I had a general idea of what to expect when visiting Cumberland Island National Seashore in Georgia: wild horses, historic ruins, and undeveloped beaches. But I didn’t know I would also see a vibrant pine forest, seemingly endless grassy marshes, white sand dunes, and tropical-like scenery all on one island.
Located off the east coast of Georgia and a stone’s throw away from Florida, Cumberland Island is part of the National Park Service. It is bigger than the island of Manhattan, with over 40 miles of hiking trails and unique, diverse landscapes. Besides the Greyfield Inn, you won’t see any resorts, hotels, or franchises.
Many people plan a day trip to Cumberland Island, but we camped for three nights here. I could easily have stayed longer as there are many things to see and explore!
But if you only have one day to see Cumberland Island, it is doable to see some of the main highlights with careful planning. To assist with your planning, I’ve put together this complete guide that includes helpful travel tips and things to do on this wild, majestic island.
And if you have more than one day to visit Cumberland Island and want to camp, don’t forget to check out my article Camping on Cumberland Island!
Cumberland Island is bigger than the island of Manhattan and is Georgia’s largest barrier island!
Where is Cumberland Island National Seashore Located?
Located north of Amelia Island in Florida and south of Jekyll Island, Cumberland Island is Georgia’s largest barrier island. Once on the island, you can see Florida not too far away. Find Cumberland Island on a map here:
Is It Free to Visit Cumberland Island?
A day trip to Cumberland Island is not free. It is $15 per adult ages 16 and older. Children 15 and under get in free. They no longer accept cash, so the entrance fee or pass must be bought with a credit or debit card. In addition to the entrance fees, you must factor in the ferry cost. For example, it’s a little over $80 plus tax for two adults roundtrip.
You can pay the entrance fee at the Cumberland Island National Seashore Visitor Center in St. Marys, Georgia, or in advance on the website. Additional fees and annual pass information can be found here.
It is not free to visit Cumberland Island. In addition to the entry fees, you must pay for the ferry tickets too.
A Very Brief History
The Cumberland Island Curse and Early Inhabitants
Our tour guide pointed out a “curse” on Cumberland Island. She stated, “It is a woman’s island as most men who lived here died before reaching 50.” While I am unsure about an actual curse, she is right about one thing: strong women have made quite a lasting impact on Cumberland Island.
One of the most well-known was iron-willed Lucy Carnegie, wife of Thomas Carnegie and owner of the Dungeness mansion. Thomas didn’t escape the curse and died shortly after the construction of Dungeness began, leaving Lucy to run the household and the surrounding properties with nine kids (nine!). And she was not the only widow on the island. Sadly, other families lost their husbands or fathers at an early age.
It is hard not to mention the Carnegies in Cumberland’s history, but let’s back up in time. Before the Carnegie family bought property on Cumberland Island and built their lavish homes, the island was inhabited by the Timucuan tribe in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Timucuan village was once located in the same area where you get off the ferry at the Dungeness dock.
And while the island is beautiful, it also has a darker past starting with the arrival of the Spanish and then the English. The arrival of these new people brought disease to the Timucuan tribe and subsequently diminished their population.
Slavery also became legal in Georgia in the mid-18th century, resulting in numerous plantations on Cumberland Island. Enslaved people were forced to work these plantations in the hot Georgia sun growing cotton, indigo, and rice. The chimneys that once were in homes where many resided are still visible today, although this area is closed to the public.
1865 Until Now
After the Civil War, many formerly enslaved people created a community called the Settlement on the island. Today, you can still see buildings from the Settlement, including the First African Baptist Church, which replaced the original log church that once stood on the property.
While many associates this church where John F. Kennedy, Jr. and his wife, Carolyn Bessette, were married in 1996, this church was an important community center and place of worship for the Settlement community. It is a tiny, beautiful one-room Church you can still walk into today.
It wasn’t until 1972 that Cumberland Island became part of the National Park Service (NPS), and most of the island today is owned by them. There are few private residences, but many have retained rights. This means they own the property now, but the land will one day be handed over to the National Park Service after a specific time. I imagine the National Park Service will eventually own the entire island, but we shall see!
For more history of Cumberland Island, check out a book called Cumberland Island Strong Women, Wild Horses by Charles Seabrook. While this book was printed in the early 2000s, it has an intriguing and in-depth history of Cumberland Island up until that point in time. Many of the facts in this book were covered on our Land and Legacies Tour that we took while on the island.
What to Know Before Your Day Trip to Cumberland Island
There are a few logistics and things you’ll want to know before your day trip to Cumberland Island:
You Will Not See the Entire Island in One Day
As mentioned earlier, Cumberland Island is bigger than the island of Manhattan, and you won’t see the entire island on your day trip. We camped for a few nights and still didn’t see everything. For example, there are many hiking trails that we left unexplored.
Most people will spend their day trip to Cumberland Island visiting the southside as the ferry dock and Dungeness Ruins are located there. If you really want to see the wilderness area in the island’s northern part, you will want to book the Land and Legacies Tour or plan to ride your bike. Even with your bike, you may not even reach your desired destination, and you will want to leave ample time to return to your ferry.
When Is the Best Time to Go to Cumberland Island?
I don’t think there is a wrong time to visit Cumberland Island, but it also depends on the weather and what is most comfortable for you. While the summer is great for beach weather, the heat and humidity are unbearable for some (me). Plus, the mosquitos seem to come out in droves in the warmer months. You’ll see fewer of them in the winter, but it will be a little chillier, especially in the evenings. Late fall and winter are pleasant for hiking and bike riding, but don’t plan to spend the day swimming on the beach.
October and November can also be pleasant times as the temperatures cool. However, remember that this period is considered hurricane season, and you never know when one of those might pop up in the Atlantic Ocean. And on top of hurricanes, the National Park Service has managed hunts during this timeframe. These are scheduled hunts that occur on specific days, usually from October through January.
What are they hunting? Mostly hog and some deer. Hogs are a nuisance on Cumberland Island as they damage the ecosystem by destroying plant life and endangered turtle and bird nests, so they keep their numbers in check with the hunts.
What month did we choose? We really enjoyed visiting Cumberland Island in April. While it was warm, it wasn’t too sticky outside, where we could still enjoy hiking. Mosquitoes were present during this time, but not too terrible. We also had abundant sunshine and no rain during our camping experience. I couldn’t ask for better weather, but as I said earlier, Georgia weather is fickle!
What Amenities Are on Cumberland Island?
The island has public restrooms, but no restaurants, hotels, gift shops, or shopping centers will be found. To be honest, the lack of amenities can be a little intimidating if you plan on camping. However, your camping trip will be just fine if you plan ahead.
Also, there is drinkable water on the island’s southside, but I suggest bringing your reusable water bottle just in case. Except for water at Plum Orchard, the water north of Sea Camp Campground is sulfur water, and you must treat it first before drinking it.
Does the Island Have Cell Phone Signal?
Yes and no. You will most likely have cell service near the Dungeness Ruins, the Dungeness Dock, and the Sea Camp Ranger Station. However, this depends also on your cell phone provider.
Other than those places of interest, you might not have a cell signal. If you decide to stay longer and have a camping reservation, there are places to charge your phone. We charged our cell phones at the Sea Camp Ranger Station and near the Sea Camp restrooms.
Can I Bring My Dog?
You can bring your dog for a day trip to Cumberland Island, but you must get a private boat as the ferry does not allow dogs (unless the dog is a service dog). They must also be kept on a leash at all times.
Will You See Wild Horses?
The chances are pretty high you will, especially if you visit Dungeness Ruins. Horses seem to gather there for the lush green grass, but be careful where you step! It is a minefield with all the horse poo.
Also, while the horses are pretty, remember that they are wild. They have no problem galloping full speed at you and will run you over if you get in their way. In fact, we saw this gorgeous black horse gallop in front of the ruins, almost knocking down someone taking pictures. With that said, the National Park Service recommends keeping at least a school bus distance from the wild horses.
What Other Animals Live on the Island?
There is abundant wildlife, and I can guarantee you will see a lot of animals roaming around while visiting Cumberland Island.
We saw many curious armadillos, various sea birds, deer, turkeys, manatees, spiders, and persistent raccoons that came out at night, hoping we didn’t correctly store our food. They reminded me of the outdoor cats in our neighborhood that have a strict, rotating schedule, visiting certain homes at different times of the day to fill their hungry stomachs.
You only have to listen to know that the armadillos are nearby since they usually move loudly in the plants. While they might be somewhat cute, you will want to keep a healthy distance as more than half of armadillos carry leprosy!
Other animals on the island that we did not see were bobcats, alligators, sea turtles, and snakes. I am so thankful we did not see snakes! And there are so many more animal and plant species I do not have listed here.
What to Bring for Your Day Trip to Cumberland Island
If you plan to stay overnight, I have another article about camping on Cumberland Island that you can read here.
But what if you are going for a day? You won’t need overnight stuff, but there are definitely some items you’ll want to bring. While you may need more or less, here are a few essentials to take:
Mosquito and Bug Repellant:
Whatever you do, don’t forget to bring mosquito and bug repellant when visiting Cumberland Island, especially during warmer months. In fact, spray down before you get on the ferry. The mosquitoes are relentless! Also, there are ticks on the island. We were fortunate not to see any, but don’t forget they are there.
Swimsuit and Towel:
If you plan to visit in the warmer months, you may want to bring your swimsuit and towel for a beach day.
Lunch, Snacks, and Reusable Water Bottle:
As mentioned, there are no restaurants or stores on the island, so you will want to pack something to eat. Potable water is on the island’s south side, and places to refill your water bottle if you get thirsty.
A Small Bag for Trash:
If you decide to eat, bring a small trash bag that you can easily put back into your backpack. There are no trash bins on the island, and they understandably have a leave no trace behind policy.
Hat, Sunglasses, and Sunscreen:
There are many shaded areas at Cumberland Island, but since almost everything is outdoors, bring a hat and sunglasses to provide extra protection from the sun’s rays. Don’t forget a good sunscreen with a high SPF.
Poncho or Umbrella:
Georgia weather is mercurial, especially on the coast. One minute it can be sunny and hot, and the next, rainy and cooler. You’ll want to bring rain gear if it starts to downpour, especially if you are hiking through the woods.
A Good Pair of Walking or Hiking Shoes:
I did not bring a good pair of shoes, and my feet didn’t thank me. Even if you plan to ride your bike for most of the day, you still want to bring a good pair of shoes. And if you don’t take your bike, you’ll probably do a lot of walking to see the island’s main highlights.
Other Items You May Want to Bring:
I can’t imagine not bringing my camera to Cumberland Island. The entire island is picturesque, and it is hard not to take many photos. And if you are a horse lover like me, you’ll probably end up with dozens of wild horse pictures!
The birds are abundant on the island, and I wish I had brought binoculars to view them better from a distance. If you have extra space in your backpack, pack these.
Cell Phone Charger:
If you think you might need to charge your phone, there are a few places on the island to do so. You’ll find outlets at the Sea Camp Ranger Station next to the Sea Camp dock. You can sit in the shade in a rocking chair on the porch while your phone charges.
How to Get There: Cumberland Island Ferry Schedule
Cumberland Island is only accessible by ferry or if you charter a private boat. The 45-minute ferry ride leaves from St. Marys, Georgia, and they only allow a certain amount of people daily onto Cumberland Island. I suggest booking your ferry trip online before you go.
A day trip to Cumberland Island on the ferry can be a little pricey:
- $80 plus tax for two adults (roundtrip)
- $76 plus tax for 2 people ages 62+
- A child’s ticket (ages 6-15) is $30 plus tax, roundtrip
- 5 and younger get to ride the ferry for free
You can purchase ferry tickets here. This does not include the entrance fees for Cumberland Island.
Ferry times from St. Marys to Cumberland are currently operating at 9am and 11:45am, and return times vary depending on the season. Times are subject to change, so I recommend checking the Cumberland Island Ferry Schedule on their website before you go. Also, plan to arrive at least one hour before the ferry departure time.
Necessary to remember: the ferry does not operate on Tuesdays and Wednesdays in the winter (December 1 through February 28). I almost booked a camping trip in December that would have concluded on a Tuesday, but I thankfully remembered at the last second that we wouldn’t have a way to leave the island.
Can you bring your bike on the ferry?
Yes, you can! It costs an extra $10, but it is worth it! They only allow ten bicycles daily on the ferry, so book your bike ticket in advance on their website.
Visitor Tip: It is highly recommended to book your ferry ticket in advance online. Spaces fill up fast. The ferry also does not operate on Tuesdays and Wednesdays during the winter months (December through February).
Once You Arrive at the Ferry Dock and Visitor Center
You can locate the Cumberland Island Ferry dock at the following address:
113 St. Marys Street, St. Marys, Georgia 31558
There is a free parking area near the island visitor center, and you will see a large sign indicating National Park Service parking. I was hesitant about leaving my car overnight for camping, but the parking lot is close to the visitor center and other businesses, so it seemed okay. Regardless, I wouldn’t leave any valuables in your car if you stay overnight.
You must arrive an hour before the ferry departure time, and don’t forget to check in at the visitor center. The check-in process took about twenty minutes, and the rangers will conduct a 10 to 15-minute safety and info session about Cumberland Island. We then had to load our gear onto the ferry, but the ferry staff was kind to help get our camping bags on the boat.
Visitor Tip: You must arrive at least one hour before your ferry departs. Don’t forget to check in at the visitor center.
Getting Around the Island
Bringing a bike will help you cover more ground in a day if you plan to see more than the southern part of the island. And while you can’t take your bikes on the hiking trails (bikes are only permitted on the main road called Grand Avenue), it really does help to have a bike to see the main places of interest.
However, you will want to bring a bike with wide tires as you will be riding primarily on sand and dirt, and this terrain will be difficult to ride if you bring a road bike.
If biking isn’t your thing, over forty miles of hiking trails can get you to almost anywhere on the island. There are some private residences, but you will see signs if an area is closed to the general public.
Things to Do for a Day Trip to Cumberland Island
1) Hike the Southend Loop:
Approximately 4.3 miles long, the Southend Loop trail is the most popular route that can be completed in one day. Plus, you will visit most places of interest located in the south part of the island.
Over the course of 2 to 4 hours, you will see the beach, the long boardwalk over the salt marshes, white sand dunes, Dungeness Ruins, the Ice House Museum, and a maritime forest. This trail is an excellent way to see the diverse landscapes of Cumberland Island.
So, how do you begin this trail? You can start immediately after arriving at the Sea Camp Ranger Station dock. Look for the sign that says “River Trail.” The approximate one-mile River Trail will take you to the Ice House Museum. Continue your way amongst the beautiful oak trees to get to Dungeness Ruins.
After a stop at the Dungeness Ruins, proceed down the Dungeness Trail. You will eventually reach the long boardwalk that takes you directly over the tall marsh grasses. Once the path ends, you will find yourself staring at beautiful white sand dunes, some taller than you!
Continue your journey until you reach the beach. It’s a perfect spot to have a quick break and put your feet in the water after a long hiking journey. Once you’ve had enough beach time, look for the black and white pole that marks the entrance to Sea Camp Campground. You may have to walk some on the beach (going northward) to reach the Sea Camp Campground marker.
Follow the trail past the campground that takes you back to the Sea Camp Ranger Station. You can then conclude your day by hopping back onto the ferry that takes you to St. Marys.
Of course, depending on your preference, you can do this entire trail in reverse. If you plan to start the Southend Loop trail by going to the beach first, you can follow the trail signs that will take you from Sea Camp Ranger Station, past the Sea Camp Campground, and then to the beach. You’ll then follow the steps above in reverse.
2) Visit the Dungeness Ruins, the Ice House Museum, and the Tabby House in the Historic District
Other than seeing the wild horses, Dungeness Ruins is probably the most popular thing to see on a day trip to Cumberland Island. The former winter home of Lucy Carnegie and her husband, Thomas, is a sight to behold even though most of it lies in ruins due to a fire that swept through in the 1950s.
You might ask how the fire occurred. It was suspected arson, but that claim is not proven. If you want to visualize how the house looked before the fire, go to the Ice House Museum near the Dungeness dock. What used to be the place where Lucy Carnegie stored her ice from the North, this small museum shows a picture of Dungeness’s appearance in its former glory and other historical artifacts that tell the island’s history.
Next to Dungeness Ruins is the Tabby House, built by General Nathanael Greene’s wife, Catharine, in the early 1800s. It is the oldest building on the island. Remember that Cumberland Island Curse? Nathanael also died unexpectedly from tetanus at an early age, leaving his wife a widow.
After Carnegie bought the land in the 1880s, the Tabby House became the estate office. Today you can walk inside the house when the ranger is present and see the operations library and the old vault that held the money.
Oh, and before you leave the Dungeness Ruins historic area, look up at the very top of what used to be the chimney. If you are lucky, you might see the enormous osprey nest. The parents reside here caring for their young offspring, and we were fortunate to see these magnificent birds during our visit in April.
3) Take the Land and Legacies Tour
I’ve talked so much about the south end of the island. What about the north? Since the ferry docks are closer to the south side, getting to the island’s northern part is more challenging.
Unless you walk or take a bike which can take many hours, the only way to see the north side is with a tour. If you stay at Greyfield Inn, they will drive you to the island’s northern part. However, if you are not staying the night with them, the only available driving tour is the Land and Legacies Tour given by the National Park Service.
With the Land and Legacies Tour, you will feel like you are on a roller coaster during the drive, but it is well worth it because you will see most of the highlights, including the First African Baptist Church and the Plum Orchard Mansion. Our tour guide wrapped up the day by taking us by the Ice House Museum and Dungeness Ruins, but this is not a guarantee that you will have time to see these on your tour.
Why does it feel like an amusement park ride? Well, the roads in the north are very bumpy and rough. Your bum will probably leave your seat over parts of the drive as you sit in their air-conditioned van. And if you are a taller person, then your head might hit the van’s ceiling a few times. We were lucky to have the newest van in their fleet, making it less bumpy than the older models.
How much is the tour? The tour is $65 plus tax for all ages. Expensive, but for approximately 5-6 hours of historical stories of Cumberland Island, plus the chance to see the north end, it is a good deal. It’s also a fantastic way to see the highlights for a day trip to Cumberland Island.
Tours book up fast, especially on the weekends. For more information about the tour and how to book, visit the website here.
4)Take a Bike Ride to Plum Orchard
If you want to pass on taking the Land and Legacies Tour but still want to see Plum Orchard Mansion, you can ride a bike north to see it when it is open. However, keep in mind that from the dock to Plum Orchard, it is 7 miles (14 miles roundtrip). It can be doable in a day, but you must prepare in advance and start your trip early! You also want to give yourself ample time to return to the ferry for departure.
Also, be prepared that due to road and weather conditions, you might not make it to see Plum Orchard. The road is sandy and can be a challenging bike ride. As mentioned, you’ll want to ensure you have wide bike tires, not a road bike. Once you reach your destination, the long bike ride will be worth it as you will see a beautiful white Georgian Revival mansion constructed in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Plum Orchard once belonged to Lucy Carnegie’s son, George, and his wife, Margaret. There is an interesting fact about this mansion: Margaret could not stand her mother-in-law, Lucy, and tried to get as far away as possible from her while still residing on the island. She selected this location for Plum Orchard, about 8 miles from Dungeness and far enough for her not to be near her mother-in-law. Both women were very strong-willed and had opposing views, and moving to Plum Orchard seemed to be the best solution to mitigate their disputes.
After George died in the 1920s, Margaret sold most of Plum Orchard’s furnishings and permanently moved away. Interestingly, some furniture and other items from the Dungeness estate were placed in Plum Orchard before Dungeness itself burned in the late 1950s. This fortunate relocation saved many of these items from being destroyed.
Today, you can take a free tour to see these furnishings and the interior of Plum Orchard. Tour times and hours of operation can be found here on the National Park’s website. Also, Plum Orchard is closed during the hunts, usually from October through January (the Land and Legacies Tour is not impacted during this time).
Plum Orchard is closed to the public during the managed hunts, which occur from October through January (Land and Legacies Tour not impacted).
5) Swim or Have a Picnic at the Beach
Not many beaches don’t have hotels and resorts lined up in a row near the sand’s edge. The beaches at Cumberland Island are wild and pristine; you will likely have the beach to yourself or with very few people.
You will see many birds and sea creatures; if lucky, you might even see wild horses galloping over the sand. We had the most relaxing time sitting in our beach chairs, watching birds and listening to the waves crash against the shore.
And while this sounds pretty, I need to be honest. If you go to the beach closest to Sea Camp Campground, you will see the paper mills in the distance. While the mills are not on Cumberland Island and are located on Fernandina (Florida), it is still an eyesore to view on this beach. I also read that when the wind blows in a certain direction, you might even smell them. Thankfully, we did not.
Despite the eyesore, we still thoroughly enjoyed our beach time!
Quick tips for the beaches at Cumberland Island:
- There are no lifeguards. Swim at your own risk!
- Don’t splash around in the tidal pools. We saw a child playing in a nearby pool of water. What looked like fun turned into panicked screams as the child realized there was something else in the water. I’m unsure what it was, but the parents quickly pulled their kid out of the tidal pool!
- It’s okay to bring a beach umbrella but make sure it is weighted down since it can be a bit windy.
- Don’t be afraid to collect uninhabited seashells as it is permitted!
6) Participate in a Guided Walking Tour on the Island
If you don’t want to be in a van or truck full of people, starting September 24, 2022, you can take the newest tour on the island: an approximate 1-mile walking tour around the Dungeness Ruins historic area.
This tour will give you a good overview of the people who inhabited this island for the last half millennium while viewing the oldest buildings on the island. You’ll see the ruins, the servants’ quarters, the Tabby House, and one of the few cemeteries on the island.
You can find additional information and tour times here and an option to book the tour online.
There is also a free ranger-led walking tour called the Footstep Tour, which is available when rangers are on site (which is not always the case). You can ask about these tours when you arrive at the dock. The ranger will take you around the Dungeness Historic area, lasting from one hour to one hour and a half.
If the rangers are not present, no problem. There is a cell phone audio tour. We didn’t partake in this tour with our phones, but it will take you around the historic area.
What If You Want to Stay Overnight?
While this guide focuses more on a day trip to Cumberland Island, in the course of your pre-trip planning, you might decide to stay the night to explore more.
Your two options for an overnight stay at Cumberland Island are camping or staying at the luxurious Greyfield Inn. In the future, I would love to stay at the inn, but it is costly. Priced at over $800 a night with a two-night minimum stay (three-night minimum during holidays), we decided to camp instead of staying at the inn.
But if you can splurge a little, it would probably be worth it since they cook your meals, give you tours, and provide bikes. Plus, you have your own private beach that you share with a few guests. To find out more information, you can check out their website here.
If you decide to camp like us, Sea Camp Campground is the most popular as it is closest to the dock and has basic amenities: water, bathrooms, cold showers, and food lockers to store food. Despite the amenities, it is still pretty primitive compared to other National Park Service campgrounds.
There are other campgrounds at Cumberland Island but be prepared to walk to these sites with your camping gear. Stafford Campground is 3.5 miles from the Sea Camp Dock. Carts cannot be used to carry your gear to this camp location, so everything must be carried! But like Sea Camp, you will find cold showers, food lockers, and a bathroom at the Stafford Campground.
If you really want to test your camping skills, you can pitch a tent at the three wilderness sites: Yankee Paradise, Brickhill Bluff, and Hickory Hill. There are zero amenities at these wilderness sites!
So, Is A Day Trip to Cumberland Island Worth It?
Absolutely! But it also depends on your interest in this trip and what you want to see and do. You might decide you only need a day to see the main highlights. One day is plenty if you are coming to see the wild horses and the Dungeness Ruins. However, if you are like me and enjoy a little quiet time sitting by the beach reading a book or brewing coffee on your campfire in the early morning, you might need a few more days to explore this majestic Georgia island!
Did this guide answer all your questions about a day trip to the Cumberland Island National Seashore? Please share your thoughts and comments below!
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