The barrier islands off the coast of the state of Georgia were originally formed by geologic activity and sea level shift approximately 5,000 years ago, following the end of the last Ice Age. Whether you’re looking to explore historic sites from the Gilded Age, entertain families with summer resort activities, or enjoy outdoor recreational activities in unspoiled nature preserves, Georgia’s barrier islands are the perfect site for day trips and overnight excursions.
1.Little Tybee Island
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Little Tybee Island's name is misleading, as it is more than twice the size of the more developed nearby Tybee Island. The 6,780-acre island serves as an unspoiled nature preserve housing a large variety of endangered native bird species such as the woodstork, white ibis, egret, and heron. It is best known as the site of the yachting events for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. The island is open to the public seven days a week and offers opportunities for recreational bird watching, fishing, hiking, beachcombing, and camping. Kayaking, dolphin tour boat, and charter boat tour opportunities are offered, along with guided jet skiing and stand-up paddleboarding opportunities.
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Blackbeard Island derives its name from famed 18th-century pirate Edward Teach, best known as Blackbeard, whose treasures have been rumored to have been buried on the island. The island was auctioned as an oak timber facility in 1800 by the Navy Department before being designated as a wildlife preserve in 1924 by the Bureau of Biological Survey. In 1940, the preserve was renamed as the Blackbeard Island National Wildlife Refuge, intended to serve as a breeding ground for indigenous species and migratory birds. As one of seven similar refuges overseen by the Savannah Coastal Refuges Complex, the island is only accessible via boat and offers large areas of freshwater and saltwater marsh, maritime forest, and sandy beach. Protected species include the loggerhead sea turtle, the American bald eagle, and the piping plover.
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Cockspur Island is located in Chatham County within the Savannah River’s mouth and has also been referred to as Long Island and Peeper Island. Throughout the history of European settlement in North America, the island has served as the site for several military fortifications, including Fort George, Fort Greene, and Fort Pulaski, the latter of which served an important role in the American Civil War. In 1924, Fort Pulaski National Monument was established on nine miles within the island and its neighboring McQueens Islands. Today, it is home to a number of native flora and fauna species and offers opportunities to tour historic fortification remains.
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Cumberland Island is Georgia’s largest barrier island and has been inhabited by humans since as early as 2000 B.C., when it was used as a hunting and fishing site by indigenous North American tribes. Spanish missions were established on the island throughout the 16th century, and two forts were constructed in the 1730s under James Oglethorpe’s master plan for the colony of Georgia. Today, the 18-mile island is maintained as part of the Cumberland Island National Seashore and is accessible via National Park Service ferries. A variety of native flora and fauna is protected on the island, including loggerhead sea turtles, feral horses and hogs, and a number of waterfowl and sea bird species. More than three dozen residences are maintained on the island, including the Greyfield Inn and a number of NPS campsites. Ranger-led activities are organized periodically, including hiking, stargazing, and birdwatch excursions.
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Hutchinson Island is located within the Savannah River immediately north of Savannah’s downtown district and is approximately seven miles long by one mile wide. The island is noted for its historic role in the American Civil War when Savannah was captured by Union forces led by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman in 1864. Today, the island is home to several hotels and convention centers, including the 2,000-acres Westin Savannah, which includes the Savannah International Trade and Convention Center. Other attractions include the Grand Prize of America Road Course, which has hosted major motorsport racing events such as the Dixie Crystals Grand Prix. The island is accessible via ferry boat from the mainland or by car via the Talmadge Memorial Bridge.
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Jekyll Island was named in honor of Sir Joseph Jekyll, a British financier who was a close friend of Colony of Georgia planner James Oglethorpe. Throughout the late 19th century, the island became an exclusive resort hunting area, attracting luminaries such as the Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Morgan families. In 1947, the island was designated as a state park, and in 1972, the island’s historic buildings were designated as the Jekyll Island Club National Historic Landmark District, which is one of the largest historic restoration projects in the American Southeast today. Tourist attractions on the island include the Jekyll Island Museum, the historic Horton House, and the Wanderer Memorial, which honors the last documented cargo slave ship of the transatlantic slave trade. Family attractions include Summer Waves Water Park and the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, the state’s only sea turtle rehabilitation facility.
7.Lake Lanier Islands
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Lake Lanier Islands is one of Georgia’s premiere resort districts, located on 1,500 acres along the shore of Lake Sidney Lanier. The man-made islands were created after the construction of Buford Dam, when partial flooding of the Chattahoochee River Valley created a chain of islands that had once been hills near the city of Gainesville. In the mid-20th century, the Georgia Department of State Parks and the Lake Lanier Islands Development Authority developed the region into a recreational venue featuring boat docks, campgrounds, beaches, riding stables, a golf course, and the Pine Island Hotel resort. A water park was later added to the region, known today as the Margaritaville at Lanier Islands.
8.Little St. Simons Island
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Little St. Simons Island is an 11,000-acre barrier island that is maintained as a privately-owned resort. The resort was originally constructed in the early 20th century by Philip Berolzheimer, the president of the Engle Pencil Company, and served as a popular retreat for a group of top New York City policymakers known as the Eight Bandits. Today, seven miles of undeveloped beach are offered at the island, along with the Lodge on Little St. Simons Island, which offers six guest cottages sleeping up to 32 guests. The island is accessible via organized reservation day boating trips for guests ages 12 and older, which depart from the Hampton River Marina.
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Ossabaw Island is Georgia’s third-largest barrier island, spanning more than 26,000 acres, including 9,000 acres of wooded upland area and 16,000 acres of marshlands. The island has been inhabited for at least 4,000 years, including settlements by the Guale indigenous tribe and 16th-century Spanish explorers. Following periods of private ownership as a plantation site and hunting area, the island was converted into an artistic retreat in the mid-2oth century, hosting luminaries such as composer Aaron Copland and writer Margaret Atwood. In 1978, the retreat was converted into a heritage preserve for scientific and cultural study, which is managed today by the Ossabaw Island Foundation nonprofit organization. As the state’s first heritage preserve, the island conducts educational research in correlation with local universities and hosts a variety of public special events throughout the year.
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Sapelo Island is a protected barrier island within Georgia’s McIntosh County that serves as the site of Hog Hammock, the last known Gullah-Geechee African-American community in the United States. In 1927, the community was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The island is only accessible via aircraft or boat, including a 20-minute ferry ride that embarks from the Sapelo Island Visitors Center. The island is home to the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve, which is operated as part of the NOAA National Estuarine Research Reserve System, and the University of Georgia Marine Institute. Other major attractions include the historic Reynolds Mansion, which is operated as a Georgia state park.
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Sea Island is a chain of barrier islands located within Glynn County and is part of Georgia’s Golden Isles, along with Jekyll, Little St. Simons, and St. Simons Islands and the mainland community of Brunswick. The island serves as a popular resort area and is accessible via causeway from St. Simons Island. A gated community for 500 residents is located on the island, along with two public resorts, the Cloister and the Sea Island Beach Club. The Cloister, located on the southwest end of the island, offers 200 guest rooms and suites and The Georgian Room, the only Forbes Five Star restaurant in the state, while the Beach Club offers amenities such as three pools, a bar, an ice cream shop, and a game room. Other island attractions include three championship golf courses, including the Plantation, which hosts the PGA Tour’s RSM Classic tournament.
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Skidaway Island is a census-designated place within Chatham County that is home to more than 8,300 people and is incorporated as part of the Savannah Metropolitan Statistical Area. The island is one of the United States’ most affluent residential communities, best known for The Landings, one of the country’s largest gated communities. It is also home to the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, which is operated by the University of Georgia, and Skidaway Island State Park, which offers a public interpretive center and outdoor recreational activities such as bird watching, nature trails, and a public boardwalk and observation tower. A variety of campsites are offered on the island, including tent, trailer, and RV sites, camper cabins, and pioneer campgrounds.
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Wassaw Island is a barrier island located near Tybee Island and is one of Georgia’s few remaining unspoiled natural areas, featuring more than 10,000 miles of coastal forest, salt marsh areas, and sand dunes. The island is operated by the Fish and Wildlife Service as Wassaw National Wildlife Refuge, which is open to the public for outdoor recreational activities such as hiking, kayaking, and wildlife watching. Seven miles of beachfront area and nature trails are available to the public, but the interior of the island is closed to public exploration. Nearby Little Wassaw and Pine Islands are also incorporated as part of the refuge, featuring oak and palm tree forests, salt marsh areas, and interconnecting creeks.
15 Best Georgia Islands
- Little Tybee Island, Photo: Courtesy of Tomov - Fotolia.com
- Blackbeard Island, Photo: Courtesy of science photo - Fotolia.com
- Cockspur Island, Photo: Courtesy of Daniel L Grantham Jr - Fotolia.com
- Cumberland Island, Photo: Courtesy of stockstudios - Fotolia.com
- Hutchinson Island, Photo: Courtesy of HJ - Fotolia.com
- Jekyll Island, Photo: Courtesy of Stanford - Fotolia.com
- Lake Lanier Islands, Photo: Courtesy of Gabriel - Fotolia.com
- Little St. Simons Island, Photo: Courtesy of Little St. Simons Island
- Ossabaw Island, Photo: Courtesy of Naj - Fotolia.com
- Sapelo Island, Photo: Courtesy of Alicia - Fotolia.com
- Sea Island, Photo: Courtesy of Flat Nine Photo - Fotolia.com
- Skidaway Island, Photo: Courtesy of NADEZHDA - Fotolia.com
- Wassaw Island, Photo: Courtesy of Ovidiu - Fotolia.com
- Cover Photo: Courtesy of squirlgirl - Fotolia.com