Cumberland Island National Seashore is one of Georgia’s gems, made up of protected wildlife and plant life, especially the notable wild horses. It is 18 miles long and between 0.5 and 3 miles wide, connected via unpaved roads and hiking trails.
It’s the southernmost of the state’s barrier islands, inhabited by Native Americans, slaves, freedmen, and the wealthiest of Americans. All photos are by Caroline Eubanks.
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History of the Island
Archaeological evidence indicates that Cumberland Island’s resources were used by Native Americans over 4,000 years ago. At the time of European colonialism, Spanish explorers recorded seven villages spread throughout the island. From the 1550s to the late 1600s Spanish missions coexisted with native populations. During this time pirate attacks and disease forced many back to the mainland or down south to St. Augustine.
In the 1730s, the English General James Edward Oglethorpe established a fort on each side of the island and a hunting lodge on the site now known as Dungeness.
When the need for forts dissipated, planters brought their slaves to grow crops using the island’s rich soils. After the Revolutionary War, Nathanael Greene built a mansion at the Dungeness site which would boast many prestigious visitors.
Plantations grew Sea Island cotton and other crops like rice and indigo. Following the end of the Civil War, former slaves and speculators attempted new life and prosperity on the island. In the late 1800s, the Carnegie family began what would be a lasting influence on the island.
They built the mansion and outbuildings at Dungeness, as well as Greyfield, Plum Orchard, and Stafford. With the exception of the Dungeness mansion, these sites remain intact. In addition to the descendants of the Carnegies, the legendary the Candler family of Atlanta holds several parcels of land on the island.
Getting to Cumberland Island
The island must be reached via boat. You may either take the passenger ferry from St. Mary’s or a personal craft. The intercoastal between the mainland and the island can be difficult for the unseasoned kayaker. Additionally, you must find a spot to stash your kayak upon reaching the island.
If you are carrying lots of gear or lack confidence, ride the 45-minute ferry from St. Mary’s. You may also take your bike on the ferry for a fee. Since the island is quite long and the sites are spread out, a bike is very desirable.
They can be rented from the Sea Camp Ranger Station at a cost and are on a first-come-first-served basis. Greyfield Inn has its own boat service for guests from Amelia Island and private charter services access the island as well.
Staying on the Island
As a result of Hurricane Irma in 2017, the National Parks Service has issued a new checklist to ensure you are as prepared for your visit to the island as possible. The first thing to start with is booking your campsite. All bookings can be done through the Recreation.gov website.
For visitors less inclined to camp, the historic Greyfield Inn is a luxurious, all-inclusive sanctuary that maintains the historic charm of the Edwardian era.
Cumberland Island Campsites
Be aware that there are five campgrounds found on the island. The most popular, Sea Camp, books months in advance and is the closest to the ferry terminal at only a half-mile hike. You may be able to find one night here or there a month or two out but it is unlikely, even during the week.
Stafford Beach campground is the next most popular as it is roughly 3.5 miles from the ferry drop off and still has restroom facilities. It will start to fill up two to three months out. For the spring and fall season, do your best to book four or more months in advance for those two campsites.
Yankee Paradise, Hickory Hill, and Brickhill Bluff are all considered “wilderness campsites” meaning they do not have restroom facilities but do have non-potable pumped in water.
With the more remote campsites comes a reduction in crowds and more of a chance to see wildlife, including those wild ponies. For the wilderness campsites, you have more flexibility in terms of booking.
When booking your campsite, go ahead and book your ferry crossing and bike fee. Be aware that in addition to your ferry and your campsite, you also have to pay an entry fee for the park. This can be done at the visitor’s center in St. Mary’s prior to boarding your ferry and costs $10 per person.
Tips and Gear
Cumberland Island has virtually no amenities. Toilets are available at the following points of interest and at the Sea Camp and Stafford Beach campgrounds. Water fountains are sparse but non-potable water can be found at all campsites. As such, it is important for campers to be prepared. Water purification is important.
At all wilderness sites, campfires are prohibited and a backpacking stove is necessary to cook meals. The bugs, specifically mosquitoes and ticks, can be quite intense so a closed tent, as opposed to a tarp or hammock, is recommended. Bug spray is essential!
Campers will need to hang food at all locations except Sea Camp in order to avoid visitors like raccoons or armadillo. The island has very little cell reception so a good book or a deck of cards might be useful to pass the evening hours.
Since many of the sites are spread out across the island, pack quick and portable lunch options. Summer sausage and cheese, pitas with tuna, or classic GORP (good ole raisins and peanuts) can all be consumed on the go. Island time means long and decadent dinners. Enjoy a nice pasta dish or cajun beans and rice among the flickering of a citronella candle.
Cumberland Island Packing List
There are a few items to make your trip to Cumberland Island run smoothly and these are a few of our favorites.
- MSR Hubba Hubba– This two-man tent is lightweight and easy to assemble.
- Platypus GravityWorks Filter System– No wait time is needed with this quick and easy water filter.
- MSR WhisperLite Backpacking Stove– The easy to use “bomb proof” stove helps cook campfire meals.
- Osprey Kestrel 38 Backpack– This company makes great bags and this is a medium-sized bag for multiple uses.
- Platypus Water Bottle– The fold-flat water bottles hold plenty when you need to refill around the island.
- Thermarest Sleeping Pad– Sleep comfortably in your tent with this inflatable pad.
What to See on the Island
Dungeness Historic Area
Centered around the Dungeness Mansion, first built in 1884 as a winter home for Thomas Carnegie and his family, the Dungeness Historic Area is a lovely place to explore on the island’s southern end. The mansion burned down in 1959 but the haunting beauty of its bones remain. Come at sunset for especially dramatic photos as the wild horses graze.
The First African Baptist Church
Made famous as the site of the wedding of John F. Kennedy Jr. and Caroline Bessette in 1996, the First African Baptist Church is a modest chapel located on the northern end of the island. The church was founded in 1893 to serve the island’s African American population, many of whom had been emancipated following the end of the Civil War.
Plum Orchard Mansion
The Plum Orchard Mansion was a wedding gift for George Lauder Carnegie and Margaret Thaw and served as their primary winter residence until George’s death. Construction of the 22,000 square foot home began in 1898. Daily one hour tours highlight the historical home and furnishings and run three times per day.
Tours of the Island
Ranger-led tours are available daily at Dungeness, Plum Orchard, and at the Sea Camp Ranger Station. These tours are free and vary based on time and ranger availability. Lang’s Seafood Inc. hosts the Lands and Legacies tour.
The tour uses a passenger van to reach the island’s various sites and costs $45 per participant (plus tax). For the average visitor, this is the best way to see the island’s various highlights. Even biking the island can be difficult since there are no paved roads and the sand can be tough to ride on. Bike rentals cost $20 per day.
Due to the fact that portions of the island are still held by private owners, the occasional word comes that new development is in the works. Currently, several members of the Candler family are in discussion to build several new houses on privately owned parcels. The issue is ongoing, with a number of conservation and environmental groups opposing the proposal.
Untamed by Will Harlan
This book follows the unique story of wilderness advocate and self-taught scientist Carol Ruckdeschel. Her unceasing love for the island’s ecosystems and animals drove her to fight for its protection, sometimes in unexpected ways. Author Will Harlan describes her story with sprinkles of history, resident descriptions, national park politics, and drama.
A Natural History of Cumberland Island by Carol Ruckdeschel
Written by the aforementioned island protector, this is the most comprehensive look at the island’s flora and fauna.
Cumberland Island: A History by Mary Bullard
Written by a descendant of the Carnegie family, this book covers the extensive history of Cumberland Island. With rich insight into the Carnegie family’s feelings about the island, Bullard leaves nothing out, tracing the island’s story from Native American inhabitation up to more recent struggles with development and conservation.
Is there anything else you want to know about visiting Cumberland Island?