In October 2022, Cumberland Island National Seashore turns 50. The island itself is steeped in history, and welcomes visitors to experience its environmental beauty and diversity and learn of the stories of island inhabitants, family sagas and cultural change. The National Park Service has managed the island for five decades, preserving the delicate balance of public enjoyment and all-important preservation. For the next 12 months, St. Marys and the National Parks Service will be commemorating and celebrating the island, shining a spotlight on intriguing aspects of its history and amazing elements of its ecosystems as well as the variety of ways visitors and locals can enjoy, explore and protect it.
The journey to the island, which is only accessible by boat, begins six miles to the west, in St. Marys, Georgia, where visitors board a ferry bound for Cumberland Island. St Marys’ idyllic spot on the Atlantic coast is less than an hour’s drive north of Jacksonville, Florida, just off I-95, on Georgia’s southernmost tip.
Starting in October at the St. Marys Seafood Festival, the park service will kick off a year-long series of events including cultural programs, demonstrations and activities relating to the varied history of the island. Planned programs will be guided by both rangers and special guests, some taking place on the island and some on mainland St. Marys. Visiting experts will offer programs on topics as varied as the Gullah Geechee culture and language, the administrative history of the island and the environmental and ecological significance of the island. Events will be added to the Seashore website’s anniversary page.
Any visit to the island should begin with a stop at the Cumberland Island National Seashore Visitor Center (113 St. Marys Street, St. Marys, Georgia 31558; 912-882-4336). This is where guests check-in for the 45-minute ferry ride across the scenic St. Marys River to the island. The center also offers interpretive exhibits, a bookstore with souvenirs and information to help you plan your perfect visit to the island. Next, consider a visit to the Cumberland Island National Seashore Museum (129 Osborne Street, St. Marys, Georgia 31558; 912-882-4336) in St. Marys national historic district. Museum exhibits explore the cultural and natural history of the island from prehistoric American Indian lives, through British occupation during the War of 1812, the Plantation Era, the Gilded Age and the island today. Note the museum is planning a closure from mid-September through December 2022 for a curatorial storage renovation that will help preserve park treasures for future generations. Several exhibits will be moved to the mainland visitor center for display during the closure.
Cumberland Island National Seashore includes a designated wilderness area, historic sites, cultural ruins, undeveloped beaches, critical habitat and bird and sea turtle nesting areas. There are more than 50 miles of trails and roads as well as 18 miles of beach. Hiking, biking, camping, birdwatching and beachcombing are popular activities on the island. Wild horses, delivered to its shores by the Spanish, have roamed the island wild for hundreds of years.
The most popular way to explore the island is on a day trip that includes taking in the south end of the island, where the Dungeness Ruins are located. There are opportunities for both a free ranger-led “Footsteps” walking tour, which is available as staffing allows, and a paid historian-led walking tour with with Molly’s Old South Tours (904-735-8243). For more of a VIP experience, the Lands and Legacies Tour offers interpretive tours via passenger van to historic locations around the island including Plum Orchard Mansion (with a tour of the mansion, the Settlement (including the First African Baptist Church), Cumberland Island Wharf and other sites along the main road. Space for this tour is limited and should be booked well in advance. Don’t forget to pack a lunch for your island adventure, as there are no shops or restaurants on the island.
If you go
A day trip to Cumberland Island is just one highlight for many who visit the relaxing coastal town of St. Marys. A stay at one of the variety of lodging options, including a vacation rental where Aaron Burr stayed after his ill-fated duel with Alexander Hamilton, adds to the unique character of a St. Marys getaway. A stroll along the downtown thoroughfare, lined with local shops, is a must, as is spending time at the amazing Waterfront Park, with its boardwalks, piers and greenspace. It’s an ideal location to watch boats ply the river or witness a spectacular sunset. The St. Marys Submarine Museum (102 West St. Marys Street, St. Marys, Georgia 31558; 912-882-2782), a site on the Georgia WWII Heritage Trail and the St. Marys History Walk, which features 24 interpretive panels, are popular activities. Adventure seekers will enjoy the miles of trails for kayaking or biking in the area and the easy access to nearby Crooked River State Park (3092 Ga. 40 Spur (Charlie Smith Sr. Highway), St. Marys, Georgia 31558; 912-882-5256) and Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge (2700 Suwanee Canal Road, Folkston, Georgia 31537-7906; 912-496-7836).
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