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Cumberland Island: Explore this magical coastal wonderland

For hours I’ve been walking alone on a soft, sandy trail that threads north through wind-twisted live oaks and a tangled undergrowth of palmettos in a maritime forest wonderland.

Walking north on Cumberland Island’s Parallel Trail takes me deeper into a wilderness where wild horses wander, and the tree canopy thickens with sprawling oak limbs dotted with ferns, weaving a dense web dripping with Spanish moss.

I stop for moment to marvel at a particularly immense tree, the low roar of the surf a few hundred yards east, across the sand dunes, breaking the forest’s deep silence and reminding me I am hiking on one of the most pristine barrier islands on the Atlantic Coast.

cumberland island main road maritime forest
The main road on Cumberland Island cuts through a maritime forest of live oaks dripping in moss. The solitude afforded your hike or bike ride is like visiting another world. (Photo by
db rolenrock. Some rights reserved).

Cumberland Island National Seashore

What makes Cumberland Island so magical? Is it this maritime forest of massive live oaks? Is it the rich history stretching back and beyond the English colonists in the 1700s or the Spanish missions of the 1500s?

Perhaps it’s the native Americans who lived here 4,000 years ago.

With 17 miles of pristine beach and unspoiled sand dunes, wild horses and the gaunt tabby ruins of a Gilded Era mansion, Cumberland Island has all of this and much more.

Accessible only by a ferry and visited by only 60,000 people per year, Cumberland Island is a National Seashore of 36,415 acres where you can camp under huge live oaks, ride bicycles for miles on sandy roads, hike forested trails, soak up centuries of history or walk on a seemingly endless deserted beach.

And there are surprises nearly everywhere you wander.

cumberland island horses
The horses you see may be descendants of the Carnegie familie’s pampered polo ponies, but they are truly wild animals and need their space. Take pictures of them from a safe distance. (Photo by Gail Hampshire, some rights reserved)

Like the tiny First African Baptist Church where John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Carolyn Bessette were married in 1996. Or the cemetery where a Revolutionary War hero was buried. Or a broad polo ground where wealthy turn-of-the century gentlemen thundered around on their high-bred ponies while the ladies observed from a pavilion, dressed head-to-foot in the latest fashions of the day. 

Today I am headed for the remote Willow Pond Trail. To reach it, I walked north for a couple of hours from the campground, and now I am hiking east toward the roar of the ocean.

This trail feels different, much less travelled. The palmettos are thick, and the path undulates with the approaching sand dunes and there is evidence of horses here recently.

Sure enough, around a bend and over a gentle rise I come down to a clearing of bare sand and the brackish water of a pond, and staring at me is a bay horse looking lonely and bedraggled.

A barrier island is a hard place for a horse to make a living, and this one shows all the signs of a tough life.

cumberland island
The majestic dunes on Cumberland Island’s pristine beach will take your breath away. (National Park Service photo)

I walk on past the horse and emerge from the forest onto high sand dunes with the sound of surf getting louder and drawing me on. The path deposits me onto a deserted beach where a steady wind out of the northwest is blowing hard enough to whip flecks of sea foam fast across the sand.

As I walk out toward the low tide water’s edge, I suddenly realize the beach is so strewn with sand dollars that I can hardly walk without stepping on them. Big, intact sand dollars are everywhere, almost like fallen leaves under a tree in the fall.

I look up and down the beach and see another astonishing sight — miles and miles of shoreline and not a single human being or sign of civilization in either direction. Nothing but the pounding surf, the seagulls and other shore birds huddled and puffed out against the wind.

My walk back to Sea Camp, where I am camped among the oaks, is aided by that strong tail wind. Two hours pass before I spy a single person far in the distance to tell me I am getting close. 

cumberland island national seashore
The Nightingale Trail on Cumberland Island. (National Park Service photo)

Day Trips to Cumberland Island

My sojourn to Cumberland Island was a couple of nights at Sea Camp in my tent, but a visit there can be as little as half a day.

The trip starts at the ferry dock in St. Mary’s, GA, just north of the Florida-Georgia state line, where you confirm your ferry reservation (made well in advance) and board the Cumberland Queen for the 45-minute ride to the island.

The ferry stops first at the Ice Museum Dock on the south end of the island, then a few minutes later ties up at Sea Camp a little farther up the sound.

cumberland island
The main park road on Cumberland Island. (Photo by John Turner)

The Icehouse Museum Dock is a good place to begin a day trip. From there a short, pleasant walk will take you inland to the Dungeness Ruins, a must-see location if for no other reason than to marvel at the extravagance of the mansion’s matron, the formidable Lucy Carnegie.

I walked down there on a pleasant, balmy winter morning to take pictures of the ruins like every other tourist, but then I slipped away past the old office building, strolled through the pavilion beside the polo grounds and found one of Cumberland’s best-kept secrets – the “Hugging Tree.”

In plain sight, standing all by itself, are a live oak and a palm tree wrapped in a permanent embrace. Both trees are healthy and seem happily married.

Dungeness Ruins. (Photo by John Turner) cumberland island
Dungeness Ruins. (Photo by John Turner)

Since I was near Dungeness, I found the sandy road past the ladies pavilion and walked a short distance to where the forest gives way to an open area beside the sound.

The tide was low, and I walked across the bare sand to Raccoon Keys to hunt for sharks’ teeth in the mud flats and among the driftwood. I spent an hour beach-combing and found nothing. The day before, one of my camping companions had found a dozen sharks’ teeth at the very same spot.  

When I was done poking around the Dungeness area, an easy trail and boardwalk took me to the beach where I could walk north for a couple of miles toward Sea Camp.

This short trail is often frequently by another of Cumberland’s wonders, a paper-white pie bald deer, but once again I wasn’t lucky.

The south beach of Cumberland is broad, wild and littered with seashells. Feral horses often meander in and out of the sand dunes and even down to the ocean. (A word about the horses – they may be descendants of the Carnegie’s pampered polo ponies, but they are truly wild animals, and they need their space. Take pictures of them from a safe distance.)

When I reached the boardwalk to Sea Camp, I headed inland where there are modern restrooms and a water fountain. Then it is a short walk back to the Sea Camp dock where day visitors can board for the afternoon ferry back to Saint Mary’s. I headed back to my camp for a quick lunch under the Spanish moss.

The Cumberland Ferry

The Cumberland Queen departs from St. Mary’s for Cumberland Island twice every morning at 9 a.m. and 11:45 a.m.. The ferry returns at 10:15 a.m., 2:45 p.m. and 4:45 p.m. (Ferry service is limited from December 1-February 28.) Fare: Adults $20 each way. Children, $15 (under 5, free) You can bring a bicycle for $10 each way. Reservations: Book in advance at

cumberland island ferry
The Cumberland Queen (pictured here at the ferry dock on Cumberland Island) departs twice each morning from St. Mary’s and returns from Cumberland Island three times daily in spring, summer and fall. (Photo by Lee Coursey, Some rights reserved)

Cumberland Island camping

Cumberland Island offers multiple camping options.

cumberland island Cumberland Campground Map Cumberland Island: Explore this magical coastal wonderland
  • Sea Camp — Sea Camp has the amenities, including a bath house with showers and space to accommodate groups of a dozen or more tents. You can borrow a cart at the ranger station beside the dock and haul your camping gear to your assigned camp spot. This means ice chests and big tents, folding chairs, Coleman stoves – whatever gear you can haul off the ferry and load onto the carts.
  • Stafford Beach Camp — Farther north on the island is Stafford Beach Camp, which has good amenities but requires a hike on the main trail through the center of the island. No ice chests here… unless you want to carry them.
  • Primitive trail sites (3) — More adventurous campers have three primitive campsite choices – Hickory Hill, Yankee Paradise, and on the far north end of the island, Brickhill Bluff. Backpackers love these campsites because they are secluded and quiet and nestled among beautiful live oaks. No amenities, and the water sources at all three sites require filtering to be drinkable, but experienced backpackers expect these conditions and are prepared for them.

Regardless of your campsite choice, you must register for your spot in advance and pitch your tent where you are assigned. Most campers handle the registration when they sign up for the ferry.

One important thing to know, whether you are there for the day or for extended camping, is Cumberland Island has no food to purchase at the ranger station and no trash cans anywhere. Bring your lunch and snacks or meals and pack out everything you bring with you. Another important thing to know is Cumberland Island may be a national park, but it also has areas of private property that are off-limits to most visitors.

cumberland island sunrise
The author greets the sunrise from the beach at Sea Camp. (Photo by John Turner)

Register to Camp on Cumberland Island

You must have a reservation to camp on Cumberland Island. Camping fee: $22 per night in the main campground at Sea Camp; $12 at Stafford Beach Camp; Wilderness sites, $9. Group camping Book online at

Camping off-island for RVs

Campers with recreation vehicles can reserve a site at Georgia’s Crooked River State Park and plan day trips to Cumberland Island. Crooked River is eight miles from the Cumberland Island Visitor Center, where you board the ferry to the island.

Crooked River State Park has 63 campsites with electric hookups for RVs, trailers and tents, 11 cottages, a boat ramp and dock on the East River with boating access to the Intracoastal Waterway and Cumberland Island. Campsites with electric: $38/night. Cottages: $225/night. For reservations, go to

More ways to explore the island

cumberland island bicycle
You can tour Cumberland Island on a bicycle. Bring your own or rent one at Camden Bicycle Shop in St. Mary’s. (National Park Service photo by S. Caroll)

For visitors who want to see as much of the island as possible but are not thrilled about hiking the trails through the live oak forests and palmettos, two options are available.

The Lands & Legacies Tour will drive you in a van on a 30-mile trip from Sea Camp all the way to Plum Orchard Mansion on the north end of Cumberland. Sign up and pay for the tour well in advance.

Or you can rent a bicycle in Saint Mary’s, pay an extra $10 for the ferry transport, and you can pedal Cumberland’s miles of sandy roads all the way to the north end.

Be forewarned – the roads on the north end of Cumberland are less traveled and pedaling in the soft sand is tough.

Only the beach from Dungeness to Sea Camp is permissible for bicycles due to nesting shore birds farther north.

My 15-mile bike ride up to Plum Orchard and back to my camp spot was fun, but it was a real workout. I stopped often to explore places like an old cemetery and a broad clearing where sea island cotton was grown before the Civil War.

However you choose to explore Cumberland, the island spreads its magic and its history out like the long limbs of its great live oaks, inviting you to come for an unforgettable experience.

Touring Cumberland Island

For visitors who want to see as much of the island as possible but are not thrilled about hiking the trails through the live oak forests and palmettos, two options are available:

Lands & Legacies Tour. 5-6 hour tour begins at the Sea Camp Ranger Station, departing daily shortly after the 9 a.m. ferry arrives. Visitors planning to leave the island the same day can return on the 4:45 p.m. ferry. Reservations online at

Self-guided Bicycle Tour. Bring your own bicycle or rent one in St. Mary’s at the Camden Bicycle Center, 1929 Osborne Rd and Dandy St, St Marys, GA 31558. Call 912-576-9696

The Greyfield Inn

greyfield inn on cumberland island
One of the few remaining private properties on Cumberland Island is the Greyfield Inn, which is still owned by descendants of the Carnegie family. Family members turned over the rest of their properties on Cumberland Island to the National Park Service. (Photo by Lucie N, Some rights reserved)

The island, the inn, the history, the food, the wide porch perfect for rocking chairs, the uninhabited beaches where you can bike for miles and see only wild horses, the little wooden church built by former slaves where John F. Kennedy Jr. was married.

We owe the island’s pristine condition to the Carnegie family. You’ve heard of Andrew Carnegie, founder of a Pittsburgh steel conglomerate and noted philanthropist? Andrew had a younger brother, Thomas. While instrumental in establishing the businesses that built the Carnegie fortune, Thomas is less known because he died relatively young.

Thomas’ wife Lucy discovered Cumberland Island in the 1880s and convinced her husband to buy property for a family winter retreat. They built a huge mansion called Dungeness (after a fire in 1959, it is now a dramatic ruin) and lived there with their nine children. When Thomas died of pneumonia at age 43, Lucy continued visiting Cumberland. When each child married, she gave them $10,000 to build a home on the island, too.

After her death, Lucy Carnegie’s arrangements stopped the Cumberland Island properties from being sold until the last of her nine children died. When that occurred in the 1960s, most descendants donated the mansions to the National Park Service, often retaining the right to occupy them for a time.

One holdout was Lucy Ferguson, whose mother Margaret built Greyfield in 1900. Instead of selling, Lucy opened it as a bed and breakfast. 

Today, Greyfield has been owned and operated as a B&B by Carnegie family members for 50 years. The great-great grandson of Thomas Carnegie manages the property with his wife, Mary Ferguson. 

Editor’s Note: John Turner, the author of this Cumberland Island story, camped on Cumbeerland Island but did not visit Greyfield. The Greyfield segment was written by Bonnie Gross, who has stayed at Greyfield.

Staying at the Greyfield Inn

Room range from $825-$985 per night with a two-night minimum stay (3-night minimum during holidays). Room rates include naturalist tours, use of bicycles, kayaks, fishing and beach equipment, as well as all meals, including a picnic lunch packed in a wicker picnic basket and hors d’oeuvres served at nightly cocktail hour. Some suites have a private bath; others, shared.

Dress is casual during the day. Evening wear is more formal, and jackets are required for gentlemen at dinner, comparable attire for the ladies.

Guests of the inn reach the Greyfield Inn via a private ferry from Fernandina Beach. The Greyfield Ferry no longer accommodates day visitors. Day visitors to the island must now use the Cumberland Island Ferry in St. Mary’s.

Web site:

For RESERVATIONS, contact the office at 4 North Second Street #300, Fernandina Beach, Florida 32034. Call 866-401-8581 (toll free) or (904) 261-6408.
Email to [email protected] or [email protected]

Important links

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Lynne Helm

Wednesday 27th of March 2024

A fun, informative read. … Rambler Readers might also like to know extensive views of Cumberland Island (with glimpses of wild horses) can be enjoyed without leaving Florida, via boat tours from Fernandina Beach.

Bob Rountree

Wednesday 27th of March 2024

Thank you, Lynn! Here's a link to one of those tours:

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