It was a fun day romping on this barrier island–hiking through native forests, observing wildlife, and delighting in shoreline discoveries.
The State of Georgia has 14 barrier islands lining the Atlantic coast. They are owned and managed by different entities; vary in size and accessibility. A map at the end outlines all the islands.
Barrier islands are coastal landforms shaped by tides, waves, wind, sand and other elements. They protect the coastline by forming a barrier, thereby blocking ocean waves and wind from directly hitting the mainland.
Salt marshes and maritime forests are important natural features of the barrier islands.
Like all the Georgia barrier islands, Jekyll Island has a rich history of human settlement going back hundreds of years.
But the beauty of Jekyll Island today lies in its ownership and laws. The State of Georgia owns this island, and state laws restrict development to only 35%.
This allows 65% of the island for natural habitat. Stewards of the land have done a great job of protecting the wilderness from human development.
Roughly seven miles long (11 km) and two miles wide (3 km), it is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on the eastern side, and a tidal creek and salt marsh on the western side. It is 5,700 acres (2,307 ha). Map below.
I was impressed with the sand dunes and native sea grass on Jekyll’s oceanside beaches. Often American beaches have been completely cleared of native habitat, succumbing to human establishments like high rises and amusement parks. There are about nine hotels and a few restaurants, but the natural landscape prevails.
The beaches have been preserved with native flora, providing habitat and protected nesting for endangered sea turtles and migrating shorebirds.
We spent a few hours at Driftwood Beach on the north end. It is adjacent to a protected marsh where we saw many thriving waders, songbirds and shorebirds.
The island has many miles of maritime forests, as well. Maritime live oak forests are the dominant woods in Georgia’s southern barrier islands. In addition to the live oaks, so beautifully draped with Spanish moss, there is a variety of hardwood and pine trees.
The understory is alive with unique lichen, ferns, wild blueberries, and the ubiquitous saw palmettos.
We explored Tupelo Trail and Horton Pond. Even in October it was very hot and humid, but still it was an easy hike under a towering canopy complete with mosquitoes, shimmering spider webs and many species of foraging birds.
Signs warned of alligators, but our reptilian experiences were highlighted that day with numerous lizards and skinks, not alligators.
Horton Pond–named after Major William Horton, a land owner here in the 1740s–is a testament to the island’s ongoing conservation efforts. With fund-raising donations and the Jekyll Island Authority, the pond was updated in 2014.
It has a handsome observation deck, providing great views of the entire pond, while protecting the wild denizens.
We saw woodpeckers, songbirds, anhingas, and herons in the pond’s surrounding trees, and dozens of native softshell turtles swimming in the naturally tanic waters.
This softshell turtle is taking advantage of the floating raft anchored in the pond.
We had a great time on the north tip of the island, too. Clam Creek Road offers picnicking and wildlife viewing and an abundant plethora of tidal wildlife. I could easily and joyously have spent the entire day here.
The parking lot at Clam Creek was mellow and not teeming with cars and people, affording us the opportunity to enjoy this boat-tailed grackle bathing (and singing) in a puddle.
There is an extensive fishing pier, here, too. Built in 1969, it is a large T-shaped concrete structure that juts 360 feet (110 m) into the waters of St. Simons Sound. I’ve read there’s good fishing: red drum, spotted seatrout, Spanish mackerel, flounder, shark, and more, as well as shrimp and blue crabs.
In the photo below you can see what the pier looks like at most moments. It was low tide, and seemingly quiet and low-key, but there was a lot going on under the surface.
We were having a great time spotting shorebirds and hermit crabs, and all the wildlife who live in this plentiful world.
And then an incredible event happened.
A super giant cargo ship quietly passed by.
The Bravery Ace is 623 feet (190 m) long and 104 feet (32 m) wide. It’s called a Vehicles Carrier, transports thousands of cars and trucks.
You can see how big it is compared to the pier. It stirred the waters as it slowly labored by.
Although we stopped and stared at this magnificent vessel, the gulls didn’t stop picking the dead crabs apart and the shorebirds were undeterred in their feeding frenzy.
I hope to one day return to this Georgia gem. But in the meantime, I have sweet memories of a precious day on Jekyll Island.
Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander.