Cumberland Island is rich in history, wildlife, and isolation. As a National Seashore, the island’s natural beauty is fiercely protected by the government, as are its feral horses. The island is one of few places along the East Coast where horses live freely in the wild.
The island’s history has many layers, from 16th century Franciscan monks bringing both religion and smallpox to the native Timucuan tribes, to pirates hiding from the law in the 17th century. Georgia founder James Oglethorpe and Revolutionary War general Nathanael Greene both built homes on Cumberland. It was Greene’s widow who built Tabby House in 1803 where Robert E. Lee’s father, Light-Horse Harry, would later spend his final days. The remains of the Carnegie fortune reside on Cumberland in the form of scattered mansions and ruins, the last vestiges of the Gilded Age.
The journey to Cumberland Island begins with a two hour drive south of Tybee Island to Saint Marys, where visitors board a ferry to Georgia’s largest barrier island and enter an untouched world.
Visit: Reservations must be made in order to visit Cumberland Island. Cumberland is only reachable by ferry, and no more than 300 people are allowed on the island at any given time. Make reservations in advance, as space is limited.
Expect to see a variety of wildlife while touring Cumberland. The island is 18 miles long and inhabited by an assortment of deer, ducks, alligator, bobcats, coyotes, armadillos, and hogs. Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes and indigo snakes can get up to eight feet long on the island. Loggerhead sea turtles make nests in the dunes every summer. In the wintertime, whales are often sighted along the coast, and manatees are spotted from June to September.
Perhaps Cumberland’s most famous inhabitants are its feral horses. Horses have roamed the island wild for over 500 years, delivered to its shores by the Spanish. Today, there are an estimated 130 to 150 horses on the island.
A must-see is the Dungeness trail, a short one and a half mile trek along the south end of the island. The trail takes visitors by the Ice House Museum, where sightings of horses are common, and along pristine, empty beaches, but the highlight of the trail is exploring the ruins of Dungeness Plantation, one of the most haunting views on Cumberland Island.
In the late 1800s, the Carnegie family built Dungeness Plantation on the southern tip of the island, next to Tabby House. After great success in the steel industry, the Carnegies had become one of the wealthiest families in American history. The family employed over 300 servants for their self-sufficient winter home on Cumberland. Parties thrown at the mansion were lavish, and it became a favorite place to celebrate holidays or host a wedding. At one point, the Carnegies owned all but a small percentage of the island.
The 1920s saw the death of family matriarch Lucy and with plenty of property of their own, the Carnegie children decided not to preserve Dungeness. The mansion and grounds soon fell into disrepair. Today, visitors can still glimpse the family cars rusting away outside the garage.
Dungeness burned down in the 1950s, leaving forlorn ruins that serve as a reminder of an era gone by.
Visitors are encouraged to reserve a spot on the Lands and Legacies tour, a ranger-led exploration of the north end of the island. The tour covers 30 miles through rugged terrain and wilderness over the course of five or six hours. Stops include the First African Baptist Church, a one-room church where John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette were famously wed in 1996, as well as Plum Orchard Mansion, Cumberland Wharf, and Robert Stafford’s plantation site and cemetery.
For day trippers to Cumberland, the Lands and Legacies tour will likely take up most of your day between ferry stops. If you can manage to fit in a trip along the Dungeness trail before or after, it is worth it. For those staying overnight, book the tour for your last day and leave on the 4:45pm ferry.
There are a variety of activities available to guests at Cumberland Island including hiking, swimming, fishing, bird watching, stargazing, and even hunting. To keep the deer and hog populations in check, Cumberland Island hosts six managed hunts every year.
Stay: In order to see everything on the island, an overnight stay at Sea Camp is highly recommended. Sea Camp offers potable water and restrooms with cold water showers, all within a short walk of the docks, and every site includes a food cage to safely store items in while exploring the island. Suggested camping spots are campsites 12 through 16. These sites back up to the dunes and offer picturesque spots to set up a tent or a hammock.
For the more adventurous campers, Backcountry and Wilderness are two other campsites on the island. Be warned, these sites are fairly isolated and have no restroom or water facilities. All water found north of Sea Camp is not drinkable and must be treated.
The best time of year to camp on Cumberland Island is in the late fall, winter, or spring. Camping and even day visits in the summertime can be uncomfortable with high heat and mosquitos.
For those interested in a more indulgent stay, there is the award-winning Greyfield Inn, a former Carnegie residence on the island that is still owned and managed by Carnegie descendants. Room rates start at a hefty 425.00 a night, but costs include access to the island via a private ferry, meals and snacks, access to bicycles and island gear, as well as daily Naturalist-led Jeep tours around the island.
Eat: There are no restaurants or food accommodations on the island, so be prepared to bring your own food and drinks. Guests at the Greyfield Inn are provided with three meals a day as well as snacks and non alcoholic drinks, all included with the price of their stay.
For lovers of wildlife and nature, for camping enthusiasts, fishermen, or those interested in the complex web of American history, Cumberland Island is not to be missed. For more information on the island, visit http://www.cumberlandisland.com.
To make reservations for the ferry, camping, and tours: https://www.nps.gov/cuis/planyourvisit/camping.htm
Ferry schedule: http://www.stmaryswelcome.com/cumberlandferry.html
Sea Camp FAQ: http://southernhiker.com/cumberland-island/
Greyfield Inn: http://www.greyfieldinn.com
Dungeness trail: http://southernhiker.com/dungeness-trail/
Dungeness Plantation and the Carnegie family: https://www.nps.gov/cuis/planyourvisit/placestogo.htm