, is a unique masterpiece filled with beautiful island scenery, decaying evidence of old world charm, nature moving in its intended course, and a place to feel peaceful and calm.  It has vast untouched beaches, ancient oaks, salt marshes, and ruins of deserted mansions built by the rich and famous in the late 1800s.  It has seen many generations come and go and still the island keeps on living and reinventing itself thanks to the National Park Service’s endeavors to keep the seashore and island unspoiled and natural.

There is no RVing on the island, although there are a few primitive tent camping sites.  In fact, motorized traffic is not allowed at all, except for a van tour the National Park has recently started offering.  Good old-fashioned bicycles and foot traffic are the only options allowed by tourists.   There is no electricity, no restaurants, and no gift shop on the island–there isn’t even a trash can.  What’s carried in must be carried out, including banana peels, sandwich wrappers, water bottles, etc.   The only way to get to the island is a 45-minute trip via ferry, which drops visitors off in the morning and returns for pickup at 4:30 in the afternoon.  No more than 300 people are allowed on the island at a time.  For a round-trip walking tour, it is about a 7-mile hike.  It’s important to be prepared with daily needs, comfortable shoes, and realistic knowledge of physical ability to enjoy an incredible day walking and seeing various types of natural surroundings.

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The day starts at the Visitor’s Center in St. Mary’s, Georgia, for check-in and a two-block walk to the dock to board the ferry.  There is a safety briefing from the park ranger, which includes how to safely view wildlife and how to contact park rangers in an emergency.
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The ferry is not large and only makes two trips to the island per day.  Since the number of people on the island is limited, it’s quite possible to enjoy parts of the island without encountering another human being.

The van tour takes tourists to the northern of the island, which includes tours of Plum Orchard (built as a wedding gift for one of the Carnegie children in the late 1890s).  It also stops at the chapel where John F. Kennedy, Jr., married Caroline Bessette.   The same stops are popular among those taking bicycles to the island.  I have never taken this tour and instead choose to do the walking tour.  I’ve visited the island several times throughout the years, and it’s my peaceful place.  I’ll share my favorites of Cumberland below.

WILD HORSES

There are wild horses on the island.  They roam freely with no veterinarians, no shoeing, no feeding.  They have been on the island since Spanish and English conquerers explored Cumberland over 500 years ago and have had a rich history  of survival.  When the Carnegie family built Dungeness (the mansion estate mentioned later in this post), they introduced Tennessee Walking horses to the wild herd to help prevent inbreeding. When they left the island, the horses were left to fend for themselves.  All of the horses are feral, self-sufficient, and can be found in all areas of the island.  It’s important to remember they are wild horses and are dangerous–my photographs are taken with a zoom lens.  It’s important to give them their space, as several people have been medically evacuated from the island from horse attacks over the years.

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Shortly after this photo was taken, this horse reared up and slammed its front hooves into another horse nearby.  The horses are territorial and do not like to be bothered.
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The horses can be found grazing all over the island–here they were in front of the grape arbor by the mansion ruins.
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They frolic and play, but can be unpredictable in their behavior.
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I met this loner on the path to the beach, making sure to give it plenty of space to pass without incident.
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There were lots of horse encounters in all areas I explored.

MANSION RUINS

The Dungeness estate has a long history, the most famous of which is the mansion built by the New York Carnegies.  It was lush, ornate, and ostentatious for its day and hosted many elaborate parties for the New York society set (1880s).  The Carnegies deserted the mansion in the 1920s and it remained uninhabited.  In the 1950s it fell victim to an arsonist.  There are still proud pillars and sections of the mansion still standing, and the massive home leaves a haunting imprint on the island’s makeup.

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This is the main gate at Dungeness.  I can only imagine the beauty in its heyday.
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What was once a home is now overtaken with vegetation and wildlife.  This horse decided to pass the front entry steps at just the right time.
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I wonder what the Carnegies used this room for in the past.  It looks like a perfect reading nook–a place to read, contemplate, and see the magnificent view of the oak trees from the windows.
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I got this shot of Dungeness from the side, but later realized I was on private property.  There are generational residents on the island, but it’s my understanding they have one more generation (grandchildren) left to be able to claim it as their own before they are evicted and it reverts to National Park land.
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This is the back of Dungeness with the water fountain in the forefront.  It’s easy to imagine fancy parties on the large lawn.  Present day, it’s a nice photoshoot of the island wildlife and the perseverance of a brick structure.
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The fence line bordering the front and side of the Dungeness mansion.  There’s an unmaintained and overgrown courtyard beyond the gate with no public access.
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The only remaining structure from the pool house, which collapsed and was cleared a few years ago by the Park Service for safety reasons.

SALT MARSHES AND BOARDWALK THROUGH THE DUNES

After visiting the estate ruins, the path leads to a small island cemetery where the widow of Revolutionary War hero, Nathanial Greene, is buried (they owned the land prior to the Carnegie’s purchasing).  Robert E. Lee’s father was laid to rest in the cemetery after his untimely death during a visit to Greene’s widow on Cumberland, but the body was later exhumed and reburied near his son’s resting place.  It’s a tiny, quiet cemetery and on an off-the-path spot on the island which gives beautiful views of the salt marshes.  Birds love the area and were singing the day I visited.  It was such a pleasant location to enjoy the sounds and see these beautiful views:

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In keeping with protecting the wildlife and topography of Cumberland Island, there are boardwalks over the dunes and marshlands to preserve them.  It makes walking much easier and provides the opportunity to see many beautiful views.  The payoff of walking through the dunes is the vast and deserted beach beyond.

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THE BEACH

Cumberland’s beaches are unique.  Everything the ocean washes ashore, stays ashore and goes through the natural process of decaying and returning to the earth.  There are several seashells and sea life skeletal remains to peruse.  The walk on the beach is about a mile and a half in length from the boardwalk from Dungeness to the boardwalk to Sea Camp (where the return ferry is boarded).  There were only two couples in the distance the day I visited, and eventually I was the only person on the beach.  Visitors are allowed to collect seashells to take home, as long as it doesn’t still contain the living creature.  Here are some of the things I came across on my stroll:

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There were a lot of conch shells washing up on the beach, but I didn’t collect any to take home.  I couldn’t tell if the creatures still inhabited the shell, and they look much more natural where they belong.  
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There were several of these skeletons on the beach.  I think they are horseshoe crab, although their tails do resemble stingrays.  My aquarist/marine biologist daughter will probably correct me. 

THE OTHER WILDLIFE

Cumberland has so much wildlife.  There are wild boar on the island, although I’ve never run across one.   There were dolphins off the shore of the island and following the ferry as we approached the island in the morning.   There are squirrels, raccoon, deer, and even alligator.  There a myriad of bird species throughout the entire island landscape.  Many creatures are camouflaged or move too quickly to photograph.  Here are a few of the creatures I met along my journey:

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This male cardinal kept making his presence known.  The female, however, stayed hidden in the trees with only quick flutters into the open. 
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The seagulls playing along the beach.
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It’s hard to catch the armadillo alive and not smashed on the road (at least in Florida and Texas), but they are playful creatures, too.  This one was foraging near the cemetery.
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Finally, he showed his sweet little face for a photo.  

THE WOODS

Walking through Cumberland is quiet and the ancient oak trees are a testament to centuries of living and thriving in an environment which can be hostile at times.  I love to walk among the trees and imagine the generations, lifestyles, and secrets they have witnessed.  Our history would be so much richer and truer if trees could talk.  Just standing among them and hearing the breeze sway the leaves brings so much peace for me.  Photographs could never do them justice, but these majestic trees are stunning.

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View along the River Trail
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View of a primitive campsite for tent camping.
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Gnarled and intertwined–I love this tree.
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A beautiful canopy of shade with prisms of light shining through the Spanish moss.

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It’s no surprise that Cumberland has been a favorite destination for many historical figures, political well-knowns, and rich and famous over the last hundred-plus years.  The Carnegies, of course, but also Nathaniel Greene, James Oglethorpe, Eli Whitney, Robert E. Lee, the Candler family (of Coca-Cola fame), the Johnsons (of Johnson and Johnson fame), the Kennedys (John F. Kennedy, Jr., in particular), and Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter.  There is even a bed and breakfast on the far end of the island (Greyfield Inn)–primitive and true to the island’s natural surroundings–which is owned, managed, and maintained by a Carnegie descendant.  It’s a stout $275 a night with no wi-fi or air conditioning, but you might run into the Carters, who are frequent guests.

I only experienced a quarter of Cumberland Island and it took me all day and ended up being a 7.5 mile walk.  I was exhausted and exhilarated.  The day spent in quiet contemplation and enjoyment of the surroundings was just what I needed.  I enjoyed my packed lunch while watching wild horses frolicking with the Dungeness ruins in the foreground.  I veered off the path so a wild horse could have its way.  I witnessed an armadillo mom forage food for its babies.  A pod of dolphins played off the beach as I stopped to hydrate and enjoy the sunshine.  My feet and hips were hurting and my rheumatoid disease was making itself known, but it didn’t matter (even though I literally could not walk the next day).

What a beautiful, wonderful, exhilarating place to explore.  It was nice to see the view of the ferry before heading back to St. Marys.  What a perfect ending to a perfect day.

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Have you been to Cumberland Island?  Does it sound like your kind of place?

 

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20 comments

    1. Thank you, Anne. The island is absolutely stunning and full of beautiful spots. I used to be a Girl Scout leader for most of my daughter’s childhood and we took many a trip there with about 20 other girls. It was always a favorite spot–the horses, of course!

  1. Oooooh, that’s it! I gotta go!!! It’s been on my list of places to visit for so long. Your pictures and story make me want to jump in the jeep and go (right after I make reservations for the ferry). Love the armadillo, so cute. Thank you for sharing this and I hope you’ve recovered from your hike. As always, safe travels and happy manatee faces.

    1. Wish this was one we could have done together! I spent the day going slow and taking photos of everything. I really did enjoy the day. I was VERY sore for days afterwards (and during the last two miles), but (like our adventures) EVERYTHING was 100% worth it. 🙂 Happy Manatees! Hugs to you guys (and your Dad)!

    1. It was a lovely day, and it’s about the same except the changes nature makes on the place. I’m excited to go back and do the van tour eventually–I’ve never made it to the other side of the island since we’ve always walked it. Thank you for the compliment!

  2. I really really needed to see these photos, although my mind tricked me for a minute into believing the sand dunes were snowbanks. What interesting history and wildlife and landscape. Thank you for this tour of a warm place.

    1. The sand dunes look a little like snowbanks in person, too. It was a balmy 55-60 degrees that day, too–and I was honestly thankful to be there knowing my northern friends were snowed under. I hope you have a weather break coming soon!

    1. It’s a beautiful place. It’s one of my favorites because I did several day trips there with my daughter and her friends when she was growing up. It’s a lot of walking with packing (lunch, water, etc.), but it is 100% worth it!

What are YOUR thoughts?