Presently Cumberland Island National Seashore can only be accessed by boat. A private concessionary runs a passenger ferry that takes you on a 45-minute ride from St. Marys, Georgia to Dungeness Dock and Sea Camp Dock on the western shore of Cumberland. Visits to the island are restricted to a maximum of seven days. In the summer two round trips are made daily allowing for only a four-hour window for a day trip on the island. In the winter runs become limited to once a day with no ferry service on Tuesday or Wednesday. Charter boats are available in St. Marys to take visitors to the island as an alternative and allow visitors more options on what they can and can't take to the island.
The restrictions on Cumberland Island National Seashore don't end there. Visitors are not allowed to bring bicycles on the ferry. There are no stores or services of any kind on the island so everything must be packed on. All trash must be packed off and the ferry can't be used to re-supply visitors on the island. Strict leave no trace policies must be followed and there are specific walking trails across the dunes to access the beach along the Atlantic Coast. Guests who miss the ferry have to make private arrangements for transportation. With access so limited it is no wonder that Cumberland Island has less than 50,000 visitors a year.
The park couldn't possibly be more rewarding to those who brave the restrictions to visit. If there is one thing that Cumberland Island offers it is incredible solitude. Frontcountry and backcountry campsites limit overnight visitation to just 120 campers. A network of over 50 miles of hiking trails, as well as the beach itself allow for easy exploration of the island. Visitors to the island are overwhelmed by the silence and the lack of human activity. The plantations are long gone and the forests along the uplands have returned.
To explore Cumberland Island National Seashore be sure to bring your boots because it is about the only way you will get around. If your visit only allows you to stay for the day, consider taking a rewarding 3-1/2 mile loop starting at Dungeness Dock. Hikers head southeast toward the ruins of Dungeness mansion and past the cemetery where Harry Lee's tombstone is located. It is within the moss-covered oaks around the ruins of Dungeness that the oldest stranding structure on Cumberland Island can be found. Originally built in 1800 as a gardener's cottage, it was converted by the Carnegie's into a small office building.
The trail turns east from Dungeness toward the Atlantic and crosses the dunes onto the wide, clean beach. Hikers then head north along the beach to Sea Camp Beach, the only improved campsite on the island. Be sure to watch for the wild horses that call Cumberland Island home while going across the dunes. The trail then heads west back over the dunes to Sea Camp Ranger Station. If time allows consider hiking south along the mile long River Trail back to Dungeness Dock, just be sure you don't miss the return ferry!
If you're looking for more solitude or want to stay for a few days than plan to head north. Take the ferry to Sea Camp Dock and avoid staying at the relatively busy Sea Camp Beach Campground. Hike along the Main Road or take the more secluded Parallel Trail north toward Stafford Beach, about 3-1/2 miles on the Atlantic side of Cumberland Island. The Parallel Trail passes through a lush forest of palmetto, loblolly, longleaf, and slash pine. A variety of wildlife can be found in the park including raccoons, swamp rabbits, deer, armadillos and bobcats.
For a challenging extended hike continue north along the beach another three miles to the Willow Pond Trail. The trail climbs west into forest of oak and pine leading to the Hickory Hill Campsite on the southern edge of the Cumberland Island Wilderness Area. Hikers can travel even further north on the beach to the Duck House Trail. Shifting sands along the beach are slowly burying the long abandoned Carnegie Hunting Lodge. Hikers can head west about 1-1/2 miles to the Yankee Paradise Backcountry Campground. Yankee Paradise is less than a mile east of Plum Orchard mansion. The twenty-room structure with an indoor pool is being restored and public tours are offered on Sunday.
Yankee Paradise is an excellent base camp for exploring the heart of the Cumberland Island Wilderness Area. Hiking north along the Lost Trail you can explore the waters of the Sweetwater Lake Complex. A chain of inland marshes and shallow lakes form an ecosystem reminiscent of the Florida Everglades. Alligators and poisonous cottonmouth snakes call this region of the park home swimming in a sea of pond cypress, sawgrass and duckweed. Red maple, willow and rock hard blackgum trees surround the mystical and dangerous waters.
From Yankee Paradise a hike can be taken along the Roller Coaster Trail. The trail goes north almost four miles following along the ridge of ancient sand dunes and past shallow snake infested Lake Whitney. During the early morning or sunset hours otters and mink can be spotted skimming across the water.
The Main Road can be taken north to Burbank Point where the ruins of the original Cumberland Wharf can be found. From 1870 to 1920 the Cumberland Island Hotel catered to guests arriving by steamboat to vacation on the shores of the island. Development further to the north ended the popularity of the hotel that eventually went bankrupt. The First African Baptist Church is also found on the northern tip of the main island. Little Cumberland Island to the north is within the boundaries of the park but privately owned. An abandoned lighthouse sits on the very northern tip of the island.
Sea Camp Beach is the only improved campground on the island. With sixteen sites the campground offers fire pits, picnic tables, potable water and coldwater showers as well as beach access and close proximity to the ferry docks. It also provides easy access to the historic attractions on the southern end of the island.
Stafford Beach, Hickory Hill, Yankee Paradise, and Brickhill Bluff are all remote backcountry sites. Stafford Beach is the closest; about 3-1/2 miles from the ferry dock and offers inexperienced backpackers are excellent opportunity to practice their skills. No open fires are allowed in the backcountry but the use of stoves is permitted. Wells are available at all backcountry campsites however water should be treated and the water at Yankee Paradise will have a slight sulfur smell too it. No toilets are available so all human waste and gray water should be buried at least 200 feet away from any water source.
If you want to visit Cumberland Island National Seashore and roughing it just isn't your style you do have one expensive option. The historic Greyfield Inn built in 1900 offers 11 guest rooms and two private cottages with five star service. From $275 to $450 per night guests can stay in accommodations ranging from a cozy room with a twin bed to large suites with private bathrooms and commanding views. The inn is air-conditioned and offers a small gift shop to visitors and fine dining in grand southern style were men must wear jackets. There are two on-staff naturalists and guests are taken on Jeep tours of the island. Guests are limited to one bag when visiting and the Greyfield Inn is strictly non-smoking. Children under six years of age are not allowed. The inn does not have any phone service with the exception of a radiotelephone for emergency use and is decorated in period furniture.
Fishing and hunting are both allowed on the island. Fishing in the salt marshes can produce redfish, seatrout, bonito bluefish and flounder. Blue crabs can also be caught in the incredibly productive waters of the marsh. On the Atlantic Ocean side you can surf fish for Jack Crevalle, king mackerel, redfish, and sharks chasing huge schools of black mullet up the coast. The beach slopes gradually into the Atlantic so the surf fishing isn't as good as other barrier island parks further north. Proper state of Georgia fishing licenses are required.
An annual deer hunt is conducted during the winter to help with population control. For more information you will need to contact the park directly.
It seems ironic that after 500 years modern man hasn't conquered Cumberland Island. Despite a long history the island is littered with the ruins and failed dreams of settlements and developments of the past. The plantations are long gone, the forests have returned and wind, weather, sand and time continues to slowly erase the traces of development on the island. For a rare chance to step back in time and walk along the quiet shores of the Atlantic on clean beaches, consider visiting Cumberland Island National Seashore.
Just The Plain Facts
Name: Cumberland Island National Seashore
Location: Southeastern Georgia near Jacksonville, Florida
Nearest Major Air Service: Jacksonville, Florida
Fees & Permits: Park entrance fee is $4 and must be paid by all visitors. Ferry fare ranges from $5.99 to $10.07. Backcountry permits are $2 and are required year round.
Why Visit: Undisturbed, unspoiled, quiet, with very limited visitation. Many historic structures and ruins to explore all along the island. Diverse ecosystems ranging from sand dunes, marsh, swamp and dense forest..
When To Visit: April to May and September to November
Essential Gear: Depends on a wide range of activity. Hat, sunglasses, lip balm, sunscreen, water, insect repellant, windbreaker, camera and binoculars. Other gear strongly recommended.
You Should Know: Ferry reservations to the park are required. If hiking or camping be watchful for ticks, including deer ticks that carry Lyme disease. Wear long light colored pants and inspect for ticks daily. Park can be very hot and humid during the summer months; insects can be a major problem, especially on windless days. Feral horses are not fearful of humans, please do not feed or interact with them. Loggerhead turtles are an endangered species, do not interact or disturb them or their nests. When in the backcountry be watchful for cottonmouth snakes, especially if entering water. Be familiar with a snakebite kit and its use. Remember help could be quite some distance away. Respect private property on the island, trespassing laws are strictly enforced.
More Information: Cumberland Island National Seashore, Box 806, St. Marys, Georgia 31558, (912) 882-4336. Cumberland Island Ferry, (912) 882-4335. Greyfield Inn, Box 900, Fernandina Beach, Florida 32035-0900, (904) 261-6408