For our wedding anniversary this year, we decided to keep it simple. Instead of taking one of our typical months-long road trips, we just drove an hour and a half north into Georgia to visit a little patch of Google Maps greenery that we’ve had our eyes on since moving to the coast a couple years ago: Cumberland Island National Seashore.
With over 50 miles (80 km) of hiking and biking trails, 360 degrees of coastline, bands of wild horses roaming freely, and five campgrounds to choose from, Cumberland Island seemed like a cool place to spend a night.
But if we were to go back, we might not camp again. It’s not because we didn’t have a great time camping at Cumberland Island. It’s just that if you take the earliest ferry from St. Marys and the latest return trip back, you’ll get 6 hours to explore. And honestly, that’s plenty of time to see the highlights (especially if you bring or rent a bike, which is something we would definitely do next time). If you opt for a day trip instead of camping, you will miss out on a gorgeous sunset, though — the last ferry leaves before then.
How to Get to Cumberland Island, Georgia
We drove up with our camper van the night before our scheduled ferry departure at 9 am so we wouldn’t get stuck in weekday morning traffic. The GPS had us traveling across Jacksonville, Florida, to get to St. Marys, Georgia, where the ferry departs, and rush hour can be brutal. Plus, we’re just not really morning people.
From Interstate 95, we exited at Kingsland, Georgia, since there are a lot more restaurants and stores (like Walmart) in that town. We grabbed some Taco Bell, then we hit the weights before grabbing a shower at Planet Fitness (one of our favorite van life hacks). It was another 10-15 minutes out to the small coastal town of St. Marys, Georgia.
St. Marys has some nice walking trails around the National Park Service (NPS) Visitor Center and ferry dock. There’s a large, shaded NPS lot about a block away that offers longer-term parking for island campers, which is where we spent the night in our van. The sign says 36-hour parking, but we were able to park for two consecutive nights without a problem (the night we arrived and the night we spent on the island). We didn’t need a special pass or anything.
There are no roads to Cumberland Island National Seashore, so you either have to book passage on the Cumberland Island Ferry, charter a private vessel, or take your own boat out to the island if you’re fancy. The ferry ride from St. Marys to Cumberland Island is 45 minutes long, and the ferry has bathrooms, snacks, and some indoor seating. As of our trip, the Cumberland Island ferry runs daily during the high season, but only 5 days a week during winter (starting in December).
What to Bring to Cumberland Island National Seashore
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Since we were camping on the island, we probably brought more than we needed (I’m an overpacker). Here’s what we packed:
- Reusable water bottles
- Camera equipment (including tripod for night photos)
- Sunscreen, bug spray (which we didn’t need in November), and toiletries
- Lots of layers for the changing weather (warm days and cool nights)
- Rechargeable battery-powered lanterns (it gets dark!)
- Sleeping bags with pillows and an extra blanket
- Garbage bag (there are no trash cans on the island)
- Food with propane camp stove, matches, and firestarter gels (wood is plentiful on the ground; just bring a small axe)
If you’re staying at either Sea Camp (closest to where the ferry docks) or Stafford Beach (3.5 miles north from Sea Camp), you’ll have access to potable drinking water as well as bath houses with flush toilets, running water, and (unfortunately very cold) showers.
The other three campgrounds are primitive, and you have to either bring your own water or treat the existing water. At the dock is the Cumberland Island Ranger Station, which provides carts for campers and day trippers, but you can’t take them farther north than Sea Camp. That means you need to be able to carry and hike with whatever you packed. The island is over 17 miles (27 km) long.
Top Things to Do at Cumberland Island
We stayed at Sea Camp, which is 0.3 miles (500 m) from where the ferry docks each day. Most points of interest are either south of the Sea Camp area or all the way on the north tip of the island. After we set up our campsite on Cumberland Island and had lunch, we decided to set out on the popular Southend Loop Walk. The 4.3-mile (6.9 km) hike looped us from Sea Camp down the beach along the Atlantic Ocean across the marshes to the Dungeness Ruins and then up the River Trail before crossing back to camp.
We’re pretty familiar with barrier islands like Cumberland Island National Seashore (since we live on one ourselves), but honestly the beach wasn’t as spectacular as we were expecting. Hurricanes Ian and Nicole had recently churned up the Atlantic Ocean, bringing a lot of debris and trash ashore while eroding some of the sandy coastline.
On the bright side, you can actually walk all 17 miles (27 km) of the east coast of Cumberland Island! The beach is unspoiled and undeveloped, so just be aware that the 10 black-and-white markers (which help you safely cross the dunes back to the main trail system) can be hard to spot.
Unlike most NPS sites, which don’t let you take home any natural souvenirs, Cumberland Island National Seashore allows you to collect up to 2 gallons (7.5 L) of shells and shark teeth per person, per day. I’m not sure why you’d need that much, but…it’s allowed. We spotted tons of snail shells, scallop shells, cockles, whelks, and more — some as big as my palm.
We took the boardwalk trail over the marsh to the ruins. This trail was my favorite, but I am a kind of a sucker for boardwalks. There was even a pair of viewfinders for distant bird watching and some benches to just take it all in.
The best part of the island for me was the wildlife (I love animals even more than boardwalks). All around the Dungeness Ruins, we found wild horses, armadillos, deer, and wild boar (with piglets!). The horses and armadillos were the least skittish. A family of horses walked right by us on the trail.
One of the most popular points of interest at Cumberland Island is the Dungeness Ruins. Built in 1884, the Dungeness Mansion served as the winter home for Andrew Carnegie’s brother Thomas and his family. Apparently, Thomas died shortly after it was constructed, so the property was mostly used by his wife Lucy and their 9(!) children.
When Lucy died in 1916, the mansion had gone through so many remodels and updates that it had grown to approximately 35,000 square feet (3,250 sq. m). In 1959, the mansion caught fire, leaving only the brick and stone walls you see today.
I’m not much of a history buff, nor do I care much about mansions, but I will say that the look of the Dungeness Ruins is quite captivating. The crumbling red brick walls held together by snaking green vines presents a juxtaposition — something about nature versus the human element, or maybe just the personification of perseverance — that’s simple and stunning.
North of the ruins back along the Southend Loop is the Ice House Museum, which is where the Carnegie family stored — you guessed it — ice. Today, you can do a self-guided tour through some of the exhibits there. The 0.8-mile (1.3 km) River Trail takes you back to Sea Camp dock, and it’s another 7 miles (11 km) through wilderness to the 22,000-square-foot (2,400 sq. m.) Plum Orchard mansion (about a 3-5-hour trip by bike or 8-10-hour hike).
Tours of Plum Orchard are free, so stop by for views of the architecture, furnishings, and machinery that made operating the massive mansion possible back then. There are restrooms, drinking water, and picnic tables at Plum Orchard to make your visit more enjoyable.
While you’re on the north end of Cumberland Island, you can tack on another 6-7 miles (10-11 km) to visit the First African Baptist Church, a one-room church established in 1893 by African Americans living in Northend community of the island known as The Settlement.
Keep in mind that there are several areas of Cumberland Island that are privately owned, including Little Cumberland Island on the northernmost tip and Grayfield, home of the Grayfield Inn, which is a hotel with all-inclusive island stays (it’s super pricey though).
Cumberland Island Camping vs Day Trip
As I mentioned previously, I do think we could have gotten almost the same enjoyment out of visiting Cumberland Island National Seashore in a single day trip as we did camping on the beach in Georgia.
Most of what we personally explored (taking our time on the Southend Loop) would have easily fit in a day trip to the island. While we enjoyed our time, we didn’t feel like it was a place we needed to stay for multiple days.
And, at this point, tent camping just isn’t all that attractive to me since I’m used to camping in our van where I get to sleep in a real bed, with no threat of bugs, for zero dollars per night. 😝