Last Updated on July 9, 2023
Cumberland Island is the largest of the Sea Islands off the coast of the Southeastern United States. President Richard Nixon established the Cumberland Island National Seashore on October 23, 1972. It can only be reached by the National Park Ferry or private boats and is well worth the effort. The ferry leaves from Saint Mary’s, Georgia, and is about a 45-minute ride.
Best Things to Do on Cumberland Island, Georgia
Ice House Museum
This museum near the Dungeness Dock is a good place to start your exploration. It’s housed in an original ice house, built by Thomas and Lucy Carnegie around 1890. It was used to store ice shipped down from the north until the invention of refrigerators made it obsolete.
The museum covers the history of the island from the native Timucuans, who inhabited the island until the initial English thrust into Georgia in 1733, through to when the Carnegies sold their land to the National Park Service in the early 1970s. There are restrooms behind the museum.
Feral horses are among the many species of animal life you are sure to see on the island. They are the descendants of abandoned horses from the early English settlements through to dray horses left behind when planters fled the island during the Civil War. The horses range from small ponies to large steeds. They like to graze near the castle ruins.
Gopher tortoises are another important species on Cumberland Island. During woods fires, they graciously share their burrows with other animals and help preserve wildlife on the island. You are most likely to spot a gopher tortoise in the Stafford Field area.
Loggerhead sea turtles build their nest on Cumberland beaches more than anywhere else in Georgia. Never disturb a sea turtle nest, only quietly observe if you are fortunate enough to see activity.
There are also deer, armadillo, alligators, and many other species on the island.
General Nathaniel Greene, a Revolutionary War hero, planned his home on the site of General Oglethorpe’s old hunting camp. Greene died before it could be completed, but his wife, Catherine, continued with the construction of the four-story mansion. She named it Dungeness after Oglethorpe’s old camp.
Catherine Greene later married Phineas Miller, the Greene’s plantation manager. The mansion is gone, leaving behind what is now the oldest standing building on the island. Built around 1790, the Tabby House may have been the Millers’ temporary residence while building the mansion and the gardener’s home.
The original Greene-Miller Dungeness was located within the footprint of the Carnegie Dungeness mansion ruins. In 1900, when the Carnegies owned the property, Lucy Carnegie used it as an office for the property manager. It got the name Tabby House from the building material, tabby, that was commonly used in southern coastal areas. Tabby is a mixture of sand, crushed seashells, water, and ash that forms a type of concrete; Tabby was used extensively by early Spanish settlers.
Just off of the road leading to Dungeness Beach you will see an ancient cemetery. Catherine Greene was buried there in 1814. It is assumed Phineas Miller, who died in 1803, is also buried in the cemetery, but there is no marker for his grave. Nathaniel Greene is buried in Savannah.
Other noteworthy graves include William Davis, a first cousin of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who owned the land before selling it to the Carnegies in 1881. Davis’ grandson was killed in a gun accident while at Cumberland Island, supposedly by his father, who killed himself a few months later. Both Davis’ grandson, George Dewson Davis, and Davis’ son, Bernard M. Davis, are buried in the cemetery.
Robert E. Lee’s father was also buried in the cemetery for a time. His body was later moved to Lexington, Virginia; a marker commemorates the move of his body.
There are many ruins, foundations, and other remnants of life on the island around the cemetery.
The most striking structure on the island are the Dungeness Castle ruins. When Thomas Carnegie acquired most of the island, he built a replica of a Scottish castle on the site of the original Dungeness ruins left behind by Oglethorpe and later Greene-Miller.
The castle faces nearby Jekyll Island. One theory is that he was not invited into the exclusive Jekyll Island community because he was an immigrant, even though he was the brother of wealthy Andrew Carnegie. As a snub, he planned the magnificent replica of a Scottish castle facing Jekyll Island.
When Thomas died in 1886, his wife, Lucy, continued using Dungeness as a vacation home for many years. As was the custom among wealthy folks during the Gilded Age, the Carnegies gifted their children the beautiful mansions on the island as wedding presents. Eventually, the castle fell into disrepair. A fire ravaged it in 1959, leaving only a skeleton. The fire was purportedly set by a disgruntled poacher. As the story goes, the poacher was shot by a Carnegie overseer and sent to the hospital; when he recovered, the poacher returned and burned down the abandoned castle.
The Carnegies later deeded most of their land to the National Park Service, so today 90 percent of the island is part of the national park. The Carnegies specified that the land was never to be developed but remain preserved as a national treasure.
Where to Stay on Cumberland Island: Greyfield Inn and Beyond
One of the gifted Carnegie mansions operates as an inn and hosted JFK Jr. and Caroline Bessette’s wedding reception. Called Greyfield Inn, it is the only lodging on the island. It was built by the Carnegies in 1890 for their daughter, Margaret Ricketson. Her daughter, Lucy R. Ferguson, converted it to a 15-room inn with two additional cottages in 1962. Prices are not cheap, starting at over $600 a night for a couple, but it is a present-day reflection of life during the Gilded Age.
Guests are treated to delicious meals and have access to bicycles and kayaks plus private island tours. The inn is on the National Historic Registry.
While there are hotel and bed and breakfast accommodations in St. Mary’s, when visiting Cumberland Island, we recommend staying in Amelia Island a 40-minute drive south in Florida. With large houses to rent on the beach, charming B&Bs in the Victorian historic downtown, state parks and superior dining options, basing your stay in Amelia Island/Fernandina Beach makes more sense considering visiting Cumberland Island is generally a single day experience.
Plum Orchard is another Carnegie mansion that is open for tours. It can be visited independently as long as rangers are available onsite or as part of a concessioner’s tour. Plum Orchard was a gift from Lucy Carnegie in 1898 to her son George and his new bride Margaret Thaw. After George died Margaret remained in the home until she remarried and moved to France.
The next occupants were Nancy Carnegie, the youngest child, and her second husband Marius Johnston. Nancy was headstrong and didn’t care how many scandals she stirred up; in 1904 she married the Carnegie’s coachman, a heavy-drinking Irishman named James Hever. The marriage was not peaceful and Nancy often retreated to her mother’s home on Cumberland Island. There she met the island doctor, Marius Johnston, and fell in love. After Hever died in 1911, she married Johnston. Her children remained at Plum Orchard until they deeded it to the NPS in the 1970s.
Plum Orchard is the only place with potable water on the island other than Dungeness Dock, the Historic District, and Sea Camp.
Depending on staff availability, take the Footsteps Tour and walk through the Dungeness Historic District. The tour begins at Dungeness Dock at 10 a.m. and 12:45 p.m. The walking lasts about an hour and covers about one mile. This is a ranger-led free tour. The rangers will tell you what is known about many of the buildings and ruins that remain on the island.
Land and Legacies Tour
Since Plum Orchard is about an hours’ walk from the dock, a better way to see it is on a Land and Legacy Tour. The tour is five- to six-hours long, in a 10-seat van, across a 30-mile unpaved road. You visit the north end of the island and view Plum Orchard, Stafford Cemetery, and the African American Settlement including the small church where JFK Jr. was married.
The Settlement is located 15 miles north of the Sea Camp Dock area at the northern end of Cumberland Island National Seashore. It was settled by former slaves in the early 1890s; the formerly enslaved people found work at a once flourishing hotel or in agriculture.
Prior to the Civil War, the largest plantation owner on Cumberland Island was Robert Stafford. The newly freed people again found work on his plantation. He had previously allowed his slaves to work during their free time and retain their earnings, so Cumberland Island freed people who had some experience with paid work and managing money. Today, most of the former residents have left the island.
The most famous building remaining in the Settlement is the First African Baptist Church where JFK Jr. got married. The original church was just a log structure built when the Settlement was founded. It was replaced by a simple white clapboard building in 1937. It’s open daily and the tour guide details its history.
The only other intact house is that of Beulah Alberty, a descendant of one of the original settlers. The house is open but the rooms are unfurnished. It does have a restroom. There are several other ruins around the Settlement.
About 50 miles of hiking trails crisscross the island. The most used trails are on the south end. Dungeness Roadways takes you through the Dungeness Historic District. There is a short river trail along the water between Dungeness Dock and Sea Camp Dock. Nightingale Trail is a beautiful walk among old oak trees in the maritime forest.
Heading north, Parallel Trail follows the main road and goes about halfway north on the island to Yankee Paradise Campground. It then merges with Duck House Trail and leads to Plum Orchard. Midway along Parallel Trail, Little Greyfield Crossing takes you through the dunes to a gorgeous stretch of beach, usually with few other people on it. You can often spot wild horses along the beach.
Dozens of trails loop and cross the island. All roads not marked private are open as trails.
Campgrounds are located in several places on the island, including Sea Camp, Stafford Beach, Hickory Hill, Yankee Paradise, and Brickhill Bluff Campgrounds.
Sea Camp Campground is located a half-mile from the Sea Camp Dock. Campers who remain on the ferry at Dungeness Dock will be taken to the Sea Camp Dock. Sea Camp is the most popular campground as there are flush toilets, drinking water, cold showers, and a dishwashing sink. Each site has a fire ring with a grill, picnic table, and food storage. Remember you have to drag all your equipment in by hand, but there are carts you can use. I stayed here one night and, although I am not a big fan of tent camping, the experience was worth it. You really are at one with nature. No lights, traffic, or any sign of civilization. You could be back in time when this country was unexplored and natural.
Stafford Beach Campground is a three-and-a-half-mile hike from Sea Camp and there are no carts to get your equipment to the site. The site includes fire rings with grills. There is a restroom with flush toilets, cold showers, and water spigots but all water must be treated before drinking.
The other three sites are very basic. There are no amenities and campfires are not allowed. The sites are farther north on the island and it’s just you and wilderness.
Is Cumberland Island Worth Visiting?
While waiting for the ferry in Saint Mary’s, browse through the Cumberland Island Museum near the dock for an overview of what you will find on the island.
The island is preserved much as it was when the Carnegies left. There are no paved roads and the few cars you see on the island were ferried over by boat. There are some private residences on the island; about 10 percent of the island is in private hands. Be sure to respect the private property signs. There are no restaurants and only one lodging, Greyfield Inn.
To get around the island, you can hike or bring a bike on the ferry. If you don’t own a bike, rent one at the small concession stand near the dock. The ferry charge is $10 and limits the number of bikes it transports to 10. You can rent a bike by Sea Camp Dock where your ferry lands for $16 a day or $20 overnight. Remember there are no paved roads, so you will be riding on dirt roads, many with soft sand.
Bring food and drinks with you and leave with your trash. Most of the year, the ferry operates seven days a week with departures at 9 a.m. and 11:45 a.m., and returns at 10:45 a.m., 2:45 p.m. (except Sunday), and 4:45 p.m. During winter the ferry doesn’t run Tuesday or Wednesday and there is no 2:45 p.m. run. Links to trail and campground maps are available at the NPS site.Cumberland Islandhistorynatureocean