Cumberland Island is easier to define by what it is not, than what it is. It is not a vacation resort with high-rise hotels, restaurants or miniature golf courses. There are no housing developments, nor is there a bridge connecting the cars of the mainland to paved streets on the island. No bars, no shops, no galleries. Since the National Park Service restricts ferry passengers to 300 people a day, there are no crowds.
Instead, Cumberland Island National Seashore, comprising 90 percent of this 36,000-acre habitat preserve, offers some things in short supply today: solitude, serenity and wonder. A place where there is no time but your own and no place you have to be except the place you’re in.
Largest and southernmost of the Georgia barrier islands, the 18-mile-long island sits near the Florida border. Mother Nature is clearly in charge, and that is one of Cumberland’s alluring secrets.
It was not always this way. There has been a human presence on Cumberland Island for 6,000 years. Timucua Indians knew the island as Missoe, meaning “beautiful.” Skilled hunters, they also oystered, crabbed, fished, shrimped, and gathered a variety of edible plants. The Timucuas lived in balance with nature for some 3,000 years before the Spanish supplanted them.
Within a few centuries, the Timucuas fell to European diseases, rebellions against the Spanish and the ravages of slavery. By the 1730s, the Spanish themselves retreated as British colonial expansion pushed south and British soldiers occupied two forts built on the island.
Cumberland became a “no man’s land” continually threatened by Spanish, Indian and French raiders. But settlers of a sort – bandits, pirates and other lawbreakers – scratched out a living. In 1763, the Treaty of Paris ended the constant conflict and a land rush to file plantation claims was on.
Between the 1780s and the Civil War, the pinnacle of human disruption, two-thirds of the island’s majestic live oak trees were felled to supply the fledgling U.S. Navy with ironwood for warships and clear fields for cotton, indigo, citrus and vegetables.
A Savannah newspaper estimated 10 to 12 large plantations on Cumberland Island, with fields of cotton as far as the eye could see. Four hundred enslaved people outnumbered their masters 10 to one.
By the 1870s only ruins remained, and the subtropical jungle was retaking those. With the arrival of Lucy and Thomas Carnegie, the era of the rich estates began. Lasting little more than 40 years they, too, slid into decline.
Getting here from offshore, access Cumberland Island through St. Andrew Sound on the north or St. Mary’s Inlet on the south. On the ICW, find the island between mile marker 695 and 714.
At the history-rich southern end of the island, an open and largely empty anchorage has 20-30 foot depths and good holding off the National Park Service Dungeness Dock. Portions of the dock are for day-use dockage. Use this for tying up dinghies.
Dungeness Dock is near the white, pitched-roof Ice House Museum. Initially, the storehouse for ice shipped from frozen lakes and ponds in the Northeast to supply the Carnegie mansions, it’s a good place for an overview of the island’s history.
An easy walk from the museum are the Carnegie’s Dungeness mansion ruins, the estate’s pergola, greenhouses, formal dock house, recreation building, servant village, carriage house and the mansion known as The Grange. The oldest surviving structure on the island is here – a small tabby cottage built by Nathaniel Greene in the 1780s as his children’s school.
Grassy fields surrounding the ruins are often shared by wild horses, turkeys and white-tail deer together at the same time.
One mile north of Dungeness is the large, frequently empty anchorage off Sea Camp Dock. Depth is 10-20 feet with good holding. Sea Camp, too, has day-use dockage. Ask at the park visitor center about the tour to the island’s northeast end, daily educational programs, island and trail maps, and bicycle rentals. For additional information call the National Park office at 912-882-4336.
A short walk along the Sea Camp Trail takes you to the beach through a cathedral of live oak trees, their gnarled angular boughs veiled in Spanish moss.
Up the main road is Stafford Place Mansion. Originally Robert Stafford’s plantation house, this self-styled “Union man” owned 348 enslaved people, 8,100 acres, and fathered six mixed-race children who he sent north, with their mother, to live as freed people. Nearby is the cemetery where Robert, his mother and sister are buried.
The eastern cleared field grew cotton. During the Carnegie era it became a 9-hole links golf course. Now it’s a private landing strip and haven for up to eight horse families.
Another two miles takes you into 10,000 acres of designated wilderness identified as an International Biosphere Reserve for its “rare ecology, beauty, and endangered creatures.” From there to the island’s north end are a myriad of alligator inhabited ponds and tidal creeks, bare-branched trees where Snowy Egrets, Great Blue Herons, White Ibises, Wood Storks, Tri-colored Herons, and vultures perch like so many ornaments on a Christmas tree.
Some 264 bird species occur on Cumberland Island, including 132 are migratory species traveling the Atlantic Flyway, which passes over Cumberland Island. Ospreys, Bald Eagles, American Oystercatchers, Pileated Woodpeckers, Eastern Kingbirds and over 100 more species nest and fledge their young on the island.
Here, too, 60-foot-tall dunes march along the shore’s secondary dune system, ghost trees eerily sprouting from the sand beside salt-spray sculpted and contorted live oaks. Rustling in the surrounding maritime forest could be armadillos, wild hogs, raccoons, or even bobcats. You may not see them, but the huffing sound a few feet from you is a danger signal warning fellow deer of your presence.
About six miles north of Sea Camp, the Brickhill River has two narrower and lesser known anchorages from which you can more easily access the north end of the island. Follow the ICW turning off near R60 and R60A. Keep to the north third of the entrance. Low tide entry can be tricky. Stay to the center of the river. The Plum Orchard anchorage, from which the large white mansion is easily seen, provides good storm protection with depths between 13-27 feet, good mud/sand holding and an excellent set. The NPS dock allows day-use dinghy dockage.
The 1898 Plum Orchard mansion built by Lucy Carnegie as a wedding gift to her son, George and his bride, Margaret Thaw, is a 30-room Georgian Revival structure. It is open for tours depending on the presence of volunteers; show up at the front door for more information. Behind the house is a pond full of alligators, including a 10-footer frequently basking on the shore. A rookery hosts a variety of marsh and shore birds.
A bit farther along, the Brickhill anchorage has depths of 10 to 20 feet. No dock here but you’re welcome to beach a dinghy to go ashore.
Four to five trails snake through the island’s south end. In the wilderness area, 17 trails with names like King’s Bottom and Yankee Paradise cover 30 miles. Some trails twist past freshwater ponds, overgrown Plantation Era dikes, ditches, tabby walls, through the maritime forest jungle, and the double dune system along the 18-mile long undeveloped seashore.
Late April through August, Loggerhead sea turtles come ashore. In 2012, nearly 700 Loggerhead turtle nests were recorded on the island. After a 60-day incubation period the nests explode with hatchlings making a mad dash to the sea.
Other trails take you to the post-Civil War Freedmen village, The Settlement. From wilderness jungle, 6-8 founding families of ex-enslaved people built a thriving community including the historic First African Baptist Church. Eventually this community fell to economic pressures, and job opportunities on the mainland along with the forces of nature.
Visitors often comment on the “preservation” of Cumberland Island, never realizing this is victory in a 500-year war against human occupation. The island won. Welcome to visit but not stay, people have no more power now than the hawks, or the horses to thwart her recovery.
The “natural state” is a recent and ongoing evolution. In 1972, in cooperation with Carnegie family descendants, Cumberland Island National Seashore was established. Ensuring the island’s remarkable history is remembered. More importantly it guarantees the island will reclaim itself, becoming “Missoe” the place the Timucuas lived in balance with so many centuries ago.