Subtropical Backpacking Bliss: Cumberland Island (Georgia)Wilderness & National Seashore

22nd March 2016


As a little boy I would sometimes imagine what it would be like to explore a wild island filled with tropical foreign-to-me jungle and unknown hidden creatures lurking in the shadows.

I recently got that experience!

The place: Cumberland Island Wilderness & National Seashore in Georgia.


Cumberland Island is located off the coast of Georgia right over the Florida border. It is Georgia's largest barrier island, measuring 17.5 miles long and varying from about 2 to 5 miles in width in average. Since the 1970's it has been managed by the National Park Service and provides a wilderness island experience. There is no development or even houses on the island, except for a few private houses that belong to families that were on the island before it got taken over by the federal government. No cars are allowed on the island, except for those of the park service and the few private residents. There is only one dirt road running the length of the island. The vast majority of the island is unbroken wilderness. There is even a large area of federally designated wilderness on this island, meaning there are no mechanized vehicles or bikes, no development, and no power tools allowed. The 50 miles of hiking trail and the beach are the way to get around. The only way to get to the island is by taking a 7 mile, 45 minute boat ride.

Here is the link to the park service map of the island and its trails.


The 2 day hike:


Along the Willow Pond Trail on Cumberland Island at sunrise-- This was the typical forest type during the hike.

I spent two days and one night exploring this island in late February. I was thrilled when the ranger told me I was going to have whole wilderness zone to myself that night. There were other people at the camp close to the dock, and several at the campsite 3.5 miles in Stafford Beach (which has running, non potable water and a restroom), but I was the only person permitted for any of the 3 other true backcountry sites in the Congressionally designated wilderness zone. With no bears or predators that pose a threat to humans, this solitude was joyful instead of frightful.

The temperatures on the trip were great, mid 50's during the day and breezy, mid 40's at night. No bugs at all. It was completely quiet except for the wind in the maritime forest. All sound seemed muffled. The hike was peaceful and meditative.




I was always on the lookout for wildlife, especially wild horses. I saw 3 during my hike.

Wild horse:


They proved to be skitterish and elusive, unlike their domesticated counterparts I see daily back home in rural New Hampshire. Their dropping were all over sections of the forest, but spotting one was like finding a moose back home.

There were also tons of armadillo! I saw about 20 of them over my 2 days.


I also came upon two tiny deer within 10 minutes of my hike. I was able to avoid detection for 30 seconds, but they gave their alarm snort and ran off as soon as they spotted me.

Terrible picture of that tiny deer on trail:



For a while I left the Parallel Trail and used a side trail to cut over to completely undeveloped coast. Its over 17 miles of unbroken, undeveloped sandy beach with dunes along the side:





I returned to the forest trails and made it Hickory Hill, about 6 miles into the hike to set up camp.


Camp for the night:


Massive live oaks surrounded this campsite. I set my tent up away from these because of the wind to eliminate the risk of being hit by a falling branch in the night. I put my tent where there was an opening and no branches above it.



It was the most relaxing night in a tent in the backcountry ever. The spring peepers were singing (frogs) and an owl occasionally hooted. Again, no people or bears to be rowdy either. I slept for six and a half straight hours without waking up... a first!

I woke up early on the second morning and hiked the Willow Pond Trail to the coast:





Eventually the trail became swampy, then entered an open prairie.



In this zone I watched a bald eagle land in a tree branch right above me. But he didn't like my rustling for the camera and flew away before I could get a picture.

And then finally dunes:






Massive live oak with sun star:


I made it a somewhat leisurely morning focused on photography. The only pressure was to make it back to catch the last ferry off the island that day at 4:45 pm. An exploded bottle of bug spray delayed packing up camp. But I made it back to the dock area with over an hour to spare. I headed to the nearest ocean side beach and watched the waves and the birds with only a few people around.

Willets (a kind of sandpipers) along the beach:



Finally it was time to board the boat and leave the island. First time I got on a boat to get back from a hike!

Enjoying low angle late afternoon sun on the roof of the boat in relative solitude.



Looking up Cumberland Sound:



In case you are wondering what the ferry looks like:


Cool ship in St. Marys harbor


All and in all, the hike provided a great sense of wilderness and solitude. It was a great rejuvenating adventure!

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