When I first heard about Cumberland Island National Seashore, it seemed like a magical place full of wild ponies, sea birds, maritime forests, and peaceful beaches. The reality was that magical.
On our drive to St. Mary’s, Georgia we stopped for dinner at Tios in Columbia, South Carolina. They served meat and vegetarian food, but offered vegan cheese for any order on the menu. We took advantage of that and were very happy with the results. Yummy tacos and burritos! Upon arrival in St. Mary’s, a precious, quiet town on the water, before we could take the ferry to the island, we stayed the night at the Riverview Hotel, a relic of the past, replete with the requisite ghost stories and lounging cat. All the rooms are unique, and are named after different people or things. We stayed in the Nimitz Room, named for Admiral Nimitz, a naval officer during WWII. We saw no ghosts, but did see the cat.
In the morning, we explored the visitors center while waiting for our ferry to Cumberland Island. The weather was warm and sunny, wonderful conditions for a weekend on the beach. The ferry ride itself was lovely, as we chugged across Cumberland Sound from the St. Mary’s River. We landed at the Sea Camp Ranger Station, where we were given some rules and regulations before being given our camping permits. We were planning to stay on the island for two nights, and were able to get both of the camping spots we wanted. As soon as we were told we could camp at Stafford Beach our first night, we shouldered our packs and headed into the interior of the island to follow the Parallel Trail to the Pratts Trail. Not an overly taxing hike, no hills, we hiked the three or so miles through maritime forest relatively quickly and set up camp at a large site right off the trail. I spent the entire time looking for any of the feral ponies that roam the island. It wasn’t until dusk that I heard, and then caught a glimpse, of two trotting by our campsite. By then we had made our way to the ocean to touch our toes to the Atlantic waters and collect shells. There is an abundance of shells on the island, and since they are considered a renewable resource, visitors can take home as many as they can carry. We spent a peaceful night sleeping under the stars, lulled to sleep by the pounding waves.
The following morning, we meandered south along the beach, looking for sand dollars and picking up shells. By the time we arrived back at Sea Camp, I had amassed a huge stuff sack full of shells! I later decorated our dining room table with them – so we always have a reminder in our home of this truly magical place. Anthony found two intact sand dollars. We pretty much had the beach to ourselves, and it was a gorgeously sunny day, magical indeed!
Back at Sea Camp, we established camp once again, in a secluded spot surrounded by trees. Even though this is the most popular spot, and many people haul tons of stuff off the ferry to this nearby campground, it was still quiet during the night. Once we had set up our tent, we took a walk to the ruins of Dungeness – which was a Carnegie mansion built in 1884. It burned down in 1959, but the ruins of this magnificent house with beautiful views and solitude are still standing. Rumored to be infested with snakes, visitors cannot actually enter the ruins, but can wander through the grounds and appreciate the lifestyle the Carnegies and their friends lived on this out of the way island. They threw lavish parties that lasted for months, and enjoyed summers of leisure. Only populated with the wealthy (and their slaves and servants) before it became part of the NPS system, Cumberland Island has always been a special place to its residents. While walking around the property I spotted a small herd of feral ponies, and spent lots of time photographing them and refraining from approaching them. Though used to people, they are wild animals.
We crossed back to the Atlantic side of the island and walked up the beach in the fading light of the day. After enjoying our couscous over our camping stove, and playing cards, we settled down onto our camping pads for our last night on Cumberland Island (at least on this trip – I hope we can come back and explore the rest of the island sometime). The next morning we boarded the ferry, with some sadness. The following day meant back to work and impending winter.
On our way home, we were able to stop at one more NPS site – Fort Pulaski National Monument. Built in the mid-1800s, Fort Pulaski was first occupied by the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Fort Pulaski was believed to be impenetrable, but new weapons had been invented, and the Federals took advantage of this. Fort Pulaski was attacked from Tybee Island and the Federals were able to get the Confederates to surrender within 30 hours. The fort has been preserved and restored enough so that we were able to walk through many of the underground tunnels, as well as examine all the interior rooms. After this stop, we headed back home to Asheville.
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