4 North Second Street #300 Fernandina Beach, Florida 32034
Cumberland Island: The Wild, Hidden Gem of the South
Cumberland Island: The Wild, Hidden Gem of the South
I'd heard of Cumberland Island before – tales of wild horses, miles of untouched, pristine beaches, the playgrounds of the Carnegie family – and I always wanted to visit.
But if you haven’t heard of Cumberland, you are not alone – it’s one of the best-kept secrets in the continental United States: over 36,000 acres of pristine and wildland that stretches along the southernmost tip of Georgia. The National Park Service protects it and visiting the island is limited but possible.
Three primary ways to experience Cumberland Island
Take the Cumberland Island Ferry for a pleasant 45 minutes from St. Mary’s. Many visitors opt in to the “Land and Legacy Tour” which was not operating during the height of COVID so we explored on our own. There are two departures and returns to the island for the most part but check the ferry website as things change depending on the season. You’ll likely stay on the Southern part of the Island for the day, visiting Dungeness and the beach. Bring a bike to maximize your visit. Per the ferry website, bikes are allowed on the ferry for a $10 fee and space is limited. Bike transportation is offered on a first-come-first-serve basis. Adult bikes can be rented on the Island for $16 per day or $20 overnight. Rentals are limited in quantity.
Rates are -- Adults: $28; Seniors 62 and over: $26; Children 15 years and under: $18; Park admissions fee: $7; Lands and Legacies Island Van Tour per person: $45
A day trip likely won’t be enough, and you’ll wish you had planned for a longer visit. The island is well set up for camping and you’ll see a good number of visitors doing so. If you are staying for one night, we recommend Sea Camp towards the South of the Island. You can reserve here.
Some important notes from the National Park Service:
- You must have a reservation to camp on the island
- Print a copy of your camping permit within 10 days of the start of your trip and bring it with you to the park
- Sea Camp is the only campground with drinkable water (treat water at all other campgrounds)
- No fires at the wilderness sites (Hickory Hill, Yankee Paradise, and Brickhill Bluff)
- Be prepared to hang your food at all three wilderness campgrounds
- Carts of any kind are not allowed north of Sea Camp. Campers should be prepared to hike all gear into Stafford Beach and all three wilderness sites.
The Greyfield is an old Carnegie home that has been converted into a posh, all-inclusive inn. There are a handful of comfortable rooms in the main house and two cottages across the lawn. Visitors can explore independently or take advantage of the Inn’s naturalist program (multiple tours each day) as well as use the Inn’s many bicycles. Meals are included in the rate, and much of the food is grown farm-to-table in the garden. Most of the furnishings (and books in the library!) are original to the Carnegie family, adding to the charm. The Greyfield will arrange your trip on the Lucy Ferguson Ferry in advance from Fernandina Beach.
Sites to see
There is a lot to see on the island, in addition to just relaxation and marveling at its unique natural setting.
An old Carnegie mansion, Dungeness is located at the south of the island. Unfortunately, the mansion burned in 1959, but the ruins are worth cycling to in order to experience the haunted magic of what once was, all the while surrounded by the wild horses of Cumberland Island. You can walk or cycle to both the beach and the Ice Museum from here.
There are over 17 miles of undeveloped, uninterrupted beach on Cumberland. That is quite a marvel, in addition to the shells, sea birds, and dunes that are quite a contrast to much of the developed beaches of the Southeast. Take a walk, take a swim, and marvel at the unspoiled coastline.
Another Carnegie home, now owned by the National Park Service, the setting of Plum Orchard is spectacular on the river/marsh (west) side of the island surrounded by huge trees. There are bathrooms available there for hikers too. During COVID, tours were unavailable. There are many picnic tables surrounding the home to take in the view.
At the north of the island, the tiny First African Church was made famous as the site of the wedding of John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Carolyn Bessett. There are a few other buildings there are well (one with public bathrooms). We cycled on beach cruisers there, picnicked at one of the several available tables, and cycled back, stopping at Plum Orchard on the way home. Altogether it was about 30 miles of cycling, primarily on the main road, but gave us a sense of the diversity and size of the island. We crossed several marshes and passed a few hiking trails too. The best way to get there is by bike (it’s 13 miles from Greyfield, but doable).
While it seems weird to mention the “trees” and “horses” as an attraction of Cumberland Island, you’ll want to make sure you see both. The trees are magnificent – live oaks hundreds of years old, dripping with moss and ivy. The horses (there are over 200) are wild and feral, descended from Spanish ancestors.
We stayed for 48 hours, but that didn’t seem long enough – it felt like Cumberland was such a unique and endengered place, so gorgeous and wild, I can’t wait to return.
To get there, you’ll need to drive or fly to Jacksonville. For day visits or camping, get to St. Mary’s for the ferry. If you're staying at Greyfield, however, you’ll need to depart on their ferry from Fernandina Beach (~45 minutes from Jacksonville Airport).
When to visit
November was superb, and I could imagine early March and April would be lovely as well. Note that hot months will have intense heat, humidity and bugs!