Cumberland Island is Georgia's largest barrier island. Pristine beaches and abundant wildlife mix with the ghosts of Native Americans, enslaved people, and one of the wealthiest families in America. Visiting Cumberland Island Georgia requires more planning than other beach vacations. This article gives you everything you need to know to plan and enjoy a visit to Cumberland Island National Seashore.
Getting to Cumberland Island Georgia
As a protected National Seashore, only a certain number of people are allowed daily. As such, you should buy ferry tickets in advance. The visitor's center, museum, and ferry dock are in St. Mary's. Give yourself plenty of time to park.
The ferry schedule is seasonal but typically leaves the St. Mary's dock twice per day. The ride to the island is 45 minutes. You can bring your bike over on the ferry, but that requires reserving space and an additional fee.
What Do I Need To Bring With Me?
In a word? Everything. And you need to bring it back as well. There are no concessions on the island. Likewise, there are no trash cans. The rule here is pack in, pack out.
Regardless of the season, bug spray and sunscreen are vital in South Georgia. I only go somewhere with emergency snacks. The ferry sells some drinks and small snack items, and there are drinking fountains at spots around the islands.
Getting Around on The Island
Unless you take the guided van tour (more on that later), you have two options – bike or hike. Make sure you know the distance to any landmarks you want to see. It would be best to be incredibly honest about your fitness level. Remember to factor in the heat!
Camping on Cumberland Island
Camping on Cumberland Island Georgia means roughing it. There are three wilderness campgrounds and two that are slightly less so. What's the difference? The Sea Camp group campground and Stafford Beach have flush toilets, cold showers, fire rings, and drinkable water.
The wilderness sites are anywhere from 5.5 – 10.5 miles from the dock, and you must hike or bike in. Fires are prohibited here, but camp stoves are allowed. There are nearby wells for drinking and cooking, but they require you to bring some water treatment.
Nature Activities on Cumberland Island
Hike the maritime forests, or swim anywhere along the 17 miles of pristine beach. Feel free to fish but ensure anyone 16 or older has a Georgia fishing license. There are additional requirements for saltwater fishing; you can find those at the Georgia DNR site.
The island is full of wildlife to spot! Unique to the island is a herd of feral horses. In addition, the island is home to nesting loggerhead sea turtles, alligators, and armadillos. Be sure to give all wild animals their space to avoid injury.
The Junior Ranger Program
The Junior Ranger program is one of the best ways to engage your kids in a trip to Cumberland Island. Pick up a free booklet at the visitor's center or the Sea Camp ranger station on the island. There are different booklets for ages 5-7 and 8-12. The program has fun ways to get the kids curious about the island. Before you leave, turn in the completed booklet, get “sworn in,” and receive a plastic badge.
Lands and Legacies Tour
This guided van tour to the island's north end runs five to six hours. You'll visit historical sites such as Plum Orchard Mansion and the First African Baptist Church. It's an excellent way to see places too far for hiking and biking. Remember that this tour doesn't allow time to explore further at the end of the day.
National Park Service Ranger Tours
This guided tour is held when staff is available, so ask on the day of your visit. You'll walk 1.5 miles to the Dungeness Historic Area and tour for 1-1.5 hours. This tour isn't a loop; once the time is over, you can explore the area and return to the dock. If you can't catch the ranger tour, there's a self-guided cell phone tour.
Plum Orchard Tour
Offered three times daily, Plum Orchard Mansion is 7 miles north of the Sea Camp Dock. As a reminder, it's your responsibility to get yourself there by bike or foot. The NPS website states that “hiking the 14-mile round trip is not recommended for day visitors.” The tour is 45 minutes.
The Dockside Program is a ranger talk as opposed to a tour. It occurs twice daily, 30 minutes before the ferry departs. The topics vary, so you can ask the ranger about them during your visit.
Historic Sites on Cumberland Island
Plum Orchard Mansion
This 22,00 square foot mansion was built at the turn of the 20th century and was home to a member of the famed Carnegie family until 1921. The tour is free – you just have to get there. Unfortunately, it's seven miles from the dock, so plan accordingly.
The First African Baptist Church
This humble, one-room church might be best known as the site of the 1996 wedding of John Kennedy, Jr. and Carolyn Bessette. But more importantly, this church was built in 1896 by the African-American residents of the island. Many had been formerly enslaved and lived in the community known as The Settlement. Clocking in 14 miles from the dock, this is best seen on the Lands and Legacies Tour.
Wealthy industrialist Thomas Carnegie built this home in 1884 for his large family. Left uninhabited, the mansion caught fire in 1959, and all that remains are the crumbling walls. Still, the site is impressive, and visitors can walk the house grounds and several outbuildings on the property.
Be Prepared and Enjoy Cumberland Island
It takes some preparation and planning, but it will all pay off. You'll love this historic wilderness area once you set foot on Cumberland Island National Seashore. Follow the tips in this article, and you'll be ready to make the most of this unique destination.
Amy Albers is a librarian in the Atlanta suburb of Marietta. When she's not getting lost in genealogy and local history, she is finding fun solo and family travel destinations to share with others. With over a dozen years of experience writing about family and travel on her own blog, Amy now enjoys freelance writing. She has three teen and young adult boys who turned her on to all things Marvel and Star Wars and a husband who has nurtured her into a committed SEC football fan. The beach and the great outdoors are her happy places but she's never mad at a luxury hotel. Her book reviews and latest adventures are found on Instagram at Exploring The Amysphere.