Backpacking Cumberland Island

When I moved to Georgia last August, I immediately began researching hiking and backpacking spots in the state. One of the first places I read about was Cumberland Island. I was immediately interested because it famously has packs of wild horses. It seemed almost too good to be true, but I was determined to go there. As the school year wrapped up, I realized I had time between the end of classes and my summer travels, so I made camping reservations. I asked a few friends if they wanted to come, but no one was able to, so I decided to go by myself. My mom has gone backpacking by herself a number of times, so it honestly didn't feel like much of a big deal to me. I've been camping every single year of my life, and backpacking more times than I can count, so I wasn't worried about going alone, I was excited. I'm an extrovert, so I do like adventuring with other people, but I also love the freedom of only having yourself to please. 

Cumberland Island is 5 hours away from Atlanta, so I broke up the drive down with a stop in Savannah. I'd never been before and got there in the midst of a torrential rainstorm. I had an incredible pimento grilled cheese sandwich for lunch at Gryphon, walked the River walk, and browsed the shops of downtown. It is a cute, historic town and I definitely want to go back when it isn't so rainy. From there, I headed down south to the border with Florida and the tiny town of St. Mary's. It was still raining and I didn't want to pay for a campsite where I would set up my tent and get it all wet, so I just slept in my car in a Walmart parking lot! It was the only part of the trip I was a little nervous about, but it was great! I put the seats down in my car (love those old CR-Vs!) and had plenty of room to sleep. I got up the next morning and took the 45 ferry ride over to the island. 


From the ferry dock, I hiked 8 miles north to my first wilderness campsite, aptly named Yankee Paradise. It was a flat trail in the midst of a gorgeous jungle forest. I've never been anywhere like it before. It was hot and humid by 11am and I laughed as I thought about how vastly different it is than the many PNW trips I've done. Around half way up, I went to get more water, which has to be treated, and realized that my water treatment drops had leaked and were empty, so I had no water filtration system! It was totally my fault for not checking my gear in advance, and I panicked internally for a minute. I ended up drinking some untreated water until I got to my campsite. I collapsed in my hammock for a bit, set up my campsite, and then started hiking again.

90% of Cumberland Island used to be owned by the Carnegie family, and there are several of their mansions still on the island. One burned down and is in ruins, two are private, and one is a museum. I made it in time for a tour of the Plum Orchard mansion, which was fascinating. I love tours of old homes and it felt so funny to have been hiking all day, yet ending at a giant mansion. I was able to fill my water bottles with treated water there, which lasted awhile.

I spent the rest of the evening reading in my hammock, making a delicious dinner, and enjoying the jungle sounds. I got up early the next morning and hiked just over a mile out to the ocean to watch the sunrise. I'm partial to our West coast sunsets, but the Cumberland sunrises were simply stunning. I was the only one on the perfectly white sandy beach. 


I went back to my campsite and after breakfast, I packed up and backpacked two miles south to another wilderness site called Hickory Hill. I set up my tent again and then headed out to the beach for the rest of the day. Playing in the ocean is one of my favorite things in the world, and the water was the perfect temperature. I spent hours playing in the water, reading in the shade of a palm tree, and enjoying the stunning beach. Again, I was completely alone the entire day. I started re-reading Anne of Green Gables for the first time since I was a child and it was simply magical. 


On my hike back to my campsite, I ran into 4 wild horses on the trail and had to wait for them to move so I could pass by. I was so shocked to run into them and a little nervous, because if you get too close they'll bite or trample you. I also saw a little armadillo in the brush, and several lizards and snakes. Along the way I saw a wild turkey with her little chicks, which were so small they kept tripping over leaves as they ran through the forest!  I was beginning to think I was going to see more wildlife than people (I was right).


I finally ran into two hikers and they asked where I was staying. When I told them, they said: "Did you not hear about the alligator?" To which all I could respond, with a gaping mouth, was, "what alligator?!" They told me that the site was closed because apparently, an alligator had taken over one of the spots. They went on their way, and I timidly made my way back to my campsite, looking for a 9-foot alligator along the way. I had no idea what to do and was trying to figure out where to put my hammock up to avoid sleeping on the ground when a park ranger came found me. He told me they were going to move me and I willingly obliged. I packed up and hiked out half a mile to the main road. The sandy road allows park vehicles and they put me in the back of the truck and drove me down 2 miles to Stafford Beach Campground.

After the wilderness sites, Stafford Beach was a luxury. It's a perfect medium between backpacking and camping. It's 3.5 miles from the ferry, so you still have to backpack, but it's a nice campground with bathrooms, cold showers (!), and water (that you still have to treat). It's also right by the ocean, rather than in the middle of the island like the wilderness sites. I was happy to set up camp and swap stories with the other group of campers that had to evacuate because of the alligator. Apparently, the alligator smelled them cooking and came up and took over their site. They all had to run away as it chewed up their pots and pans! I was very happy to be in the company of others for the night. In the middle of the night, I heard rustling in my pots and pans and shined a light, only to find a little armadillo! It was so cute that I wasn't even mad. 

The last morning on the island, I got up to watch the sunrise again. By that point, I was sunburned, covered in bug bites and a tick, sticky with sweat and sea, and gambling with untreated water. Still, I'd never been happier. I packed up one last time and hiked down to the ferry port. I dropped off my big bag and headed down to the south part of the island. At the south dock (which isn't currently in use), I saw four manatees playing in the water, including a mama and baby! It was incredible. They were only a few feet away from me and I got to watch them for half an hour. As I watched them splash and play, I could see dolphins jumping in the distance. It really was magical!

I explored the Carnegie ruins and hiked out to the beach one last time. I hiked up the beach, seeing some incredible sand crabs and flocks of sand pipers along the way, and finally made it back to the ferry just in time. 


My first solo backpacking trip was a huge success. I've never been anywhere quite like Cumberland Island and was filled to the brim with joy. I loved the adventure of not having everything quite planned out, but knowing that I wasn't disappointing anyone because it was just my adventure.There is something sacred and special about being all alone in creation. I'm already planning my next trip back, hopefully to the farthest site next time. I can't wait to go back to Cumberland, hopefully next time with someone else along for the adventure!