It may not be the best kept secret to enthusiasts of our national parks & seashores, the Carnegie family or history, but Cumberland Island has become an uncovered gem that beckons me back.
Cumberland Island is Georgia’s largest and southernmost barrier island. Accessible by ferry from St. Mary’s it is one of America’s National Parks and National Seashore. It is a treasure to be sure. You can choose to spend a day on the island hiking a short circular trail on the southern end of the island. If you come prepared with hiking gear and supplies one can explore the many facets of the island over many days.
There are three distinct features that make Cumberland Island a getaway you’ll never forget.
The first feature are the ruins. Wait! Ruins? We have those in the United States? We’re less than 300 hundred years old, I thought ruins were for countries that have been here for at least 800 years! Indeed. As soon as I read that word on the map my ears perked up. Vivid memories of my travels through Ireland and Italy where crumbling facades of churches and castles dot the landscape, which gave way to small cemeteries and stunning archways to rooms once adorned appropriate to the age.
It wasn’t too far into the hike that we encountered the ruins that were the vacation home of the Carnegie family. And much like those European ruins these have the same impact– the enormity of the mansion drew me in as I approached. Although visitors are not permitted to wander the rooms and hallways, it was enough to walk the perimeter and imagine the varied rooms, the gilded wall paper, ornate chandeliers and large bay windows that looked upon the sprawling grounds, greenhouse and gardens. The ruins sit tranquil amidst a large field. All around us, as we ventured through the now dilapidated structures the birds chirped, bees buzzed and butterflies flitted around.
What was even more amazing was the “back of the house” where the operations were housed — the laundry room, the ice house, kitchen, and servants quarters. It truly is an opportunity to step back in time and let the imagination run wild with learning what life was like back then on Cumberland Island.
The second distinct feature are the ecosystems we traveled through. The island is big and diverse enough to spend several days camping while hiking the vast reaches of the islands many nooks and crannies.
The day visitor can experience quite enough just the same. As such we chose to follow the 4 mile loop path. Never before had I walked through forest, field, sand dunes, and shoreline (so far) except for Cumberland Island. This ecosystem tour make the trip worth the price of the ferry ride.
We started the hike at the dock and ranger station under a thick canopy of oak trees and palms. Upon starting the journey through a palmetto garden we soon scamper into the open fields of the ruins, gardens, and “civilized” ecosystem with views of the water way, canals, and vast expanses.
Continuing along the path, beyond where the Carnegies resided we arrived at the sand dunes, a beautiful white sand, well worn by travelers before us, leads the way. There are two options here, a manmade structure, or for those slightly more daring it appears possible to traverse the dunes by foot (spoiler alert there is no shade so if it is the Summer….it’s gonna be hot. Wear shoes and SPF 50).
Before long though the journey is rewarded with a salty breeze and the refreshing sound of Atlantic waves lapping the shore. We left the dunes behind and embraced a slow walk along the seashore, the cool waters lapping our ankles and seashells uncovering themselves for us to explore and add to the collection as we stroll back towards the final leg, one last walk through mangroves and the palmetto forest.
The third distinct feature of Cumberland Island is the opportunity to immerse yourself in the present moment. Once we stepped on the island my senses were immersed in the present moment as are the senses — visually into the lush foliage, the thick smell of aged tree bark and brackish water, the sound of chirping birds and lively chatter of the newly arrived visitors heading off in multiple directions to explore the island, the feel of sandy seashells.
Cumberland Island is well worth the pilgrimage both to visit the area and while on the Island for the day or for several days as you explore the many paths and vistas that are offered. Why wait, your perfect getaway is a few steps away.