This year we decided to take an all-new route back to the West Coast. For a variety of reasons, we’ve tended to travel mostly in the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest, and the South. We busted out of that easy, familiar, beautiful rut to explore the Southeast Coast, the Midwest, and the Plains. Truthfully, we thought we would get those states checked off our list and be done with them. Instead, we were captivated by the fascinating places we found—and we’re already planning to return.
One thing is for certain: Travel will root out your prejudices, even those you don’t know you have.
Our journey began in coastal Georgia, where we explored the largest freshwater swamp in North America and took a boat trip to a remote barrier island with an intriguing history.
Exploring the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge
Called the “Land of the Trembling Earth” by the native peoples, the Okefenokee is a 400,000-acre peat bog of floating islands, cypress hammocks, and wet prairies. Waterways meander through the swamp, inviting exploration by kayak or shallow-draft boats. With depths ranging from knee-deep to nine feet, the water is clear, but tannins from decaying leaves stain it the color of southern sweet tea.
Allegedly, the peat is so thick that you can walk on the swamp (the “trembling earth”). We did not try this. There are too many alligators here.
We biked the seven-and-a-half-mile trail through the wildlife refuge and walked boardwalks surrounded by trees wearing long beards of Spanish moss. Except for the orchestra of warblers and frogs serenading us, we were alone on the trails. Early spring is an excellent time to be in the swamp—the weather is pleasant, and the biting bugs have yet to hatch.
In the afternoon we took a boat tour with Okefenokee Adventures deep into the swamp. Joey, our captain, an eighth-generation swamper with an abiding love of the Okefenokee, pointed out birds, gators, and native plants along the way. “This is not Disneyland,” he said, only half joking. How true. It’s much, much better.
If I had to choose one word to describe the swamp, it would be “peaceful.” Probably not what you expected, right? Especially not when you see the big gator that invites you to the boat tour.
No surprise, we saw gators on our tour of the Okefenokee. We’ve shown you plenty of gators on our blog. But there can never be too many photos of owls.
A Day on Cumberland Island National Seashore
The largest of the barrier islands off the coast of Georgia, Cumberland Island has been through many incarnations: Spanish mission, British military fort, post-Revolutionary War plantation, the home of Lucy and Thomas Carnegie (the younger brother and business partner of industrial magnate Andrew Carnegie), and since 1972, a national seashore.
The only way to get to Cumberland Island National Seashore is by boat. Conveniently, the National Park Service operates a passenger ferry out of St. Mary’s, just down the road from the Visitor Center. It’s a 45-minute journey to the island, and the ferry makes the trip twice a day. We thought about bringing our bikes to ride the entire island but heard that the roads can be terrible (if the sand is soft, the biking is miserable).
Instead, we explored the south end of the island, which is easily accessible from the ferry landing. There’s plenty to do there for a day trip (but bring all of your food/snacks/beverages and anything else you might want, because there is nothing available on the island).
A 4.5-mile trail begins through a canopy of gnarled oak trees, setting the mood for the historic Dungeness ruins ahead. Built as a winter home for Thomas Carnegie and his wife Lucy in 1885, Thomas died just before the mansion was completed. Lucy, however, decided to make the island her primary home and raised their nine children there alone (with the help of a staff of 200).
Lucy died in 1916, and the mansion was abandoned during the Great Depression because it was too expensive to maintain, even for the Carnegie family. Dungeness met its end in 1959 when a poacher set fire to it. Wandering the grounds, it’s easy to imagine the many elaborate parties of the Gilded Age—and the demise of an era.
The most beautiful part of the island lies across boardwalks over the sand dunes, where miles of undeveloped, pristine beach await. We’ve seen a lot of beaches in our travels, but there is something undeniably special about the beach on Cumberland Island. Maybe it’s the fact that only 300 visitors are allowed on the island at a time. Or perhaps it’s the contrast of the vast expanse of sand against blue sky and ocean.
There is a great deal more to explore on Cumberland Island on the north end (including a mansion built for one of the Carnegie sons and a historic African American settlement). Next time, we’ll either sign up for a van tour of the north end or even better, bring our bikes if the sandy roads are in reasonable condition.
About the campground
We stayed at Crooked River State Park in St. Mary’s, a great location for visiting both the Okefenokee Swamp and Cumberland Island. The sites are spacious, the setting is beautiful, and there are miles of hiking and biking trails throughout. While we were there, about half the campground was being upgraded to full-hookups and the bathhouses and laundry were undergoing renovation. It’s a very well-maintained park. Verizon is excellent.