Off the Beaten Path: Cumberland Island

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The pristine wildness of Cumberland Island is one of the last true spots along the Atlantic coastline where man has not triumphed over nature

By Josephine Matyas & Craig Jones 

It’s not far as the crow flies, but in terms of coastline development, Cumberland Island National Seashore might as well be a million miles from the Georgia mainland. Wanna-go visitors to the island (numbers are restricted to 300 per day) snag a ticket for the ferry that leaves from the mainland village of St. Mary’s. Once there, you may be able to rent a bike and tour the remains of some of the island’s majestic homes but, ultimately, it’s you and the ocean breeze and the sand dunes and about 175 feral horses. Signs at the ferry dock advise people to bring everything they need: water, food, good walking shoes.

And that’s the way the National Park Service likes it, explained Park Ranger Maggie Tyler. “Visitors come to Cumberland Island for the history, the beaches and the solitude.” It was this solitude and the island’s air of history that drew John F. Kennedy Jr. to marry in the Cumberland Island tiny First African Baptist Church.

At one time the island was plantation farmland. Near the turn of the 19th century wealthy families from the north snapped up the acreage. It was the Carnegie family of Pittsburgh – their fortune rooted in steel and railroads – that eventually came to own most of Cumberland Island, first building a working farm and then building second homes to escape harsh Pennsylvania winters. The remains of their grand-scale properties – Dungeness and Plum Orchard – are the main draw for history buffs looking to take a gander at the lifestyle and privileges of the Gilded Age.

“Plum Orchard is now furnished in period pieces,” said Tyler, explaining the popular mansion tour. “There are 100 rooms including 11 bathrooms – and this would have been built at a time when the average person was more likely to have a telephone than indoor plumbing.”

The wealthy once came for the quiet and the snow-free winters. These days, regular folks come to Cumberland Island for, well, the peace and quiet.

According to Tyler, the landscape is unique in that it is an intact and stable dune and maritime forest as well as the largest barrier wilderness along the East Coast. New development is not allowed. Natural landscapes and wildlife – like the sand dunes, the saltwater marsh, the forest, the loggerhead sea turtle nesting grounds or the wild horses – are protected by law.

We bumped along the remains of the Grand Road in a Park Service 4WD truck, one of the few vehicles allowed on island. “This road runs north to south and has not changed in several centuries. The north end of the island has been designated by Congress as a Wilderness Area, creating an even higher level of protection. It’s an area where man is only a visitor.”

The dirt roadway through the maritime forest is narrow and rutted. Enormous live oaks, saw palmettos, cabbage palms, holly and myrtles meld together to form a thick dome overhead. We waved at several hikers, loaded down with overnight packs. Tyler stopped the truck to check if their visit was problem free. The rangers watch out for the visitors, constantly juggling reasonable human needs with the high level of protection afforded the wilderness area.

It is this pristine wildness that Cumberland Island preserves so well. It is one of the last true spots along the Atlantic coastline where man has not triumphed over nature. That alone makes it worth a visit.

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Our travel horizons keep expanding. For fall 2014, we’ve packed the camper van, taken along our easy going Border Collie (Eleanor Rigby) and are exploring the Carolinas and Georgia. On the way down we’re looking for everything unique about life along the ocean coastline. And on our travels back north we’re taking the inland route, looking for food, culture and roots music. We’ve added a new website devoted to our travels: with info on RV travel, pooch-friendly travel, food and music destinations.