Coming off of a busy, cold winter, I wanted nothing more than to get back out on the trail. I thought it would be cool to try to find a backpacking route in the tropics, combining the two passions of mine. From a few internet searches, I found Cumberland Island that looked like it would fit both of my criteria. Located about 7 miles of the shore of Saint Mary’s Georgia, the island is uninhabited, requires a boat to access, and serves as a tropical explorers paradise, with raw beaches, wild horses and miles of flat trails lined with Spanish Moss covered trees.
My friend and I flew into Jacksonville, FL and arranged a taxi to drop us at Saint Mary’s, GA. We stayed a quaint little hotel near the ferry docks, and it turned out to be quite the experience. Our taxi driver told us some lore about the hotel, stating that it was known for witchcraft and strange stories. We did get an eerie vibe from the place, especially since we were the only customers for the night, but it turned out to be a pleasant stay. We were especially grateful that the hotel allowed us to ship our stove fuel since we were unable to fly with it. In our vintage room, we prepared our packs to start our journey.
We caught an early ferry the next morning and thoroughly enjoyed the half hour cruise through the marshes to the ranger station on the island.
Overnight permits are required to camp in the park. My friend and I planned to do a 30 mile out-and-back and had pre-booked three campsites along the trail. Our permit reflected our plan, and after a quick safety chat with the ranger, we were off on Paradise Trail.
Immediately, we were amazed with the Spanish Moss hanging around us and surprised to find that most of the trail was hard packed instead of being all sand like we had expected. With palm fronds brushing our packs and the soothing sound of the nearby ocean echoing through the forest, it was a welcomed change of pace from standard mountain hikes.
It was a five mile hike north from the ferry dock to Hickory Hill, our campsite for the first night. On Cumberland Island, overnight backpackers must stay in designated camping spots positioned along the 16 mile Paradise Trail. There are four camps in total, Seacamp, Hickory Hill, Yankee Paradise, and Brickhill Bluff. Even though Hickory Hill is considered a backcountry camp, there are still toilets, potable water, and cold water showers nearby.
Our second camp was at Yankee Paradise, and along the 4 mile hike further north, we caught sight of our first wildlife, an armadillo and some wild horses. Luckily, we didn’t have any run-ins with the wild boar that are said to be roaming the island. Rangers had warned us of their aggression.
Yankee Paradise is what I would consider a true backcountry camp with the nearest water source, which needed to be filtered, being 1 mile away. The hike back to the spigot isn’t too bad and you can definitely tell when you’re approaching its location by the strong sulfur smell that begins about 500 feet away.
There is a mansion about 2 miles away from Yankee Camp and provides a nice area to enjoy dinner before trying to catch the sunset. Unfortunately, it was too cloudy for us see the sunset, but we still have a good time exploring the grounds. Be sure to bring plenty of bug spray for this area as it gets pretty buggy.
We had planned to stay at Brickhill Bluff campsite for our third night and have a long 14ish mile hike back to the docks on our fourth day, but we decided to head back to Hickory Hill and enjoy some time on the beach while also shortening our last day’s trek. There was only one other group in a spot at Hickory Hill when we arrived, so we weren’t overly concerned that we had no way to contact the ranger to ensure there would be room for our change of plan.
We decided to break away from the trail in the tropical forest and take to the beach for our final 5 mile approach back to the docks. It was again an overcast day for which we were grateful for as we walked the exposed, raw shore back to the ranger station. Distance was definitely deceiving and the white sand made almost for a snow blindness like effect. Still, it was pretty cool to be hiking on a beach that we entirely had to ourselves. This truly set in the fact that we just backpacked on an island and served as a perfect summary of our last three days on Cumberland Island.