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