Blog Post Emily Jones May 25, 2017

Leave the Mainland Behind

Plan a remote beach vacation on Cumberland Island

Southeast of Atlanta, Georgia, lies the state’s largest barrier island, a wild, untamed seashore known as Cumberland Island. In 1956, the National Park Service called Cumberland Island “one of the two most outstanding undeveloped seashore areas remaining along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts,” and in 1972, Congress designated the island a national seashore due to its outstanding natural, historic and recreational value to the nation.

No bridge can take you there. To see this place, you must board a ferry in the town of St. Marys, which adds a special element to the experience. As you travel across the sound, you disconnect from the hustle and bustle of life on the mainland and ease into the peaceful state of mind that time on a barrier island provides.

The ferry trip on the Intracoastal Waterway up Cumberland River brings you to a small dock next to 9,800 acres of wilderness. You may be escorted on your trip by dolphins and sea birds playing in the boat’s wake. A short walk from the landing will take you to 18 miles of uninhabited beaches. Whether you camp at the developed tent sites at Sea Camp, hike to a primitive campsite in the wilderness, or stay in the comfortable Greyfield Inn, Cumberland will provide an unspoiled and unique setting for your adventures.

While the wilderness area preserves the solitude and undeveloped nature of the island, you won’t be alone. Only 300 people a day can visit, but you’ll be in the company of many of the seashore’s 320 species of birds. Some of the largest wood stork rookeries on the Atlantic Coast are near Cumberland Island. Red knots and piping plovers use the undeveloped beaches on their migration flights. Four species of nesting sea turtles lay their eggs there in late spring and early summer, and their hatchings scurry to the sea about 60 days later. Right whales calve in the warm Atlantic waters off the coast of Cumberland, and gopher tortoises burrow in the protected maritime forest.

Resources at Risk

Commissioners in Camden County, Georgia, have applied to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for a Launch Site Operator License to build a proposed commercial space launch site across the Cumberland River from Cumberland Island’s Stafford Historic District. These launches would threaten not only fish nurseries and bird habitat, but the stability of historic structures such as Stafford Chimneys and the First African Baptist Church on the north end of the island, as well as private homes on Little Cumberland Island and in other neighboring communities. The development of launch facilities adjacent to Cumberland Island could include temporary or permanent park closures during launch and recovery.

Cumberland Island National Seashore belongs to all Americans. The natural, cultural and historic resources should not be harmed when other suitable spaceports, such as NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, offer reasonable alternatives. Learn more and sign up for NPCA’s email list to take action on this and other important national park issues in the future.

Cumberland’s salt marshes also provide habitat for fish and shellfish, and shallow waters and seagrass provide a rich nursery for the young of many of these species. Cumberland has 22 different habitats and ecosystems, including more than 36,000 acres of pristine maritime forest, wild beach, freshwater lakes and saltwater marshes. The natural forces of wind and waves constantly change the dunes and shape the barrier island.

Humans are part of this park’s history, too. People have been present on Cumberland Island for 10,000 years. Evidence of Timucuan Indians exists in prehistoric sites and shell middens. Human history of the island is documented from Spanish missions and English military occupation to the American Revolution and the Gilded Age. Four historic districts tell the story of Cumberland’s past residents, including a Revolutionary War hero, owners of a Sea Island cotton plantation, wealthy industrialists, and African American slaves and freedmen.

Cumberland is one of several national parks, seashores and lakeshores that require a little extra effort and a ferry schedule to get to — but the effort is so worth it. As you make plans this summer to visit the beach, consider these places that offer the special experience of leaving the mainland behind.

Other national parks and seashores that require a boat ride to visit include:

About the author

  • Emily Jones Southeast Regional Director, Southeast

    Emily’s work as Southeast Regional Director revolves around building momentum within local communities and garnering congressional support to ensure our national parks become a national priority.