Cumberland Island National Seashore is a small barrier island off the Atlantic Coast of Georgia. Taking the ferry and spending a day on the island offers a peaceful day trip and a pleasant hike.
Before we even boarded the ferry, wildlife were entertaining us. We noticed a group of fourth graders squealing at something under the dock, they had found about a dozen fiddler crabs in the low-tide mud.
This roseate spoonbill was busy probing the mud, filtering crustaceans in its magnificent bill.
The ferry ride is about 45 minutes long and cruises past numerous islands and marshes.
The island is only 18 miles (29 km) long. The east side faces the ocean; while the west side faces saltwater marshes and rivers, the Cumberland Sound.
It has a long, peopleless beach where we watched several flocks of royal terns in their winter plumage.
Cumberland Island is one of Georgia’s 14 major barrier islands–it is the largest. Fortunately for us, most of Georgia’s barrier islands are protected by state or federal governments.
Barrier islands are coastal landforms that have been formed 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. See graphic at end.
These islands, also known as the Golden Isles, are so named for the rich amber color of the marsh grasses.
While there are many popular tourist attractions on Georgia’s islands, what I like about Cumberland is that it’s refreshingly devoid of tourist facilities and commercialism. There are no stores or concessions here, no golf courses or gift shops, not even garbage cans. You eat and drink what you brought, and pack your garbage out.
The Park Service only allows 300 visitors a day. Most people come just for the day, but there is an inn (prohibitively expensive) and camping available.
The emphasis is on the wilderness and wildlife.
In addition to the barrier islands, Georgia’s coast is comprised of 400,000 acres (1,619 sq. km.) of saltwater marshes. Influenced continuously by the ocean’s tidal action, the marshes flood and drain constantly, bringing in microscopic organisms that enrich the water with oxygen.
Abundant fish, shellfish, plants, insects, and birds are attracted to these waters. Marsh grasses and the shallow waters provide cover for the wildlife.
There is also a maritime forest on Cumberland Island. It has live oak trees curiously stunted by salt air; they are thickly covered with Spanish moss. The area’s ubiquitous saw palmetto plants (in foreground) dominate the forest floor.
While in this unusual forest, we heard the crashing surf and soon found untouched dunes and the Atlantic.
Conservationists have been working for decades to protect this beach, successfully encouraging sea turtles to nest. Last year the National Park Service counted 885 sea turtle nests here. The majority of the nests belonged to the endangered loggerhead turtle.
This pristine beach has not always been protected. One of the most ferocious protectors of the loggerhead turtles is Carol Ruckdeschel, who has lived on Cumberland for decades. The book “Untamed” by Will Harlan outlines the many achievements Carol has made, often single-handedly, in protecting the turtles and other wildlife on Cumberland Island.
Horseshoe crab shells, one jellyfish, and several species of shorebirds dotted the beach. Coconuts, palm trunks and other washed-up detritus were covered with seaweed and barnacles.
Winds were fierce, so we kept hiking.
There are other attractions on the island, like the Dungeness Ruins, a fire-ravaged and abandoned estate with much human history, as well as feral horses.
We did not have much time to linger on our mild winter day. The sun sets early in November, and there was only one departing afternoon ferry, it left at 4:45 pm. More ferries are offered in the summer.
After we boarded the ferry, the magic did not end. Those same fourth graders were on board, and when the squealing began, I went over to see what they had found this time. Dolphins.
Then one last parting gift: the setting sun.
As we cruised through the Golden Isles, we were surrounded by miles and miles of golden marsh grasses, lit up like only the sun can do.
Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander.