The Magic of Cumberland Island Story by Bonnie Helander
Photos Courtesy of St. Mary’s Convention and Visitors Bureau

Every resident of Georgia should plan at least one (or several trips) to see Georgia’s stunning and majestic coastline. Spanning about 110 miles, the Georgia coast includes 14 major barrier islands on the Atlantic Ocean, only four of which are accessible by car! You can drive to the popular island destinations of St. Simons, Sea Island, Jekyll Island and Tybee Island, but the other ten barrier islands, including Cumberland, can only be accessed by boat.

The Georgia barrier islands are so named because they create a “barrier” between the Georgia mainland and the ocean, providing shelter and protection from waves, tides, currents, storms and hurricanes. Studies indicate that between 75 – 95% of all marine species are dependent on the habitats created by barrier islands.

In October, 2022, the Georgia Park Service kicked off a year of celebrating the 50th anniversary of Cumberland Island National Seashore. It’s a great time to plan a visit and experience the history and beauty of this pristine and magical island.

Getting Started

A visit to Cumberland Island begins with a drive to mainland St. Mary’s. This charming town, about 350 miles and a 5 ½ hour drive, from Fayette County, is where visitors can catch the ferry to the island. The Cumberland Island National Seashore Visitor Center is located at 113 St. Mary’s Street and is where guests check in for the 45-minute ferry ride to Cumberland. Here you can view exhibits about the island and get information to help you plan your stay. You also might want to check out the Cumberland Island National Seashore Museum on Osborne Street that gives a deep dive into Cumberland Island cultural and natural history.

Overnight Stays on Cumberland Island

If you want to stay on Cumberland Island in style for more than a day, reserve a room at the exclusive Greyfield Inn. The house was built in 1900 by Thomas Carnegie for his daughter, and features 15 beautifully-appointed rooms in the main house and accommodations in two cottages. Room rates start at around $800 per night, with a two-night minimum. The price includes transportation to and from the island on the inn’s private ferry; three meals and a cocktail hour per day; guided tours of the islands, and complimentary use of beach chairs, umbrella, bicycles, kayaks and fishing gear. For more information, go to

Your other option to stay overnight on Cumberland Island is to reserve a camping site with the National Park Service. Sea Camp Campground is the most popular site and is closest to the ferry dock. It features basic amenities, including bathrooms, water, food lockers for storage and cold showers. To reach other campgrounds on the island, you will need to hike in. Stafford Campground is about 3.5 miles from the dock. For the experienced camper, you can reserve a wilderness site with no basic amenities.

Day Trip to Cumberland Island

A day trip to Cumberland Island for many visitors starts in St. Mary’s – a great spot to serve as your base of operation. There are many charming lodging options in St. Mary’s (, including bed & breakfasts, hotels, and RV campsites. There is even an option to stay at a Vrbo vacation rental where Aaron Burr slept after his infamous duel with Alexander Hamilton! You will love the variety of dining and shopping destinations in the St. Mary’s historic district. On October 7, St. Mary’s hosts its annual and much-anticipated Seafood Festival.

It is difficult to see all of Cumberland Island on a day trip, so most folks decide to spend the day on the south side of the island, near the ferry dock, where the Dungeness Ruins are located. Many key American historic figures are connected to Dungeness. James Oglethorpe first built Dungeness as a hunting lodge in 1736. Nathaniel Greene, of Revolutionary War fame, then acquired the land and, with his wife, built a mansion.

Dungeness was occupied by the British as a headquarters during the War of 1812. In 1818, Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, a cavalry commander during the Revolutionary War and father of Robert E. Lee, lived at the house until his death and is buried in a nearby cemetery. The mansion was not occupied during and after the Civil War and was destroyed in a fire in 1866.

Thomas Carnegie built a new estate on the site that was completed in 1886. Other homes built by the Carnegies included Greyfield, Plum Orchard, and Stafford Plantation. The Carnegies left the Dungeness mansion in 1925 and it was destroyed by an alleged arson fire in 1959. The ruins are maintained by the National Park Service.

To learn more about the southern area of Cumberland, you can take a free “Footsteps” walking tour led by a park ranger, or purchase a walking tour through Molly’s Old South Tours ( If you want to explore the whole island in one day, reserve the Lands and Legacies Tour ( offering a five-to-six hour tour in a van to view most of the island, including Plum Orchard Mansion, the First African Baptist Church, the Settlement, and the many nature sites along the main road. This is a popular tour that should be booked well in advance.

Hiking the Southend Loop Trail is a fabulous way to see most of the sites on the southern end of Cumberland Island. The loop is really a combination of trails, roadways and boardwalks that take you through the Dungeness Ruins, Ice House Museum, the Greene-Miller Cemetery, white sand dunes, boardwalk across the marshes and along the beach. The loop is 4.3 miles long and starts near the dock at Sea Camp. Look for the River Trail sign to begin, and download a map of the trails to ensure you make the entire loop. Give yourself plenty of time to get back to your ferry before departure!

Biking the island is another option for hearty travelers who want to see most or all of Cumberland.  You can bring your bike over on the ferry for a fee. Space is limited to ten bikes per ferry ride. The trip to Plum Orchard at the northern end is seven miles (14 round trip!) so you will want to take the first ferry over. You will need wide bike tires – the road is sandy and weather may hinder your ability to make the whole trip. But bicyclists vouch for the beauty of the trip.

Day Trip Tips – What you need to know before you go…

  •  Book your ferry ride and any tours well in advance of your trip. In order to see as much as possible on a day trip, reserve the first ferry out of St. Mary’s to Cumberland Island at 9 a.m. and the last ferry back to the mainland at 4:45 p.m. For information on fees and schedules, go to
  • There are few amenities on the island – no restaurants, shopping, hotels, or gift shops (except for the exclusive Greyfield Inn). Pack your own food and drink and a small bag for trash. You need to follow the “leave no trace” policy and pack out your own trash.
  • There are public restrooms and drinkable water. Bring your own water bottle to keep filled.
  • You can bring your dog on a private boat but the ferry does not allow dogs.
  • Don’t forget your camera and binoculars! You will want to see and get photos of the beautiful scenery and the wild horses. Watch where you step and keep your distance from the wildlife!
  • Phone service is spotty. If you bring a cell phone charger, you can charge your phone at the Sea Camp Ranger Station.
  • Bug repellent is a must, and be sure to spray before you leave the ferry.
  • If you want to enjoy the unspoiled beach with few people around, bring a swim suit, towel, sun glasses, hat and sun screen. Remember there are NO lifeguards, so be cautious. You are on your own.
  • In case of inclement weather, pack a poncho or umbrella.
  • Wear good, sturdy walking or hiking shoes. Unless you are biking, you will be walking most of the day.


For more information on Cumberland Island, go to