Cumberland Island National Seashore is an 18-mile-long island where wild horses, turkeys, and alligators call home. Beautiful forests, beaches, and marshes make up just a few of the many habitats on the island. Visitors are sure to experience it all!
It all started with a podcast. I was painting my kitchen cabinets (quite an undertaking, but that’s a story for another day!) when I first heard about Cumberland Island. The hosts of the Parklandia podcast were sharing their adventures at Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia, not far from the Florida state line… an adventure that ends with being caught in a storm and a call to 911.
What made me think we should go to Cumberland Island after hearing their story is still a bit of a mystery to me! I mean, I knew it was in the US, not too far from a close friend of mine in Jacksonville, FL, and…. wild horses… need I say more?!
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Where is Cumberland Island National Seashore?
Cumberland Island National Seashore is located in Southern Georgia. Accessible only by ferry or private boat, this island is very remote. Those planning to take the ferry to the island will begin their journey in St. Mary’s, Georgia. Take I-95 to US 40 to Historic St. Mary’s. There are cute shops and a nice town park along the water available to visitors. All are just a short walking distance from the ferry loading dock.
Tips for Cumberland Island
I guess I chose to look at the Parklandia’s mishap in the rain with a positive light. “Surely it won’t rain on us.” Well, I was wrong!
Maybe Cumberland Island has a naturally higher precipitation rate than most of the rest of the country. I don’t know. But, as you’ll soon see in this post, my two pieces of advice are… 1) Go!! You will not regret it! It’s beautiful! 2) Bring rain gear and plan for the worst!
When I say, “it’s beautiful”, I mean it! As if we were walking through the pages of a fairy tale, every inch of this place is magical. From the second we stepped off the ferry from St. Mary’s in Georgia, it was like we had been transported into a storybook.
Yeah, I could do without the buzzards and the wild boars (yes, you read that correctly), but it added to the adventure!
Cumberland Island Ferry
Our ferry left from St. Marys, Georgia at 9am. After a quick overview of the island presented by one of the rangers, we loaded the ferry. Those with bicycles and camping gear loaded first (yes, you can camp on the island and, yes, you can bring your own bicycle!).
Passengers were given a choice to either sit inside or outside. We opted to sit inside. The ferry ride lasted about 30 minutes, but with loading and unloading time they estimate a 45-minute trip.
Wild dolphins jumped out from the water next to our boat as we journeyed toward the island.
There are two main dock points on the island: Ice House Museum Dock and Sea Camp Ranger’s Station Dock. Both are on the southwest side of the island.
Cumberland Island National Seashore Trail Route and Map
Ice House Museum Dock, One of Two Docks at Cumberland Island National Seashore
We chose to embark on our island adventure at Ice House Museum Dock.
There are bathrooms at both docks, and I highly encourage you to take advantage of them unless you are good with going in the wild. There are not many bathrooms available elsewhere, though there are definitely more in the southern regions of the island. But, overall, they are pretty sparse.
We had already taken some time the day prior to check out the Cumberland Island Museum in St. Mary’s, but we decided to start with the Ice House Museum anyway. And I’m so glad we did! Both museums offered different information that together formed a cohesive understanding of the history of the island. It did not feel redundant in the least.
Best Trail Route at Cumberland Island
With empty bladders and a good idea of the history of the island, we set out on what we later realized was the suggested walking route for the island, a total distance of 4.3 miles.
We headed southeast to the Dungeness Ruins where the Revolutionary War hero, Gen. Nathanael Greene’s, wife Catharine Greene built her house in 1803. Later Thomas Carnegie, the brother of Andrew Carnegie, and his wife Lucy built their own mansion there in 1881.
The house was destroyed by a fire in 1959, leaving it abandoned and in ruins.
A few other houses and cottages on the property were built for their children.
Wild Horses at Cumberland Island
We were fortunate enough to capture some great photos and video footage as three wild horses made their way past the abandoned property.
Today, researchers estimate there are around 120-150 feral horses that call Cumberland Island home. It is suspected that in the 1500’s horses were brought to the island as livestock. In the 1800’s horses were also brought over by plantation owners to be used as work animals. Today the feral horses roam free, enjoying all 18 miles of riverbanks, marshlands, maritime forest, dunes, and sandy beaches.
We continued our trek eastward along the path to the marshland. At one point, the path split with the option to go across the marsh boardwalk.
With cameras in hand we set out hoping to see an alligator (but only from afar!). But we didn’t hear or spot one. However, we did see five horses grazing in the distance where the marshland met a grove of trees. Birds flew overhead in an otherwise peaceful and uneventful setting.
Immediately leaving the marsh boardwalk, we were met with yet another biome seemingly out of nowhere: the dunes. Sand at our feet and the warm sun now beating on us from above, we looked up to see trees emerging from the sand with buzzards perched on each branch.
Now, there is one thing you need to know about me. I am afraid of birds. I’ve had enough bad experiences to know it’s best to always be on guard when birds are around. And those huge birds?! Well, they had me wanting to run back into the marshland or head south and take refuge with those horses in the marsh.
Kaleb and I took a bit of a detour from the path and around the buzzards… just enough of a detour to keep them laughing at my inability to walk between them but not so much so that we lost our way. Believe me, you probably don’t want to get lost out there!
We entered another boardwalk, the Interdune Boardwalk, where the dunes met tropical trees and the humidity began to rise. Soon we began to hear the rushing waves and feel the mist off of the water. We were at the beach!
The Beach at Cumberland Island National Seashore
Kaleb and I stopped for a quick packed lunch where we were greeted by two gulls who would have gladly finished off any leftovers before beginning our 1.5 mile trek up the beach toward Sea Camp Trail.
I could have spent hours by that beach! There may have been 50 to 100 other people somewhere on that island, but on that beach, you could walk half a mile without passing one other person.
On that beach, time stood still.
Horses grazed on the grass shooting out through the sand nearby.
Seagulls flew overhead.
Water rushed in toward the sandy beach where we walked.
And reality seemed miles and miles away.
Every few minutes someone rode by on a bike, waving or nodding as if they hadn’t seen another person in quite a while. We all knew it. We were in a magical land.
(Note: not all bikes can go on the beach. Make sure to research ahead of time).
Sea Camp (and Our Rush to Beat the Rain!)
When we reached the sign for Sea Camp, we began our trek back west. We knew the distance to the north dock, Sea Camp Dock, was only about half a mile away at this point. And, while we would have LOVED to have spent more time on the beach, we heard thunder in the distance and knew we needed to keep a good pace and continue heading for the dock to meet our ferry.
I don’t think anyone can fully understand the various ecosystems one can experience on this island without going themselves, but the short video at the top of this post shows the vast change in environments between the dunes where the beach was literally a few feet behind us, to the lush wilderness we entered just a few steps later.
We felt like we’d entered an enchanted forest where fairies live. I half expected Snow White and the seven dwarfs to come running out and welcome us into their cottage for refuge from the impending storm.
The island has 5 different primitive campgrounds where spots can be reserved. There are bathrooms next to most of them, but I highly doubt all have showers.
We stopped by the Sea Camp bathrooms on our way to the ranger station. The bathrooms were better than a portable potty(!) and there were even showers available! (This one seemed less primitive). We tried to sneak a peek at a campsite, but they were pretty far off the beaten path. I’m guessing they are pretty secluded from other campsites based on the area.
Note: Cumberland Island has recently updated the Sea Camp bathrooms. While the showers still have cold water, the renovations involve a dishwashing station with two sinks and nicer private bathroom stalls.
Rain Didn’t Rain on Our Parade!
I don’t think we could have planned our arrival at the ranger station any better. Just as we reached the building, it began to rain and within a few minutes was pouring. Several campers ending their very wet adventures (it had rained most of the night prior to our arrival) were waiting with their bicycles and camping gear under the awning to the ranger station. We joined them just as the rain began to pick up.
The wind off of the water made for a cold few hours, but we didn’t mind. Even the rain seemed magical on this island. I imagined the horses hunkered down and waiting out the storm. They probably experience rain like this all the time. It’s us who feel the need to have shelter from the storm.
For them, this was just another day in paradise.
Note: Unlike our trip to Dry Tortugas National Park off the Florida Keys, we did have cell reception at Cumberland Island National Seashore. That helped when we were watching the incoming rainstorm on the radar.
What Can I Eat at Cumberland Island National Seashore?
Well, the answer to this question is nothing and everything! There are no restaurants or vending of any kind on the island, so you’ll be bringing your own food. To preserve the natural habitat, there are few accommodations for humans. The rangers make a point to say that everything you bring on the island will need to be brought off the island with you as well. That goes for all food, trash, etc.
Those that follow this blog know I eat gluten and dairy-free.
And if you’re traveling through Savannah or Jacksonville with food restrictions, check out our post on allergy-friendly restaurants in Savannah, GA or allergy-friendly restaurants in Jacksonville, FL!
How Long Should I Plan to be at Cumberland Island National Seashore?
You can choose between two morning ferries for your arrival and two afternoon ferries for your departure. If you are prepared to get wet and want to enjoy as much of the island as possible, chose the earliest arrival and latest departure. Or, better yet, chose to camp overnight!
There is also a hotel on the island further north than we ventured. Greyfield Inn offers lodging and dining accommodations as well as activities such as fishing, biking, and guided tours around the island. Kaleb and I both decided, if we come again, we’d probably opt to camp or stay at the Greyfield Inn to get more time on the island. But our one-day adventure was a good initial experience on the island.
Any Suggestions for Bringing Children to Cumberland Island National Seashore?
We actually did not see many kids there. Those that we did see were finishing out a few days of camping with their families. They had bikes with them, which I would recommend. I think kids would really enjoy exploring the trails. And what a great opportunity to teach them about ecosystems through first-hand experiences!
I would recommend that the kids are 7 or 8 years old though. In my opinion, the island is too big for younger kids to fully enjoy.
What Should I Bring to Cumberland Island?
- Good walking shoes or sandals. You’ll be walking a lot. My Jambu sandals worked wonderfully there! They could get a little wet by the water and stayed sturdy on my feet while walking. I also could easily dump any sand that got in them out without a fuss.
- Rain gear! If there’s even a minimal chance of rain, you are better off prepared. My North Face jacket worked perfectly on this trip! I love that it fits so well around my head when the hood is up. I don’t have to worry about the wind getting to my ears easily or knocking the hood off my head. Perfect for a day like we had! And my husband decided to wear swim trucks for the day and was glad he did.
- Food: Like mentioned earlier, you are going to need to bring all of your own food. We packed a lunch, water bottles, and a few RX bars in our favorite backpack and were in great shape. Here are some great grain-free snack ideas, if you’re looking for some!
- Bicycles: Bicycles may be worth it, especially if you are bringing kids or live close enough you’ll be driving to St. Marys. You do have to pay extra to bring them on the ferry, but we would have been able to see so much more if we were on bikes!
We love this backpack. It can fold up to almost nothing for packing purposes. It has 2 water bottle pouches (almost impossible to find on a fold-up backpack!). And has a water-resistant pouch, so we didn’t have to worry about any electronics getting wet if we didn’t make it to shelter in time!
Summary of Cumberland Island
It is easy to see why both Catharine Greene and the Carnegie family fell in love with the property. From the peaceful waves rolling up on the seashore, the calm marshland with birds flying overhead, to their beautiful homestead with horses strolling by, Cumberland Island National Seashore is beautiful! Just be ready for the rain!