A Kayak Journey to the Secluded Beaches of Cumberland Island

The first time I saw wild horses I felt a little underwhelmed. Somehow the idea of wild horses on a barrier island brings to mind an image of majestic animals running down the beach at water’s edge, their hooves kicking up sand and foam, preferably in slow motion and with an orchestral soundtrack. The reality was a group of three somewhat skinny and un-groomed animals grazing at the edge of a salt marsh.

Of course, I know that animals in the wild rarely behave like they do in beer commercials, and in the many visits I’ve made to Cumberland Island National Seashore since that first one, I’ve come to appreciate the horses as they are – skinny in the winter, a little shy of people, but comfortable in their element wandering around historic ruins and wilderness areas, eating grass and acting pretty much like they own the place.

When you bring up wild horses, or secluded beaches, for that matter, most people don’t think of southeast Georgia, but, yes, the area has  remarkable quantity of pristine beaches. Fifteen major barrier islands (and several smaller ones) sit along Georgia’s 100-mile coastline. Only four of those islands are developed and accessible by bridge. Of the other 11, three are National Wildlife Refuges. Four are owned by the state of Georgia and managed as protected areas. Three are privately owned. The largest, Cumberland Island, is owned by the National Park Service and managed as a National Seashore.

The Park Service runs a ferry service to and from Cumberland Island from St. Marys, Ga., several times a day, but my favorite way to see the island is by sea kayak. I have circumnavigated Cumberland Island by kayak twice – once in a marathon 15-hour paddle with a couple of adventure racers and another local kayak guide, and once on a five-day, four-night summer camping trip. I highly recommend the second option.

For our five-day, 45-mile paddle, we put in at a public boat ramp on the north end of Amelia Island, near Fort Clinch State Park. Cumberland is the southern-most barrier island in Georgia, and Amelia is the northern-most barrier island in Florida. The channel between the two islands is an easy crossing of less than a mile.

We paddled north along the ocean side of the island about five miles, and spent our first night at Sea Camp, where centuries-old live oaks grow low and twisted, providing a dense, roof-like canopy over the campsites, and the saw palmetto grows six feet high. This impenetrable wall of vegetation makes each site feel secluded and private.

From Sea Camp, we hiked a mile or two to the ruins of Dungeness mansion. The Carnegie family once owned the island, and Dungeness was one of seven Carnegie mansions there, until the house burned in 1959.

We spent a few hours each night of our trip walking the beach with red flashlights, looking for nesting sea turtles. Nesting season is in May and June, with hatchlings emerging in July and August. Watching a 400-pound loggerhead turtle drag herself up an empty, moonlit beach to lay a clutch of eggs is simply primeval. (Important tip: Bring a red flashlight. You can’t use an unfiltered flashlight on the beach during nesting season, because it can disrupt the turtles’ nesting behavior.)

We paddled north along miles of empty beach, and then went ashore to hike two miles on the South Cut Trail to Brickhill Bluff campground on the marsh side. This primitive site sits at the edge of a tidal creek, overlooking miles of salt marsh, offering the kind of view that makes otherwise rational people think about quitting their jobs and buying a houseboat. Pack a hammock and a paperback (preferably something by Jimmy Buffet, Carl Hiaasen or John D. MacDonald).

The next day we left our camp set up at Brickhill, packed lunches and water, and paddled boats from the ocean side to the marsh side around the north end of the island. On the marsh side, there are oyster beds, fiddler crabs by the millions (it sometimes looks like the ground is moving when the fiddler crabs are scurrying around the low marsh), the occasional alligator prowling the brackish water, dolphins, stingrays, blue crabs and horseshoe crabs at the water’s edge. The waters around Cumberland are a huge breeding area for a dozen different species of sharks – we didn’t see any on this trip, but I’ve often seen small blacktips and bonnetheads feeding in those marshes. It’s a great area for bird watching, and I once saw a bald eagle nesting at the edge of the marsh.

We stopped for lunch at Plum Orchard, another Carnegie mansion that is open for tours, and then headed back to Sea Camp for our last night, and an easy five-mile paddle back to the boat ramp the next day.

Traveler’s Notebook

Study the tides: You have to plan around the tides if you’re paddling to or around Cumberland. Tidal ranges vary between 6 and 8 feet, and there are two high tides and two low tides every day. That means that tidal currents on the marsh side of the islands can easily hit 3 knots at peak flow. Get a good chart of the Intracoastal Waterway and a tidal chart, and talk to outfitters in the area about how to plan for the local tides.

Local outfitters and tour providers:

Up the Creek Xpeditions: 111 Osborne St., St.Marys, GA, 912-882-0911

Amelia Island Plantation Nature Center
: 904-321-5082

Kayak Amelia: 13030 Heckscher Dr., Jacksonville, FL, 904-251-0016

Southeast Adventure Outfitters
: 313 Mallory St., St. Simons Island, GA, 
912-638-6732

Tidelands Nature Center: 100 S Riverview Dr., Jekyll Island, GA, 912-635-5032

Camping reservations and ferry information:

Cumberland Island National Seashore: 
912-882-4336

Further info:

Cumberland Island information by the Georgia DNR

Cumberland Island resources from the Digital Library of Georgia

“Secret Seashore: Georgia’s Barrier Islands” on GPB

Tom Woolf has been a kayak guide, naturalist, and science teacher in southeast Georgia and northeast Florida since 2001. When he’s not exploring the outdoors, he pursues his passion for mixed martial arts.

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