Cumberland Island: From Camping to the Carnegies

Explore Georgia’s Cumberland Island to witness the beauty of natural wilderness and historical intrigue. A trip to Cumberland Island can satisfy your mind’s curiosity with its historical secrets or relax it with tranquil scenery.

Dungeness Ruins has a very long history

Dungeness Ruins has a very long history to tell. The name came originally from the very first property, which was a hunting lodge named Dungeness, in the area, owned by James Oglethorpe in 1736. In 1803, it was replaced by a mansion built by Nathaniel Greene, which was later on used as a headquarters by the British. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland is one of the largest undeveloped barrier islands along the Georgia coast. The National Park Service protects almost 36,000 acres of the island, including miles of unspoiled beaches.

The most intriguing part about Cumberland is its history. Once a working plantation, followed by a winter retreat for the wealthy Carnegie family, Cumberland Island is now home to the descendants of slaves and aristocrats, as well as approximately 150 feral horses with bloodlines that trace to the royal stables of the King of Arabia. The stories of the people weave a captivating tale of wealth, poverty, privilege, and sacrifice.

Visit Cumberland Island for the day, camp overnight, or be a guest at the upscale Greyfield Inn, made famous by John F. Kennedy Jr.’s wedding. Day visitors and campers reach the island by taking the Cumberland Island Ferry from the Cumberland Island Visitors Center in St. Marys, Georgia, to the Sea Camp Dock. Guests of the Greyfield Inn take the hotel’s private ferry, the Lucy Ferguson. The boat ride itself is wonderful way to see Cumberland’s beauty from the water.

The best way to unlock Cumberland’s secrets, whether historical or natural, is with a guide. You can take a Jeep tour as part of your stay at the Greyfield Inn, or choose the park ranger service, which offers walking or motorized tours that start at the Sea Camp Dock, or cell phone tours that originate at the Dungeness Docks. It’s best to reserve the motorized tour when you book the ferry. You’ll cover several hundred years of history in just a few hours, all while traveling the interior of one of the largest maritime forests remaining in the U.S.

feral horses

Visitors are reminded these are feral horses and should be treated as wild animals. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To truly explore the island further, you need a bike and a good pair of walking shoes. Guests at the Greyfield Inn have bikes at their disposal as part of their rooms. Otherwise, bikes are available for rent at the Sea Camp Dock. Bike rentals are first-come, first-served, though, so do this before anything else, including the tour.

A favorite destination is the Dungeness Ruins, the remains of Lucy Carnegie’s island mansion. Lucy, whose husband Thomas was the brother and business partner of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, once owned 90 percent of Cumberland Island and built grand homes for her children, including Greyfield.

Besides the mansion, be sure to explore the out buildings. The laundry is fascinating, not only because of the cleaning machines on display, but the innovations in cooling. It must have been sweltering hot to wash clothes in the summer, yet the height of the ceiling and fans that pulled out the hot air helped keep the building relatively cool. Dungeness is also a favorite spot for the island’s horses, so bring a camera!

A visit to Cumberland Island takes some preparation because visitors are limited and there are no concessions on the island. Start your planning and make reservations through the Cumberland Island National Seashore website (SEE link below). The site offers tips for a great visit and information on tours and activities.

We walked the raised boardwalk over the dunes to the wide, secluded beach

We walked the raised boardwalk over the dunes to the wide, secluded beach, alive with crabs and shorebirds. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Exploring the island requires considerable walking, and the island is not stroller friendly, so pack the little ones, leave them home, or wait a few years until they can get around on their own. That said, the Junior Ranger program is a wonderful way for kids 5-12 (and kids at heart) to learn about the island. It’s free, as are the Civil War trading cards available at the Sea Camp Ranger Station.


Cumberland Island National Seashore

Cumberland Island National Seashore, on the Georgia coast, includes one of the largest undeveloped barrier islands in the world. The park is also home to one of the largest maritime forests remaining in the United States, one of the largest wilderness areas in a National Seashore on the east coast, and a herd of feral, free-ranging horses.

Getting to the Island: Accessible by ferry boat from Visitor Center dock in St. Marys. Ferry is walk-on, passenger-only. All trips are round-trip. To make ferry reservation, 912-882-4335 or toll free, 800-860-6787 .

ferry boat returns from Cumberland Island to the dock in St. Marys

It’s the end of a wonderful day as our ferry boat returns from Cumberland Island to the dock in St. Marys. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reservations are required for both the ferry and camping. Visitors must check in 30 minutes before departure at the Cumberland Island Visitor Center or the reservation will be canceled.

Ferry Fees: $20; Senior, $18; Children under 12 years, $14

Entrance Fees: $4/person (valid for 7 days) or Golden Age/Golden Access and America the Beautiful–National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass

Mailing Address: 101 Wheeler Street, St. Marys, GA 31558

Phone: (912) 882-4336


Worth Pondering…

Georgia, Georgia, the whole day through

Just an old sweet song keeps Georgia on my mind.

Georgia, Georgia, a song of you

Comes as sweet and clear as moonlight through the pines

—Georgia On My Mind, lyrics by Stuart Gorrell, written by Hoagy Carmichael (1930), recorded by Ray Charles (1960), official state song of the State of Georgia (1979)

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