In every young girl is a desire to be among horses. At least, that’s how it was for me, and honestly I never quite shook it off, hence the visit to Cumberland Island (you’ll see). I was quite literally obsessed about horses – from reading fictional books like the wild Misty of Chincoteague to the urban London horse Black Beauty. I would even read DK books and learn how to pick their feet around the sensitive “frog” or the differences between a thoroughbred and Arabian horse. But never did I interact with a horse on a personal level. Sure there’d be pony rides and trail rides, but those horses were trained to let you ride them. It was fun, but I wanted to see horses in a more natural habitat.
The Assateague wild horses off the coast of Maryland (such as Misty in one of my books) had always intrigued me. How do feral horses survived, to be able to live off the land when their owners abandoned them? I was intrigued about their resilience and how they learned to be wild again. To my surprise, there are actually quite a few places along the Atlantic coast with islands full of feral horses.
While I was in Georgia, I was looking for beaches to visit and happily stumbled upon Cumberland Island National Seashore, the southern-most island off the coast of Georgia, right next to Florida. And lo and behold, the island is also known for their feral horses that roam among old mansion ruins. Feral horses tend to be found on islands because their isolation is what helps bring them together and disregard any human interactions for an extended period of time. This solitude allows the horses to in-breed and create their own community. Since they are largely untouched, except by human visitors, Cumberland Island is now federally protected land. Therefore, Cumberland Island is only accessible by boat.
You can choose to take your own water vehicle to the island or opt for the more common method of using the passenger ferry service which only runs a few times per day from St. Marys. You want to make sure you don’t miss your scheduled ferry, or you might unintentionally staying overnight on the island. Speaking of which, campgrounds are abundant at Cumberland. It is best to reserve them beforehand so you can pick out your favorite site. Do note that it is not a commercial island and even if you only visit for a day, you must bring in your own food. Even water is not readily available – you’re next to a body of salty water.
Getting around the island is easy – you can simply hike on the sandy trails, or ride a bike. The ferry allows bikes for an extra cost, so if you can bring your own, do that! If not, there are limited bikes available to rent all day for only $16. You can’t reserve them, so get on the early ferry to make sure you don’t get left out. My friend and I were able to get one of the last few bikes available the day we went. It’s an interesting process. As people get off the ferry and find the biking station around the corner, there’s a frantic rush to pick out your bike. If your hand is on it, it’s yours. And then once people have settled down, a ranger goes around and accepts your payment and you sign your life away for the lease agreement. And then you’re off!
Truly, biking is the best way to get around the island, especially for a summer day. The breeze cools you off! It’s also a good way to explore the island quickly. It’s near impossible to cover the whole island in one day without a bike. The whole island is about 17 miles in length and the ferry drops you off on the south side. But even near the ferry dock, there’s so much to see – so don’t fear if you miss you chance to bike. For example, the Dungeness area is one of the most beautiful spots and easily accessible by foot.
We honestly didn’t know if we’d see horses at all, since they’ll sometimes stay at the far end of the island, and the NPS didn’t guarantee horse sightings. But we were 100% wowed when we approached Dungeness Ruins. Everywhere we turned, we would find more groups of horses. Usually they roamed in groups of 2-5 or so. We continued exploring around the ruins, even towards the ranger housing area, where we found even more horses. Eventually, we returned back to the ruins and found new groups of horses that had replaced the previous ones. There was one foal we saw, and by golly it was cute!
The horses all had different personalities. Some were followers and others were trying to assert their spacing. But overall, they seemed so calm and tame. On this trip, the Dungeness Ruins was where I had found the most horses in one area, although this can change from time to time. They’re wild after all! You can walk fairly close to them and sometimes the horses will come to you as well. But like any wild animal, don’t get too close – and definitely don’t try to pet them. They’re friendly, but power animals that can take you down if they want, especially if you get into their space. So leave some extra room and enjoy them at a distance.
Another place to check for horses is at the Stafford Plantation. As you travel along Grand Ave, the main trail on Cumberland, you might see a few horses off the road especially in the open fields. I found it harder to spot horses within the swampy forest. You could also check along the beaches of Cumberland. The east coast of the island is where all the sandy beaches are located, including a few camp sites too. Try picnicking and enjoying the coastline as well!
I hope you enjoy being around wild horses at Cumberland, or one of the other feral horse islands on the Atlantic as much as I did!