What It's Like to Kayak and Camp on Georgia's Cumberland Island for a Week

Cumberland Island is the largest, most biodiverse barrier island in Georgia... And it's a fascinating place to spend a week.
Cumberland Island is the largest, most biodiverse barrier island in Georgia... And it's a fascinating place to spend a week. JR P
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I looked out at the seemingly endless channel of water in front of me, flicked a forlorn glance at the retreating coastline behind, and scanned the marshy banks for any place to pull off and get out of my boat.

“You didn’t tell me it would be 12 miles,” I complained to my boyfriend, who had talked me into kayaking to our spring break destination on Cumberland Island. “If I’d known, I’d have taken the ferry with everyone else.”

I had envisioned us paddling our borrowed sea kayaks straight across a picturesque bay, a few hundred yards at most, and landing at our vacation spot on the alluring Georgia island in just a few breezy minutes.

Instead, we were scooting along a busy waterway in the smallest vessels on the river, with no end in sight. It probably didn’t help that I’d only paddled a boat once before.

I was in full-on pout mode when we finally cruised into a calmer, grassier section of the river and my boyfriend tossed me a warm-ish beer and essentially told me to take a chill pill. I reclined in my boat and was able to take in what I’d been missing in my state of frustration: the river was serene and gleaming in the sunlight, we were paddling along Cumberland Island’s lush shoreline and we’d even seen some dolphins skipping happily through the water.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t so bad after all.

In the afternoon we arrived at the beachside backcountry site that we’d reserved for our group: a large open area with broad live oak trees and a spectacular view of the sunset. Our only amenity was a pump that spouted sulphuric water, and the backcountry campfire ban meant we spent our evenings lounging around an orange Luci lantern.

The ferry to Cumberland Island.
The ferry to Cumberland Island. JR P

The other eight people in our group were already there setting up their tents and hammocks. They had taken the ferry over from the town of St. Mary’s and then hiked ten miles to the remote campsite. They described their cross-island jaunt as totally flat but exceedingly scenic, beginning at the coast and passing through a seemingly impossible array of landscapes: dense forests, wet marshland, mossy groves, open fields and more.

The 36,000-acre island was declared a National Seashore in 1972 and is now managed by the National Park Service. Cumberland Island is the largest and most biodiverse of Georgia’s barrier islands, and conservation efforts are constantly being made to preserve its 23 distinct ecological communities. Access is restricted to 300 people at a time and campers are limited to seven consecutive nights on the island.

For those who brave the island for more than a day trip, there are three tiers of camping on Cumberland: developed camping at Sea Camp, with restrooms, showers, fire rings and picnic tables; semi-primitive camping at Stafford Beach with restrooms and fire rings, located 3.5 miles from the ferry dock; and wilderness camping, five to ten miles from the dock, where what you have is what you bring.

Spanish moss dripping from the live oaks.
Spanish moss dripping from the live oaks. JR P

Our site was primitive, so our gear load was heavy: a week’s worth of food, clothes for various weather conditions, camping essentials (plus some luxuries) and, of course, alcohol. It was spring break, after all.

Despite its remoteness, camping on the island is extremely popular, especially in the developed areas, and reservations need to be made several months ahead of time. We started planning our March trip in December and were glad we did. Though our group members were seasoned outdoors-people, a full week in the backcountry required careful planning and packing.

Cumberland Island’s documented human history reaches back 4,000 years, to when it was inhabited by Native Americans from the Mocama group. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the island was settled by Spanish missionaries, who remained there until they were attacked by pirates in the 1680s. Fifty years later, English General James Oglethorpe came to the island, bestowed the name Cumberland and lived there for several years.

An abandoned mansion tells a timeless tale of man and nature on Cumberland Island.
An abandoned mansion tells a timeless tale of man and nature on Cumberland Island. JR P

In the 18th century, Catharine Greene and Phineas Miller built an enormous mansion and began a Sea Island cotton operation, for which they enslaved 210 people. For many years, Sea Island cotton was a valuable commodity, though indigo, rice and other crops were also grown there. Later the Carnegies arrived and built several impressive structures, around the same time that farmers were settling the northern end of the island. For a while, former slaves and their descendants lived in villages in this region, remnants of which can still be found on the island.

During our week on Cumberland Island, we trekked to its farthest reaches, exploring webs of trails, dirt roads, secluded beaches, and the unlikely structures that serve as reminders of the island’s eclectic history. There’s a slave church that hosted the wedding of John F. Kennedy Jr., Oglethorpe’s daunting hunting lodge called Dungeness, and an elegant Carnegie Mansion, among others.

Cumberland Island's undeveloped Seashore Beach.
Cumberland Island's undeveloped Seashore Beach. JR P

We spent most of our time relaxing and playing games on the island’s vast beaches. Since we visited in March, when the island still experiences some cooler weather, we had the wide seashores and chilly water to ourselves.

The downside of visiting in early spring, we found, is that what the island lacked in other campers, it made up for in gnats and mosquitos. We were constantly fighting off pesky biters and slathering ourselves in bug spray, and could usually only find refuge from them on the windy beaches.

To get to the beach we’d walk paths shaded by mossy oaks and navigate trails through mud flats and dunes, frequently stopping to ogle a snake, climb a low-hanging live oak, or dare each other to take a plunge into the swamp, where we’d spotted some pretty ornery looking alligators. Sometimes we’d have run-ins with the island’s famed but skittish wild horses, though usually they kept their distance.

The famed wild horses of Georgia's largest, most biodiverse barrier island.
The famed wild horses of Georgia's largest, most biodiverse barrier island. JR P

At night, our wilderness camp was terrorized by raccoons who stole our granola bars and ravaged our backpacks. We developed some creative ways to deter these critters, like barking ferociously into the night whenever we suspected that one crept near our tents.

In addition to being a beautiful place with diverse landscapes and exotic animals, Cumberland Island is made even more appealing by its sheer inexpensiveness. Our six nights of wilderness campsites cost only $54, split among ten people. Our food costs were extremely low (we did eat a lot of Ramen noodles) and parking in St. Mary’s was free. The biggest costs we encountered were the $30 ferry tickets and the beer we lugged in our backpacks. All told, we conjointly spent roughly what it would cost for one person to go on a traditional beach vacation.

The next week classes resumed, and while other students swapped stories of drunken escapades at Panama City Beach, we were a little smug in saying, “Yeah, we spent spring break on Cumberland Island.” We relaxed on beautiful undeveloped beaches, explored landscapes so varied and exotic that it was hard to believe we were just a few miles from mainland Georgia, and spent six nights camping under clear skies and ancient oaks. And while, admittedly, we collectively suffered some sunburns and mysterious bug bites, we returned to our classes refreshed and thrilled at our island adventure.

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