What to know about Georgia’s remote islands

Wassaw’s boneyard beach

Photograph by Getty Images

Wassaw Island

Getting there Book a private boat charter or take your own boat to this undeveloped island just south of Tybee Island. You can unload at a dock on Wassaw Creek, but must moor off the south or north ends of the island. At least six miles of beaches and 20 miles of trails are open to the public from dawn to dusk. The interior is off-limits.

History The island was originally inhabited by Native Americans. Its name derives from the Creek word for sassafras, which still grows here. In the mid-19th century, it was owned by Anthony Odingsell, a Black planter who tried unsuccessfully to save 300 enslaved people from a cholera outbreak. Today, the only private property belongs to the Parsons family, who have owned land here since the mid-19th century. In 1969, they sold most of it for $1 million to the Georgia Nature Conservancy, which then sold it to the federal government.

Cool thing to do here Check out Wassaw’s boneyard beach. As the sea rises and the beach encroaches upon the forest, uprooted oaks create a haunting scene.

Overnight No, the island is only open from dawn to dusk.

Island ecology Wassaw is only 1,600 years old and has seen relatively little human activity. Because its forests were never felled for timbering, farming, or cattle grazing, it is considered the best representation of Georgia’s barrier islands prior to European occupation. Old-growth maritime forests remain intact. It now operates as a wildlife refuge managed by the U.S. Department of Interior.

Wildlife Wassaw is a bird lover’s paradise because migratory birds use it as a stopping point on their way south. You could see anything from spoonbills to falcons. The island is also home to alligators, deer, and hogs.

Tidal wetlands on Ossabaw

Photograph by Elizabeth Dubose

Ossabaw Island

Getting there Each trip has to be approved by the Ossabaw Island Foundation. You can work with a private company, like Savannah Coastal Ecotours, which will help secure approval, or join one of the foundation’s planned day or overnight trips.

History Four thousand years ago, the island was inhabited by Native Americans. Spanish missionaries and explorers arrived in the 16th century. By the 1700s, it was farmed and timbered by Georgia settlers, using enslaved people. Several indigo plantations were established. After the Civil War, freedmen worked as tenant farmers before eventually leaving the island. In the last two decades, their mainland Gullah Geechee descendants have formed the Ossabaw Heritage Association in nearby Pin Point. In the 1920s, Henry and Nell Torrey built an estate here. Their daughter, Sandy Torrey West, lived in the house until five years before she died in 2021.

Cool thing to do Celebrate New Year’s Eve under the stars. Ossabaw Island Foundation’s executive director, Elizabeth DuBose, leads a walking tour, and after dinner, guests gather around a fire to welcome the New Year.

Overnight Camp or stay in the boarding house (a craftsman bungalow) or clubhouse, both with mostly shared accommodations. All overnight stays must be approved in advance by the foundation and be for educational or research purposes.

Island ecology Only 9,000 acres of the island are considered high ground. The rest are tidal wetlands.

Wildlife Keep an eye out for the Ossabaw hogs, an American feral breed likely introduced by the Spanish. (The Georgia Department of Natural Resources sponsors occasional hunts for population control.) The free-ranging donkeys were introduced to the island in the 1960s. Loggerhead turtles also nest on Ossabaw.

Lemurs on St. Catherines

Photograph courtesy of Explore Georgia/Geoff L. Johnson

St. Catherines Island

Getting there St. Catherines is a private nature preserve and research site controlled by a foundation. Its beaches are accessible by private boat, but the island’s interior is off-limits.

History In the 1500s, Franciscans established the Santa Catalina mission here, the northernmost Spanish outpost. For more than 100 years, Catholic friars and Spanish soldiers lived with the Guale people. In the mid-1700s, the island was granted to Muskogee leader Mary Musgrove, famous for serving as an interpreter for the founder of Georgia, General James Oglethorpe, and other colonial leaders. The island was also eventually owned by Button Gwinnett. It now belongs to the Edward J. Noble Foundation, which preserves the island as a research site.

Cool thing to do You can’t visit the interior of the island, but you can see some of its artifacts in Atlanta. The Fernbank Museum displays pottery found on St. Catherines Island, dating from 5,000-year-old Native American pieces to majolica brought by Spanish missionaries.

Overnight Not permitted

Island ecology The island has salt marshes, maritime forests, grasslands, beaches, and freshwater ponds.

Wildlife St. Catherines is one of the only places in the world where you can see lemurs in the wild. In the ’80s, the island became a destination for endangered species through the now-closed Wildlife Survival Center, operated by the Bronx Zoo. Animals like lemurs, hornbills, and tortoises remain.

Blackbeard Island

Getting there To get to Blackbeard, you’ll need to charter a boat tour out of Darien or take your own personal boat. The island is one of the country’s oldest national wildlife refuges and is open to the public daily from sunrise to sunset.

History Rumor has it that the notorious pirate Blackbeard (Edward Teach) buried treasure on the island, though his booty has never been found. In the 1800s, French investors sold it to the United States government so that timber could be harvested for the Navy. It also served as a quarantine station during the yellow fever outbreak of the 1870s. It became a wildlife refuge in the 1920s.

Cool thing to do Besides the beach, visitors can explore forest trails shaded by live oaks.

Overnight Camping is prohibited unless you’re participating in annual hunts to help control the deer and hog populations.

Island ecology The island has seven miles of white sand beaches.

Wildlife A visit to Blackbeard will certainly include encounters with birds like gulls and terns, which live there year-round. Other birds, like warblers and sanderlings, visit seasonally. You may also see deer and raccoons.

Wolf Island

Getting there Wolf Island is a national wildlife refuge along with nearby Egg and Little Egg islands, and all beaches and uplands are closed to provide sanctuary for shorebirds. Visitors can explore the island only by boat.

History Primarily used for hunting in the 1700s, the island served as a quarantine station during a yellow fever epidemic in the late 18th century. Lighthouses were built on the island but were destroyed by the Confederate army and then again by a hurricane. The island became a federal bird sanctuary in the 1970s.

Cool thing to do The waterways that cut through Wolf Island are navigable by boat and make for great crabbing.

Overnight Overnights on Wolf Island (or Egg/Little Egg) are not permitted.

Island ecology About three-quarters of the island is composed of saltwater marsh.

Wildlife Since it’s a bird sanctuary, you can expect to see lots of migratory birds. Sea turtles also nest here.

Little Raccoon Key

Getting there Little Raccoon Key is privately owned by a resort company, which offers day trips, fishing charters, and overnight stays. Only one reservation is booked per night, so guests have the island to themselves.

History The island was originally inhabited by the Timucua and Guale tribes. By the mid-1600s, it was visited by French, Spanish, and English explorers.

Cool thing to do If you stay overnight, your accommodations include a cooler and a gas grill—or you can splurge for chef-prepared meals. 

Overnight For $1,700 or so per night (two-night minimum), stay in a luxury tent with an outdoor shower and a memory foam bed

Island ecology The beaches of Little Raccoon Key are laden with oyster shells. Over thousands of years, oysters attached to each other on Little Raccoon to form what’s called an oyster reef, which protects the island from erosion and shelters many species.

Wildlife As the name suggests, there are raccoons here. Dolphins are often spotted from its shore, as are pelicans on the hunt for fish.

Back to Exploring Georgia’s Enchanted Islands

This article appears in our August 2023 issue.

The post What to know about Georgia’s remote islands appeared first on Atlanta Magazine.

A quick guide about Wassaw Island, Ossabaw Island, St. Catherines Island, Blackbeard Island, Wolf Island, and Little Raccoon Key
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