What’s the best beach in Georgia?”
Well, that depends. What are you looking for? A great place to take the husband and kids? A spot that’s romantic, but maybe a little different? A remote stretch of sand far off the beaten track…or maybe a beach that’s much closer?
The good news is that no matter why you’re bound for the beach, Georgia has the beach you’re looking for. I wish we had room to talk about them all. But rather than covering the entire beach catalog, let’s take a look at three ways to scratch your beach itch. I’m betting that one of them will be just the beach for you.
Romantic: Driftwood Beach on Jekyll Island
What is it about beaches and driftwood? By itself, a beach is sand and sun and water. But throw in a little driftwood and the “romance” factor goes up. Why is driftwood romantic? I don’t know, but it is – and the best place to find it is (get ready) at Driftwood Beach on the extreme north end of Jekyll Island.
Driftwood Beach is just what the name suggests. That name comes from a forest of driftwood that seems to emerge from the sand. This driftwood forest formed over the years as the north end of the island has gradually, but inexorably eroded away. (In fact, the whole island is actually creeping south as the north end erodes and the south end grows.) As the north end has receded and forest has been displaced by beach, the trees that once grew on the displaced land succumbed to the salt and became driftwood-in-place. The result? A driftwood forest. It’s enchanting and beautiful.
Driftwood Beach is easy to access from the Clam Creek picnic area. You’ll also find a number of beach access points on North Beach View Drive; simply park in one of the designated parking areas and make the short walk north along the shore to the Driftwood Beach.
When you visit Jekyll Island, note that you’ll need to purchase a parking pass. This pass gives you access to many of the island’s public outdoor areas. Daily, multi-day and annual passes are available. Bicycles and pedestrians can enter at no charge.
In addition to Driftwood Beach, there are other beachgoing opportunities on Jekyll Island, too. But for sheer romance, Driftwood Beach simply cannot be beat.
Learn more about visiting Jekyll Island at www.jekyllisland.com.
Remote: The beaches of Cumberland Island
For many beach lovers, Georgia’s ultimate beach experience is found on Cumberland Island, the state’s southernmost barrier island. Thanks to Cumberland Island National Seashore, you have the opportunity experience backcountry adventure and explore beaches that must be seen to be believed.
A trip to Cumberland Island begins at the town of St. Marys, Georgia. From there, a ferry takes you to the island. Once on the island, you’ll find a variety of beach experiences waiting for you.
Day visitors will want to focus on Sea Camp Beach near the south end of the island, just over a half-mile from Sea Camp Dock. It’s a perfect destination for a day trip, and you’ll have plenty of time for beachcombing before returning to the ferry for the trip back to St. Marys.
Of course, you may want to reserve a spot at Sea Camp Campground and stay longer. The largest and most developed of the campgrounds on Cumberland Island, Sea Camp features restrooms, cold showers, drinkable water, fire rings with grills and picnic tables. Just note that campsites there are in high demand, and this campground is often fully booked. Make reservations early.
Want a little more wilderness with your beach adventure? Check out Stafford Beach Campground about 3.5 miles from Sea Camp Dock. It’s smaller and more primitive than Sea Camp, though it too offers restroom facilities, cold showers and fire rings. Water is available, but must be treated. A short trail leads from this campground to the beach.
For those seeking the ultimate in solitude, there are three primitive campgrounds (Hickory Hill, Yankee Paradise and Brickhill Bluff) even farther north within the island’s designated wilderness area. This is totally an on-your-own hike-in adventure – as the National Park Service website puts it, “Campers should be well prepared, have proper gear, be knowledgeable in its use and self reliant.” There are no restrooms, no showers and no campfires permitted (portable camp stoves must be used for cooking). Water comes from nearby sulphur wells and must be treated before use. It’s not for the faint of heart.
But if you’re up to the challenges, the Park Service adds, you’ll find “solitude, beauty and an escape like no other.”
I’ve camped at some of those sites, and it really is a unique experience that you’ll never forget.
And the beaches, as you might imagine, are exquisite.
If you’re camping, note that you are responsible for transporting your gear from Sea Camp Dock to your campsite – in other words, you have to carry it in. But you won’t mind the hiking. It’s a small price to pay for a beach experience like the one waiting for you on Cumberland Island.
Learn more about Cumberland Island National Seashore at https://www.nps.gov/cuis/index.htm.
Close to home: The beach at Don Carter State Park
Sometimes you get the beach urge, but don’t have the time or inclination to make a long road trip. When that’s the case, look no farther than one of Georgia’s nearby state parks.
“Several of Georgia’s state parks offer lakeside beaches, which are a great way to cool off during summer without a longer trip to the coast,” said Kim Hatcher, public affairs coordinator for the Parks, Recreation and Historic Sites Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. “Our beaches have roped-off swimming areas, so it’s easy to know where kids can swim. It’s also affordable since lake swimming is free and parking is only $5.”
One such nearby beach getaway is waiting for you at Don Carter State Park, Georgia’s newest state park and the first state park on 38,000-acre Lake Lanier. Located at the far north end of the Chattahoochee arm of the lake, Don Carter is a great destination for anyone on Atlanta’s north side who loves the beach but doesn’t want to have to travel far to get there. It’s a perfect place to enjoy sun and sand without having to drive all the way to the coast.
Like other state park beaches, this one features a roped-off swimming area with an adjacent bathhouse too. You’ll enjoy relaxing on the white sand and in the water (but note, there are no lifeguards, so keep a close eye on the kids). And when you are ready for a break from the sand, you can enjoy the park’s multi-use hiking and biking trail, which carries you through the neighboring hardwood forest…or bring your canoe or kayak (or rent a kayak or paddleboard seasonally) and explore one of several designated canoe routes originating at the park.
Don Carter State Park is a great place for a day away, but why stop there? The park offers a number of options for overnight stays, including two-bedroom hillside cabins near the water. You’ll also find two campgrounds – one developed specifically for RVs and another more primitive camping area for tents and hammocks.
What if you’ve never camped before? That’s not a problem if you take advantage of Georgia State Park’s “First Time Camper” program, designed for folks who have never camped at one of Georgia’s state parks. You’ll be able to borrow gear (including a six-person tent, four sleeping pads, a camp stove with fuel, two camp chairs, one lantern and four roasting forks) and receive great advice as you get your campsite set up and ready to go. You will need to bring your own sleeping bags or blankets and your own pillows. Regular camping rates apply, as does the $5 ParkPass for the duration of your stay. As one first-time camper said recently, “I wish I’d found how much fun this is a long time ago!”
Don Carter State Park is at 5000 North Browning Bridge Road, Gainesville, GA 30506, phone 678-450-7726. For lodging or camping reservations, call 800-864-7275.