I have returned safe and sound from my hiking trip to Cumberland Island. I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed myself and got to do a lot of searching both physically and metaphysically during the outing. The later will probably percolate to the creative surface in the days to come, but in the meantime I’ll focus on the former experiences.

Background

Cumberland Island has a long and serpentine history before falling (mostly) under the federal government as a National Seashore. Inhabitants includes pre-Columbian Indians such as the Timuca, Guale, and Mocamo as far back as 2000 BCE to more contemporary arrivals such as the Spanish, French, Africans, British, and Americans (including the famous Carnegie family). After narrowly escaping industrial and recreational development, the island is currently in the process of reverting to its natural state with a few former landowners finishing out life-leases before those areas also come under the National Parks Service. Over thirty-six thousand acres, Cumberland Island is larger than Manhattan Island and serves as an irreplaceable component of the coastal ecosystem.

Access to the island is via specially chartered or park service ferries, although a few hearty souls choose to sea kayak their way to landing points on the island. There are no causeways, bridges or regular flights to the island (aside from two emergency helicopter pads) and the park service now seems to frown on enterprising private boating excursions. The number of visitors, length of stay and impact on the island are strictly regulated by the park rangers. I arrived at the St. Marys docks on the mainland an hour early, not knowing what to expect and found myself among day hikers, picnic campers and three other backcountry hikers. After a brief orientation we took a 45 minute ferry ride down the St. Marys River and up the Cumberland Sound.The ferry offloads at two docks, both at the southern end of the island. One, the Ice House Museum dock is for day visitors, while the Sea Camp Dock serves picnic campers (Sea Camp site) and those intending to hike the backcountry.

The rangers were helpful and informative, reviewing the local regulations clearly and elaborating any number of questions.After signing in for campsites and filing my travel agenda I decided to hike contrary to the customary path to allow some spacing between myself and the other backcountry hikers setting out that day.It had been my intent to zig-zag the entire island’s length anyway, so this was just a slight modification of my original plan.

Traveling south down the River Trail I briefly poked around the old Ice House Museum then made my way to the Dungeness Ruins. This particular site has a rather interesting history. Originally a ceremonial shell midden of the pre-historic Indian inhabitants, General James Oglethorpe built a hunting lodge in the area after the island was ?acquired? from the Spanish (as San Pedro Island). This site was subsequently abandoned till Phineas Miller built the first Dungeness Mansion creating a legendary social and high society retreat for colonial Georgians. After the Civil War, Dungeness fell into disrepair and finally succumbed to a devastating fire in 1866. In its final incarnation, Dungeness was rebuilt by Thomas Carnegie in 1880 as a 59 room Scottish castle complete with turrets, a pool house, 40 outbuildings, golf course, acres of manicured gardens and a squash court.This incarnation enjoyed a long and peculiar history until it too succumbed to an unexplained fire in 1959 leaving the ruins visitors see today.

During my visit to Dungeness I meandered around the grounds and observed warnings not to enter the unstable structure.My only companions were a stallion and his small harem of mares from the island?s large population of wild horses which are descended from the stock of Carnegie and other past inhabitants.

From Dungeness I continued southward along the Raccoon Keys (marshes) to the South end ponds and Pelican bank.Here a designated dune break allows visitors access to the eastern shore beaches where I strolled before returning to the trail and heading northward.After a side trip on the lovely and shaded Nightingale Trail, I took a brief hike on the Main Road (little more than a one lane path of crushed shell and compacted sand) until I reached a cross-trail to the Parallel Trail.

True to its name, the Parallel Trail runs north-south parallel to the island?s shores.It lays just far enough inland to enjoy the shadowy cover of Live Oaks heavily laden with Spanish moss as well as prodigious growths of Palmettos and still affording hikers the occasional ocean breeze and pounding surf.While this area is still south of the official wilderness area of Cumberland it certainly conveys a relaxing sample of maritime forestry. I took time out to cut east at designated dune breaks at both Little Greyfield and Stafford Beach to walk barefoot in the sand and surf.Nothing like the cool, frothing sea-foam to revive feet formerly trapped in hiking boots. I noticed a huge number of jellyfish beached in this area and not knowing if they were the stinging sort, I’d advise folks to step carefully just in case. These were accompanied with shells of all varieties as well as numerous shore birds such as gannets, kites, sandpipers and plovers.

Although they are only recent arrivals, the armadillo is a very common, one might say prolific inhabitant of the island. These easy going creatures will all but ignore the most heavy-footed traveler and only grudgingly give up their rooting about for insects. Although I never spotted one, nearly every muddy bank or marshy shore bore the distinctive prints of raccoons, notorious raiders of campsites on Cumberland. I suppose I should mention that the dreaded grey and fox squirrels are also common among the pines and oaks of the island (this author harbors a nigh-legendary antipathy for squirrels).

Hickory Hill was the first of my campsites and afforded easy access to a well (all island water except that at the ranger stations should be treated or filtered) as well as the aforementioned Stafford Beach.It was at Hickory Hill that I met the 55 year old, Hunter, twice veteran of the Appalachian Trail. Hunter was a veritable font of trail stories and useful advice (like which trails on the island were far less maintained than others).On a side note, every time I pitched my MSR Missing Link tent, it drew curious looks and questions. It?s an odd looking tent and surprisingly efficient and strong. Nights on Cumberland in March/April are surprisingly chilly, a byproduct of the strong coastal winds, I suppose. Not enough to deter me from some night swimming in the ocean which was actually warmer than the air. Luckily I’m a warm sleeper, but I still wouldn’t have passed up a three-season sleeping bag or Voldari bed warmer.

From Hickory Hill I explored Willow Pond Trail and north to the Yankee Paradise campsite. This site wasn’t overly impressive and the water source here is particularly high in Sulfur, though the scarcity of campers might make it appealing to some. From here I took in the Tar Kiln and Lost Trails where I saw wallows, ruts and tracks of some of the islands feral pigs.I’m still a bit suspicious of these creatures’ notorious temperament so didn’t consider missing them too much of a loss. From this point, I took the Roller Coaster Trail.The very slight rises and dips of this well-defined trail are probably the source of its name, but it?s certainly far from taxing in its grade. It does feature impressive rows of massive palmettos as well as the occasional peak of marshy grass fields. Terminating my trip on Roller Coaster early, I diverted to the South Cut Trail. This trail crosses some deeper ponds where I encountered one alligator 4-5 feet in length as well as a juvenile that was a little over a foot in length, as well as a very large turtle.

Reaching the Brickhill Bluff camp, I decided to pitch camp a dozen yards or so from the gentler western shore of the island.This proved to be an excellent test of my tent’s resilience to the wind which promptly picked up to gale proportions.The Missing Link held up wonderfully, providing snug and secure shelter though I finally did relent and move to a more sheltered location.It was also under these conditions that I suffered some frustration with my old Optimus stove. Though I suspect any stove would be challenged under winds of this degree, I REALLY wanted a hot meal and cup of coffee. It gave me serious thoughts about stove alternatives. Brickhill is also were I met the yoga camper, a friendly fellow from Pennsylvania who is meandering around the US in his Outback. In a friendly exchange of efforts we shared his stove and my water filter to make the best of the site.Speaking of filters, the Katadyn Hiker performed marvelously, cleaning liter after liter of water quickly and easily.This site was also temporary home to John, a robust middle aged hiker and fisherman and his sea kayaking wife, Lynn (who apparently braved those gusts with trivial ease).

I spent an additional night at Brickhill to allow myself the chance to day hike extensively around the northern portion of the island, taking in such sights as The Settlement, the First African Baptist Church (where John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette were married), Terrapin Point, Halfmoon Bluff, the North Cut Road, the last half of Roller Coaster and Bunkley Trail.Regarding the later, while well-defined on the ground, Bunkley features heavy and occasionally thorny vegetation closing in just two to three feet off the ground. I had managed to avoid any ticks until Bunkley, but even diligence, Deet and long pants couldn’t stop a single determined one from getting through.It?s also worth noting that the Terrapin Point Trail gets fuzzy at points and I found myself having to bushwhack by compass to find the trail again at one point. The relative isolation of this area as well as an Osprey nest and numerous horses was reward enough for the added effort, however.

It was during dusk of my last night at Brickhill that I heard heavy footfalls outside my tent. Poking my head outside I saw a wild mare grazing just a few dozen feet away. I was about to duck back inside to grab my camera that I heard a heavy exhalation to my right and realized that her stallion was right beside my tent, no less than six feet away eyeing me dubiously. Although I sorely wanted a picture of this fellow, I decided that setting off a flash in his already anxious face was probably a patently unwise choice. So I waited for several minutes until he seemed satisfied and trotted back to his mare. Images of me and my tent being dragged off as he lunged through my guidelines subsided.

With a major portion of the central western section of the island as yet untraveled, I was determined to include it as well in the days to come.Taking in the Main Road south I made several extensive side hikes including Kings Bottom Trail (another badly maintained trail, that I was forewarned about), Table Point, Duck House Trail, Old River and Plum Orchard Mansion.The last leg of my venture was mainly by the Main Road until I rejoined the Parallel Trail, only breaking out to see features at Stafford and Greyfield.Finally emerging back at the Sea Camp Ranger station I partook of the comfy rocking chairs and awaited my ferry back to the mainland.

To my fellow gearheads I offer the following:

  • I still think I packed too much food and water, finding myself about a liter over even on thirsty days and with nearly two days of food to spare upon my departure.

  • The compass was indispensable on several of the rougher trails and probably shaved potential lost hours off my travels. Barring a compass, on Cumberland if you can see horse droppings you’re probably still on a trail of some sort.:-)

  • Levels of sulfur vary from site to site, although only a few are marked as such on the maps.With the exception of Yankee Paradise, not enough to dissuade a thirty hiker.

  • The filter was absolutely essential. I can’t imagine boiling or chemically treating the volume of water necessary over the course of a week.

  • Night and day temperatures in Georgia, particularly in the Spring and Fall vary dramatically. Be prepared with clothing that would be suitable for early Summer and early Winter elsewhere.

  • While the terrain is very level on Cumberland, I found a hiking pole very useful for distributing weight, testing sandy and marshy footing and generally easing travel.

  • Sunscreen and strong insect repellent are an absolute must.Although they were only occasionally out in force, the insects probably get worse as summer approaches and the combination of salt, sun and spray will burn you to a crisp if you aren’t prepared.

  • Open fires of any sort are not allowed in the backcountry, so unless you are inclined to cold meals, a reliable camp stove is in order.

Cumberland Island Photo Gallery