So you’ve heard about amazing Cumberland Island National Seashore and want to visit? Get ready to plan a wonderful day to DE-stress and immerse yourself in the serenity of nature. You’ll also find fascinating history on this enchanting Southern sea island.
For those day-tripping from Amelia Island, Florida, read about how much time you’ll need, how much it will cost and bike riding options. Located next door to Amelia, Cumberland Island sits just across the river here at the Florida-Georgia border.
While you can clearly see Cumberland Island across the water while standing on the northern shoreline of Amelia (from Fort Clinch), realize that the National Park’s ferry service departure is from St. Marys, GA.
Cumberland is the perfect destination for some solitude an exploration in the great outdoors. You’ll find Georgia’s largest, most southern barrier island is largely untouched, wonderfully preserved in its natural state with a sizeable area of wilderness.
An island 17.5 miles long (half a mile to 3 miles at its widest), 9,886 acres are “designated wilderness” plus another 10,500 acres are classified as “potential wilderness” by the NPS. If you’d enjoy a place with few people around, consider the NPS limits daily visitors to only 300. Besides thick maritime forest and beautiful, empty seashore, tourists are also keen on spotting the island’s wild horses.
COVID-19 News Update
Ferry service to Cumberland Island National Seashore from St. Marys, Georgia was suspended due to the pandemic. But after a three month closure, the ferry resumed operation June 26, 2020. Due to COVID-19, new precautions in place require ferry passengers to wear a mask. The ferry will be operating at 2/3 capacity (up to 100 passengers plus crew). Camping within the National Seashore reopened on July 6, 2020. As of mid-October 2020, the van tours, “Lands & Legacies” remain closed and Plum Orchard Mansion is still closed.
Amelia Island Living eMagazine has published numerous articles about Cumberland Island, see the latest news here.
A popular attraction, Cumberland’s feral horses are often seen around the Dungeness ruins area. But as one explores the island, they are sometimes also spotted along trails, in the expansive dunes near the seashore, and even right on the beach.
How Much Time?
Figure it will take around 12 hours for a typical day trip from Fernandina/Amelia Island. This includes time on Cumberland plus time spent getting there (driving to St. Marys plus time aboard the ferry). To see as much as possible, catch the first ferry (9 am departure). This gives visitors about six and a half hours to explore Cumberland Island. The ferry ride itself takes about 45 minutes each way. Visitors arrive on the island shortly before 10 am. The end of day return ferry departs Cumberland at 4:45 pm.
What Is Cost?
In 2020, one adult ferry ticket is $34.10 round trip (with tax and fees), plus a $10 National Park entry fee. There are additional fees for bringing vs. renting a bike. Those opting to take the 5 to 6 hour van tour will also pay an additional tour fee (although, as noted above, during the pandemic these van tours are closed). These options and costs are further explained below with biking distances and planning considerations.
Southend Loop Trail
The most popular trail for day trippers is a bit over four miles on Cumberland Island’s southend. Taking this Southend Loop allows visitors to see the Ice House Museum, Dungeness ruins, walk along boardwalk near salt marsh area, cross the island to Atlantic Ocean beachfront, walk along the seashore and then return to Sea Camp through some of the island’s magnificent maritime forest.
Where To Catch Ferry?
The official ferry service of the National Park Service (NPS) departs from St. Marys, Georgia. Plan for a 45 minute to an hour’s drive, depending on traffic, from Amelia Island. Plus allow extra time to check in at the ferry. Even with advance ferry reservations, the NPS advises people to check in one hour before ferry departure. That means planning to leave Amelia Island at 7 am to catch the 9 am ferry. You’ll get back on Amelia in the evening around 6:30 to 7 pm.
Directions To Ferry
For driving to St. Marys, put the Cumberland Island Visitor Center’s address in your GPS or Google maps: 113 St. Marys Street West, St Marys, GA 31558.
Go For Half Day?
There’s also an 11:45 am ferry departure from St. Marys, cutting time to explore the island to about 4 hours. This shorter period is enough to see some of the southern end of the island in vicinity of the Dungeness ruins and Sea Camp. Also, during spring and summertime (March 1 to Sept. 30), there is an extra ferry departure from Cumberland Island at 2:45 pm (Monday to Saturday), returning to St. Marys.
Bike Riding Options
Riding a bike allows one to see more of the island. However, realize there are no paved roads on Cumberland. You’ll be cycling sandy roads (some hard packed but sometimes looser sand). The main north-south corridor through the island is “Grand Avenue.” Be advised that riding a bike on Cumberland is more of a workout than some may be used to. Also pick up a map when checking in, since bicyclists must stay on certain roads (not allowed on park trails). Bike rentals (adult-sized bikes only) cost $16 per person. CAVEAT: Rental bikes ARE NOT ALLOWED ON THE BEACH. Only privately-owned bicycles are allowed on the seashore. Note that new biking rules limit personal bikes on the beach to the area between Dungeness and Sea Camp, according to the National Seashore’s website. (The distance between is about one mile.)
Bring A Bike
You can bring your own bike over to the island on the ferry for extra $10 per person. A mountain bike or beach cruiser with wider tires is suitable. However, there’s very limited space. Only 10 bikes per ferry (but you can now reserve a space for your bike in advance when making ferry reservations). Day trippers will not have enough time to bike all the way to the island’s north end (around 20 miles from Dungeness) and back again to catch the 4:45 pm departure ferry, unless you have super powers like Captain America. Note that Grand Avenue deteriorates past Plum Orchard, so biking further north becomes more difficult.
Plum Orchard Mansion
For those desiring to possibly tour Plum Orchard mansion, realize it’s around 7 miles north of Sea Camp. UPDATE: As noted above, the tours of Plum Orchard have been closed during the pandemic, and as of mid-October 2020, still remain closed. The wonderful 22,000 square foot Plum Orchard mansion tour takes about 45 minutes, is free, and really interesting. But getting there is not feasible for everyone (such as ferry day trippers who will be walking around the island). Biking from Sea Camp dock to both Plum Orchard (14 miles round trip) and then south to Dungeness ruins (about 1.5 miles south of Sea Camp each way), is also a lot of ground to cover by bike within the time constraints of the ferry.
It’s likely most will end up deciding which historic site they’d rather see, perhaps opting for the less strenuous “Sound To Shore Southend Loop,” covered in the video above. Note that some historic sites around the island have signs like this one pictured here, informing visitors to call for an audio tour, to hear the history of the site where they are standing. The sign pictured was stationed at Dungeness (hear about its history now at 912-268-3170, then press “4”).
Day trippers intending to go to Plum Orchard need to hop aboard the earliest ferry departure at 9 am from St. Marys to arrive on Cumberland Island around 9:45 am. Depending on one’s biking fitness, cyclists can decide on which of the free Plum Orchard tours to take (held at 11 am, 1 pm or 2 pm, at this writing (check for possible seasonal changes).
For cyclists, keep in mind that weather plays a part. Very hot, humid summer weather typical from May through September, ups the energy level required to accomplish this, along with pedaling the unpaved, sandy road that makes the trips slower going. Summertime afternoon storms are frequent, that could tack on time. Bikers need to figure enough time to take the 45-minute tour and get back to the Sea Camp dock in time for last departure ferry at 4:45 pm. There are restrooms and water at both Plum Orchard and Sea Camp. The other option would be to instead take the van tour, “Lands and Legacies,” since Plum Orchard is one of the stops.
Lands and Legacies
The only guided tour with transportation for day trippers is the 5 to 6 hour air conditioned van tour, traversing over some rough road/trail to the far north end of Cumberland Island. The stops include several historic sites — The Settlement, First African Baptist Church, Cumberland Wharf, the remains of Robert Stafford’s Plantation and the lovely Plum Orchard mansion. For most people, this is the best way to see sights on the north end of the island. Besides the ferry ticket round trip and park entry fees noted above, the “Lands and Legacies” tour costs an extra $50.85 per person with tax and fees.
What To Pack?
Visitors need to bring their day’s supply of food and beverages. Realize you must tote all trash back off the island — it’s “carry on, carry off.” There are no garbage cans and, naturally, NO LITTERING allowed. Some water fountains are located near restroom facilities on the island. Don’t forget sunscreen and always be prepared for bugs. “Better safe than sorry!”
Seniors & Children
Most will do lots of walking, so visiting Cumberland may not be ideal for seniors with health issues. Nor young children who may become overheated and tire out, especially during summer’s heat and humidity. Nine months of the year the ferry operates 7 days a week. However, during 3-month winter season (Dec. 1st to Feb. 28th), ferry operates only five days (no ferry Tuesdays and Wednesdays).
Learn much more about the history of this Georgia barrier island by reading an in-depth article. Amelia Island Living eMagazine has published numerous articles about Cumberland Island over the years, browse collection.
There are five Cumberland Island camping areas, more info — two are more developed sites and three wilderness sites.
Bugs & Ticks
Bugs, especially ticks, are notorious on Cumberland, and campers have the greatest exposure. A camping excursion to this wild island is not for everyone (even for those who frequent state and national park campgrounds). There are a lot of considerations when contemplating a camping trip. Both advance reservations plus obtaining camping permits well in advance — often six months — are required.
Cumberland Island Hunts
Managed hunting of deer and wild hogs is scheduled seasonally (pre-registered hunters). Some visitors may want to avoid these times of the year. Note that Plum Orchard mansion and the wilderness area is off limits to visitors on hunt dates. Visitors will still be able to access Sea Camp and the Dungeness areas. Also, the “Lands and Legacies” tour does operate during managed hunts. Some hunting days occur in October, November, December and January. Check the National Park Service website for specific managed hunt dates each year.
Reserve Ferry Tickets
Note that since Hurricane Irma, an alternative dock is being used. It takes more time to park then walk three blocks. For those ready to pick a trip date and get ferry tickets, make reservations in advance. Book ferry tickets online by visiting the Cumberland Island National Seashore ferry concessioner website.