Weekend Backpacker: Jacksonville
Imagine a quiet beach stretching off to the horizon, strewn with yellow sea fans, purple starfish, and creamy orange conch shells. Just you, the stiff salt breeze, and the incessant strumming of the waves.
Cumberland Island is all this and more. Just north of the Florida border, this barrier island hosts a patchwork of natural communities. Gnarled, elfin-looking live oaks shade palmettos in the maritime forest. Massive white sand dunes sparkle in the sun. Broad inland prairies and freshwater streams support a population of wild horses and feral hogs; pine scrub and estuarine oyster beds round out the experience.
History is an important part of Cumberland Island as well. First settled by Revolutionary War hero Nathaniel Green, the island is dotted with graying and crumbling old mansions (some accessible on park tours) belonging to the Carnegie family, who turned their seaside playground over to the National Park Service in 1971. Although some small parts of the island remain in private hands, it's now a public legacyand a great place to spend a few days, or a week, soaking up the sun and the sights.
To get away from the day-tripping sightseers, set your sights on the northern end of Cumberland Islandhit the Parallel Trail, and head due north. A single day's hike can get you as far north as Yankee Paradise, although many people prefer to spend their first night closer to the ocean, at Stafford Beach. Brickhill Bluff makes a great base camp for exploring the northern end of the island, including Plum Orchard, The Settlement, and the remote beaches and oyster beds.
Take I-95 north from Jacksonville to Exit 1, St. Marys Road. Follow signs to St. Marys, eight miles east of the interstate, taking the ramp onto SR 40 east. The ferry dock is at the end of SR 40. Driving time: one hour.
You must pre-register with the National Park Service to use the primitive campsites on Cumberland Island (around $2 per person per day), and to ensure a reserved spot (around $10) on the twice-daily ferryboat (9 a.m., 11:45 a.m.) from St. Marys. Ferryboat service is erratic during the winterwhich is the prime backpacking season. Call ahead: (912) 882-4335, Mon-Fri, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
With the exception of the touristy Sea Camp, all campsites are primitive. Trash must be packed out. Water pumps are found at Brickhill Bluff and Stafford Beach. Pack water into the other campsitesfreshwater streams and springs flow in certain areas of the island, but be sure to filter.
GUIDEBOOK AND MAPS
You can pick up a reasonable map of the island's hiking trails at the visitor's center in St. Marys, or at the ranger station at the Sea Camp dock. Trailheads are well marked northbound, and the trails obviouswild horses share the footpath.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication