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, sits Cumberland Island, which is part of the National Park Service. It is larger 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. While many people plan day trips to Cumberland Island, we camped for three nights and could have easily stayed longer to explore all it has to offer.
But if you only have one day to see Cumberland Island, you can still experience some of the main highlights with careful planning. To assist with your planning, I’ve put together this complete guide that includes things to do on this wild, majestic island and helpful travel tips.
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?
Cumberland Island is one of the 15 barrier islands in Georgia. It is north of Amelia Island in Florida and south of Jekyll Island. Once on the island, you can catch a glimpse of 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 you must purchase the entrance fee or pass using a credit or debit card. In addition to the entrance fees, you must factor in the ferry cost. For example, it’s 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. Find additional admission and annual pass information here.
Save Some $: If there are four adults in your party, including yourself, you can buy an annual pass for $45 to save money. They also have free-fee days on certain days, such as Veterans Day, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, First Day of National Park Week (April 20), and Juneteenth.
A Very Brief History
The Cumberland Island Curse and Early Inhabitants
During the tour of Cumberland Island, our guide mentioned a local legend about a supposed “curse” on the 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 and influential 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. This left Lucy to manage the household and the surrounding properties with nine children (nine!). And she was not the only widow on the island. Sadly, other families lost their husbands or fathers at an early age.
It’s difficult 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 home to Native Americans, the Timucua, in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Timucua village used to be in the same spot where visitors disembark from the ferry at the Dungeness dock.
Although the island is beautiful, it has a grim and tragic past, starting with the arrival of the Spanish and English. These newcomers brought diseases that decimated the Timucua 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 enslaved lived are still visible today, but 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 on the property.
While many associate 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.
In 1972, Cumberland Island was incorporated into the National Park Service (NPS). Currently, they own the majority of the island. Although a few private residences are on the island, many of them have retained rights, meaning they own the property for now. Still, they will eventually hand over the land to the National Park Service after a certain period. I imagine the National Park Service will ultimately own the entire island, but only time will tell!
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of Cumberland Island, check out a book called Cumberland Island Strong Women, Wild Horses by Charles Seabrook. Although it was published in the early 2000s, the book provides an intriguing and in-depth history of Cumberland Island up until that point in time. Many of the facts covered in the book were also mentioned during our Land and Legacies tour 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 I mentioned before, Cumberland Island is larger than the island of Manhattan, which means it is impossible to see the entire island during a day trip. Even after camping for a few nights, there were still areas we did not get to explore, like many hiking trails.
Since the ferry dock and Dungeness Ruins are on the island’s southside, most people tend to spend their day there. If you wish to see the wilderness in the island’s northern part, it’s best to book the Land and Legacies tour or plan to ride your bike. However, you may not reach your desired destination even with your bike. It’s important 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 beach weather, the heat and humidity can be unbearable. Plus, the mosquitos seem to come out in droves in the warmer months. You’ll see fewer of them in the winter, but it may be chillier, especially in the early mornings or evenings. Late fall and winter are ideal 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 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 plants, as well as endangered turtle and bird nests. The hunts keep their numbers in check and prevent further damage.
What month did we choose to visit Cumberland Island? We went in April and had a great time. While it was warm, it wasn’t too sticky outside, perfect for hiking. Mosquitoes were present, but they were not too terrible. We also had abundant sunshine and no rain during our camping experience. I couldn’t have asked for better weather, but as I said earlier, Georgia weather is fickle!
What Amenities Are on Cumberland Island?
The island provides public restrooms, but you won’t find any restaurants, hotels, gift shops, or shopping centers. Frankly, the absence of facilities can be daunting if you intend to camp. However, your camping trip will be just fine if you plan ahead.
Also, there is drinkable water on the southern part of the island, but I suggest bringing your reusable water bottle just in case. Except for water at Plum Orchard and Stafford Beach, 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. But this also depends on your phone provider.
You might not have a cell signal in other areas of the island. 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?
If you plan to bring your dog along for a day trip to Cumberland Island, the ferry ride does not allow dogs, except for service dogs. You must hire a private boat to take your dog with you. Moreover, your dog must remain leashed throughout the trip.
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 stinky horse poo.
Also, while the horses are pretty, remember that they are wild. They have no problem running full speed at you and will run you over if you get in their way. For example, we saw this gorgeous black horse gallop in front of the ruins, nearly colliding with someone taking pictures. With that said, the National Park Service recommends keeping at least a school bus distance from them.
What Other Animals Live on the Island?
There is abundant wildlife, and I can guarantee you’ll see numerous 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 bellies.
You only have to listen to know that the armadillos are nearby since they move noisily, rustling the plants as they go. While they might be somewhat cute, you will want to keep a healthy distance. Over half of them carry leprosy!
We did not encounter some of the other animals present on the island, such as 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 have not mentioned 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 some items are important to bring. While you may need more or less, here are the essentials you should 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 they are there!
- Swimsuit and Towel: If the weather and water are warm, 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 there are places to refill your water bottle if you get thirsty.
- Small Bag for Trash: If you plan on eating, bring a small trash bag that you can easily store in your backpack or tote bag. There are no trash bins on the island, and they have a leave no trace behind policy.
- Hat, Sunglasses, and Sunscreen: Cumberland Island has many shaded areas, 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; the next, it’s 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 comfortable shoes, and my feet didn’t thank me. Even if you plan to ride your bike 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:
- Camera: I can’t imagine visiting Cumberland Island without bringing my camera. The entire island is picturesque, and it’s hard not to take many photos. And if you love horses like me, you’ll likely take dozens of pictures of the wild horses.
- Binoculars: The island is abundant with birds, and I regret not bringing binoculars to view them from a distance. If you have extra space in your backpack, pack these.
- Cell Phone Charger: If you’re worried that your phone’s battery might die, there are a few spots on the island where you can charge it. The Sea Camp Ranger Station, located next to the Sea Camp dock, has outlets you can use. While your phone is charging, you can relax in the shade on the porch and enjoy the rocking chairs.
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+, roundtrip
- A child’s ticket (ages 6-15) is $30 plus tax, roundtrip
- Ages 5 and younger get to ride the ferry for free
You can purchase ferry tickets here. The ferry ticket does not include the entrance fee for Cumberland Island.
The ferry from St. Marys to Cumberland Island operates twice daily, at 9:00am and 11:45am. 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.
The ferry service is unavailable on Tuesdays and Wednesdays during winter, from December 1 to February 28. I nearly booked a camping trip that would have ended on a Tuesday in December, but fortunately, I recalled just in time that we wouldn’t have any means of leaving the island!
Can you bring your bike on the ferry for your day trip to Cumberland Island?
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.
It’s recommended to book your ferry ticket online in advance as spaces may fill up quickly. 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
Locate the Cumberland Island Ferry dock at the following address:
113 St. Marys Street, St. Marys, Georgia 31558
A large sign marks a free parking area near the island visitor center for 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 remember to check in at the visitor center. The check-in process takes about twenty minutes. The rangers will conduct a 10 to 15-minute safety and info session about Cumberland Island. Since we were camping, we had to load our gear onto the ferry, but the ferry staff was kind to help get our bags on the boat.
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
If you intend to explore more than just the southern part of the island, bringing a bike can help you cover more ground in a day. Although you won’t be allowed to take your bike on hiking trails, you can ride it on the main road called the Grand Avenue.
Bringing a bike with wide tires is recommended as the primary terrain is sand and dirt, which can be challenging 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.
Top 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 you can complete in one day. Plus, most places of interest are in the southern part of the island.
Over the course of 2 to 4 hours, you will see the unspoiled beach, the long boardwalk that takes you over the salt marshes, white sand dunes, the historic Dungeness Ruins, the Ice House Museum, and a lush maritime forest. This trail is an excellent way to see the diverse landscapes of Cumberland Island.
So, how do you access this trail? To begin the trail, head to the Sea Camp Ranger Station dock. Look for the sign that reads “River Trail.” The approximate one-mile River Trail will take you to the Ice House Museum. Continue your way amongst the lovely 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, which will take you directly over the tall marsh grasses. Once the path ends, you will find yourself staring at wind-sculpted dunes, some taller than you!
Continue your journey until you reach the beach. It’s a perfect spot to have a quick break and dip 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 need to walk a bit on the beach, heading northward, to locate the Sea Camp Campground marker.
Follow the trail that passes the campground to reach the Sea Camp Ranger Station. You can then end your day by taking the ferry 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. After that, you can simply follow the abovementioned steps, but in reverse order.
2) Visit the Dungeness Ruins, the Ice House Museum, and the Tabby House in the Historic District
Aside from the wild horses, Dungeness Ruins is a popular must-see for those taking 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.
If you’re curious about how the fire started, it was suspected to be arson. However, there is no concrete evidence to support this claim. In case you want to see how the house looked before the fire, you can visit the Ice House Museum close to the Dungeness dock. This museum used to be where Lucy Carnegie stored her ice from the North, and it features a picture of Dungeness’s former glory along with other historical artifacts that showcase the island’s rich 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 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 once held money.
Oh, and before you leave the Dungeness Ruins historic area, look up at the top of the chimney. With a bit of luck, you might catch a glimpse of the enormous osprey nest. The parents live here and care for their young, and we were fortunate enough to see these majestic birds during our visit in April.
3) Take the Land and Legacies Tour
I’ve talked so much about the island’s south end, but what about the north? Getting to the island’s northern part is more challenging as the ferry docks are closer to the south side.
If you wish to explore the island’s northern region without walking or biking, which can take several hours, you must take a tour. Greyfield Inn provides its guests with a driving tour to the island’s northern part. However, if you are not lodging at Greyfield Inn, the only driving tour option available is the Land and Legacies Tour offered by the National Park Service.
With the Land and Legacies Tour, you might 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 taller, your head might hit the van’s ceiling a few times. We were fortunate to have the newest van in their fleet, making the ride less bumpy than the older models.
How much does the tour cost? The tour costs $65 per person, plus tax. It is available to all ages and can only be taken by those who take the 9am ferry to Cumberland Island or those who are staying the night. Although it may seem expensive, you get to enjoy approximately 5-6 hours of historical stories about Cumberland Island and the opportunity to see the north end. It is a good deal and a fantastic way to explore the highlights of Cumberland Island during a day trip.
Tours are in high demand, especially on weekends. For more information about the tour and booking, visit their website here.
4)Take a Bike Ride to Plum Orchard
If you want to pass on taking the Land and Legacies Tour but still wish to see Plum Orchard Mansion, you can ride a bike north to see it (when it’s open). However, keep in mind that the distance from the dock to Plum Orchard is 7 miles (14 miles roundtrip). Doing it in a day is possible but requires preparation and an early start. Make sure to give yourself enough time to return to the ferry for departure.
Also, be prepared that you might not make it to Plum Orchard due to road and weather conditions. 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 from the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Plum Orchard was once owned by George Carnegie, son of Lucy Carnegie, and his wife Margaret. Interestingly, Margaret could not stand her mother-in-law and wanted to live as far away from her as possible while still residing on the island. She chose the location for Plum Orchard, which was about 8 miles from Dungeness and far enough to keep her distance from Lucy. Both women were exceptionally strong-willed and had opposing views. Moving to Plum Orchard seemed to be the best solution to mitigate their disputes.
Following George’s death in the 1920s, Margaret sold most of their belongings in Plum Orchard and relocated elsewhere. Surprisingly, some of the Dungeness estate’s furniture and other possessions were transferred to Plum Orchard before the Dungeness estate was destroyed by fire in the late 1950s. This fortunate displacement resulted in saving several items from being destroyed.
Today, you can take a free tour of Plum Orchard to see its furnishings and interior. Find tour times and hours of operation here on the National Park’s website. Also, Plum Orchard is closed during the hunts, usually from October through January (this does not impact the Land and Legacies tour during this time).
Plum Orchard is closed to the public during the managed hunts, which occur from October through January (this does not impact the Land and Legacies tour during this time).
5) Swim or Have a Picnic at the Beach
Most beaches are lined with hotels and resorts, but Cumberland Island’s beaches are wild and pristine, providing a secluded and peaceful experience with fewer people.
You will see many birds and sea creatures. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of wild horses galloping over the sand. We had a relaxing time sitting on our beach chairs, watching the birds, and listening to the waves crashing against the shore.
This sounds like the ideal beach location, doesn’t it? While the beaches on Cumberland Island are gorgeous, there is something important to note about the beach closest to Sea Camp Campground. If you visit this beach, you will see the paper mills in the distance. Although these mills are not on Cumberland Island but in Fernandina, Florida, they are still unpleasant to see at the beach. Some people have also reported that the mills can even emit an icky odor under certain wind conditions. Fortunately, we did not experience any of these smells during our stay.
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 something else was 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.
- It is perfectly fine to collect seashells that are uninhabited. So, don’t hesitate to pick them up whenever you find them on the beach!
6) Participate in a Guided Walking Tour on the Island
Starting September 2022, visitors can take an approximate one-mile walking tour around the Dungeness Ruins historic area, with several shaded rest stops available.
This tour, known as the Cumberland Island Walking Tour: Haunting Ruins and Wild Horses, gives you a good overview of the people who inhabited this island for the last 500 years 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.
Find additional booking information and available tour times here.
There is also a free ranger-led walking tour called the Footstep Tour, which is offered daily at 10am and begins at the Dungeness Dock. The ranger will take you around the Dungeness Historic area, lasting 30 to 45 minutes.
If you don’t want to take a guided tour, a self-guided option is available. You can use the NPS app to access a cell phone audio tour to guide you around the historic area. Although we have yet to try it ourselves, this tour will take you around the historic area.
View other available walking tours here, including tours on various topics such as life on the dunes and beach area.
What If You Want to Stay Overnight?
During your pre-trip planning for your day trip to Cumberland Island, you might decide to extend your visit by staying overnight to explore more.
Your two options for an overnight stay at Cumberland Island are camping or staying at the luxurious Greyfield Inn. Although I would love to stay at the inn in the future, it is quite expensive, costing over $800 per night with a two-night minimum stay (three-night minimum during holidays). Therefore, to save money, we camped on Cumberland Island.
But if you want to splurge, it might be worth it since they cook your meals, give you tours, and provide bikes. Plus, you’ll have access to a private beach, which you’ll share with only a few other guests. To learn more about the Greyfield Inn, check out their website here.
If you decide to camp like us, Sea Camp Campground is the most popular option as it is closest to the dock and provides 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 additional camping sites available at Cumberland Island, but it is important to note that you will need to walk to these sites along with your camping gear. One such site is the Stafford Campground, 3.5 miles from the Sea Camp Dock. You cannot use a cart to carry your gear to this location, so everything must be carried! However, like the Sea Camp Campground, 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! However, the duration of your stay largely depends on your interests and what you wish to experience during your visit. If your main objective is to see the wild horses and the Dungeness Ruins, then a single day will suffice.
But if you’re like me and enjoy spending time on the beach reading a book or savoring a cup of warm coffee over a campground fire, then you may want to stay a few days more to explore the natural beauty of Cumberland 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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