Discovering the Wild Horses on Cumberland Island: Everything You Need to Know

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Have you ever dreamed of seeing wild horses galloping across a remote island’s pristine beaches or grassy fields? Cumberland Island, located just off the coast of Georgia as one of the state’s barrier islands, is home to over one hundred of these creatures. The wild horses on Cumberland Island are a somewhat controversial part of this beautiful barrier island, but one that visitors should be prepared for when visiting.

It’s not something you see every day!

A visit to this unique island will give you an unforgettable experience that includes stunning views and a chance to explore mansion ruins, camp among the island’s saw palmettos, and collect shells on the beach.

Here is what you need to know about the wild horses on Cumberland Island when you visit.

Safety with Wild Horses on Cumberland Island

Although the wild horses on Cumberland Island are a beautiful sight, it is important to keep a safe distance from them. As with any other wildlife, the horses may become aggressive if approached too closely.

They can kick, charge, and bite if they feel threatened or scared. It is also important to remember that these animals are not domesticated and should not be fed or petted. Additionally, it is illegal to ride wild horses on Cumberland Island because such activities can cause harm to them physically and emotionally.

The best way to view the wild horses on Cumberland Island is from a distance while respecting their habitat. If you choose to take part in one of the Legacy Tours offered by the island’s National Park Service, you will be able to observe these magnificent creatures in their natural environment safely and responsibly.

Not only will this help protect both yourself and the animals but it will also ensure that future generations of visitors can enjoy this incredible island experience for many years to come!

More than 10 wild horses on Cumberland Island are grazing in a lush green field.
wild horses on Cumberland Island grazing in a field

Where to See Wild Cumberland Island Horses

These beautiful creatures roam free on the entire island and are a sight to behold. Whether you take a picturesque walk along the beach or join one of the National Park Service’s tours, it’s easy to catch a glimpse of these animals in their Cumberland Island environment.

Even as the ferry approaches the island, you may be able to see a horse from afar, grazing in the marshlands. From exploring the Dungeness estate ruins to walking on the beach, the feral horses on Cumberland Island are seemingly everywhere.

It is said that the population stays somewhere between 150-170 horses, but it sometimes feels like double that when you can see them in so many spaces.

Cumberland Island offers wonderful opportunities for visitors to appreciate its natural beauty – including its wild inhabitants – without disturbing or disrupting their habitat. So come take in the sights and sounds of this magical place while taking care not to disturb ALL the living treasures that call this island home!

The Carnegie Mansion, aka the Dungeness Ruins

The Carnegie Mansion, also known as the Dungeness Ruins, is a must-see during your visit to Cumberland Island National Seashore. Located on the south end of the island, this historic site was once the winter home of Thomas Carnegie, his wife Lucy, and his family.

Even though Thomas died shortly after the completion of Dungeness, his wife Lucy and family visited often and Lucy was integral in the history of Cumberland Island. Today, what remains of the grandiose estate is a breathtaking brick and stone testament to its former glory days.

The ruins are comprised of several buildings including a large brick mansion that has long since been destroyed by fire. Although much of the original beauty has been lost in time and natural disasters, visitors can still enjoy an amazing view wandering the grounds imagining what once was.

An old house sits to the left of the frame while three wild horses on Cumberland Island graze behind and to the right of the house.
Wild Horses on Cumberland Island can often be seen around Dungeness. We caught these few grazing behind this building on the Dungeness grounds.

You’ll likely see more than a few wild horses while visiting Dungeness, from the ferry dock back to the ruins. Just remember to keep your distance from these creatures as you explore the ruins and the surrounding grounds. Photograph from afar with a telephoto zoom lens, if you’d like! 

No matter how you explore it, a visit to the Dungeness Ruins is sure to be memorable and will provide you with insight into Cumberland Island’s rich history, feral horses included.

Legacy Tour Around Cumberland Island

Cumberland Island National Seashore is a fantastic destination for anyone looking to explore the great outdoors. If you don’t want to do a lot of walking or plan your own things to do while visiting Cumberland Island, then a Legacy Tour is the best way to see highlights of Cumberland Island in one day.

This unique tour takes you all around the island in an air-conditioned van so you can get up close and personal with all its historic sites and natural wonders.

During your journey, you’ll be able to visit sites like the Dungeness Ruins and Plum Orchard Mansion, as well as other spots some of the island’s wild horses tend to congregate.

The Legacy Tour gives you a chance to experience Cumberland Island in its entirety without having to worry about finding transportation or missing out on anything important.

Plus, it’s a great way to stay cool during hot summer days! You’ll learn so much about the history of the island, including the women who were integral to the island’s past. While you’re driving along the dirt roads, keep watch for the horses grazing in the fields or enjoying the shade of the giant trees.

A white wild horse grazes near a trail on Cumberland Island.
a wild horse grazes near a hiking trail

Camping on the Island

Exploring Cumberland Island by camping is a great way to appreciate the beauty of this unique location for a few days. Camping permits should be reserved in advance and can’t exceed 7 days, but when done right, your stay will be one you never forget.

There are plenty of options for campers, from sites near the beach to a few secluded spots tucked away in the maritime forest. You’ll also have access to all the amenities you need including bathrooms with running water and showers at the campgrounds, while the backcountry sites are primitive and require more effort to reach.

You can enjoy the sound of the ocean waves in the distance, stargaze under the island’s dark night skies, and maybe even spot some wild horses roaming nearby!

The one thing you may not expect is the possibility of a horse neighing as your morning alarm clock! While the horses do not always visit the campgrounds and campsites, it is certainly a possibility. 

On our last morning during our most recent visit to the Stafford Beach Camp, this exact scenario happened, and we had to wait for some time to hike back to the Sea Camp Ranger Station. A feral horse was standing right on the trail, blocking our route!

A white wild horse on Cumberland Island as seen from our tent opening.
A wild horse acted as our alarm clock on our last day camping on Cumberland Island.

Concerns about the Wild Horses on Cumberland Island

The wild horses on Cumberland Island are an iconic part of the island’s ecological system, but there has been increasing concern about the well-being of the horse herd due to overpopulation, lack of nutrition, and competition for resources.

The feral horse population is estimated to number somewhere around 150, which is beyond what would be considered a sustainable level for them to inhabit the island.

Their pruning of the vegetation can strip it bare, leading to erosion and further disruption of the local ecology. This can have an impact on other species that are island residents, such as crabs, mussels, birds, and other mammals, whose habitats could become compromised if they’re not able to find adequate cover.

The horses can disturb the soft marshlands due to their size, causing damage to the fragile terrain and native plants.

Furthermore, because of their large size, these horses can be very dangerous when in close proximity to humans if they feel threatened or are just feeling curious.

But with all that said, many conservationists still see them as integral parts of Cumberland Island’s unique ecology. Solutions will (hopefully) be carefully crafted so that all parties involved – both man and animal – can thrive together. Keep in mind when visiting the island, that the horses here are not naturally occurring and are non-native animals that were once brought by humans, even if it was hundreds of years ago.

A black wild horse roams in the distance near the Cumberland Island beach.
A black wild horse roams near the beach.

How to get to Cumberland Island

Visiting Cumberland Island National Seashore in Georgia is worth all the effort it takes to reach. Getting to the island can be a bit tricky, but it’s worth the journey!

The easiest way to get there is by taking the passenger ferry from St Marys, Georgia. You’ll find parking across the street and to the west of the Visitor Center, with multiple nearby hotel options if you opt for an overnight stay. Make sure to park in the designated parking lot and not to park on the street though – you’ll be ticketed and towed!

You can bring all your beach gear, coolers, bikes, and more on board with you so don’t worry about leaving anything behind. It’s also good to note that access to Cumberland Island is quite restricted – there are very few private vessels allowed in.

Once you land on the island, prepare yourself for an incredible experience – stunning landscapes of pristine white sand beaches, dunes, and maritime forests. You’ll feel like time stood still here as you wander amongst the majestic wild horses against a backdrop of rugged wilderness.

Reservations for the Cumberland Island Ferry

If you’re planning a trip to Cumberland Island National Seashore, one of the first things you need to do is book reservations for the passenger ferry. With limited space on board and only a few ferry trips departing each day, it’s important to make sure you secure your spot as soon as possible!

Fortunately, it’s easy to make your Cumberland Island ferry reservations online – simply visit the website and select your desired departure date.

Directions are very clear for check-in and boarding for the ferry. The ferry ride typically takes about 45 minutes, so you’ll be enjoying Cumberland Island in no time.

During the off-season, you may be able to secure same-day tickets to the ferry, and this can be done at the Cumberland Island National Seashore Visitor Center in St. Marys. This is also next to where you’ll board the ferry.

A white wild horse on Cumberland Island grazes near the hiking trail and campsites.
Horses can sometimes be found grazing near the hiking trails.

The wild horses on Cumberland Island are a sight to behold, and the experience of visiting the island is even more special. These wild creatures offer a unique experience, while also providing a reminder of the delicate nature of our world.

Whether you go to observe the magnificent creatures in their home or just learn more about the history surrounding one of Georgia’s most beautiful barrier islands, Cumberland Island will always hold a unique place in history. A visit to this National Seashore is sure to be an unforgettable adventure!