There is no other place in the United States quite like Cumberland Island National Seashore. The island has been the home of the Timucuan Indians, Spanish Missionaries, the British Military, Revolutionary war heroes, and American industrialists. The National Parks Service is tasked with preserving human history while simultaneously letting the majority of the island revert to its wilderness state. This island has walked through history alongside mankind and watched as we struggled against nature to tame this unforgiving environment. There are so many wonders to this massive barrier island on Georgia’s coast. These are the top 10 reasons for visiting Cumberland Island for yourself.
#1) Seclusion When Visiting Cumberland Island
There are no bridges to Cumberland island and as such, you can only arrive there by boat. This means the island gets very little traffic allowing visitors to get away from it all. The island is 17.5 miles long with a beach running the full length of the ocean side. Relaxing on the white sand of Cumberland Island is a great way to spend a lazy day basking in the sun and relaxing. Fishing is allowed from the shore as well as the lakes and streams. Swimming is also allowed but there are no lifeguards and the riptide can be dangerous. From the Sea Camp beach south to the Dungeness area is the safest as it gets the most traffic. The Stafford Beach is more secluded with only those camping in the area usually venturing that far north. North beyond Stafford Beach sees almost no traffic.
If the beach isn’t your idea of relaxing bring a hammock and strand it between two of the island’s massive live oak trees. Swinging in a hammock on a cool winters’ day is a fantastic way to relax in the shade while visiting Cumberland Island.
#2) The Dungeness Ruins
According to the National Park Service, the Dungeness Ruins are the remains of a massive mansion built by Thomas and Lucy Carnegie. Thomas was the brother of Andrew Carnegie the famous steel magnate. Thomas and Lucy purchased 90% of Cumberland Island in the 1880s and began constructing themselves a palatial winter resort. Their Dungeness mansion was built on the foundation of a mansion previously built by the widow of the Revolutionary War General Nathaniel Greene. The Greene mansion was also called Dungeness, named after a hunting lodge that was built on the site by Englishman James Oglethorpe. Oglethorpe is also credited with naming the island Cumberland in the 1730s. The modern Dungeness Mansion burned in 1959, but the ruins are still very impressive. Surrounding the ruins are dozens of supporting structures that date back to the Carnegie Era and worth exploring when visiting Cumberland Island.
#3) The Tabby House
The Tabby House is the oldest structure still standing on the island today. Tabby is a type of concrete construction material and is where the house gets its name. The house was built alongside the Greene’s four-story Dungeness Mansion by Catherine Greene in the early 1800s. Her husband General Greene died of sunstroke and never saw the mansion completed. The task of making something of the island was left to his wife, Catherine, who did a remarkable job of building the family plantation on the rugged island. She eventually remarried Phineas Miller. Miller would die from lockjaw after running an orange thorn through his hand. (I’m thankful for modern medicine.)
#4) The Greene-Miller Cemetery
The Greene-Miller Cemetery located to the east of the Dungeness complex dates back to the Revolutionary War Era. Catherine, her daughter Louisa, and her husband James Shaw are buried there. Although he had no significant impact on the island General Henry Lee was also buried in the Greene-Miller Cemetery. Lee was a Revolutionary War hero and father of General Robert E. Lee. Henry Lee was a friend of the Greene family and while visiting the family he became ill and passed away. He remained on the island for nearly one-hundred years before being reinterred next to his son in Lexington, Virginia.
#5) Plum Orchard Mansion
Plum Orchard is another Carnegie Era mansion built-in 1898 that has been turned over to the park service for preservation. It is in good shape, and the park service typically provides tours of the house. Plum Orchard is located 7 miles north of Sea Camp which makes for a great biking destination or backpacking journey (Yankee Paradise Campground is the closest) when visiting Cumberland Island. The outside is stunning along with the surrounding grounds. Don’t miss the swampy inlet behind the mansion. It is a great spot to find herons, egrets, and spoonbills.
#6) The First African Baptist Church
Before the Civil War hundreds of slaves tended the plantations that spread out across Cumberland Island. At the war’s end the newly freedmen who chose to stay on the island mostly moved to the north end of the island and started a community known as The Settlement. Many of these African Americans would later find employment in the many Carnegie estates. In 1893, The First Baptist Church was constructed in The Settlement which was later rebuilt in 1937. This is one of the few structures that still stands from this community and is located over 14 miles from the Sea Camp Dock, making it a secluded place that few venture to. The First African Baptist Church gained worldwide fame in 1996 when John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette were married at the small church.
#7) Wild Horses
The Wild Horses on Cumberland Island are almost legendary. For many visiting Cumberland Island, catching a glimpse of one of these majestic creatures is the sole reason they travel to the island. The horses traverse the entire length of the island and can be seen deep in the scrub brush or out on the beach. The easiest places to spot them is in the clearings near the Dungeness Ruins and the Stafford field across from the Stafford House, about 3.5 miles north of the Sea Camp Dock. We spotted a horse as far north as the North Cut Road just to the south of the First African Baptist Church. The wild horses are scrawny when compared to their domestic counterparts but they are still majestic creatures. Don’t forget these are wild animals that can be dangerous. Give them plenty of space.
#8) Loggerhead Turtles & Other Creatures
Loggerhead Turtles are one of the many migratory creatures to make their way to Cumberland Island. They come here with the sole purpose of laying their eggs between May and September each year. The hatchlings then emerge nearly 60 days later and make their way into the ocean. This is a circle of life that has taken place here long before even the Native Americans arrived on the island. Please don’t disturb the nests or the hatchlings.
Other Creatures to be found when visiting Cumberland Island
Along with the wild horses and loggerhead turtles, wild hogs, deer, raccoons, armadillos, snakes, and possums are just a few of the creatures you are likely to spot while exploring the interior of Cumberland Island. Likewise, the beach is often covered with sea life that washes ashore or gets stuck in the tidal pools. Horseshoe crabs, hermit crabs, ghost crabs, jellyfish, & conchs are very common sites along the sand. We even spotted a dead baby shark that washed ashore. Dolphins are often seen leaping out of the water on the intercoastal waterway side of Cumberland Island. Keep an eye out for the playful creatures during the ferry ride to and from the island.
If you are a birder then Cumberland Island is a great spot to watch for sea and shorebirds. Pelicans, ospreys, plovers, oystercatchers, skimmers, and sandpipers frequent the beaches. The inner part of the island is home to owls, turkeys, doves, woodpeckers, and many other small birds. It is common to spot egrets, herons, spoonbills, and wood storks in the marshes and on the western side of the island. Regardless of where you explore when visiting Cumberland Island, you are bound to discover many types of birds. The island at times feels like a giant aviary.
#10) Exploring Nature When Visiting Cumberland Island
Cumberland Island is 17.5 miles long giving visitors ample places to explore the coastal Georgia ecosystem. The National Park Service’s map shows a variety of hiking trails located on the island. Many of these trails are the old roads used by the inhabitants during the Carnegie Era. Most of the trails on the north side of the island are overgrown and can be difficult to traverse with fallen trees often blocking the paths. The trails to the wilderness campsites are well established but signage is minimal once hikers leave the Main Road.
We recommend exploring the main southern areas including Sea Camp, the Dungeness area, River Trail, and Marsh Boardwalk. The entire eastern side of the island is one continuous beach that can be hiked or biked in either direction. The Jetty on the southern tip of the island is a great destination hike during low tide to look for marine life in the tidal pools. The South End Trail, however, is overgrown with poor signage and it is very easy to lose the trail and end up stuck in the briars. (We speak from experience…)
Biking is actually one of the best ways to explore when visiting Cumberland Island. Bikes are allowed on the Main Road as well as the eastern beach that traverses the entire length of the island. You can rent bikes on the island but they aren’t allowed to be taken on the sand so it is better to bring your own. You will need to reserve a spot for your bike on the ferry boat when making your reservation. There is a small additional fee and they only allow a few on each transit so make sure you reserve your slot early. The reservations become available on a 6-month rolling window.
If you wish to ride the entire length of the island remember that even the Main Road often consists of sand. Bring a bike with fat tires and know that it will be exhausting even though it is nearly flat. We road the entire length of the island out and back in a single day from Sea Camp (about 30 miles). I do not recommend this. Winter days are short and summers are hot. Plum Orchard is a great distance for a ride from Sea Camp. If you want to explore all the way north I would suggest bike camping at Yankee Paradise.
Backpacking or Kayaking
Another great way to fully explore the island is by backpacking the Main Road and using the wilderness campsites. You can also kayak the intercoastal waterway and camp at the Brickhill Bluff Campground. Either option allows for a truly unique adventure when visiting Cumberland Island.
Visiting Cumberland Island National Seashore
Cumberland Island National Seashore is a great example of our national parks at their best. This one park protects a unique coastal habitat allowing nature to thrive as it has done for thousands of years. Simultaneously it protects and educates us about our country’s past. From Native Americans to the Spanish/English conflicts, the plantation era of the United States, and the wealthy industrialists of the 19th century this is a place rooted in our collective story. It also gives our modern citizenry a place to retreat and relax while communing with nature.