Cumberland Island is on many life lists for backpackers, campers and history buffs.
Campsites stay booked months ahead of time, people tend to return to the island annually or even more often. A lady we returned on the ferry with had just completed her 65th visit. It’s a magical place.
We decided just a couple weeks out to go and lucked up with finding spots. Until recently, calling was the only way to get a spot but now the process is online and goes MUCH faster. Once a campsite is secured, getting a ticket on the ferry is the next step, it’s also super easy. Print everything out to take and let them know if you don’t have a printout of the reservations and they will get you one at the office. The rangers need to see a copy on the island.
The ferry trip is painless, I tend to stress about the ‘unknown’ in new situations, but arrived early and talked with the staff and they answered all my questions. There is a short orientation before loading that goes over the immediate area around the Sea Dock, the only open dock on the island the ferry lands at (as of May 2017) due to hurricane damage. A kayaking company paddles in to the dock on the far north near Brick Hill to camp. I would not be comfortable crossing that much open water in a kayak!
The ferry trips says it’s 45 minutes, but it takes about half an hour. Large items are loaded at the very front of the boat, rear as well if it’s very full, and moving around is permitted. We sat inside both trips, there is also seating on the top and along the outside of the cabin. They sell light snacks (crackers and maybe chips) as well as canned soda on the boat. There is no concession of any type on the island-just water and bathrooms.
There are no trash cans (other than tiny cans in the women’s bathrooms for sanitary needs), pack out everything!
We stayed our first 2 nights at Yankee Paradise (7.5 miles one way from Sea Dock), a campsite that has little to recommend it other than proximity (one mile) to Plum Orchard. Tours run on the hour most days and are free and well worth the walk.
There are bathrooms (with an outlet if battery level reaches desperate low) and potable water there. The bathrooms are not locked at night. There are also picnic tables and usually horses.
The nearest non-potable water to Yankee Paradise is a spigotted well about half a mile away, between it at Hickory Hill. Hickory Hill is, if anything, worse than Yankee Paradise. Both are in scrubby, swampy areas thick with mosquitoes. I don’t understand the placement of either.
The beach is 1.5 miles away from Yankee Paradise, but the chilly ocean water was too much temptation to let that deter us.
There are 6 or so beach access points, all marked with a 12 foot tall striped pole to show where the dune walkovers are located. Red flashlights are required for night beach walks in turtle nesting season. A ranger meets the ferry and hands out red cellophane sheets and rubber bands to ensure everyone camping meets the requirement.
Our visit was mid-May. It was already far too hot during the middle of the day, but still off season enough that we shared the beach with horses and that was it. Mosquitoes were really bad around dusk and if you stood still anywhere along the trail or campsite, ticks would climb onto your feet. We stayed barefoot to make it easier to pick them off before they could get attached. We also stayed in our hammocks with the netting in place unless we were on our way to or from somewhere. There are no campfires allowed in the backcountry sites, only at Sea Camp.
Our last morning at Yankee Paradise, we got up before the sun and walked to the beach to hike down to Stafford. The hike in from Stafford, the trail was more and more narrow and between Hickory Hill and Yankee, a tree had fallen across the trail and the route around it was very willy nilly. We were covered in ticks, despite permethrin treatments and bug spray, from walking through the heavy underbrush.
There were ticks of every size, though the really tiny ones seemed to die after getting attached and they all wanted to be in a bend, like a knee or armpit or crotch. They also like waistlines under shorts. I had one on my butt! I doubt even napalm would have kept them at bay. They climbed on our packs during breaks, I was knocking them off my hiking poles, too. I was so glad to haul the 10 extra ounces of gear loft, a smaller hammock that we hang to store all our packs and shoes OFF the ground.
Cell service was pretty good on the island, (ATT, I heard Verizon is better) and Calamity was able to look up tide schedules and verify we would be able to walk on the beach for a few hours in low tide.
The horses must have checked as well because they had been out running around at dawn, too. We also saw deer tracks, all coming FROM the water. We entertained ourselves with various theories about why that was.
It was pretty cool to be out walking for miles on the beach and only see animal tracks, though.
If it’s not low tide or it’s too hot to beach walk the stretch from Stafford to Plum Orchard or Yankee Paradise, I suggest taking the main road to stay in the shade and avoid the worst of the ticks.
They went sailing by us at one point! It was pretty exciting!
We set up for our next night at Sea Camp, site 12. I think it’s one of the very best sites, close to the beach and had its own trail to the bathhouse. I am not sure how we lucked into it a week out, but I am thankful we did! There were very few mosquitoes and NO ticks at Sea Camp. Plus, unlike at Yankee Paradise, we were able to hang from the live oaks, which was a life-list item all of its own for us.
Sea Camp has a bathhouse with spring-fed showers, potable water and a multi-plug outlet for recharging phones. Fair warning, mine was left to charge and someone came along and used the cord while I was off on a walk-people were leaving iPhones, I have a $40 android from Dollar General that I have just for this situation-if it’s damaged or lost, it’s not an ordeal. I wasn’t particularly worried about it being stolen, but someone using my cord for THEIR phone didn’t cross my mind. I was pissed!
Despite our long walk with packs that morning, we decided to do the 4 mile loop at the south end of the island after it cooled off a bit. Around 4, we headed to the dock and watched the dolphins and fiddler crabs, both family favorites. We missed Theory, but were very glad he wasn’t there-with his long, thick hair, he would have been miserable in the heat, sweat, wind, and salt. My mid-length hair was competing with the Spanish moss for ‘Best Dry Crinkly Mess’.
Dungeness did not disappoint and just to the south of the house ruins are the salt marshes that extend way on out into the distance. We took the River Trail down from Sea Dock and looped back up via the beach. The ice house museum was closed, but the bathrooms were open and the water fountain there is VERY cold. It was wonderful!
All of the water on the island has a sulfur aftertaste, some is worse than others. If that’s a really big issue, bring Mio flavoring drops or something else to cover the taste.
Our tickets home were for the afternoon ferry, but we were ready to head out on the morning shuttle and switching was no issue at all. If camping at Sea Camp, leaving on the morning ferry is the more logical thing to do-campsites must be cleared by 10 and there’s nowhere secure to leave camping gear before the 2 p.m. ferry. This was something we did not know going in, it would have helped with planning.
We stayed that night before and after at an airbnb in Jacksonville, FL, which worked out really well for our last-minute budget. We did laundry, showered, restocked at the grocery store for the long drive home and were able to just chill out in a nice, quiet house.