Cumberland Island, Georgia’s largest and southernmost barrier island, is a unique opportunity to experience where man and nature meet in beautiful pristine maritime forests, undeveloped beaches, and wide marshes. You’ll also find salt marshes, and wildlife that actually lives in the wild.
In addition to its natural beauty, Cumberland Island has an intriguing United States history of native people, war heroes, slaves and wealthy industrialists. It’s the stuff of novels and just a good old fashioned story and legend.
This quiet escape is one of the lesser-known islands in Georgia located off the southern tip of the state, and is home to many historical stories of both man and nature.
Here’s everything you need to know about visiting Cumberland Island.
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Getting to Cumberland Island, GA
Getting to Cumberland Island is part of the adventure. Day visitors and campers reach the island via the Cumberland Island Ferry from the Cumberland Island Visitors Center in St. Marys, Georgia, and are brought to the Dungeness Dock and the Sea Camp Dock where the Cumberland Island National Seashore ranger station is located.
There are a limited number of spaces on the ferry, so it’s advisable to make ferry reservation early to ensure your spot.
Guests of the Greyfield Inn, the only Cumberland Island hotel, are transported via a private ferry in Fernandina, near Amelia Island, Florida.
The boat rides themselves are wonderful way to see the beauty of Cumberland Island from the water.
Three Ways To Experience Cumberland Island
There are three ways to experience Cumberland Island, one of the more secluded Georgia islands. Visitors can come for the day, camp overnight, or be a guest at the upscale Greyfield Inn, made famous by John F. Kennedy Jr.’s wedding.
Cumberland Island weather can be different from the mainland, so be prepared for the weather on the island, not just the weather in town.
Cumberland Island Camping
Cumberland is one of the most beautiful places to camp. There are five different campgrounds on Cumberland, each one a little more rustic.
Sea Camp is the closet to the Sea Camp dock and has the most amenities. Stafford Beach is farther from the Sea Camp dock and a bit more primitive, but still has basic amenities.
There are also three Wilderness Camping sites — Hickory Hill, Yankee Paradise and Brickhill Bluff for very primitive camping.
On my Cumberland Island camping trip, we stayed at the Sea Camp. The sites were amazingly private. Our large site had so many palmettos that you couldn’t see anyone else, and we loved being beneath a canopy of spindly live oaks. It was gorgeous.
In addition, our site had a fire ring, above-ground food storage, a pole with hooks for garbage or backpacks, and a picnic table. Close by were cold showers, clean bathrooms, and a plug for electronic devices. (We had wifi too – maybe I shouldn’t say that).
Tips for Cumberland Island Camping
- Get reservation early. The campsites go quickly. We made our reservations in July for New Years.
- You need TWO reservations. Make sure to get a camping reservation AND a ferry reservation. You’ll need both and they are separate and both will sell out, so do them at the same time.
- Plan ahead. Campers load all their gear on the Cumberland Island Ferry for the ride over and unload it on the dock and bring it a half mile (to Sea Camp) or more (to other camp sites). There are no stores on Cumberland, so if you forgot it, you’ll have to do without it.
- Talk to the deck hands. To cart your gear to the campsite, ask the deck hands if you can rent a wagon. You can also purchase firewood from them, which you’ll want to do unless you are bringing it with you.
- Pack in 18 gallon utility bins. We packed all our food that didn’t need to be in the cooler in a 18 gallon plastic utility bin. The bin fit perfectly in the raised food storage, so all I had to do was pull it out for meals and push it back in afterwards to keep everything away from the critters.
- Atlanta Trails. It never hurts to read more info from other resources, and we love Atlanta Trails. Check out their Cumberland Island camping post, which includes everything you need to know about hiking and backpacking on Cumberland too.
Preparing for a Cumberland Island Camping Trip
Initially, I was a bit intimidated to camp on Cumberland Island. I’m a good car camper, but when I have to be organized enough to load everything onto a ferry, and trek it a half mile to a campsite, with no Walmart in sight to pick up what I forgot, I was a little nervous.
Don’t let the distance from civilization deter you. Cumberland Island was so beautiful, that after two evenings of sleeping on sand, no shower, and probably one too many Cliff Bars, I would have still stayed another night.
Although folks we went with had all the gear, we went with just the basics. No one starved, we didn’t freeze, and still had a pretty good time, so point being — you can do it up as much as you want, or just live on Cliff Bars and Honeybaked ham like we did. (I thought the Honeybaked ham was a stroke of genius. Tasty, no fire needed, if the ice ran out it would still keep.)
A Tale of Two Cumberland Island Campers
Our Cumberland Island camping group consisted of about seven families. Many I had never met. One group was very well prepared.
They made shrimp scampi one night and smoked a pork butt over the fire all day the second. Some families had baskets they grilled steaks in with baked potatoes half cooked, then finished off in the fire. We enjoyed the fruit cobbler on our last morning (baked by another family).
The boys gave me the side-eye when I announced our dinner plans in comparison. For the next trip I might go out a little more, but the point is — you don’t have to. If you do want to spice it up a bit, read this post on how to pack a camp kitchen.
Easy Cumberland Island Camping Menu
Here’s what we brought to eat during our Cumberland Island camping trip. It required very little prep or clean up. Take from it what you will.
- Breakfasts: Cliff Bars and clementines
- Lunch on Day 1: Deli turkey on rolls or tortillas and chips
- Dinner on Day 1: Triscuits and block cheese, Honeybaked Ham, raw baby carrots and salad (plain, because I forgot the dressing…oops).
- Lunch on Day 2: Leftover turkey or honeybaked ham sandwiches, chips
- Dinner on Day 2: Hot Dogs roasted over the fire and buns, chips, baked beans (heated in the can) and raw baby carrots. For my son who doesn’t like hot dogs, I brought Chunky soup (heated in the can), and Smore’s for dessert.
- Snacks: Tons of Cliff bars, granola bars and a few extra boxes of Triscuits and chips.
The Greyfield Inn on Cumberland Island
If camping isn’t your thing, I highly recommend a stay at the Greyfield Inn. My husband and I did this for a milestone anniversary and I would go back again in a minute.
Lucy Carnegie, wife of the lesser known steel magnate Thomas Carnegie, had a summer home on Cumberland Island called Dungeness. She built Greyfield as a present to her daughter, Margaret Ricketson. It was the smallest of the four homes she built on the island for her children.
A stay at the Greyfield Inn feels like a personal invitation from the family, who send their private boat, the Lucy Ferguson, to pick you up at the dock in near Amelia Island, FL.
We spent our short visit touring the island by Jeep, perusing first edition books in the Greyfield library, exploring the island by bike, and enjoying meals served from silver bowls that were trophies from turn of the century sailing events.
My favorite find was the growth chart for the Carnegie children slightly hidden behind the drapes.
Day Trips to Cumberland Island National Seashore
To visit Cumberland Island National Seashore for the day, make a ferry reservation in St. Marys, Georgia, aboard the Cumberland Island Ferry. Make sure to bring plenty of water, food, sunscreen, insect repellent and comfortable shoes.
The ranger station does have clean restrooms and a drinking fountain, but for the most part, you must bring what you need. There is a lot of walking, and the island is not stroller friendly, so pack the little ones, leave them home or wait a few years until they can get around on their own.
Things To Do On Cumberland Island
No matter how you get to Cumberland Island, GA, you’ll need some time to explore the 8,900 acres of congressionally designated wilderness.
Cumberland Island GA Beach
If you dream of having the beach all to yourself, then plan a visit to Cumberland Island, GA, where you’ll find 18 miles of undeveloped beach.
One morning it was just me and the shore birds enjoying the rolling waves and the salty air. One evening was so clear I could see all the stars between the stars.
Cumberland Island Horses
Cumberland Island is home to approximately 150 feral horses. You’ll see bands of them throughout the island, munching on the grass.
They don’t mind having their picture taken, but do remember that these are wild horses and should be treated as you would any other wild animal and given a nice wide berth.
Cumberland Island Tours
During our stay at the Greyfield Inn, we took a jeep tour around the island that was fascinating and educational. We learned about Robert Stafford, and his plantation, as well as the slaves who worked the land.
We visited the Settlement, the community the slaves built after emancipation, and the story of mayor Ms. Beulah Alberty. We walked inside the tiny white-washed church where John F. Kennedy Jr. was married, and peeked in the windows at Plum Orchard, the home Lucy Carnegie built for her son George.
If you aren’t staying at the Greyfield Inn, you can still tour the island. The National Park Service offers a Cumberland Island map, and several self-guided tours.
Also see if there are any guided tours by a park ranger during your visit. Choose from the Dungeness Footsteps Tour, Dockside program, or Land and Legacies vehicle tour.
The Land and Legacies is a five to six hour tour and requires an additional charge, but it’s the only way to see the entire island in one visit.
Cumberland Island Walking Tour
Offered each day from 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. The tour begins upon arrival of ferry at Dungeness Dock.
On this walking tour, learn the tumultuous history of Cumberland Island, inhabited over the last 500 years by Native Americans, Spanish, British, and Americans, as you stroll down palmetto-lined trails past wild horses, expansive marshes, and the haunting ruins of the Carnegies’ Dungeness mansion.
Visit a historic graveyard, enter the Carnegies’ vast servants’ quarters, and view the oldest building on the island, built over 200 years ago. At the same time, your experienced guide tells tales of famous figures who have surprising links to the island. Ancient live oak trees, snow-white dunes, and a variety of wildlife provide an enchanting natural backdrop to this island’s fascinating history.
Become a Junior Ranger
Kids can stop by the Ranger Station at the Mainland Visitors Center in St. Marys or the Cumberland Island Sea Camp dock on the island to pick up a Jr. Ranger booklet. Complete the booklet and get a Jr. Ranger badge. While you are there, ask about free historic trading cards too.
Rent a Bike
Cumberland is a big island. Prepare to walk quite a bit, or rent a bike at the Sea Camp Dock. The bikes are rented on a first-come, first-served basis, so ask the ferry deck hands as soon as you get on the island.
You can also bring a personal bike on the Cumberland Island Ferry.
- Space is limited to 10 bikes per ferry trip.
- Transport fee of $10 per bike.
- Space for personal bikes can be reserved in advance while making a ferry reservation.
- Any available space for bikes on the day of departure is sold first come-first serve during mainland check in.
If you are staying at the Greyfield Inn, they will have bikes for you. Next time we camp on the island, I plan to rent bikes. I feel like we saw a lot more when we had bikes during our Greyfield visit than when we tried to walk everywhere during our camping visit.
Cumberland Island FAQ
How long is the Cumberland Island Ferry ride?
The ride from St. Marys, GA, to Cumberland Island on the Ferry is about 45 minutes. The ferry makes stops at both the Dungeness Dock and the Sea Camp Dock. The Sea Camp Dock is the most popular get-off point.
Where do you stay if you want to visit Cumberland Island?
Lodging options on Cumberland Island are limited to camping on the island, or a stay at the Greyfield Inn. On the mainland, St. Marys offers lots of great lodging options, and you’ll find plenty of hotels, bed and breakfasts, and house rentals. A stay in a cabin at Crooked River State Park is also a great option.
Can you swim in Cumberland Island?
You can absolutely swim when visiting Cumberland Island! Swimming is a popular activity for both overnight guests and day guests.
MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP TO GEORGIA
- YOUR GEORGIA VACATION
- GA COAST WITH KIDS: 47 Amazing Things We Love About The Georgia Coast With Kids
- SAPELO ISLAND: Sapelo Island, GA: Finding Treasure On The Secret Coast
- JEKYLL ISLAND: Jekyll Island GA: Protected Coastal Beauty With Resort Fun
- LITTLE ST. SIMONS: Little St. Simons Island GA: Tips, Tricks, And Tidbits
Where To Stay In Cumberland Island
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