Explore the Untamed
Georgia’s Cumberland Island remains a haven for horses and wilderness.
Feral horses grant a back-in-time appeal to Cumberland Island, an 18-mile sandy spit just beyond the Florida-Georgia border, but the real gift of this Atlantic coast getaway is its easy-access wilderness. It’s less than a three-hour drive from Orlando to the town of St. Marys, where day and overnight visitors catch the ferry, which makes no more than three round trips per day. Even before the boat arrives, horses, deer and turkey can often be spotted along the marsh fringes.
The ferry docks twice; the second stop is nearest Sea Camp Beach, which offers 16 individual campsites and two group sites—each buffered by walls of palmetto trees and moss-covered live oaks—plus showers and some of the cleanest flush toilets belonging to the National Park Service. The last ferry departs at 4:45 p.m., allowing day-trippers plenty of time to wander the caramel sand littered with horseshoe crab shells and sand dollars. For guests looking to see a handful of ecologically diverse areas, the rangers recommend a 4-mile loop: From Sea Camp Beach, head south, then tuck inland at the next opportunity for a marked over-dune crossing. This southern tip is popular with the horses, which have grown accustomed to—but certainly not afraid of—visitors.
“They know they’re bigger than you and they expect you to move,” says Abron Crawford, a Cumberland park ranger for 17 years. Crawford’s reminders not to not feed or harass wildlife may seem like overkill, but he’s seen too many folks forget that these animals aren’t petting-zoo attractions. “People can’t help themselves. They throw bread at the turkeys, then wonder why the birds follow them all day.” This lower tip of the island is also home to the fire-ravaged ruins of the Carnegies' Dungeness estate, plus the well-preserved Plum Orchard, a Georgian Revival mansion.
Cumberland Island allows no more than 300 guests per day—even at midday, the most noise you’ll hear is the roar of the Atlantic, or the shuffle of palm fronds as you tread the interior. And yet, when the last ferry of the day pushes off, it somehow manages to grow quieter still. The wind dies. The fat oak branches creak, sighing as they settle. There’s the initial shock—the mental hurdle of sitting still in nature, unfettered by screens and technology (although there is a cell signal). Stay with it. That discomfort passes, and suddenly the ferns curling up toward the branches of the canopy seem electric green. You notice the damp, peppery smell of the understory. And as you cast footprints on the beach after dusk, the stars glow brighter than streetlights. You feel a part of heaven itself.
Find information about ferries and campsites at nps.gov/cuis. Ferries depart the Cumberland Island Visitor Center at 113 Saint Marys St., St. Marys, Georgia.