I officially retired from the National Park Service on December 31, 2022, so on the first day of my new life, I figured the best place to be was at a national park I'd never been to before. The closest one was just over the Florida border in Georgia.
Cumberland Island National Seashore just celebrated its 50th birthday, having joined the National Park System in 1972. The 18-mile long island isn't exactly pristine, but it's pretty close. There are no condos or golf courses like the ones you'll find on nearby St. Simons, Amelia or Hilton Head islands. There are no paved roads, bridges or marinas either. But you will find miles of beaches, gorgeous oak and palmetto forests dripping with Spanish moss, and more history than you can shake a stick at. Access to the island is only by a ferry out of St. Marys, Georgia unless you are one of the 50 or so private residents of the island, or unless you are staying at the Greyfield Inn (starting at just $815 a night with a two-night minimum). The park gets a paltry 70,000 visitors a year, with most of those folks hanging out for the day on the beaches at the island's southern end.
Since this was going to be our first visit, and since camping reservations filled up for New Year's Eve long before we decided to make this trip, we decided on a six-hour van tour called "Lands and Legacies" that serves as an introduction to the place's fascinating history. The tour departs shortly after the arrival of the 9:00 am ferry, and immediately heads to the island's north end via a dirt road. To paraphrase Bette Davis's Margot Channing in the film All About Eve, "fasten your seatbelts; it's going to be a bumpy ride!" But man is it pretty!
The history here is expansive, and complicated by the fact that many of the people who made that history had the same names years apart, and so did their houses. Here you'll find evidence of the native Timucuan people, Spaniards and Brits during colonial times, and even connections to Aaron Burr, who came to the island after he shot the star of a popular Broadway musical! Formerly enslaved people created a settlement at the north end of the island, and their church is famously the site of the super-secret wedding of John Kennedy, Jr. and Carolyn Bessette. The Carnegies and the Rockefellers were here, too, and it is largely through the generosity of that first family's descendants that the island is a national park today. Touring the Carnegie's Plum Orchard mansion was another highlight of the tour.
There are still those who want to develop the island with resorts, and a nearby spaceport is proposed. There are some conflicts with private property holders. There are feral horses and hogs. But arguably, Cumberland Island is just going to keep getting better as deals made with private landholders in the '70s come to term. It will require vigilance, no doubt, as it does for all national parks...especially the smaller ones. But Cumberland Island National Seashore will definitely get a second visit...soon!