Cumberland Island National Seashore is a dreamy and historic landscape that beckons travelers from around the world. Located off the coast of southern Georgia, this barrier island has been home to Native Americans, wealthy plantation owners, and wild horses for centuries.
We were able to enjoy camping, exploring, and touring while visiting Cumberland Island in September 2022, and want to share our favorite spots!
With its pristine beaches, majestic live oak trees, and colorful history, it’s no wonder that Cumberland Island draws in visitors from near and far. From rustic camping to luxurious accommodations at the Greyfield Inn and everything you’ll do to fill your days, here is your comprehensive guide for visiting Cumberland Island National Seashore.
Guide to Visiting Cumberland Island: An Overview
Cumberland Island National Seashore is a must-see destination on the southeastern coast. This sprawling barrier island stretches over 17 miles from north to south and offers visitors a chance to experience some of the best of Georgia’s outdoors. From white sand beaches and salt marshes to historic ruins and wild horses, Cumberland Island is a stunning place for an unplugged getaway.
If you want to experience the unique beauty of this island, consider either day trips or camping overnight. Before planning your trip, it’s important to know that there are no stores or restaurants on the island, so it’s essential to bring along enough food and drinks for the duration of your trip.
Ferries operate from St Marys, GA regularly throughout the year, so you can get to Cumberland Island in no time at all with some planning. Once you arrive on Cumberland Island, you should take some time to check out its many attractions.
Take a tour of Plum Orchard Mansion or explore one of the many hiking trails that wind through the island’s dense forests. You may even be able to spot some wild horses roaming! No matter how long your stay is, make sure you don’t miss out on the chance to experience this incredible landscape firsthand.
History of Cumberland Island
Cumberland Island has a long and fascinating history that dates back centuries. Native Americans are believed to have first inhabited the island before Spanish missionaries arrived in the 16th century.
In the 1700s, James Oglethorpe, the governor of Georgia, established two forts, and planters began to bring slaves with them. After the American Revolution, prominent families built mansions on Cumberland Island, leaving behind what we can explore today.
The Carnegie family, specifically Thomas and Lucy, were instrumental in building some of the most iconic structures still found on the island. Thomas was the brother of Andrew Carnegie, a prominent name in the steel industry. The Carnegie family used Cumberland Island as a getaway property.
The island’s wealth of natural beauty has been preserved by the National Seashore since 1972 when it was acquired by the National Parks Service. Today visitors can explore over 17 miles of pristine beaches, salt marshes, and dense live oak forests.
You may even spot some wild horses roaming around; these feral horses are thought to be descendants of livestock that were brought over by previous settlers centuries ago! So if you’re looking for an unforgettable adventure, let’s get to planning a trip out to Cumberland Island.
Getting to Cumberland Island
First, let’s figure out how to get to Cumberland Island because it is pretty easy! The public ferry offered in partnership with the NPS departs from downtown St. Marys, Georgia, about seven miles away from the island.
The ferry ride is only 45 minutes long each way, so it’s perfect for a day trip out to Cumberland Island. You can find the earliest departure from St. Marys at 9 AM, while the last return trip leaves Cumberland Island at 5:30 PM. Ferry schedule times do change depending on the season, something to be aware of when purchasing tickets and making travel plans.
If you’re driving to St. Marys, there are plenty of parking spots available about a block from the visitor center, and the dock where the ferry departs.
Once you’re on board, sit back and relax as you enjoy the ride to the island. Book your tickets for the Cumberland Island Ferry ahead of time to ensure you get the trip times you want.
Keep in mind that the ferry operators do recommend that you arrive one hour prior to departure to check in and prepare for the ride. If you’re on the 9 AM ferry, you should arrive to check in at 8 AM!
Staying Overnight on Cumberland Island
For those looking to stay overnight on Cumberland Island, the historic Greyfield Inn is a great historical, but expensive, option. Located in the heart of the national seashore, north of the Sea Camp dock, you’ll be able to experience all that Cumberland has to offer without compromising on comfort.
If you’re looking for a more rustic experience, camping is also available on Cumberland Island – just make sure to book your spot beforehand! You’ll need your permit in hand when you arrive on the island, and this should be displayed at your campsite for the duration of your stay.
If you’d rather stay closer to amenities, there are a few great little places in St. Marys.
For those looking for an off-the-grid experience in the middle of the wilds of Cumberland Island, primitive camping is the way to go. Here, you’ll find no real modern amenities or services – just yourself, the stars, and the sounds of nature.
Before setting out on your camping adventure, make sure to check in with park rangers at the Sea Camp dock so they can provide you with all the essential safety information.
Visitors should also take note that fires are only allowed in designated fire rings. However, many visitors choose to bring their own backpacking stove and cook over it instead – this helps minimize your impact on the environment while still providing a comfortable campfire atmosphere.
Choosing a campsite at the Sea Camp campground is the closest to the ferry dock, and you can transport all of your gear with wheeled carts. Wheeled coolers are also permitted in Sea Camp. A bathhouse with flush toilets and showers is centrally located.
The other campground can be found 3.5 miles north at Stafford Beach. You must carry all your gear to these sites, as no wheeled carts or coolers are permitted north of Sea Camp. These sites at Stafford Beach do tend to be a little quieter than those at Sea Camp just based on the effort required to reach them.
Stafford Beach also has a small bath house with one cold water shower and one flushing toilet on each side. This is the last spot on the island where you can get drinkable water without having to treat it.
Just be aware that none of these campsites are actually located on the beach. You’ll have to walk a couple of hundred yards to reach the beach.
It is best to reserve these sites ahead of time, as some of them do book out months in advance. Make your camping reservations through Recreation.gov.
Backcountry campsites on Cumberland Island offer a different unforgettable camping experience. You’ll have to hike miles of trails to reach the sites, but backcountry camping gives visitors the chance to explore the island’s untouched natural beauty and observe its abundant wildlife in a more secluded fashion.
There are three backcountry campsites located throughout Cumberland Island National Seashore, but there are no amenities at any of these sites. No fires are permitted in these wilderness areas. There is no running water at any of these wilderness sites.
Small backpacking camp stoves, like the MSR Pocket Rocket, are permitted for cooking. All supplies must also be packed in and out due to the fragile nature of the environment. Be prepared to hang your food so it is not stolen or harmed by the animals inhabiting the island. It is highly recommended that campers bring their own water, as potable water is not available onsite.
- Hickory Hill Wilderness Campsite (5.5 miles from Sea Camp)
- Yankee Paradise Wilderness Campsite (7.5 miles from Sea Camp)
- Brickhill Bluff Wilderness Campsite (10.5 miles from Sea Camp)
Backcountry camping is a great way to truly get away from it all – so why not pack your gear and head out for an unforgettable camping adventure on Cumberland Island?
Luxury at the Greyfield Inn
The Greyfield Inn on Cumberland Island is a luxury getaway like no other. Located in the heart of Georgia’s pristine coastline, the inn offers a unique blend of rustic elegance and modern convenience.
From its majestic wrap-around porch to its cozy accommodations in the 15 onsite rooms, guests are sure to enjoy a relaxing stay.
The inn features an array of amenities including private beach access, an onsite restaurant and bar with included meals and cocktail hour, and a variety of activities ranging from bike rentals to guided tours.
With its picturesque surroundings and attentive staff, the Greyfield Inn is the perfect place for those seeking a luxurious escape, and those who can afford the price tag! Rooms here start around $800 per night and require a 2-3 night minimum stay.
For those looking to truly indulge themselves, book one of their signature packages.
Stay in St Marys Instead
If you want to visit Cumberland Island but enjoy more modern amenities nearby, then St. Marys is definitely where you should stay.
Located on the southern tip of Georgia’s coast, this quaint town offers visitors a variety of activities and attractions. Best of all, it is extremely convenient to board the ferry!
From kayaking to fishing to simply strolling along the sandy shoreline, St. Marys is a great little town. With its charming downtown area with shops, restaurants, and green spaces, this small town is the perfect jumping-off point for heading out to Cumberland Island.
Book a room at the Spencer House Inn, just a 5-minute walk from the ferry dock. Guests love the beautiful setting and the convenience of walking to shops and restaurants.
What to Bring to Cumberland Island
Visiting Cumberland Island is a great way to escape to nature. Whether you’re planning on exploring the island’s trails or taking in its majestic beauty from the pristine undeveloped beaches, there are some essentials that you should bring with you on your trip.
Must haves when visiting Cumberland Island include:
- Insect repellant
- Lightweight clothing
- Comfortable walking shoes
- Water bottle with plenty of water
- Beach towel and swimsuit if you plan to swim
- Lunch + extra snacks
- Hat + sunglasses
- Camping gear if you plan to stay the night!
Cumberland Island Historic Sites
Cumberland Island is a treasure trove of history and culture. This National Seashore is home to many historic sites that have been preserved for the public to explore.
The Plum Orchard Mansion is one of the island’s most popular attractions, offering visitors a glimpse into the lives of the Carnegie family who once owned the property. Other architectural gems include the Greyfield Inn, a restored mansion turned inn, once also owned by the Carnegie family, and First African Baptist Church, a former slave church with an interesting past that made it famous throughout Georgia.
Visitors can also explore Civil War-era fortifications and cemeteries, including those located at Dungeness Ruins and Stafford Beach Cemetery.
From the time you step off the ferry at the Dungeness dock, you can begin to experience the historical sites when visiting Cumberland Island.
Ice House Museum
The Ice House Museum is a must-see while visiting Cumberland Island, and it’s extremely easy to visit!
Located near the Dungeness Dock, this historic building was built by Thomas and Lucy Carnegie around 1900 to store ice shipped from the north. This was used before refrigerators were invented!
Today, it houses a small one-room museum that covers the island’s fascinating history from its early inhabitants, to when the Carnegies sold their land to the National Park Service in the early 1970s.
Inside you will find artifacts and displays about the island’s past. Restrooms and drinking water are also available here for visitors’ convenience.
Whether you’re a history buff or simply want to learn a little more about Cumberland Island before exploring deeper, don’t skip this quick stop before you move deeper into the island.
The Dungeness Ruins is an iconic landmark of Cumberland Island and a must-see when you visit. Built in the late 1800s by Thomas and Lucy Carnegie, this grand estate was once their winter retreat. Thomas Carnegie never really got to enjoy it, though, as he died around the time that it was completed.
The mansion had dozens of rooms with stately columns and towers that could be seen for miles around.
Unfortunately, it burned down in 1959, but its ruins remain one of the most popular attractions on the island today. Visitors can explore the grounds to discover and reimagine what it must have been like to experience Dungeness during the time of the Carnegies.
The grounds are quite large, so we’d recommend planning at least half of a day to explore this area of the island, including heading out to the beach via the boardwalk trail after you make it through the buildings and grounds.
Plum Orchard Mansion
Plum Orchard Mansion is one of the most impressive sights to behold when visiting Cumberland Island. This 22,000-square-foot estate was built in 1898 and served as the primary winter residence for George Lauder Carnegie, one of Thomas and Lucy’s children, and his wife Margaret Thaw until his death.
Nowadays, visitors can take a short guided tour inside Plum Orchard Mansion to learn more about its history and admire its Victorian-era furnishings. There is even a swimming pool inside Plum Orchard! It’s not filled with water these days, but exploring the mansion is worth the hour-long tour.
The mansion also has views looking out into the marshlands, making it a great spot to enjoy a picnic lunch at one of the outdoor picnic tables after your tour. Just be careful with any of the wild horses that may be grazing out front.
While on your trip to Cumberland Island, be sure to add Plum Orchard Mansion to your list of must-see spots.
The First African Baptist Church
The First African Baptist Church is an important part of Cumberland Island’s history.
Located at the northern end of the island, this very modest chapel was founded in 1893 to serve the island’s African American population who had been emancipated after the Civil War.
It became a popular destination for visitors after it was featured in coverage of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s and Caroline Bessette’s wedding in 1996.
Today, the First African Baptist Church is still open to visitors who want to learn more about its history and step inside to experience it. Inside, you’ll find a simple yet beautiful interior featuring stained glass windows, wooden pews, and exposed brick walls.
It certainly takes some effort to reach the Settlement and First African Baptist Church because it is located 15 miles north of the Sea Camp dock. For the most part, the only way to reach the church is by joining in on a Lands & Legacies tour.
Things to do on Cumberland Island
Cumberland Island is the perfect place to explore if you’re looking for a unique day trip or to get off the grid for a few days. The barrier island off the coast of Georgia is home to wild horses, beautiful unspoiled beaches, and plenty of fun activities. Whether you’re planning a relaxing day out or an adventurous excursion, here are some of the top things to do on Cumberland Island.
Take a Guided Tour
If you’re looking for a unique way to explore Cumberland Island while having all the planning done for you, why not take a guided tour? Guided tours are a great way to learn about the island’s history and wildlife while taking in some of its most beautiful sights.
The Lands and Legacies Tour is the main guided tour on the island offered to the public. It takes you around historic locations such as Plum Orchard Mansion, the Settlement, and Dungeness Ruins. You’ll learn so much history about these places, and the tour guides tell plenty of stories as they drive you along the island. Make sure you look out the window along the way to take in some of the breathtaking views along the main road. Book the Lands and Legacies Tour ahead of time!
The Footsteps Tour is another great option if you want to explore on foot. This 1-hour ranger-guided tour takes you to the Dungeness Historic Area where you can learn more about its unique history and natural beauty. This tour is free to all visitors and typically begins shortly after the ferry arrives.
Finally, the Plum Orchard Tour offers visitors an opportunity to explore a grand mansion from an opulent era in the island’s past. The house is located 7 miles north of Sea Camp dock so the best way to get there for visitors is by bicycle. Once you reach Plum Orchard, the tours are free.
No matter what kind of tour you choose, they all offer the perfect opportunity to dive much deeper into some of the history specific to Cumberland Island.
Hike Some Trails
If you’re looking to explore all that Cumberland Island has to offer, then you’ll want to hit the trails! The island boasts over 50 miles of hiking trails, so there’s plenty of space for everyone to explore. Most of the trails are pretty flat, and you can certainly cover some distance on the island.
The River Trail is an easy 0.8-mile walk from Sea Camp Dock to Dungeness Dock. This trail offers stunning views of the water and coastline, as well as plenty of wildlife viewing opportunities.
For a more adventurous experience, combine this with the Dungeness Trail which is 1.5 miles long and takes you through some of the island’s most beautiful scenery. You’ll pass through maritime forests and historic districts before reaching your destination at Dungeness Ruins.
We’d recommend starting from the dock, heading to Dungeness, and then continuing on the raised boardwalk on Dungeness Trail to the beach. If you’re up for the walk, head north on the beach about 1.5 miles to the Sea Camp markers, where you can then return back to the other side of the islands and the docks.
Finally, if you’re looking for a challenge, there are several longer trails that can take multiple days. Head north on the island to explore them! These routes will take you through some of Cumberland Island’s most remote areas where you can truly appreciate its beauty in peace and quiet.
If exploring north, you’ll likely get to enjoy some of the island’s great campsites, too!
There’s nothing quite like a beach day on Cumberland Island! It’s quite a different experience from some of the nearby barrier islands including Jekyll Island to the north and Amelia Island to the south.
Whether you’re looking to lounge in the sun, go for a swim, or explore the shoreline, you can do so in such an undeveloped and undisturbed location.
To make the most of your beach experience, be sure to bring plenty of sunscreen and water. Shady spots along the beaches are scarce, and it’s always important to stay safe in the sun.
Also, pack a lunch or snacks so that you can take a break from swimming and refuel. You won’t be able to purchase any of these things on the island, so bring everything with you.
Beach days on Cumberland Island also offer lots of exploration opportunities. There is an abundance of wildlife including shorebirds, seasonal sea turtles, and even wild horses that can sometimes be seen near the shoreline.
You can also search for seashells or watch for crabs scuttling around in the sand. Starfish, sand dollars, and other creatures can also be found depending on the time of year.
If you’re looking for an up-close and personal experience with nature, then wildlife viewing on Cumberland Island is the perfect activity for you! With a variety of species living in the area, including shorebirds, dolphins, wild horses, crabs, and more, you’re surely going to see some sort of wildlife during your visit.
The best way to get started with wildlife viewing is to pick up a pair of binoculars so that you can see the animals from a distance. You’ll also want to wear comfortable clothing and shoes so that you can explore the area without restrictions.
Once you’ve got your gear ready it’s time to head out in search of some wildlife! The beaches are a great place to start as they provide a perfect habitat for birds and crabs. You’ll also find wild horses grazing near the shoreline if you keep an eye out. If you’re lucky enough, you might even spot some dolphins swimming around in the bay!
Keep your eyes peeled for the armadillos that wander around the forested areas of the island and the giant spiders who sometimes spin their webs across the trails.
No matter what type of animal sighting you’re hoping for, wildlife viewing on Cumberland Island guarantees an unforgettable experience. So don’t forget your binoculars and camera!
If you’re looking for a fun way to explore the beautiful landscape of Cumberland Island and cover more ground than those on foot, then biking is the perfect activity for you!
With its flat terrain and picturesque views, this island is an excellent place to take your bike out for a spin.
You’ll have to bring your own bike to the island these days, and you’ll need to reserve the space on the ferry when you book your ticket. Bike transport on the ferry costs $10 because space is limited.
Be sure to wear comfortable clothing and shoes so that you can be comfortable while exploring. And don’t forget a helmet; safety always comes first! There are park service vehicles and some private residents of the island who have their vehicles, too.
Once you’ve got all your gear ready, check out some of the fantastic trails around the island such as heading up to Brickhill or the Plum Orchard Loop.
No matter where your route takes you, biking on Cumberland Island is a great way to see more of the space in a more cost-effective way than with a guided tour.
How Much Time is Needed on Cumberland Island?
Cumberland Island is an incredible destination that is full of natural beauty and history, so it’s no wonder why so many people flock to this remote island off the coast of Georgia. But when planning a visit to Cumberland Island, it’s important to know just how much time you need in order to fully experience all that it has to offer.
For those looking for a day trip, plan on spending at least 6-8 hours on the island. This will give you enough time to explore the south end of the island and the beaches, as well as spot some of the wild horses that Cumberland Island is known for. Book the first ferry trip out to the island and the last return trip back to St. Marys.
If you’re looking for a more relaxed experience, try spending 2-3 days or more camping at one of the fun campsites. This will give you plenty of time to enjoy the serenity and natural beauty that Cumberland Island has to offer.
No matter how long your trip lasts, make sure you bring plenty of supplies including insect repellent, sun protection, and water with you.
Best Time of Year to Visit Cumberland Island?
The best time to visit Cumberland Island is typically from March through May or later in the fall season. During this period, the weather is milder and the wildlife is most active.
While spring is a very busy time to visit, you can expect fewer crowds during the fall months. Just be sure to check the weather and hurricane forecast prior to your trip!
The summer months (June-August) are usually the warmest but still quite popular with tourists, however, you should come prepared for heat as temperatures can reach into the 90s during this time.
If you’re looking for a quieter experience, autumn (September-November) is an ideal time to visit as temperatures begin to cool down and many of the island’s birds start their migratory journey south. Just check the weather forecast!
While the colder temperatures in the winter months (December-March) may be uncomfortable at times, it’s still possible to explore some of the trails and beach areas if you’re well prepared for cooler weather.
No matter what season you decide to visit Cumberland Island in, the island will certainly give you an unforgettable experience.
How Do You Get Around on Cumberland Island?
Cumberland Island is a large, mostly wild island off the southeast coast of Georgia. The best way to get around this stunning and vast natural paradise is by foot or bicycle.
If you’re planning on exploring the island in-depth, then a bike is a great option for getting around quickly and comfortably. You can bring your own bike with you on the ferry for an extra fee. There are currently no rentals available on the island.
If you’d prefer to explore on foot, there are plenty of trails that lead through nature reserves and along beaches and sand dunes. These trails are generally easy to navigate and can offer some spectacular views and solitude if you choose the right routes. There are also guided hikes available at certain times of year that give visitors an opportunity to learn more about the local wildlife and history.
To see the entire island, especially on a day trip, you’ll have to book a guided tour to have access to a motorized vehicle.
No matter how you choose to get around on Cumberland Island, make sure that you wear comfortable shoes, as you’ll still be doing some walking!
Packing List for Visiting Cumberland Island
When you’re packing for your trip to Cumberland Island, it’s important to remember that this is a wild and remote place. The essentials are all you need; the rest is up to you! Here are some must-have items for your Cumberland Island packing list:
First and foremost, make sure you’re wearing comfortable shoes. You may be walking on trails, dunes, or sandy beaches so sturdy shoes are essential. Bring a hat and sunglasses to protect yourself from the hot sun!
Don’t forget to pack plenty of water. There aren’t any convenience stores on the island, so make sure you bring enough for your whole day out exploring. There are a few water fountains near the docks and campgrounds where you can refill a bottle if necessary.
Finally, double-check that you have a camera – this is such a beautiful place and there will be plenty of opportunities to capture amazing photos!
Are Dogs Allowed on Cumberland Island?
Dogs are allowed on Cumberland Island, but there are many restrictions to follow. If you plan to bring your furry friend along for the trip, there are some important things to keep in mind.
First, they are not permitted to ride over on the ferry. If you want your dog to come along with you to Cumberland Island, you’ll have to find a private boat transfer.
All dogs must be leashed and under control at all times. This is both for their safety as well as the protection of the island’s wild horses, birds, and other animals. Additionally, dog owners are responsible for picking up after their pets and disposing of waste properly.
Also, it’s important to remember that Cumberland Island can be quite hot and humid during the summer months. Make sure you bring plenty of water and snacks for your pet while exploring the island together! Know both of your limits when exploring in the heat.
Finally, it’s important to note that dogs are not allowed in certain areas of Cumberland Island such as Plum Orchard Mansion or any other historical structures across the island. They’re also not permitted in the campgrounds or the designated wilderness area.
With these simple tips in mind, you and your pup can have a safe and fun day out on the Cumberland Island beaches.
Is Cumberland Island Worth Visiting?
Cumberland Island is truly a hidden gem in the state of Georgia. It’s an incredible place to explore and appreciate the beauty of nature. With its stunning beaches, lush forests, and rich history, it’s no wonder why so many visitors come here year after year.
Not only will you be able to take in the natural beauty of Cumberland Island, but you’ll also get to experience its deep history. From the original inhabitants to the Carnegie family, some remnants of their estates that remain today can be awe-inspiring.
The best way to experience everything this island has to offer is by taking a day trip from St Mary’s or staying overnight at one of the campsites. You can take guided tours or explore independently on foot or by bike.
No matter how you choose to visit Cumberland Island, it’s definitely worth your time! From its breathtaking landscapes and wildlife to its fascinating history, every visitor will find something special here that they won’t forget.
Visiting Cumberland Island is an experience like no other. From the wild horses to the pristine beaches, this island offers a glimpse into a world untouched recently by modern development.
Whether you’re a nature lover, a history buff, or just looking for a peaceful escape, visiting Cumberland Island is a perfectly remote and untouched island destination.