Cumberland Island National Seashore is truly a gem of the US National Park system. This barrier island in coastal Georgia boasts pristine natural beaches, gorgeous oak tree tunnels, famous wild horses, and storied history. It all makes for quite an enchanting place to roam around.
Accessible only by boat, Cumberland Island is not the easiest place to reach. Yet those who make a day trip to Cumberland Island do tend to be rewarded handsomely. The twice-a-day Cumberland Island ferry only holds 145 people, which helps to ensure you’ll run into more wildlife than people while hiking through the island’s old-growth canopies and deserted beaches.There’s loads of wildlife too! Most notably, wild horses roam free on Cumberland Island’s beaches! Yet visitors also regularly encounter deer, wild turkeys, armadillos, feral pigs, and even dolphins jumping around in the ocean. A trip to Cumberland Island is an awesome journey for any nature-lovers to take.
In addition to nature, there’s also a lot of history and lore to discover on Cumberland Island that spans several centuries. In the 1700s, Revolutionary War general Nathanael Greene founded the island. In the 1800s, the Carnegies bought it. In the 1900s, JFK Jr. was married here.
Other than a handful of historic buildings and some National Park structures, this barrier island remains in a completely natural state. There are no condos. No traffic. No restaurants. It’s a beautiful thing. This is part of Cumberland Island’s vast appeal.
It’s for all these reasons that drew us to visit Cumberland Island! We now want to share our discoveries and spill our signature travel tips to help others visit this special place we found lying off of Georgia’s marshy southeastern coast.
Table of Contents:
- Main Attractions: What to See on Cumberland Island
- 4 Day Trip Itineraries
- How to Get to Cumberland Island by Ferry
- Where to Stay in & around Cumberland Island
- More Cumberland Island Travel Tips
- What to Pack for Cumberland Island
Visiting Cumberland Island GA
What to See during a Cumberland Island Day Trip
There are several notable and natural attractions lying all over Cumberland Island National Seashore. Yet given the island is over 56 square miles, it’s simply not possible to see everything during a single Cumberland Island day trip.
So before venturing out to this scenic barrier island, it’s important to prioritize which sights to visit during a Cumberland Island day trip.
The following attractions are what most visitors seek out during a day trip to Cumberland Island:
🏖️ Natural Beaches: Spanning 17 miles along the eastern coast of the island are beautiful natural beaches that Cumberland Island is often recognized for.
🏛️ Dungeness & the Historic District – On the south end of the island, about 1.5 miles from the Sea Camp ferry dock, the area known as the Historic District. It’s punctuated by the remaining ruins of the Carnegie’s expansive 59-room mansion, Dungeness, which fell victim to fire in 1959. There is also a former ice house, which now houses a small museum.
⛪ The Settlement – Located way up on the north side of the island, the Settlement includes the Stafford Plantation and the First African Baptist Church, notable for the secret wedding of JFK Jr.
🏛️ The Plum Orchard Mansion – Located 7 miles north of the Sea Camp ferry dock, this Carnegie mansion has been maintained with period furnishings from the early 1900s. Free guided tours (11:00, 1:00, and 2:00) lead visitors around the sprawling estate
🐎 Wild Horse & Other Wildlife – Feral horses roam free throughout Cumberland Island and they tend to be in greatest abundance on the south end and around the Historic District. Deer, wild turkey, feral pigs, armadillo, and even coyotes can also be found roaming around Cumberland Island. And lots of bird species make a home here too!
Cumberland Island Things to Do & Day Trip Itineraries:
There are a number of different things consider doing during a Cumberland Island day trip. The following four day trip itineraries offer suggestions on what to do at Cumberland Island once the ferry drops passengers off at the Sea Camp dock.
Here are four different ways to spend a Cumberland Island day trip:
- 🚐 Lands and Legacies Tour
- 🚲 Bike to Plum Orchard Mansion
- 👣 Hike the Southend Loop Trail
- 🏖️ Enjoy a Beach Day
1) Cumberland Island Lands and Legacies Tour
👪 Best for:
- Those who want to see the most with one day on Cumberland Island
- Those who desire in-depth information about the island
- Those who are less active or less mobile.
🚐 Transport: By air-conditioned van
💲 Cost: $90.25 in total. ($45+tax for the tour = $48.15, plus ferry & park fee.)
🕒 Time: 5-6 hour Cumberland Island tour
👀 What you’ll see: The Settlement, the Stafford plantation & cemetery, the First African Baptist Church, the Cumberland Wharf, and full tour of the Plum Orchard Mansion, oak forest scenery along the main road
❌ What you may miss: natural beaches, Dungeness ruins, Historic District, icehouse museum, horses
Summary of Lands & Legacies Tour:
The Lands & Legacies tour is truly the best way to pack in as much as possible during a Cumberland Island day trip. During this guided tour, a van traverses the parks dirt roads in order to visit all the most notable points of interest on the north side of the island, which are further flung from the Cumberland Island ferry dock.
Without this tour, it’s virtually impossible to be able to visit the Robert Stafford plantation and the Settlement during a Cumberland Island day trip. These historic attractions are 30-miles round-trip from the ferry docks.
At the Settlement, a visit to the Stafford plantation delves deep into his unconventional slave handling practices, among the plantation’s ruins that are still left dilapidating on the island today. Yet a highlight to the Settlement tends to be visiting the one-room First Baptist Church, established in 1893 and rebuilt in the 1930s. This was the sight of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s secret wedding.
Then, the Plum Orchard Mansion gives visitors a glimpse into the grand Carnegie estate that’s been well preserved. Period furnishings offer a look into what high society life was like on Cumberland Island in the early 1900s.
Finally, passengers on the Lands & Legacies tour may be treated to a brief drive through the Historic District on the southern part of Cumberland Island, if time permits. The official route during this Cumberland Island tour does NOT include a visit to the Historic District, so it should not be expected that this area will be visited.
However, we found that those on the Lands & Legacies tour sometimes are treated with a drive through the historic district. A ranger confirmed to us that this is a regular practice. The tour guide dangles this carrot to passengers to motivate them to stay on time during the tour. If a good pace is kept throughout the day, then a drive through the Historic District may be included.
More information and booking: This tour is offered by the Cumberland Island Ferry and tickets can be booked online in advance. Visit the official website: here.
2) Bike to Plum Orchard Mansion
👪 Best for:
- Those who wish to visit the Plum Orchard Mansion without a van tour.
- Active cyclists.
🚲 Transport: Bike
💲 Cost: $16 bike rental on Cumberland Island or $10 fee to ferry your own bike
🕒 TimeLength: 3-5 hour cycle round-trip from ferry docks to Plum Orchard Mansion
👀 What you’ll see: Plum Orchard Mansion and possibly time to visit Dungeness ruins in the Historic District
❌ What you may miss: Beaches, The Settlement, Stafford Plantation, First African Baptist Church
What to Expect Biking to Plum Orchard Mansion:
Cycling to the Plum Orchard Mansion can make for a great plan to consider during a Cumberland Island day trip. It’s a scenic seven-mile pedal each way through the oak tree canopy of the main road.
Bikes are easy to rent at the Sea Camp dock, where the Cumberland Island ferry arrives. Depending on recent rains and the current road conditions, the pedal may not be quite as easy on the sandy roads. It can easily take up to five hours for the round trip bike route to the Plum Orchard Mansion.
Be sure to factor in time to go on the free Plum Orchard Mansion tour. Then once allocating time for lunch and stops for possible wildlife spotting, biking to the Plum Orchard Mansion may fill the entire Cumberland Island day trip.
Yet there’s a fair chance that speedy cyclists will further have the opportunity to double back past the Sea Camp ferry stop and pedal the additional 1.5 miles each way to the Historic District to see the Dungeness ruins, making for a very full day cycling trip on Cumberland Island.
If attempting to incorporate both sites, it is recommended to visit Plum Orchard Mansion first. Then you’ll be able to catch one of the tours and get back to Sea Camp to assess whether there’s enough time to continue to the Historic District.
Bikes rented on Cumberland Island are not permitted to go on the beach or the hiking trails. So those who have a keen interest in visiting Cumberland Island’s natural beaches may find themselves with a lack of time to do so, particularly with a bike in tow.
3) Hike the Southend Loop Trail
👪 Best for:
- Those who want to experience the trifecta of wildlife, history, and beaches.
- Active hikers.
- Those on a budget.
👣 Transport: Feet, trekking around Cumberland Island. 4.3 miles.
💲 Cost: Free to hike, after the combined $42 Cumberland Island ferry & park admission
🕒 Time: 6 hours, 30 minutes
👀 What you’ll see: Hiking trails, beaches, marshes, feral horses, Historic District including Dungeness ruins and Icehouse museum.
❌ What you’ll miss: Northern areas: The First African Baptist Church, The Settlement, Stafford Plantation.
Details on Hiking the Southend Loop Trail:
There are many hiking trails throughout the National Seashore. Yet the most popular hiking route to take during a Cumberland Island day trip is what’s known as the “Southend Loop Trail.”
Really, this Southend Loop Trail is a series of interconnecting trails to form a 4.3-mile hike around the southern portion of Cumberland Island. It’s a fairly easy and flat trek that incorporates many of Cumberland Island’s different ecosystems, in addition to some of its historical highlights.
The network of trails is easy to navigate. And an insert in the official Cumberland Island map & guide even provides a small call-out with directions and distances.
The Southend Loop starts from the Sea Camp docks and heads along Fauncy Bluff Creek on the River Trail. The trail eventually opens up to a field where the former icehouse now holds a small museum. Further into the Historic District, you’ll come across the remnants of the famed 59-room Carnegie mansion known as Dungeness, built in the late 1800s but now stands as ruins due to a 1959 fire.
The many picnic tables scattered around the Historic District make an ideal lunch stop. Proper eating areas become more scarce on the remainder of the route. This Historic District is also a great place to find horses, while hiking the Southend Loop Trail.
Cutting east towards the beach, hikers will reach the Green-Miller cemetery, then a scenic marsh boardwalk. Soon after exiting the wetlands area, the dunes come into focus. It’s over those dunes where a walk up Cumberland Island’s untamed beach begins.
After a 1.5 walk along the sand, don’t miss the marker for Sea Camp. That’s the place to cut across the island through a scenic canopy of oak trees that leads directly back to the Sea Camp boat docks.
It’s a great trek that can easily fill an entire Cumberland Island day trip. Cumberland Island National Park suggests that it takes between 2-4 hours. That’s easily possible. Yet the Southend Loop trail can just as easily be stretched out to a 7+ hour hike, when pausing often to take in the history, view & photograph wildlife, read plaques, stop for lunch, and to simply relax & enjoy the natural beaches.
More info on South End Loop Trail: An official map and guide can be found on the park’s website: here.
4) Enjoy a Beach Day on Cumberland Island
👪 Best for:
- Beach lovers
- Less active visitors on a budget
👣 Transport: Feet, it’s a short half-mile stroll from the ferry dock to the beach
💲 Cost: Free beach access after paying the combined $42 Cumberland Island ferry & park admission
🕒 Time: 6 hours, 30 minutes
👀 What you’ll see: Beautiful unspoiled beaches
❌ What you’ll miss: Everything else
What to Expect during a Cumberland Island Beach Day:
For those who simply want to enjoy Cumberland Island’s natural undeveloped beaches, it is very possible to simply come here to partake in a relaxing beach day. Simply take a 15-minute stroll from the Sea Camp ferry docks past the Sea Camp campgrounds, and you’ll arrive to the closest beach.
You won’t need to fight anyone for a spot to put up your beach umbrella. You’ll likely have an enormous stretch of natural beach all to yourself. Take a dip in the ocean. Read a book. Enjoy a drink. Relax.
How to Get to Cumberland Island by Ferry
You cannot drive to Cumberland Island. It’s an island, only accessible by boat. There are no car ferries. But there is a 145-person passenger ferry.
Without your own boat, Cumberland Island National Seashore can only be accessed from the charming little town of St Marys, Georgia. It’s in St Marys where the Cumberland Island ferry can be accessed and where the Cumberland Island Visitor Center is located.
The Cumberland Island ferry departs daily at 9:00 am and 11:00 am. It’s a scenic 45-minute boat ride that straddles the Florida-Georgia border. Keep an eye out for dolphins! Visitors are advised to arrive an hour prior to departure and purchase ferry tickets in advance, as they do sell out.
St Marys is easily accessible by car, less than an hour’s drive from Jekyll Island, GA or Fernandina Beach, FL. It’s also convenient to Jacksonville FL (less than an hour) and Savannah, Georgia (2 hours).
Whichever way you’re coming from, simply take I-95 to GA exit 3. Another 9 miles (15-20 minutes) down State Route 40 brings you to St Marys, where the road ends and the ferry begins.
⛴️ Tips for Taking the Cumberland Island Ferry
Be sure to book Cumberland Island ferry tickets in advance. With only two departures daily, it’s best to reserve ferry tickets in advance. The ferry does sell out, particularly so during popular weekends. Cumberland Island ferry tickets are $30 + tax ($32.10). Buy ferry tickets here.
The separate $10 admission to the Cumberland Island National Seashore is easily purchased upon arrival to the Visitor Center in St Marys.
Get a ticket for each way: The Cumberland Island Ferry ticketing website is a bit clunky, as customers must reserve two separate ferry tickets. There is currently no option to purchase a single roundtrip ticket. Instead, one ticket is needed to Cumberland Island, another to return back to St Marys. It could be an easy mistake to accidentally buy a one-way ticket, in which you could get stuck on the island. Ensure you book tickets for each way.
Arrive to ferry early: Passengers are asked to check-in at the Visitor Center in St Marys one full hour prior to the ferry departing. Sometimes lines can form, given that 145 people needing to park, buy their park admission at the Visitor Center, confirm their ferry tickets, and board the ferry. Ensure you allow time to take care of everything.
Free parking here: St Marys has plenty of unmetered parking spots on the streets, but do NOT park there. Those parking spaces have restricted hours not conducive to leaving your car all day long. Instead, there is a designated parking lot for those who are taking a day trip on the ferry over to Cumberland Island. It’s located one block west of the Visitor Center, with the exact location pinpointed here on Google Maps.
Don’t miss the boat! Try not to lose track of time while engrossed in a book on the beach or admiring a wild horse. The last ferry departs Cumberland Island promptly at 4:45 pm. If you miss it, you could end up being stuck on the island. Consider setting an alarm on your phone as a reminder to get back to the Sea Camp ferry docks well in advance of the ferry’s departure. Conveniently, there is a daily ranger lecture at Sea Camp that begins just after 4:00 pm. So arrive early for the talk to help ensure you’re at the ferry well before it’s 4:45 departure time.
Cumberland Island Hotels & Lodging
Stay Overnight on Cumberland Island
To stay overnight on Cumberland Island your options are limited to two extremes:
- Greyfield Inn, an all-inclusive luxury inn with nightly rates of $600+.
- Camp, bringing all your own gear
🏨 Greyfield Inn: This is a bucket list travel experience in the US to consider, but is very expensive. Yet those who can afford a stay at the Greyfield Inn will be wowed by the casual elegance of this unique experience. To help justify the $600 nightly rate, a stay at Greyfield Inn does include a ferry ride, meals, activities, and more. Swoon over the property and learn more at greyfieldinn.com.
🏕️ Camping: There are a few dozen campsites scattered across Cumberland Island for those who want an overnight experience. There are no facilities, so all food and supplies must be carried in. Camping reservations must be made in advance, as campsites do get booked solid. Nightly rates for campsites range from $9-$22. You can check availability and build an itinerary on recreation.gov.
Stay in St Marys for Convenience and Small-Town Charm
For those not into camping or spending thousands to stay a few nights a the Greyfield Inn, it can be a good idea to stay in or around the town of St. Marys and then take a day trip to Cumberland Island National Seashore.
Here are some suggestions for where to stay in St Marys:
🏨 The historic St Marys Riverview Hotel is the best option for value and convenience. This inn has the closest location, just steps away from the Cumberland Island Ferry dock. It’s set in a century-old lodge that’s complete with a restaurant and saloon. The 3-star inn is no-frills, yet has comfy beds and all the modern conveniences you’d expect (wifi, tv, etc). Nightly rates start at less than $100 and include a continental breakfast. Search the best prices for your travel dates.
🏨 St Marys Bed & Breakfasts: For a more intimate and higher-end experience, then consider staying in one of St Marys historic bed & breakfasts. The Spencer House Inn and Goodbread House are among the best in town, as they regularly receive rave reviews. Rates tend to hover between $100-$200 and include great breakfasts.
Use Motels in Kingsland for Most Affordable Rooms
For those who are budget-minded and simply looking for a clean & comfy place nearby to crash at an affordable price, then be sure to check out the numerous roadside motels that can be found right off of I-95. It’s here in the town of Kingsland, only a 20-minute drive from St Marys, that you’ll find over a dozen affordable motels & hotels to choose from. Prices range from about $40-$120 per night.
🏨 Best cheap option: Kingsland Inn & Suites is a perfect choice for those on a budget. Rates start at only $35 + tax and even includes a continental breakfast with waffles. Rooms are clean and comfy, with a track record of good reviews. We have personally stayed there and can recommend. Search current prices and availability.
🏨 Good value: Baymont by Wyndham offers additional amenities, such as a swimming pool and fitness center. It’s a good value choice, with nightly rates starting at in the $50 range, including a continental breakfast. Search rates & availability for your dates.
🏨 3-star comfort: For a step up, try familiar hotel chain, Fairfield Inn by Marriott. In addition to a full hot buffet breakfast (included), pool, and fitness center, guests also will find a fridge and microwave in their comfortable room. Additionally, there’s a hot-tub onsite to help rest your legs after a day of hiking around Cumberland Island. Check rates & availability now.
More Cumberland Island Travel Tips
Here are a few more travel tips to help plan a visit to Georgia’s Cumberland Island National Seashore.
📅 Best Time to Go to Cumberland Island
The warm summer months can make for ideal beach weather, of course. Yet it can make for some hot and sticky conditions to hike or bike around the island. There is also a greater chance of clouds and rain from June through September. Mosquitos are more active during this time too. So take this into consideration before planning a July or August trip.
Winter months on Cumberland Island can bring great weather for hiking or camping. Yet many will find it too cold for a beach day.
Best weather? The month of April and into the first half of May can be a sweet spot to enjoy mild weather and clear skies. Late October and early November can also bring nice conditions, although ocean water temps may be starting to get increasingly chilly for a swim.
Hunting dates. Do note from October to January, Cumberland Island has three-day periods that are opened to hog and deer hunting. So be aware of such dates before planning a trip to Cumberland Island. You can find the officially listed hunting dates: here.
🐎 Best place to find wild horses on Cumberland Island?
Many people visit Cumberland Island to find the feral horses that roam free around the grounds. The best place to find Cumberland Island’s wild horses is the Dungeness historic area. Remember, these wild horses can roam wherever they want on the island. So there are no guarantees of a sighting. But wild horses can regularly be found grazing the open fields in and around the Dungeness historic area.
Chat with the ranger: After arriving to Cumberland Island, don’t hesitate to pop into the ranger station located at Sea Camp where the ferry drops off. They can give you up-to-date info on where wild horses have been recently spotted, helpful maps, and other current island info.
Keep your distance from the horses: These are feral horses. Give them their space. Stay at least 10 feet away from the horses at all times. Do not approach them. Photograph them from afar and use some zoom. If the horses approach you, slowly move back. While it is rare, visitors have been kicked and injured by the Cumberland Island horses.
♻️ Be a responsible traveler
Keep off the dunes: Cumberland Island’s dunes are a very fragile environment. In an effort to help protect the sand dunes, be sure to stay on the trails. It may be tempting to trek atop a dune to follow a wild horse or for a good photo opportunity. Best to refrain.
Pack-in, Pack-out trash: Don’t expect trash receptacles on Cumberland Island. Everything you bring onto the island must also be brought out. Leave nothing but footprints.
What to Pack for a Cumberland Island Day Trip
There is absolutely nothing for sale on Cumberland Island. Nothing.
Anything you might want for a day trip must be brought with you. So come prepared. But also don’t pack too much. Remember, you’ll have to carry everything with you, all day long. So, something like a big heavy cooler would likely prove impractical. Pack smart!
For some last-minute purchases, the ferry offers crackers ($0.75), bottled water ($1), chips ($1.25), trail mix ($1.50), sodas ($1.50), and ice ($4.00), in addition to a few limited sundries and apparel. Everything else must be brought with you.
Here are some suggestions for things to put on your Cumberland Island pack list:
🥪 Pack a lunch: There are no food vendors at all on Cumberland Island. So you’ll need to bring your own lunch. Otherwise, you will go hungry. Some of the hotels and BnBs located in St Marys can prepare a bagged lunch for you if notified in advance. All other visitors will need to plan accordingly to bring lunch with them onto Cumberland Island.
There is a Publix Supermarket that is on the drive into St Marys. It’s located right here, 7.5 miles (a 15-minute drive) before the Cumberland Island Visitor Center and Ferry dock in St Marys. Publix can be an ideal place to stock up on whatever food items you may want for a picnic lunch on Cumberland Island. For the uninitiated, Publix has a full deli and makes excellent sub sandwiches. This particular Publix opens at 7:00 am, so head there on the way to the ferry docks.
🚰 BYO Water: There are a few water fountains with drinkable water on Cumberland Island, but not many. Be sure you bring enough fluids to sustain a full day on Cumberland Island.
🌧️ Rain gear: If rain may be in the forecast, have a plan to stay dry during a downpour.
🦟 Mosquito repellent: Unless you’re visiting in the winter months, you’ll likely encounter mosquitos throughout Cumberland Island’s interior. If you’re also planning to swim in the ocean, consider using a natural repellent like this plant-based REPEL. Mosquito repellent containing DEET can be harmful to the ocean and marine life.
🏖️ Shade tent: If spending time at Cumberland Island’s beaches in the summer, you’ll want an escape from the intense sun. Beach umbrellas can be bulky and heavy. So consider a compact and foldable pop-up beach tent like this.
☀️ Sun protection: The sun can get strong on Cumberland Island. Check the weather and ensure you’re prepared with a hat, sunglasses, and plenty of sunscreen. Amazon has good prices on Sun Bum SPF 50.
🔭 Lightweight binoculars: Whether birdwatching, looking for dolphins in the ocean, or trying to spot a faraway horse, a pair of binoculars can be invaluable to nature-lovers visiting Cumberland Island. These Bushnell Falcons are a fine choice, as they’re lightweight and an exceptional pair of binoculars for a low price.
📷 Camera: There are lots of great photography opportunities throughout Cumberland Island. So consider bringing a camera or just use your phone.
📱 Phone & Waterproofing: Coverage can be spotty, but we received data and phone signal throughout much of our last Cumberland Island visit. If you’re going swimming, consider bringing a waterproof case for your phone. This JOTO waterproof pouch fits all smartphones, so you can bring your phone in the water with you. It’s usually priced at less than $10 and has thousands of excellent reviews. Check reviews & prices.
🌊 Towel: If you’re going swimming, you’ll want to dry off. But towels can add extra weight to your day pack. So consider a compact lightweight microfiber travel towel like this one.
🎒 Backpack: You’ll need something to carry everything in. So make sure you have a day pack.
Taking a Trip to Cumberland Island Georgia
We hope this travel guide has helped to provide some ideas and inspiration if planning a trip to Cumberland Island National Seashore. This lesser-visited place within the National Park System is really a treasure tucked away along coastal Georgia.
Have you ever been to Cumberland Island? If so, let us know in the comments. How was your trip? Any additional tips to share with other travelers?
For those of you lucky enough to be heading out to this special place, we hope you have a fantastic time roaming around Cumberland Island. Happy travels!