The Great American Road Trip: Cumberland Island National Seashore

“We’re going to miss the ferry, aren’t we?” Stef asked, as we loaded up into the car and left the Waycross Hampton Inn. I considered the 64 miles we had to cover, looked at the clock (10:20 AM) and the fact that we were expected to arrive 30 minutes early for our 11:45 departure, and said, “Nah.” That may have been a slightly less-than-confident response. 

Cumberland Island National Seashore may very well be the reason we decided to do this road trip. Stef had mentioned it some time after our trip to Maine, and after learning the history of the island and seeing picture after picture of the numerous wild horses on the island, we knew we had to get there. All that stood in our way was a good stretch of 2-lane highway combined with my promise to my parents to not get any speeding tickets during the trip.

For about half of the 64 miles, Georgia’s Highway 1 runs along the Okenfenokee National Wildlife Refuge, initially on my list of places to visit, but dropped since we were crunched for time. And there was my first lesson: we may have packed too much into too little time. This probably wouldn’t be the last time we had to remove something from the itinerary.

“Was it 30 minutes early or 15 minutes early?” Stef asked. “I’m pretty sure it was 15, we’ll be fine,” I said, hoping she wouldn’t notice the blood draining from my knuckles. We hit the town of Folkston and turned onto Route 40, resigned to an ungodly 35 mph speed limit. 10:50 and 28 miles to go. We’ll definitely arrive before the ferry leaves, but who knows if they’ll even let us on.

We made it to the visitor center in St. Marys at 11:22. Orientation hadn’t even begun! I exhaled for the first time in an hour and began gathering our stuff from the car. Now, both Stef and I are somewhat experienced hikers and incredibly novice backpackers, so I’m sure we looked ridiculous to the families who were only making day trips to the island. Given that it was our first time visiting, we really didn’t know what to expect. I’ll just stop there by saying that we probably would have taken the kitchen sink if we had any more room.

Once the orientation ended, we made our way to board the ferry; after being cooped up in a car for the morning and most of the previous day, we opted for the open-air top for the 40 minute ride down the St. Marys River and into Cumberland Sound. It got hot quickly. There was one family on top with us, and they looked as if they still owned property on the island.

We finally arrived on the island, sweaty and ecstatic. I tried to suspend my disbelief for just a second over how unbelievably humid the place was, and instead made our way over to the visitor center for a quick orientation on the island.

There is a beautiful inn on the island for those who don’t really care to rough it (or for those who still have a steady stream of income). Stef and I, however, opted to hike to the Stafford Beach Campground, a primitive site 3.5 miles away from the visitor center (and only $2 per person per night). There were only two other groups of campers there, and the beach (a short half-mile walk away) felt equally desolate. For a moment it felt like we were on our own private island.

The next day, we packed our site up and made the walk back to the Visitor Center, where we dropped our packs off and made for Dungeness, the mansion that the Carnegies made famous and quite possibly the most popular attraction on the island. Having not been used since 1929 for a Carnegie wedding, the estate burned to the ground in a suspected arson case. What remains are the beautiful ruins of fancier days gone by.

We reluctantly headed back to the visitor center and waited for our boat back to St. Mary. It would have been nice to spend an extra day here to see the north end of the island, but there’s always next time.

Up next on the road trip: Savannah, Georgia.


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