Often referred to as “the boneyard,” Driftwood Beach is a relatively small stretch of Jekyll Island’s 10 miles of unspoiled shoreline, but it’s easily the most picturesque. Located on the island’s north end, it’s so protected by trees that it’s not visible from the roadway. But park and venture down winding trails and in just a few yards you’ll emerge onto a beach scattered with ancient driftwood monuments bleached by the sun and preserved by the salty air.
Looking out across the length of the beach, it’s as if the ocean had washed the bones of prehistoric animals onto the shore, where they bleached over time. The limbs are gnarled and knotted, reaching out in various directions before being fixed in time and space. It’s both eerie and beautiful—a tension reminiscent of the Southern Gothic tradition; like Flannery O’Connor herself had crafted this scene.
I have lived in Savannah for two decades, and yet I only just recently discovered Driftwood Beach when a friend took me there on a day trip this past summer. I had been to Jekyll Island a number of times over the years for tennis tournaments, conventions and retreats—once I even rode my bicycle around the island’s perimeter as the first 10 miles of a century ride, but I had completely missed this gem of a site.
What made the view even more breathtaking was the giant belly of the capsized cargo ship “Golden Ray” in the distance. Lying on its side, all that was visible was its red ballast, dwarfing the St. Simons’ coastline beyond it. While the ship will eventually be dismantled and removed, its menacing presence adds another layer of enchantment to the experience, the industrial metal form lying in stark contrast to the organic shapes around it.
We visited midweek as to avoid the onslaught of tourists that seem to know more than I, filling the beach at steady rates. But it was also six months into the pandemic, so we were able to spread out, snap photos as we negotiated around the driftwood, and cool off in the surf, running our toes along the ocean floor to find sand dollars and spiral shells as big as our hands.
Driftwood Beach alone is worth the drive, but the barrier island has even more to offer—most notably a fascinating history dating back 3,500 years. While the earliest inhabitants of the southernmost island of the Golden Isles were Native Americans who traveled there to hunt and fish, the first settlers were British colonists, claiming the land for England. General James Oglethorpe founded the colony of Georgia in 1733, and along with it, Jekyll Island. It was then purchased in 1886 as a private winter retreat for some of the wealthiest families in America, including the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Pulitzers.
What’s referred to as the “Club Era” marked the opening of the prestigious Jekyll Island Club and the construction of spacious vacation homes and outbuildings to serve elite families. Now part of the National Historic Landmark District, visitors can tour these historic sites and stop in at the Mosaic Jekyll Island Museum.
The Great Depression and WWII brought the Club Era to a close and Jekyll Island was purchased by the state of Georgia in 1947 and opened to the public as a State Park a year later. To preserve its history and natural beauty, only 35 percent of the island has been developed, offering lodging, shopping, dining, the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, and a variety of ways to enjoy the outdoors with trails, bike paths, tennis courts, golf courses and even a water park. The remaining 65 percent has been left in its natural state. This includes five unique, family friendly beaches of which Driftwood is only one—though make it the first on your list.
Visiting Jekyll Island
All vehicles entering the island must purchase a parking pass at the main gate. Single- and multi-day passes are $8, an annual pass is $55. Walkers and bicyclists do not need to pay a fee to visit the island.