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Cumberland Island National Seashore

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Planning a Trip to Cumberland Island National Seashore

A guest post by Cassidy Gerstorff with Georgia Family Adventures.

Off the southern coast of Georgia lays the unique and pristine wilderness of Cumberland Island National Seashore. Wild horses, mansions, and undeveloped beaches are just a novel ferry ride from the quaint coastal town of St. Marys. The National Park Service operates and provides services for the island.

Cumberland Island is perfect for a day trip or several nights of hiking and camping. There are some logistics to visiting this beautiful golden isle with your family. The National Park Service operates all the public accommodations, visitor center, and ferries.

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You will also need to book a campsite in advance if your plans include camping on Cumberland Island. There is an access fee of $10 for every person over the age of 16 that visits the island. This is the perfect time to get your free national parks pass.

Spring is the best time to visit the island! This time of year has more agreeable temperatures and a great deal fewer mosquitoes. 

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The Cumberland Island Ferry   

The first step in this journey is not on foot but afloat! The most common method of travel to the island is the Cumberland Island Ferry. The ferry leaves from the St. Marys dock each morning at 9:00 a.m. and 11:45 a.m. It returns each day at 10:15 a.m., 2:45 p.m., and 4:45 p.m. The trip to and from the island takes approximately 45 minutes. There is a fee for your departure and return trips, each. Children under 5 years old are FREE.

All camping gear such as backpacks, wagons, and other gear are allowed to be brought on board with you. Bicycles are allowed and require a reservation and fee of $10 per bicycle each way. Passengers are required to arrive an hour early and check in at the visitor center on the St. Marys waterfront. 

The ferry has indoor seating, bench seating along the rail on the lower deck, and several benches behind the pilot house on the upper deck. Ferry reservations can be made here.

You can, in fact, travel by private boat to the Island. There are only two public accessible docks on Cumberland Island. One at Sea Camp Dock and the other, at Plum Orchard. Dock space is very limited. 

Another popular option is to kayak to the island from either St. Marys or nearby Crooked River State Park. The paddle out and back can be very strenuous and it is important to check the tides and weather before putting in. Georgia law requires a wearable flotation device for every person on a kayak.

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Camping on Cumberland Island National Seashore

There are several great options for camping on Cumberland Island National Seashore. Your reservations must be made at Recreation.gov. The ferry most commonly connects visitors from St. Marys to the Sea Camp Dock. 

Sea Camp Campground is just over a half mile hike from the dock area. This campground has 16 large tent campsites that can accommodate 6 people per site. Sea Camp and Stafford Beach Campgrounds are the only camping areas that allow campfires on the island. Fire rings are provided at each site. Additionally, there are cabinets for storing your food and a picnic table provided. 

Sea Camp provides easy access to the most commonly visited points of interest on Cumberland as well as the beautiful beaches on the seaward side of the island.

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Backcountry Camping

Many other backcountry campsites are available for the adventurous minded visitors. Hiking North from Sea Camp along either the main gravel road or the aptly named Parallel Trail, you will first come to the 10 campsites that comprise Stafford Beach Campground. These sites are very near the beach but camping gear must be brought approximately 2.5 miles from the dock. As mentioned previously, fire rings, food storage cabinets, and picnic tables are provided at your site.

Further north, backpackers can expect to find backcountry sites to include those at Hickory Hill, the highest point on the island, Yankee Paradise, and Brickhill Bluff. Each campground has approximately six loosely defined areas to pitch your tent. Campfires are not allowed at backcountry campsites.

Image by  skeeze  from  Pixabay .

Image by skeeze from Pixabay.

The island is definitively flat but these campsites do require longer hikes carrying gear with unreliable drinking water sources. You should be cautious and plan on bringing your own water. Brickhill Bluff, for example, is a true 10.5 mile hike from the dock at Sea Camp.

Please be prepared for the heat when hiking during the summer months. Water is available at the Plum Orchard Mansion, about halfway up the island. Campfires are not allowed at backcountry campsites.

Those kayaking into the island may consider paddling to their campsite. Brickhill Bluff campsites are perfect for doing just that. Brickhill Bluff is located on the back side of the island, right on the Brickhill River.  

Image by  skeeze  from  Pixabay

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

Sites and Attractions on Cumberland Island

There are many natural and historical aspects of Cumberland Island National Seashore that captivate the imagination of its visitors. The history of the island involves geological development, early Native American inhabitants, private development, and the storied acquisitions of the Carnegie family. Cumberland Island is also the site of The Settlement, one of the first places in the United States where African American Slaves were allowed to purchase land. 

Begin your exploration of the island at the Cumberland Island Visitor Center along the St. Marys waterfront. The visitor enter is where you check in on the day of your trip. There are wonderfully informative displays here that involve the Native American history and the ecology of the salt marsh environment. A gift shop is also available there that has several great books and souvenirs. 

Guided tours are offered on the island. The Lands and Legacies tour is highly impressive. Guests travel by van to all points of the island with their guide and experience firsthand all that Cumberland Island has to offer. This tour does have a cost associated but it is quite worth it.

The mansion at Plum Orchard commonly gives three tours daily for free.  The Footsteps tour is a ranger led activity and is also free. Please check with the NPS staff for availability of these tours when visiting.

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Two of the most well-known highlights involve the Carnegie Mansions. The first and most accessible from Sea Camp Dock, are the ruins at Dungeness. This home burned down in 1959. What remains is still very photogenic.

The second Carnegie family owned a home on the island that is still intact and provides fascinating insight into the wealthy industrialist family’s lifestyle. The tours through the home provide for a striking experience.

Photo by  Ivana Cajina  on  Unsplash

Wild Horses and other Wildlife

The lush natural beauty of the island provides a perfect sanctuary for its native wildlife. Cumberland’s most famous inhabitants may be the herd of wild horses that share the island with visitors. There are about 300 horses on the island, so it is very common to see them. The horses are very familiar with guests and will walk within feet of visitors with great indifference. Do not approach them and give them plenty of space. 

Deer, wild hogs, raccoons, armadillos, alligators, snakes, and a great many birds call the island home. The ferry ride always offers the potential to see dolphins swimming in the coastal rivers and waterways.

The Legacy of Cumberland Island

Georgia’s coast encompasses some of the most well preserved tidal marshlands in the United States. Through private donations and timely purchases, the National Park Service holds the vast majority of the land encompassing Cumberland Island, preserving it for future generations. The NPS does a masterful job of providing access to its visitors. This unique experience is absolutely worth the trip!

Georgia Family Adventures

You can learn about more great family trips in Georgia from Georgia Family Adventures.

Thank you to Cassidy Gerstorff for contributing this guest post! All photos are property of Cassidy Gerstorff unless otherwise noted under the photo.

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