Unsoiled Beauty: Top Things to do on Cumberland Island

dunes at Cumberland Island
The dunes at Cumberland Island credit: NPS

Cumberland Island National Seashore, an unspoiled barrier island along the Geogia coast, offers 17 miles of pristine beaches, wild horses and gracious mansions from a gilted era. A ferry ride from the mainland, visitors can explore the island on bike or by hiking to see its maritime forest and wetlands, both rich in wildlife. Here are the top things to do on Cumberland Island.

Cumberland Island National Seashore

A national seashore protects the natural  beaches in the U.S. and offers an undeveloped landscape to enjoy. On Cumberland Island, visitors will find a designated wilderness area, undeveloped beaches, historic sites and cultural areas along with important nesting sites and habitat areas for wildlife.

Located about six miles from St. Marys, Georgia, it is only assessible by boat and restricted to bikes only (except for organized tour operators and a few residents still living on the island).  The Cumberland Island National Seashore preserves the marjority of Cumberland Island though the southern end is the easiest to explore by daytrippers from Mainland Georgia.

Cumberland Island Visitor Center

Located on the Mainland, this is the main information center. Visitors can get maps, booklets and find an interpretive area. This is also the place where visitors check in for the ferry. 

The interpretive area features several exhibits including information about the wildlife along with the history of the island. Visitors can also learn about the Timucuan culture, people that lived in the area before 1561. There is information about the colonial era of the United States, including the war of 1812. 

Visitors can also learn about the plantation era along with the agriculture of the island. The area called the settlement and the history of the First African Baptist Church, on the North End of Cumberland Island is featured in the museum area.

In addition for information and displays, the visitor center offers a film on the “forgotten invasion” in the War of 1812. 

Located at 113 St Marys St, W St Marys. Open daily from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

ProTip: The spots in front of the visitor center are mostly restricted to a certain number of hours.  Down and across the street is a shaded lot that’s free with ample parking for day trippers.

Cumberland Island Visitor Center
Cumberland Island Visitor Center credit: Amy Albers

Cumberland Island Ferry

Before we boarded the ferry, we listened to a talk from a ranger.  She gave us the ins and outs of where things were, important locations and safety information.  After that, it was time to load up.

My kids have always loved “things that go”.  Any kind of transportation is part of the fun for them, so they were excited about the ferry ride.  It takes about 45 minutes to get over to Cumberland Island, so settle in.

There are spots all around the lower and upper decks of the ferry. Inside is a seating area with tables. It was a windy day, so the youngest and I decided to park ourselves in there and get started on his Junior Ranger book.

To reach Cumberland Island, a ferry is necessary since there isn’t a bridge. It departs daily from the Cumberland Visitor Center at 9 a.m. and 11:45 a.m.

The ferry returns from Cumberland Island three times a day from March 1st to November 30th at 10:15 a.m., 2:45 p.m. and 4:45 p.m. The ferry returns twice a day during the winter at 10:15 a.m. and 4:45 p.m.

Adult round-trip passage costs $40 and youth are $30.

Arriving on Cumberland Island

The ferry will dock and visitors are free to explore with several choices of where to start. There are guided tours for a fee that will take explore the entire island. That was a little pricey for the four of us and I didn’t know how long my kids would be up for this adventure, so I opted to take the later ferry and self-guide.

Bikes are available for rent bikes the island (again, these sell out and are seasonal) or visitors can bring own bikes on the ferry for $10/bike. Notable landmarks are the First African Baptist Church where JFK, Jr. and Carolyn Bessette were married, Plum Orchard Mansion and the Dungeness Ruins.

The church and Plum Orchard were too far for us to walk with our youngest, so we settled on exploring the beach and the Dungeness Ruins area.

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The Gates of Dungernss Ruins
The Gates of Dungernss Ruins credit: Amy Albers

Top Places to Visit on Cumberland Island 

The Martime Forest

To get to the beach, we trekked through the maritime forest. Y’all, I could have strolled through there all day. The beauty and peace of that forest was awe-inspiring. If that was all there was to Cumberland Island, I could have left happy.

The Maritme Forest is made of live oaks draped in Spanish Moss and Resurrection Ferns. Under the trees saw palms and ivys, including poison ivy, thrive under the branches of the live oaks. One side of the Maritime forest transitions to the sand dunes with the beach beyond. The otherside of the forest is a salt marsh, a favorite habitat for sea birds.

Salt Marsh

Another part of the Cumberland Island’s ecosystem is the salt marsh. With over 9,000 acres, the salt marsh is home to fiddler craps and birds are frequently found in this area. The overlook near the Dunegress Ruins is one of the easiest places to see the salt marshes and includes boardwalks.


Since Cumberland Island isn’t a traditional tourist beach, the beauty is unspoiled. The first thing I noticed was the tall dunes.When we passed the dunes, however, I was immediately struck by the vastness of the beach. No plastic chairs, no umbrellas and no coolers. Just sand, and plenty of it. In total there are 17 miles of beach on Cumberland Island.

My oldest son was beside himself. He took off near the water, looking for shells. Visitors are allowed to keep any uninhabited shells. Soon, he was way ahead of us. We weren’t finding anything near the waterline and I was disappointed. We wandered up closer to the dunes and hit the motherlode.

It’s hard to imagine the tides being so high when you are used to touristy beaches with much smaller strips of beach. When we moved up, we found more shells than we could possibly carry. We finally caught up to my oldest and enlightened him.

ProTip: The beach is located about .5-miles from the Sea Camp Dock and accessilbe by a trail. There are no lifegaurds on Cumberland Island. Though inquire about rip currents at the ranger station  before heading into the ocean.

Dungeness Ruins
Dungeness Ruins on Cumberland Island credit: NPS

Dungeness Ruins

We left the beach and moved further inland with the aid of several boardwalks to cross the salt marshes.  I was not leaving until I saw the ruins of Dungeness. 

Nearby Jekyll Island was home to the Jekyll Island Club, an exlcusive club for magnates and millionaires such as the Morgans, Pulitzers, and Rockefellers. Thomas Carnegie afforded himself more privacy and purchased property on Cumberland Island. The lavish home was built in 1884 and named Dungeness but he died before the 59-room mansion was completed. Lucy Carnegie (his widow) expanded the home several times and it had grown to 35,000 feet by the time of her death in 1916.

A fire in 1959 destroyed the majority of the house though the remains are a popular spot to explore and preserved by the National Park Service. Visitors are  free to approach the building but common sense and the Park Service dictate that no one actually go in. Even in its devastation, Dungeness is a site that is impressive.

Since we had been to Jekyll Island, my kids were well acquainted with the Jekyll Island Club. It was easier for them to connect the time period of this mansion and the level of wealth involved in maintaining it.

ProTip: Free Ranger tours of the Dunegress Ruins are availalbe. Inquire at the dock upon arrival. This area offers picnic tables, restrooms and drinking water.

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Plum Orchard Mansion
Plum Orchard Mansion on Cumberland Island, one of the grand houses built by the Carnegie Family. credit: NPS

Plum Orchard Mansion

Completed in 1898, the Georgian Revival Mansion is 20,000-square feet and built by Lucy Carnegie for her son and daughter-in-law, George Carnegie and Margaret Thaw. The mansion is open for free tours.  

Located seven miles north from Sea Camp dock, and a 14 mile roundtrip hike from the dock and not recommended for day trippers to the island. The Plum Orchard Mansion offers picnic tables along with restrooms and drinking water. 

First African Baptist Church

This humble church burst onto the front page of newspapers across the U.S. when John F. Kennedy, Jr. married Carolyn Bessette in 1996 in a secret ceremony. Totally undiscovered by the media, the one-room church held a close group of friends and family.

Established  in 1893 by residents of the island, some of which were born into slavery. This church was used for worship from people living in the area called the Settlement. Now visitors can tour the church though it is located on the northern end of the island, 14 miles from Sea Dock. Restrooms are located nearby.

the First African Baptist Church
Located in the Settlement, the First African Baptist Church credit: NPS

Sea Camp Ranger Station

Located close to the Sea Dock, this is the primary location for information on Cumberland Island. Prior to the 4:45 p.m. ferry back to the Mainland, visitors can attend a Ranger Program. This ranger station offers maps and information about the flora and fauna of Cumberland Island, Junior Ranger Booklets, first aid, restrooms and drinking water. It is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Ice House Museum 

The Carnegie Estates enjoyed ice and it was stored in an ice house (in an era before easy refrigeration and freezers). A unique look into life before modern conveniences, this self-guided museum was build around 1900 and features two-foot walls filled with insulation to keep the ice from melting.

Located next to the Dungeness Dock and open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Wild Horses
Wild Horses on Cumberland Island. credit: Amy Albers

Wildlife on Cumberland Island

It’s everywhere, y’all.  The most famous residents are the horses. Once kept as stock for work and hunting, the horses were allowed to be free range and eventually became feral. There are anywhere from 130-170 feral horses on the island in a given year. They are not managed in any way by the park service.  Do NOT approach too closely or try to feed them. Associating people with food might negatively impact their natural survival skills and cause problems for visitors.

Birds are plentiful as well as ghost crabs.  We didn’t see any, but know that snakes and alligators are also inhabitants. So be aware of your surroundings. 

What I was not expecting to see were armadillos. I don’t know why, but I always thought they were native to western states. These guys were all over the place near the Dungeness ruins. I had lived 46 years without seeing an armadillo in person.  I can now add another life experience to my list.

boys at the Cumberland Island beach
My boys at the Cumberland Island Beach credit: Amy Albers

Top Things to do on Cumberland Island

Hiking Trails on Cumberland Island

The island itself has over 50 miles of hiking trails. Grab a park map upon arrival for distances in-between individual sites on the island. 

Sound to Sea Southend Loop—A 4.5-mile loop trail from the Sea Camp Dock past many of the popular sites on the southern end of the island, like the Ice House Museum, the Dungeness Ruins and the beach. It’s one of the most popular trails used by day visitors. 

Biking in Cumberland Island

Biking is easier way to see the island when visiting, especially Plum Orchard which is 14 miles round trip from the dock. Though biking is restricted to the unpaved roads on the island, like the Main Road. Biking on the trails and the beach is prohibited. 

Sometimes, visitors can rent bikes from the island for the day. Please check in advance for bike rental options on the island. Visitors can bring their own bikes over on the ferry for $10 per bike.

Junior Ranger Program

The Junior Ranger Program is the go-to program for families to learn more about a National Park Service site. It’s free and takes about two hours to complete.

My youngest was all about getting a Junior Ranger badge.  This trip, my son received not one but two books.

  • Cumberland IslandOf course, there was a book specific to this location. Inside are all kinds of activities related to the ecosystem and history of the island.
  • Underwater Explorer–This is a national book that is given out at the National Seashore sites.

ProTip: Each book earns the child a badge. If you don’t want to feel rushed to finish, you can complete them at home and mail the book to the Park Service. We just focused on the Cumberland Island book.

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Other Activities on Cumberland Island

Guided Tours of Cumberland Island

Cumberland Island doesn’t allow personal vehicles though it offers a motorized guided tour. Departing from the Sea Camp Ranger Station (where the ferry arrives) visitors will get a 5 to 6 hour tour of the island.

On the tour, visitors will visit the Plum Orchard Mansion, the remnants of the Robert Stafford’s plantation and cemetery, Cumberland Wharf, the settlement and the First African Baptist Church. 

Those on the tour will also travel through the maritime forests of Cumberland Island, one of the largest remaining such forests in the U.S. Cumberland Island is one of the largest undeveloped barrier islands on the Atlantic coast. 

Worth noting, due to the length of the tour, those on the tour will not have time to visit the beaches on Cumberland Island unless they are camping overnight. 

The guided tour of Cumberland Island is $45 per person. 

Camping on Cumberland Island 

The developed sites on Cumberland Island offers fire rings and grills. All camping is leave no trace so no trash cans on the island. All food items need to be comtained in a food storage locker.

Sea Camp Campground
  • Reservations Required
  • 18 Tent Only Sites
  • Flush Toilets with Cold Water Showers
  • Potable Water Spigots and a Dishwashing Sink
  • Picnic Tables
Stafford Beach Campground 
  • Reservations Required
  • 10 Tent Only Sites
  • Flush Toilets with Cold Water Showers
  • Potable Water

Cumberland Island features three wilderness campsites that are hike-in sites with four spots per campground. Water must be treated and offer no facilities. Food will have to be hung in trees.

  • Hickory Hill Wilderness Campsite
  • Yankee Paradise Wilderness Campsite
  • Brickhill Bluff Wilderness Campsite

Where to Stay on Cumberland Island 

Greyfield Inn

For an unforgetable stay, Greyfield Inn is a historic Inn featuring 15 antique filled rooms originally built by the Carnegies. The gracious home serves all meals, including a lunch in a picnic baskets and Hors d’oeuvres in the early evening. Each of the accomodations is individually decorated with an eye towards the historic nature of the property.

Activities include hiking, kayaking and Greyfield Inn offers its guests bikes for their stay. A miniumun night stay is required and the Greyfield Inn offers a private ferry. For rates and more information, visit its website.

Know Before You Go: 

  • Sunscreen is a must, We walked facing the sun and the beach.  It was a windy day and I wasn’t hot in the least, so I wasn’t thinking about sunburns. It was definitely brought to my attention later. 
  • Get your tickets in advance. I purchased ours before leaving home. There are a limited number of people allowed on the island per day and trips can sell out.
  • Allow time for check in. Even if you purchased tickets early, you still have to check in at the desk inside. There can be lines, so plan accordingly. If you haven’t checked in 20 minutes prior to departure, they will start giving away spots to walk-ups.
  • The ferry only travels to and from the island a couple of times per day. Once you are there, you are there for hours.  There is no concession service on the island so you’ll need to bring your own food, sunscreen and bug spray. There are restrooms. I cannot stress enough how important it is to make sure you have enough food and water for your family, along with comfortable shoes.

Cumberland Island National Seashore, a unspoiled barrier island along the Geogia coast, offers 17 miles of pristine beaches along with wild horses and gracious mansions from a gilted era. A ferry ride from the mainland, explore an island on bike or by hiking to see its maritime forest and wetlands, rich in wildlife. Top Things to do on Cumberland Island | Top Destinations on the Georgia Coast
credit: Pixabay
Amy Albers

Amy Albers is an Atlanta wife, mom of three spunky young men, and a newly MLIS'd library assistant. When she's not being obsessed with local history and genealogy projects, she loves to read and travel. Amy has recently rediscovered a love of camping and hiking, but would never say no to a swag hotel room. Follow her adventures on Instagram: @exploringtheamysphere

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