Dungeness Ruins on Cumberland Island, Georgia. Photo by @benjamingalland
How to Spend One Amazing Day on Cumberland Island
Make the most of your limited time on this remote Georgia island with these key tips.
Georgia’s largest barrier island, Cumberland Island, is an adventurist’s day-trip paradise. Where else do you get to take a ferry to a remote National Seashore, hike through the maritime forest and old dune ridge lines, have chance encounters with wildlife — including the infamous wild horses — tour historic ruins and learn about the history of the people who have lived in this magical place? If that’s not enough, the miles of pristine beaches should do the trick.
A day trip to Cumberland Island is an unforgettable adventure and certainly nothing to let overwhelm you. Here are a few quick tips to help you plan a successful trip.
Catch the Ferry
Embark on your day with a ferry ride from the waterfront docks in St. Marys. Here, you’ll receive a briefing prior to boarding regarding best practices while on the island. The 45-minute ferry ride runs on a schedule and can be booked in advance (certainly advised and it saves time once you arrive) on their website or in-person at the dock. They recommend arriving an hour prior to departure. The ferry schedule changes by season, so be sure to check it and plan accordingly.
You determine the length of your excursion by choosing when you would like to depart for Cumberland and when you would like to return to the mainland. My recommendation is to take the first available ferry in the morning and leave on the last ferry of the day so you’ll have the maximum time on the island for your adventure.
Prepare for the Outdoors
The most important thing to consider when planning your day trip to Cumberland is the weather. Keep in mind, Cumberland is a naturally wild environment. Although there are a few places around to seek shelter from rain and sun, you should be prepared for the elements. However, the dense canopy of the oak trees provides a very nice protection from direct sunlight.
My favorite time to go is in the fall and winter. Cooler temperatures reduce the likelihood of pesky mosquitoes. Spring and summer are great, though, especially for those looking for some better beach opportunities, and the ocean wind will keep the bugs away.
Be Ready to Walk or Bike
While not strenuous, this journey requires energy as does any excursion outdoors. Once on the island, traveling by foot is the most common form of transportation, but biking is a fun way to cover more ground. You are allowed to bring your personal bike aboard the ferry for an additional $10 fee, and you should reserve this in advance, as space is limited.
Keeping all this in mind, the second most important thing to consider when planning a trip to Cumberland is what to bring. There is no place on island to buy anything. Water, food, sunscreen and bug spray should accompany you at any time of year. There are places around the island that you can refill a water bottle, so bringing one large bottle per person should suffice. You will need to carry whatever you want to bring, so a backpack is a good choice.
A camera is always a nice addition on any trip, and most smartphones take fantastic photos. I’ve spent years photographing on Cumberland and always find something unique to shoot. With the tree canopy covering the roads, it’s easy to get great shots even in the harshest midday light.
With that said, I always recommend a battery pack when on a trip like this. Cumberland is a dense geography and, with that, cell service can be intermittent. You can almost always get a signal around the ferry dock and in open areas. Your device will continue to search for signals in a weak environment, which has the tendency to drain your phone’s battery quicker. A battery pack is handy, especially when you are relying on your phone to capture the memories of your trip.
I like to bring a towel, too. This comes in handy if you want to swim or if you have a picnic lunch on the lawn overlooking the ruins. Other items to consider bringing are rain gear and a first-aid kit, including something for blisters and some type of topical ointment for bug bites.
Things to See & Do
Once on the island, a must-see are the Dungeness Ruins. Built by the Carnegie family in the 1880s, they are a true sight to see. You can spend a few hours easily touring the property and relaxing.
You will most likely find the wild horses grazing the grounds here. Keep in mind, they are indeed wild, and approaching them is not recommended. There are a few picnic tables well situated under the shade of trees, and this is a great place to have a rest. There are also restrooms in this area, located in the old laundry building.
The beach is absolutely worth seeing. Cumberland boasts more than 17 miles of uninterrupted beach, the largest of all barrier islands in Georgia. Swimming is a great way to cool off in the heat of summer; just keep in mind that you are on your own here. Tides, rip currents and undertows are all very real concerns when swimming on any beaches in Georgia. You should take caution.
The easiest way to access the beach is hiking a half-mile across the island from the Sea Camp Dock. Passing through the camping area (where you will also find restrooms), you will come to the boardwalk taking you across the beautiful sand dunes and leading you right down to the beach. One of my favorite activities here is beachcombing. You’ll find tons of seashells and, if you search hard enough, fossilized shark teeth! You are allowed to keep the teeth and the shells (as long as nothing is living in them).
The National Park Service offers on-island walking tours led by their rangers. These Footsteps Tours are a free service and a great way to learn more about the island. Tours are offered Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays when staff is available. Ask if the tours will be available on the day of your visit.
For an overview of the island’s historic sites, book a guided walking experience with Molly’s Old South Tours. The walking tour includes stops at the ruins of the Carnegies’ Gilded Age-era mansion, the island’s oldest building, and more. Advanced reservations are recommended for the two-hour tours.
If you are looking for something more extensive, the Land and Legacies Tour is a great option. Here, you are shuttled around the island in a passenger van led by a tour guide. You cover so much ground and have an opportunity to see much more of the island, including inside Plum Orchard mansion.
You can find more information about these options on the National Park Service website. In addition, a self-guided cell phone tour is available around the grounds of Dungeness, and you will find posts placed around the property with information on how to access that.
A Trip Worth Repeating
No matter how you decide to spend your time on Cumberland, you are guaranteed to see a part of the Georgia coast that is exceptionally preserved in her beauty. It’s a remarkable landscape of oak tree canopies spilling into magnificent white dune beaches begging you for a return trip.