Van Tours of Captivating Cumberland, America’s Wilderness Island

Wild Horse Roams Sand Dunes on Cumberland Island, GA

Wild Horse Roams Dunes, Cumberland Island, GA. (Photo W.B. Lawson)

If you have a “bucket list,” get out your pen and jot down Cumberland Island, Georgia.  Perhaps you can’t make it there anytime soon, but it’s worth putting on life’s agenda.

One of the most unique destinations on America’s eastern seaboard, Cumberland is an easy day trip from Amelia Island, Florida.

Always a natural place of wonderment, there’s more intrigue with the start of motorized tours of this Georgia barrier island’s northern, more remote areas that, until recently, were difficult for the public to reach (see Cumberland photo gallery below).

Highlights of the new “Land and Legacies Tour” are Plum Orchard, a Carnegie mansion, and the remains of Robert Stafford’s plantation that once grew sea-island cotton. Plus, “The Settlement,” along with a tiny church that became famous as the location of John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette’s wedding.

Take a look at scenes of Cumberland Island in photo gallery slideshow (hover over photo below to see arrows appear, browse through gallery).

These long awaited van and tram tours of Cumberland Island National Seashore in southeast Georgia began in August 2011. Congress mandated better public access to the island’s cultural sites back in 2004. Seven years later, the park service finally initiated motorized access to the northend of this wild and captivating Georgia sea island. A visit to Cumberland Island will likely be one of the most unique, natural locations you’ve ever had the opportunity to visit, and is highly recommended (but see caveat below).

Cumberland is said to be the largest wilderness island in the United States.  It’s also the largest island in the chain of sea islands that stretch from South Carolina and end with Amelia Island, the only Florida sea island in this group of 100-plus islands that flank America’s Atlantic east coast.

A highlight of the “Lands and Legacies Tour” is visiting gorgeous Plum Orchard Carnegie mansion. Most visitors to Cumberland tour the crumbling ruins of Dungeness on Cumberland’s southend (which is easily accessible from the Dungeness dock, the ferry’s first stop). A Carnegie mansion that was the victim of arson in 1959, more than 50 years later, the stone and brick foundation with chimneys still remain like a memorial. The Dungeness grounds seem to be a favorite hangout for Cumberland’s notorious wild horses.

Plum Orchard is another Carnegie home that still stands intact, but located more remotely toward the north of the island. Previously, only two tours a month were offered by the Park Service, but now the public can see it while taking the van excursions.

The beautiful Plum Orchard underwent a multi-million dollar repair by the Park Service a few years back. Circa 1898, built by Lucy Carnegie, the home is a magnificent “Classical Revival” mansion of 22,000 square feet. Step through the grand entry into another era of southern comfort. Read feature article about what to expect on the Plum Orchard tour.

Cumberland’s  new motorized tours now allow access to “the Settlement” area in High Point, dating back to the late 1880s, a small village enclave of former slaves and their heirs.  This is also the location of an historic 1890s First African Baptist church, the tiny timber chapel that became famous worldwide as the location where John F. Kennedy Jr. wed Carolyn Bessette in September 1996.   It’s said JFK Jr. loved visiting Cumberland Island, a secluded getaway he had journeyed to since he was a teenager.  The couple’s wedding reception was held at the island’s only lodging establishment, the lovely Greyfield Inn, run by Carnegie heirs.  Folks with reservations at Greyfield can get direct transportation over to Cumberland from Fernandina Harbor Marina via the inn’s private ferry, the Lucy R. Ferguson. The Greyfield Inn has their own naturalist on staff and offers guests private tours around the island. (The only other way to stay overnight on Cumberland is camping — one campground with cold showers and restrooms located at Sea Camp, and another remote camping spot for true roughing it in the wild.)

Caveat emptor! The Cumberland Island park service forewarns potential passengers thinking about taking the motorized tours to expect a “long and arduous” trip.  It’s around 30 miles round trip, to the northend of Cumberland Island, accessing a remote area of this amazing island that has been difficult for most to reach (by hiking or biking), until now.  The park service indicates the tour will take from five to six hours.  The tours will traverse the main island corridor through maritime forest — Grand Avenue — an unpaved road with rough surface in spots, so be prepared for a jarring ride along the way.  Obviously, this tour will not be everyone’s cup of tea, and not suitable for young children or people with some health issues. Restroom stops will also be limited.

Also realize that there are no concessions or restaurants on Cumberland Island. You must bring food and water for the day, be sure to pack sunscreen and bug repellent, and you will be required to carry all trash back to the mainland. Passengers on the motorized tours may only bring a small backpack or bag (no hard coolers or camera tripods) due to limited space.

Read another Amelia Island eMagazine article covering Cumberland Island highlights, “Is Tranquility the Tonic You Seek? Cumberland Island, Georgia. A Feast for Eyes and Soul.”

How to Catch Cumberland Island Ferry From Amelia Island, Florida

From Amelia Island, take A1A through Yulee and get on I-95. Allow about 40 minutes to arrive in St. Marys, to catch the park service ferry, which departs at 9 am. Do plan to arrive early and check in at least 30 minutes before departure (or risk losing your reserved seat). Take Exit 3 in Georgia from Interstate 95. The exit ends at a stop light. Turn onto Highway 40 going east, and follow into St. Marys. Once reaching the historic district, turn right at the stop sign onto St. Marys Street. The National Park Service visitor center is in a blue building and the ferry dock is nearby. Once on board, it’s about a 45 minute ferry ride to Cumberland Island.  Once folks arrive at Sea Camp dock (ferry leaves from St. Marys, GA 9 am to Cumberland), van tour departs at 9:45 am. Buy tickets, book REQUIRED reservations for Cumberland Island ferry service and “Lands and Legacies” van tour online.

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