Dreaming of Travel: Cumberland Island
The Wild, Hidden Gem of the South!
I heard of Cumberland Island long ago: tales of wild horses, miles of untouched, pristine beaches - the playgrounds of the Carnegie family - and I have always wanted to visit.
But if you haven’t heard of Cumberland, you are not alone - it’s one of the best-kept secrets in the continental United States, with over 36,000 acres of pristine and wild land that stretch along the southernmost tip of Georgia. The National Park Service protects it, and visiting the island is limited but possible.
There are three primary ways to visit Cumberland Island.
A Day Visit
Take the Cumberland Island Ferry for a pleasant 45 minutes from St. Mary’s. There are two departures and returns to the island generally, but check the ferry website as things change (and are less frequent) depending on the season. From there, many visitors opt to take the “Land and Legacy Tour.” It is not operating during the COVID era, however, so currently, you'll have to explore on your own.
You’ll likely want to stay on the southern part of the island for much of the day, visiting Dungeness and the beach. I recommend bringing a bike to maximize your experience. Per the ferry website, bikes are allowed on the ferry for a $10 fee, and space is limited. Bike transportation is first-come-first-served and rentals are in limited quantity. Adult bikes can be rented on the island for $16 per day or $20 overnight.
Rates are $28 for adults; $26 for seniors 62 and over; $18 for children 15 years and under; Park admissions fee is $7; Lands and Legacies Island Van Tour per person is $45.
It’s likely that a day trip won’t feel like enough, and you’ll find yourself wishing you had planned for a longer visit to the island. The good news is that the island is well set up for camping and you’ll see a good number of visitors plan an overnight. If you are staying for one night, we recommend Sea Camp on the southern part of the island. You can reserve here.
Some important notes from the National Park Service:
- You must have a reservation to camp on the island
- Print a copy of your camping permit within 10 days of the start of your trip and bring it with you to the park
- Sea Camp is the only campground with drinkable water (treat water at all other campgrounds)
- No fires at the wilderness sites (Hickory Hill, Yankee Paradise, and Brickhill Bluff)
- Be prepared to hang your food at all three wilderness campgrounds
- Carts of any kind are not allowed north of Sea Camp. Campers should be prepared to hike all gear into Stafford Beach and all three wilderness sites.
The Greyfield is an old Carnegie home that has been converted into a posh, all-inclusive inn. There are a handful of comfortable rooms in the main house and there are two cottages across the lawn. Visitors can explore their surroundings independently or take advantage of the inn’s naturalist program (multiple tours each day). They also have access to the inn’s many bicycles.
Meals are included in the rate, and much of the food is grown farm-to-table in The Inn’s garden. Most of the furnishings (and books in the library!) are original to the Carnegie family, adding to the charm. The Greyfield will arrange your boat on the Lucy Ferguson Ferry in advance from Fernandina Beach.
Sights to See
There is much to do on the island, in addition to relaxing in the unique natural setting.
Dungeness was an old Carnegie mansion, located at the south of the island. Unfortunately, the mansion burned in 1959, but the ruins are worth the cycling trip to take in the haunted magic of what once was, while surrounded by the wild horses of Cumberland Island. You can walk or cycle to both the beach and the Ice Museum from here.
There are over 17 miles of undeveloped, uninterrupted beach on Cumberland. It is quite remarkable, and the shells, sea birds, and dunes stand out from many of the developed beaches of the southeast. Take a walk, take a swim, and marvel at the unspoiled coastline.
Now owned by the National Park Service, Plum Orchard Mansion is another Carnegie home. It stands in a spectacular setting on the river and marsh side of the island to the west, surrounded by huge trees. There are bathrooms available on-site for hikers. During COVID, tours were unavailable. Many picnic tables surround the home, perfect for taking in the view.
Located on the north part of the island, The Settlement is an area that was settled by former slaves in the late 19th Century. The tiny First African Church was made famous as the site of the wedding of John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Carolyn Bessette. There are a few other older buildings there as well (one with public bathrooms). We leisurely cycled on beach cruisers all the way there, picnicked at one of the several picnic tables there, and cycled back, stopping at Plum Orchard on the way home.
Altogether it was about 30 miles of cycling, primarily on the main road, but it gave us a sense of the diversity and size of the island. You’ll cross over several marshes and pass a few hiking trails. It is definitely the best way to get there - it’s 13 miles from Greyfield, but doable in one day.
While it seems weird to mention the “trees” and “horses” as an attraction of Cumberland Island, you’ll want to make sure you see both. The trees are magnificent – live oaks that are hundreds of years old, dripping with moss and ivy. The horses (there are over 200) are wild and feral, descendants of their Spanish ancestors.
We stayed on the island for 48 hours, but that didn’t seem long enough at all. It felt like Cumberland was such a unique and endangered place, so gorgeous and wild, I truly can’t wait to get back.
To get there, you’ll either need to drive or fly to Jacksonville. Then for day visits or camping, you’ll need to get to St. Mary’s for the ferry. If you are staying at the Greyfield, however, you’ll need to depart on the Greyfield’s ferry from Fernandina Beach (~45 minutes from the Jacksonville Airport).
When to visit
November was superb, and I could imagine early spring would be lovely as well. Note that summer will have intense heat and humidity and bugs!
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Explore more of our Dreaming of Travel series in another music lover’s paradise like Memphis, or find your happy place on Nantucket or Tour Michigan's Great Lakes. If you’d prefer, Make Nature Your Focus in Harper’s Ferry, Plan a Trip to Tahoe and The Sequoias, Explore Yosemite, Wander the Beaches of Chincoteague and Assateague, or further fuel your wanderlust in the Dry Tortugas or at Mojave National Preserve. You can also explore the happyly app or blog for more ideas!
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