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Georgia’s Sapelo Island is a Hidden Gem for Outdoor Adventure

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Accessible only by ferry, Sapelo Island provides a backdrop for a weekend of hiking in maritime forests, kayaking through salt marshes, camping near the beach, and stargazing into a dark sky. It’s Georgia’s fourth largest barrier island, and the number of unique outdoor activities there should put it on any adventure bucket list.

While the island is still home to a small number of the native Geechee people who reside in the historic Hog Hammock community, for the most part you’ll be find solitude on the shores of this ecological treasure while exploring island’s subtropical vegetation. It takes a little bit of planning, but a trip to Sapelo Island will definitely reward the effort.

Getting There

The beach at Sapelo Island.
Hiking the beaches of Blackbeard and Sapelo Island. Alexa Lampasona

Sapelo Island is mostly a State Wildlife Management Area that is also home to the Reynolds Mansion State Lodge, the UGA Marine Sciences Institute, a handful of private tracts and the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve.

For a group: Gather at least 15 friends and rent out the Cabretta Campground.

For the solo or a few friends: Arrange a private tour and overnight stay with one of the Hog Hammock Residents.

For the day trip: Take one of the guided public tours offered by the state/reserve.

The Sapelo Island Ferry.
Taking the ferry to Sapelo Island. Alexa Lampasona

Regardless of which method you choose, the only way to access Sapelo Island is to make a reservation for the ferry, which runs three times daily (and twice on Sundays) from Meridian to the island. The ride is about 40 minutes and showcases what’s to come on the island: maritime marshes and seagrass that waves in the breeze. The ferry fee is $5 per person, round-trip. The mainland ferry dock, visitor center, and parking areas are located in Meridian, Georgia, 8 miles east of Darien. From I-95, take exit 58 on Georgia Highway 57 to Highway 99.

Camp at Cabretta Campground

The wooded Cabretta Campground is a great option on the island. Alexa Lampasona

Live oaks shelter the spacious Cabretta Campground, which is only a short walk over the dunes to Cabretta Beach. Because this is the northernmost beach on the island, it’s often devoid of people. Strolling down the beach, you’ll find many tidal pools, as well as conch shells and sand dollars.

While you feel very off-the-grid, the campground still allows for some luxuries: a comfort station offers three indoor bathrooms and showers with running hot water, two outdoor showers, and a wash station. Several picnic tables, a pavilion and a large fire ring set the stage for your weekend of bonfires and cookouts on the campsite.

Sunrise on Cabretta Beach. Brian Foster c/o Georgia Conservancy

Just beyond the campground, hike a loop through the sand dunes and tidal creeks of Cabretta Beach. The trails start in the maritime forest and connect on the beaches of the Atlantic Ocean. See the sunrise in the morning on the north beach, where the driftwood provides stark contrast with the sunburst-colored sky. In the evening, revisit the beach to see a sky filled with more stars than you can imagine. Because of its remote location off the coast of Georgia, you can see constellations, Mars, Venus, Jupiter, and even the Milky Way, twinkling light years away.

Take a Kayak Tour to Blackbeard Island

Kayaking to Blackbeard Island
A 1.8-mile coastal paddle takes you to Blackbeard Island. Alexa Lampasona

Make a reservation to kayak to Blackbeard Island, one of Georgia’s most pristine and remote national wildlife refuges. The 6,518-acre refuge was named for the pirates who hid in its maritime forests and salt and freshwater marshes. It remains remote with access only by boat. We recommend a kayaking trip with SouthEast Adventures Outfitters.

Since 1994, SouthEast Adventures Outfitters, based on St. Simons Island, have been showcasing Coastal Georgia’s trails. Their motto “Coastal Georgia has a trail system, it’s just all wet.” Their Sapelo and Blackbeard Islands tour can be made into a multi-day experience.

The sea kayak trip departs from Raccoon Bluff, and you’ll paddle a short 1.8 miles on Blackbeard Creek to the shores of Blackbeard Island. Along the paddle, stay close to the marshes and shores for a chance to see oyster beds on the muddy banks.

Blackbeard Island features a 5-mile loop hiking trail. Alexa Lampasona

After you arrive on Blackbeard Island, the guides will lead a 5-mile loop hike on the North and East trail.  The first half of the hike takes you along a sandy forest service trail, well-shaded by cypress trees laden with Spanish moss and palm trees. For the second half of the hike, you’ll emerge on the northeast section of the island for a trek along the Atlantic Ocean. The highlight of the beach is the “Boneyard,” named for the burnt, beached driftwood that creates the illusion of bones rising from the sand. Get the trail map for Blackbeard Island here.

Hike the Island

A sandy hiking trail near the beach on Sapelo Island. Alexa Lampasona

At only 11 miles long and 4 miles wide, it’s easy to cover all of Sapelo Island on foot. The roads are hardly traveled by cars, and wide, sandy roads are sheltered by oaks and cypress trees, making for a shady stroll. Hike to the shell ring and chocolate plantation on the northwestern side of the island. The shell rings are remnants of shells, bones, and artifacts from early hunter-gatherers and rise several feet above the coast. While there is no actual chocolate on the chocolate plantation, old tabby ruins and an open field show a glimpse into the island’s plantation past.

Explore the Historical Reynolds Mansion

The game room at the Reynolds Mansion.
The Reynolds Mansion game room features a billiards table and bowling alley. Alexa Lampasona

You’ll pass by the Reynolds Mansion on the way to Cabretta Campground. It’s incredible to see how the sizes of mansions varied from the past to today. The original mansion was built from a mix of shells, lime, and water in the early 1800s. Decor is reminiscent of the past, from grand pianos and large fireplaces, to fountains and whitewashed sculptures. If you can only visit two rooms in the house, make it the downstairs game room, complete with a billiards table and bowling alley, and the upstairs “circus” kid’s rec room, complete with circus-themed wall murals. Be sure to call the visitor Center ahead of time at 912-437-3224 to book a tour for $8 per person. And if you have 15 to 29 friends, rent out the mansion for a truly glamorous island retreat.

Visit the Lighthouse

Sapelo Island Lighthouse Alexa Lampasona

On the southern end of the island, the Sapelo Lighthouse towers over Dobey Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. It was originally built in 1820 before hurricanes damaged the structure. It was rebuilt and stands at 80 feet tall. If you’re lucky enough to visit the lighthouse on a tour, take the quad-burning stair climb to the top to look out over the ocean.

Featured image provided by Alexa Lampasona

Rock/Creek’s Tips for Spring Paddling:

  • Take some sunscreen. It’s important to realize that you have been sheltered from the sun all winter and your skin isn’t going to get a golden tan on your first day out. Your chances of getting a really bad sun burn are high, and you don’t want to ruin your next few days. The best sunscreens have an active ingredient of either Parasol 1789 or even better, 5-15% zinc. SunBum is our go-to, but we also like Blue Lizard and Kinesys, too.
  • Get a sun shirt. If you don’t want to hassle with re-applying sunscreen every few hours, invest in a long sleeve sun shirt. This will keep you protected long after you would have forgotten to reapply sunscreen. Patagonia, Exofficio, and Howler Bros. offer some great options.
  • Try out a sun hat. Shade “on the go.” Not only do they protect your face and ears from harmful UV rays, they keep you cool and provide shade for your head and shoulders during peak sunlight hours. Outdoor Research has a wide array of sun hats to choose from.
  • Get some nice shades! There’s nothing better than a nice pair of sunglasses to enhance your time on the water. You’ll be glad to have them! Costa Del Mar is usually the fisherman’s choice, but we also really like Smith and Reflekt (who has an unsinkable option.) Because of the variety of fit, the best way to buy sunglasses is to try them all on in one of our shops. Don’t forget an eyewear retainer like Chums or Croakies — they are a mandatory cheap insurance policy for your glasses.
  • Get a waterproof storage container. Pelican cases are great for electronics that need extra damage protection, but a waterproof stuff sack also works well. If you really want a nice waterproof bag, look at Watershed duffel bags.
  • Don’t forget a lifejacket. You’ll get a nice big ticket if you’re caught without it. Plus, it will be a lot easier to stay afloat if you come out of your boat!
  • Make sure you have a fishing license if you plan on throwing a line in the water. Wildlife Resource Management doesn’t take kindly to “free-loaders.”
  • Have a safety light. If you plan on being out in open water with larger vessels, invest in a safety flag or a light to make yourself visible.
  • Make sure to take plenty of food and water. It’s nice to be able to keep exploring if you find something interesting and unexpected.
  • It’s always a good idea to tell someone outside of the people in your group where you are going and when you pan to be back. This person can also be your check-in contact once you get back.

For more information on flat water paddling gear and safety, stop by our shop at 1530 Riverside Dr. Chattanooga, TN 37406. Or, give us a call at 423-265-1836. The only thing our paddling experts love more than paddling is talking about paddling.