Lots to explore on Cumberland Island

June 2, 2011 

  • Cumberland Island is about two hours from Bluffton down Interstate 95, and a scenic 45-minute ferry ride from St. Mary’s, Ga. The ferry costs $20 for adults ($14 for children and $18 for seniors) and is part of the journey, as playful dolphins often follow. There is also a $4 entry fee for the island, which is good for seven days (no entry fee for those younger than 16).

    For a daytrip you can get off at Dungeness dock to visit the Ice House museum and tour the grounds of the old mansion ruins. Or take the ferry to Sea Camp landing for a short quarter-mile walk to the spectacular beach and well-maintained campground.

    Fresh water and facilities can be found at either landing, but you must bring your own food and supplies as there is no place to purchase them on Cumberland Island. Camping is $4 a person per day at Sea Camp and $2 a person per day in the backcountry.

    Dungeness Ruins: From Gilded Age Playground
    to Quiet Sanctuary

    Cumberland Island was designated a National Seashore in 1971 and since that date has been rapidly reverting to its natural state.

    Walking its shady paths and wild beaches, it is hard to imagine that humans have inhabited the island for 4,000 years. Some of the most dramatic changes came to the island during the plantation era as the island was harvested for profit.

    In the late 1800s the Carnegie family purchased Cumberland to use as a winter retreat and the island became a centerpiece of wealth. A large, imposing house called Dungeness was built in the rambling style of a Scottish castle and for generations it dominated the south end of the island. A fire in 1959 destroyed the building but its ruins gather a particular beauty and wildness while evoking the memory of a bygone era.

    Hundreds, maybe thousands of visitors come to Cumberland every year and enjoy walks through the ruins where old cars rust and birds nest atop crumbling stones.

    Dungeness is free to visit while on the island and a short walk from the ferry landing.

Cumberland Island is a place of extremes. Ornate Victorian mansions contrast rustic camping in the woods. Wild horses roam sandy roads where cars are rarely seen. Miles of wide, sunny Atlantic beaches are covered with shells instead of footprints. Lizards scurry in the leaves, songbirds decorate tree branches like holiday ornaments and gnarled, centenary, live oaks slowly compete to block the sky. Cumberland Island is a place of extreme beauty and an island that surges with life.

Cumberland Island National Seashore is an easy day trip from Bluffton. The last in the chain of Sea Islands in Georgia, Cumberland is accessible only by boat. Though nearly the entire island is open to the public, what you see will be determined by how your plan your visit and how willing you are to get out into the wilderness.

Spanning 17 miles and covering more than 36,000 acres, the island offers lots of room to roam. There are three ways to experience Cumberland Island. First, you can take a daytrip and visit the stately ruins of Dungeness, the 19th century mansion built by Thomas Carnegie, rent a bike to explore sandy

paths or spend the day on a wide pristine beach. Second, you can take an overnight adventure with a camping trip to the well-equipped Sea Camp campground or enjoy a luxury stay at the Greyfield Bed & Breakfast, where for $250 a night you get a personalized tour of the island. Third, you can take to the backcountry and hike to one of several rustic campgrounds located in the wilderness area, where your only company will be wild horses, solitude and a few other hardy souls.

Recently, I experienced the wild side of Cumberland while hiking and camping with a group of friends. From Sea Camp and the public ferry a 10-mile trek with backpacks brought us down the Parallel Trail to Brickhill Bluff campground. This breezy clearing overlooking a marshy creek offered scenic views and a water pump that required treatment of the water before drinking. From this base camp the island could be explored on foot, and we made a day of exploring the beach and miles of trails through maritime forest. Wild horses, remnants of those set free by Thomas Carnegie so long ago, roamed the beach and woods around us. No clocks, no calendars need apply as the outside world slipped away and the solitude of Cumberland Island took effect.

Whether camping, staying in a luxury inn, backpacking deep into the wild northern half of the island or simply spending a day, Cumberland Island will guarantee you an experience that will overload the senses and transport you to another world.

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