Beach at Cumberland Island, GA

To translate the wonder and beauty of Cumberland Island into words is a nearly impossible feat. How does one describe enchantment that even a picture can’t come close to capturing? I’ll attempt to relay the magic that is this tiny island.

Exploring Cumberland Island

While in Georgia, my husband and I were browsing through brochures when one caught my attention. As an avid reader of Southern literature, the words “ruins of Dungeness” jumped off the page at me. I had read about Dungeness, a mansion built by Thomas Carnegie on Cumberland Island in the late 1800’s, in a Eugenia Price novel. Simultaneously, my husband spotted the words “wild horses”. That settled it; we were going to Cumberland Island the very next day.

We purchased a picnic lunch and bottled water in the town of St. Mary’s and boarded the ferry to Cumberland Island. We cruised 7 miles down the St. Mary’s River and into the ocean before arriving on the west side of the island. I practically ran off the ferry in the direction of Dungeness with my husband calling for me to slow down and look at the scenery. The Dungeness came into view, and took my breath away. Foliage engulfed the ruins. The horses looked elegant as they grazed on the lawn. The guides warned us that the horses are wild and unpredictable. We advanced cautiously toward the ruins. The horses seemed unimpressed, so we investigated the mansion then found a picnic table for lunch. It wasn’t long before a few horses came looking for a handout!

After lunch, we began the trail toward the salt marshes and the beaches on the west side of the island. As we made a turn, we heard scuffling and snorting sounds. We had happened upon a wild horse altercation! Two large horses exchanged stomps and head butts while others surrounded them. We stood completely still and averted our gaze until one of the horses finally got the last word and trotted off with his comrades. With giant sighs of relief, we continued our walk to the boardwalk that extends into the marsh. At the end was a view of the beach and another moment that took my breath away. It was a scene from a movie…in a hazy mist, another group of wild horses was galavanting on the beach, wind whipping through their manes as they tossed their stately heads and frolicked on the shore.

Finally, we began our trek to Dungeness Beach on the Atlantic Ocean side of the island. From the salt marsh, we crossed a few creeks and found ourselves deep in the woods. Although we did not actually see any, we saw much evidence of the feral hog population that also inhabits the island. It was a while before we reached the dunes, the perfect nesting place for loggerhead turtles as well as many migratory birds.

At the crest of the dunes, my breath was taken away again. Displayed before us was an untouched beach. We saw crystal white sand and ocean for miles. As a nationally protected seashore, Cumberland Island doesn’t have any hotels or residences on the beach. We were the only people out there with miles of beach to explore. Since there had just been a big storm so we saw hundreds of conch shells on the beach.

My final thoughts

We spent so long on the beach that we didn’t have time to visit the other structures on the island, as they are much farther north from where the ferry docked. The Plum Orchard Mansion, another Carnegie residence, and The First African Baptist Church, where JFK Jr. married, can be toured if you plan your time on the island right. The only place to stay on the island, besides several campgrounds, is the quite pricey, yet absolutely gorgeous Greyfield Inn which is a few miles north of the ferry stop. I dream of going back to Cumberland Island someday and staying at the inn so we have plenty of time to explore all of the magic of Cumberland Island.