Shedding a light on rural Georgia: Sapelo Island

Updated: Sep 4

By Loren Lindler

Photo credit: Georgia Department of Natural Resources (State Parks and Historic Sites)

Georgia’s coastline is rich in many things, including white, sandy beaches, tourist destinations, and some of the finest seafood restaurants you’ll ever visit. The state’s coast stretches from Tybee to Cumberland Island, and what’s in between has a history and experience that you can’t get just anywhere.

Though the coastline consists of five counties – Chatham, Liberty, McIntosh, Glynn, and Camden, three of these are considered to be rural, according to the State Office of Rural Health.

As we take a look at what is in rural Georgia, we found that we are graced with three unique structures to shed a light on rural Georgia – lighthouses.

Standing tall on Cumberland and Sapelo Islands, three lighthouses prove to have a rich history, but continue to bring tourists to the islands each year. A few weeks ago, we shared a little bit about Cumberland Island, which you can read more about here.


We wanted to take a closer look at the history of Sapelo Island that has shed its own light on rural Georgia. Keep scrolling to learn more about rural Georgia's coastal surprises and adventures at Sapelo Island.

Sapelo Island


A state-managed barrier island, and the fourth largest in the chain of Georgia islands, Sapelo has a history like no other. Located in McIntosh County and accessible only by passenger ferry, the island provides a number of opportunities for visitors.


Sapelo has been home to Spanish missionaries, and French and English settlers, until 1802 when the land was acquired by Thomas Spalding. Spalding established a plantation on the island, growing sea-island cotton, sugar cane, and rice. However, Spalding sold five acres, for a sum of one dollar, for a lighthouse to be built at the southern end of the island. Upon completion in 1820, the lighthouse served as a guide for those traveling to and from the Port of Darien.


In 1969, the northern part of the island was purchased by the State of Georgia and became the R.J. Reynolds Wildlife Refuge, which is now a state park and historic site. The southernmost part of the island now serves as the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve (SINERR). The 6,100 acres of the SINERR is dedicated to research, education, stewardship, and management of coastal resources.


Photo credit: Sapelo Island Tours

Today, visitors can take a tour of the island, including a trip to the lighthouse, marine institute, Reynolds Mansion, and much more.


If you've ever visited the island, you may have heard of Hog Hammock. For newcomers, Hog Hammock is a small Geechee/Gullah community of about 45 people. According to Sapelo Island Tours, "Geechee/Gullah refers to a distinct African-American culture that developed primarily along the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. The culture is called 'Gullah' in South Carolina, and 'Geechee' in Georgia. Sapelo’s Hog Hammock community is made up of the decedents of slaves who worked the plantation of Thomas Spalding."


The island has an abundance of wildlife, too. Between birds, deer, and alligators, there is a variety of experiences for visitors to enjoy. As you stroll down the sandy beaches of Sapelo Island, you're sure to find many natural beaches, especially if you take a trip down Nanny Goat Beach. Unfortunately, there are no goats roaming on Nanny Goat Island, but it is the perfect place for birdwatching and seeing all that nature has to offer.


Photo credit: Georgia Department of Natural Resources (State Parks and Historic Sites)

If you're looking to stay on the island, groups are welcome to stay at Reynolds Mansion or at Cabretta Campground. The original mansion was built by Spalding and served as Spalding Plantation Manor from 1810 until the Civil War. After falling to ruins during the war, it was later purchased and rebuilt. Over the years, the facilities have been used for marine research by the University of Georgia and were obtained by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources in 1975.


Sapelo Island has a rich history and there is so much to learn! You can check out this website for more information, or visit Explore Georgia to assist in planning your next trip.


Do you know of interesting experiences in rural, coastal counties? Share your ideas with us by sending us an email or messaging us on Facebook!

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