When I first moved to the South, I was told tales of a mystical isle off the coast of south Georgia where wild horses frolic freely down the beach.  I thought my new southern friends were pulling my leg and capitalizing on my Midwestern gullibility until a Google search proved to me that this magical place called Cumberland Island truly does exist.

Fast forward to the present day – nine years later, and I have FINALLY checked Cumberland Island off my list.  Why did I wait so long to visit?  It wasn’t for lack of trying… it was due to lack of planning.  The handful of times I tried to plan a trip to Cumberland I found out (the hard way) that both the camping sites and the ferry tickets to/from the island sell out well in advance.  There is no bridge connecting Cumberland to the mainland, therefore, the only way to the island is by the ferry or a boat.

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Additionally, the entire island only offers two lodging options – be one with nature and camp, or book a room at the elegant Greyfield Inn, where prices start at $475.00 a night with a two night minimum.  Needless to say, we chose the former.

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Cumberland island is slightly larger than Manhattan and it has three separate and distinct ecosystems: beach, forest and marsh.  Because of this, the island is home to a plethora of wild animals including turkeys, mink, alligators, wild boars, armadillo, turkeys…and of course, the animal that inspired my trip to the island, wild horses!

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Cumberland is perhaps the most unique place I have traveled to in the United States.  Aside from the wide array of animals that inhabit the island, Cumberland is also home to ruins.  Not ancient ruins by any definition of the word, but ruins nonetheless, from the Carnegie era. Thomas Carnegie began building his Dungeness mansion in 1884, but the mansion was more or less abandoned by the family when the Great Depression hit and it was burned to the ground by a poacher in 1959.  (Interestingly, the mansion by the same name, which occupied the same property prior to Carnegie’s home being built, also met its demise by a fire nearly 100 years earlier).

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It may sound like a cop-out, but Cumberland is one of those places which pictures do not do justice.  My first thought upon my arrival was that I had stepped straight onto a Southern movie set.  The island’s pathways are lined with tall oak trees dripping with Spanish moss.

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As if the flora doesn’t create enough natural beauty, the fauna is the icing on the cake – those wild horses I keep writing about!  Prior to my trip, I was especially nervous that I wouldn’t be privy to a horse siting.  Luckily, my fears were unfounded.  In fact, your chances of not seeing a horse while on the island are rare – there are close to 150 wild horses on the 17.5 mile long island.  Not only did we see the horses walking down the pathways to the beach and near the Dungeness ruins, but we also had sightings near our campsite.

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My favorite moment of the trip was when we walked out to the beach after dusk.  The purpose of our moonlit stroll was to see whether we could catch a glimpse of any newly hatched sea turtles clumsily making their way to the ocean. (Yes – Cumberland is also in the midst of sea turtle hatching territory).  We were so engrossed in our searching for hatchlings that we didn’t even notice the pair of horses gracefully (and quietly) trotting next to us, parallel to the beach.  Of course I had left my SLR in the tent and only had my iphone camera with me (typical), causing me to miss what quite possibly could have been one of my favorite travel photos to date – the feral horses walking down the beach with the ocean behind them and the moon above.  (Sigh.) Regardless, the picture lives on in my memory, and I can assure you – it’s spectacular.

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Have I sold you on this pristine National Seashore?

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If so, here is what you should know before you go:

  • The ferry dock to the island is approximately 30 minutes from the Jacksonville airport, or just over 1.5 hours from the Savannah/Hilton Head airport.
  • The ferry to Cumberland leaves from St. Mary’s, GA.  Remember to book your ferries and campsites in advance.  The campsite cost is $4 per person per day, and the ferry cost is $20 per person.
  • You have two choices for camping: Sea Camp is a non-primitive campsite with running water and bathrooms which is about a 1/2 mile hike from the ferry dock.  If you wouldn’t consider yourself “super outdoorsy” or an avid camper/hiker, this is where you should camp.  Cumberland also has more primitive hike-in camping sites which are a 5+ mile hike from the dock.  There are no bathroom facilities, and the water at these sites need to be treated before drinking.
  • Nothing is sold on the island.  That means you must bring everything you need with you.  When you leave the island you also have to take all your trash with you as there are no trash cans on the island. (I would recommend that you pack extra trash bags because even if you hang your trash like we did, the chances of the raccoons getting into it are very high).
  • That said, you may want to bring cash to rent bikes, which is a great way to explore the island.
  • Bring your bathing suit and sunscreen – you are at the beach, after all!  We were surprised at how beautiful and secluded the Cumberland beaches were.
  • Bring LOTS of bug spray.  If you’re camping, you’re in the wilderness.  I traveled to the island in August and the mosquitos, ticks and ants were abundant.
  • Don’t forget your camera.  I’m certain that the island will delight and surprise you, much like it did for me.

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Where is the most unique place in the United States that you have visited?