A look back to another time, a taste of the wild southern coastline, but for me a story brought to life. I’ll gladly tell you about the sites and experience, what to expect, yet it’s more than that to me. It was a trip nearly 20 years in the making, the better part of 2/3 of my life. My dad first brought up camping on the island when I was a child, but life got in the way. As a teenager, I shied away from the outdoors, and by my 20s I had moved to Chicago. My dad’s camping gear retired to a shelf in the attic and Cumberland seemed as unlikely as possible.
The discussion began anew in 2016 and by the time I hit 30, I felt compelled to make the trip happen. So here I sit in the Jacksonville International Airport after 4 days on Cumberland Island with my dad and husband. It seems like a life event, however simple, to have at last made the trip.
Cumberland Island National Seashore is part of the National Park Service, and sits about 6 miles off the southern Georgia coastline. Near other islands such as Jekyll and St. Simon’s, it’s only accessible by ferry or personal watercraft. With over 50 miles of trails and an 18 mile long beach, it’s a true gem.
We flew into Tampa to visit family and then drove the four hours to St. Mary’s, GA, where the Cumberland Island ferry departs. The ferry schedule varies by season, but consistently departs the mainland at 9am and 11:45am, reaching the island in 45 minutes.
St. Mary’s is worth strolling through before or after a trip to Cumberland Island, with several restaurants and cute shops, including antique stores and a general store. Lang’s Marina Restaurant is owned by the same family who operates the ferry and is reputed to have fresh, tasty seafood daily, but they are closed on Sundays (when we returned from the island). Market on the Square is an old fashioned general store, with home made fudge, souvenirs, and lucky for us, sack lunches made to order. It’s an easy stop when heading to the ferry. If you’re looking for a meal on the way in or out of town, St. Mary’s Seafood & More is a good place that’s open 7 days a week. With fresh, local shrimp, and plenty of southern classics (fried okra, fried green tomatoes, grits), we enjoyed a lunch stop after our trip.
Note: due to damage from Hurricane Irma, the check in process is slightly different than it use to be. The ferry now departs at the opposite end of the street from the Visitor Center, where you must check-in. There is limited 15 minute parking right by the dock, where you can unload before parking in the designated Cumberland Island visitor lot. Be sure to check the Park Service’s page for updates! As of early 2020, this check in process remains the same.
Once onboard the ferry, lookout for wildlife! We saw a dolphin and once nearer Cumberland, several of the feral horses along the shoreline. If you’re camping, you might find it useful to rent a cart upon arrival. It’s $5 and is available for the entirety of your stay, but must be returned to the ranger station between uses.
From the dock and ranger station, it’s 0.5 mile to Sea Camp where we stayed. I was a bit worried about the camping conditions and facilities, but everything was great! The sites are private, with plenty of palmetto bushes and oak trees separating them. In addition, the bathrooms and showers were clean and decent (bearing in mind the showers are cold water only), and there is a filtered water station for drinking. There is also a separate sink for dish washing. The bathrooms had electricity, soap and toilet paper. The showers are unisex and are open air with a partial roof, however, they are not lit at night. If cold showers aren’t your thing, I recommend taking a solar shower bag. Place them in the sun and they heat up surprising great. They start at about $9 on Amazon.
Four Day Itinerary
Four days and three nights on the island allowed us to hike the woodland trails, stroll the beach for miles, and simply relax. The Ice House and Dungeness ruins are a fair hike from Sea Camp Dock along the River Trail, which we did the first day after arrival. The park ranger recommended late afternoon hikes as the best time to see active wildlife, which seemed odd to me, but sure enough we saw more critters than people- armadillos, horses and deer. Along the trail to the Ice House, we detoured down a slight incline onto a very wild beach. Downed trees crisscrossed it, and crabs scurried all about. From there we hiked the remaining short distance to the Ice House. It has a small museum, as well as bathrooms and filtered drinking water.
Take the oak tree lined dirt road from Ice House inland and you’ll come to the Dungeness Ruins. The Dungeness grounds are pretty extensive with other ruins, a cemetery, and duck pond. This seems to be sure spot to see the wild horses, which graze the open grass around the ruins. We ran into one stud who ‘posed’ for a picture as we joked, but was showing aggressive behavior (teeth exposed, head pointed, stamping feet).
Remember, the horses are wild animals, be respectful and keep your distance!
To leave the estate grounds, you can follow the Dungeness Trail to the boardwalk and beach. There is also a dirt road that bypasses the boardwalk… don’t take it! We missed the signage and trudged over and through the sand dunes via the path/road, which had me thinking this must be what it’s like to be stranded on a desert island! Once you hit the beach, it’s still a long hike back to the Sea Camp entrance. There are no other breaks in the dunes between Dungeness and Sea Camp, but lookout out for the black and white striped poles that mark entrances.
Day Two: we were pretty beat after about 7 miles of hiking the first day, but decided to take the Parallel Trail from Sea Camp Dock to Greyfield, the bed & breakfast inn. It’s private and only open to its guests, but the trail itself is nice. Once arriving at Greyfield Beach Road, hang a right and you’ll come to the beach. Opt to take the beach back to Sea Camp for a change of scenery. Alternatively, keep following the Parallel Trail for a longer hike (6 miles one way). Exiting onto the beach from the Greyfield road, there was a huge, rusty ball that my dad suggested was a leftover mine from WWII. I’m not sure if that’s accurate, perhaps it’s just a buoy, but it was an odd site on a pristine beach.
I can’t emphasize enough taking long hikes on the beach. I’ve never seen such a wide open, uncrowded beach before. On both our beach hikes combined, we only saw 4-5 people total. Unlike other National Parks, you can keep shells and such off the beach, and there are many to find!
If you’re looking for a little less seclusion, stop by the Ranger Station at Sea Camp Dock. The rangers are friendly, and the station has some kids/family books and papers. Daily at 4pm the ranger gives a presentation about the island. When we stopped in, it was about sea turtle nesting season, which began May 1st. He provided some interesting info, including the fact Cumberland Island has the largest number of sea turtle nests in all of Georgia. 2017 saw around 600 nests! Warning signage was posted on the beach when we arrived on May 3rd, but we weren’t lucky enough to see any turtles.
The station also has a nice front porch with rocking chairs and views of the river. It’s a good spot to view the sunset!
There is also a tour that leaves from Sea Camp Dock around 9:45am, run by the ferry & restaurant family, that drives to the northern portion of Cumberland. It visits the restored Plum Orchard mansion and the First African Baptist Church. We didn’t take the tour, as we preferred the wild side of the island, but it seems like a good option to view those sites without the 14 miles roundtrip hike. You can book the tour and the ferry here (not affiliated with the park service).
A few final words for day trippers or campers…. we visited in early May and had no issues with bugs (they’re worse in my backyard!) but come prepared anyway. We prepared for the worst and brought mosquito net hats and sprayed our tents, shoes and clothes in Permethrin before we arrived. Ticks can be bad, but we only saw 2 in our campsite. I’m sure the Permethrin helped. We also brought 100% Deet for skin repellent.
Don’t dismiss the raccoons! The ranger called them trash pandas (lol!), which is pretty darn accurate description! There are droves of them, and they’re sneaky as ever. Each campsite has a 7-8 foot metal pole with hooks for hanging items. We hung a small bag of trash at the very top the first night, thinking there was no way anything could get it…. guess again! We weren’t in the tent 10 minutes before those suckers somehow managed to snag it and drag the empty MRE bags around the site. I can’t imagine how they got it- were they standing on each other’s shoulders?! The next two nights we didn’t make that mistake again and put the trash in the secure food box.
The ranger station has island maps, but none with all the trails. For a detailed trail map, visit the Georgia Conservancy’s page .
Remember, Cumberland Island is a preserved piece of Georgian wilderness. Plan for it and love it!