Nature & History Intertwine at this Georgia National Park
Located off the coast of Georgia, Cumberland Island is packed with wildlife, beautiful beaches, and offers campers a primitive tent-camping experience.
The barrier islands, located off the coast of Georgia, are beautiful, primitive islands filled with wildlife, natural ecosystems, gorgeous beaches, and backcountry trails. Cumberland Island is the largest and southernmost of the barrier islands and offers a wide variety of activities for hikers, bird-watchers, bikers, swimmers, boaters, and campers alike.
Cumberland Island National Seashore provides the perfect getaway for those looking for pristine beaches, wild horses, and beautiful maritime forests and wildlife.
Nestled along the southern coast of Georgia lies a little-known treasure in the United States National Park System—Cumberland Island National Seashore. The largest of the sea barrier islands, Cumberland Island is a treasure for nature lovers and history buffs alike.
This remote island, known as one of Georgia’s Golden Isles, is home to sea turtles, deer, alligators, migratory fowl and even wild horses. Nestled among other barrier islands, Cumberland Island is situated along the Atlantic Coast, and its moss-covered forests, undeveloped beaches and marshes attract many who are looking for solitude and a more primitive camping experience.
A ferry leaves historic downtown St. Mary’s, Georgia twice a day during peak season, travels down the scenic St. Mary’s River, crosses Cumberland Sound and deposits visitors at the Sea Camp ferry dock on the southern part of the island. From there, campers can choose to camp at Sea Camp Campground or Stafford Campground, which are two of the developed campsites. Or, for the more rugged camper, backcountry camping is available.
Although the park showcases nature’s beauty at its finest, the story of over 4000 years of human history can be seen in artifacts left by its inhabitants. Indians, Spanish missions, and colonists are among the earliest settlers. In 1783, revolutionary war hero Nathaniel Greene and his widow bought land and began constructing “Dungeness” a four-story home. The First African Baptist Church was established in 1893 for the black workers who lived in the northern end of the island during the 1890s. Visiting the ruins of a mansion constructed by Andrew Carnegie, brother of the steel tycoon, Thomas Carnegie offers visitors the opportunity to experience the lavishness and luxury of days gone past. Also, an 1898 Georgian Revival-style mansion, built by George and Margaret Thaw in 1898, was donated to the National Park Service by the Carnegie family in 1971. John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bissette were married in a secret ceremony on the Island in 1996.
Beaches, Wildlife & Activities
Cumberland Island is arguably home to some of the world’s most pristine beaches. You can walk for miles on the sandy shore without seeing any other human visitors; the park limits guests to 300 per day. Most likely you will, however, see some of Cumberland Island’s most famous inhabitants, wild horses. Over 300 wild horses are estimated to be living on the island. Other more elusive inhabitants of Cumberland beaches include the great sea turtles that nest on the island during the summer months. Heading into the maritime forest provides more opportunities to see unique flora and fauna. Armadillos, squirrels, raccoons, whitetail deer, armadillos, wild pigs, alligators and birds can be found throughout island. Stately oak trees draped in Spanish moss protect the inland lands, and saw palmetto ferns provide shelter for the creatures of the underbrush. Miles of trails and roads make it easy for visitors to map out their own tours, or take a guided park tour.
Greyfield Inn is the only private hotel on the Island. The National Park Service offers backcountry camping and rustic sea camping. Reservations are recommended for both.
Developed Campsites on the Island
Camping is available year-round on the island for those looking for developed campsites as well as sites for backcountry campers. All camping is limited to seven days. Sea Camp Campground has 16 individual campsites and 2 group sites. The campground provides showers, and each campsite has a grill, fire ring, food cage, and picnic tables. Boardwalk access to the beach is available. The cost is $4.00 per night.
Stafford Campground is the other developed campsite. The cost is also $4.00 per night, and the campsite provides showers, restrooms, and fire rings, which are on a first-come, first-serve basis.
You will find yourself in the midst of this island’s most beautiful wildlife when you visit the backcountry camping sites. To preserve the island’s wetlands, marshes, and forests, one must observe and practice the Leave No Trace principles. Campfires are not allowed at these campsites; portable stoves are recommended. Water must be treated before drinking, and all trash must be packed out. You are required to leave the area pristine when your camping trip is over. The cost for all backcountry camping sites is $2.00 per night.
Hickory Hills is a popular backcountry camping site. It is located in the heart of the island and is surrounded by wetlands, marshes, and the accompanying wildlife. Because it is so close to the wetlands, bugs are prevalent, so campers are warned to be prepared.
Yankee Paradise is located 7.5 miles from Sea Camp and is also in the heart of Cumberland Island. It is also close to a popular visitor attraction on the island, Plum Orchard Mansion.
For those who wish to see dolphins and manatees, Brickhill Bluff is another backcountry site, located on the Brickhill River. Surrounded by salt marshes, this site is also home to many of the island’s wildlife creatures.
Other Attractions on the Island
For visitors and campers alike, this breathtaking island has many other attractions. Hunting, fishing, swimming, beachcombing, bird-watching, star-gazing, and hiking are only a few of the many activities that can be found on the island. The island also has four major historic districts and over 80 structures that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, so there are endless opportunities for sightseeing and traipsing through sites such as the Dungeness Ruins or the Plum Orchard Mansion.
How to Get There
Savannah, Georgia and Jacksonville, Florida are the closest nearby cities. Cumberland Island is only accessible by boat, and the National Park Ferry Service departs from the seaside town of St. Mary’s Georgia. Contact Cumberland Island National Seashore for reservations and current rates at 912-882-4336.