Seashore Wanderlust — Ready To Explore Cumberland Island, GA?

Take a 45-minute voyage aboard a ferry for a pleasant excursion to reach this largely wild sea island at the Florida-Georgia border.

Plenty of people are raring to go somewhere special this spring or summer of 2022. A wonderful day trip adventure is an excursion to Georgia’s largest barrier island. Situated here at the Florida-Georgia border, visitors to this region (local residents, too), relish time spent on enchanting Cumberland. An extraordinary place to explore, who’s ready to spend time outdoors hiking or biking?

Empty seashore, Cumberland National Seashore, Georgia barrier island. Photo by Amelia Island Living magazine.
America’s Empty National Seashore. Cumberland Island located on the Eastern Seaboard at the Georgia-Florida border.

If you appreciate a natural setting with very few people around, treat yourself to a day on Cumberland Island. Measuring about 17.5 miles long (by half a mile to 3 miles at its widest), public access is limited to only 300 people per day. Consider this island is larger in square miles than New York City’s Manhattan Island.

Long History of Human Occupation

Before European colonies, Cumberland Island was inhabited by indians, the Timucuans, dating back around one thousand years ago. Then Spaniards eventually arrived in the 1550s, followed by the English. The island later became cultivated by plantation owners. According to the National Park Service, as of 1850, “there were 455 black slaves producing cotton on Cumberland Island.”

A couple of decades after the American Civil War ended in 1865, it was Lucy Coleman Carnegie who acquired most of Cumberland Island after Thomas Morrison Carnegie, her husband, had died in 1886. During the Carnegie era, as many as 200 to 300 were employed to help sustain gardens and several Carnegie estates. It wasn’t until 1972 when the majority of the island became federally-owned with the creation of Cumberland Island National Seashore.

Cumberland’s “Wild” Horses

A popular attraction, Cumberland’s feral horses are often seen around the Dungeness ruins area. But as one explores the island, they’re sometimes also spotted along trails, in the expansive dunes near the seashore, and even right on the beach.

The horses on Cumberland today are not managed by the park service and are non-native to the island. Cumberland Island’s horses are commonly called wild, but they’re actually feral. This means they were once domesticated (property owners on the island had horses for farming, carriages, and hunting). But with the passing of time and property ownership changes, the horses came to rely on the island’s natural sustenance to survive.

Beware warnings issued by the park service to keep away at least 50 feet from them. Apparently, they’ve been known over the years to sometimes kick, bite, or even charge — so better safe than sorry.

While local lore often heard is how Cumberland’s horses originate back to Spanish colonial settlers of the 1500s, DNA eventually proved otherwise. According to the NPS, “Genetic studies conducted in 1991 by the University of Georgia and University of Kentucky on the island’s population showed that Cumberland’s horses are closely related to Tennessee Walkers, American Quarter Horses, Arabians, and Paso Fino.”

Cumberland Island Ferry Transportation

The ferry that transports passengers over to this Georgia barrier island departs from a dock located in St. Marys, GA, see daily ferry schedule for Spring/Summer 2022 further below (there’s no public ferry from Amelia Island). The Florida side of the St.Mary’s inlet is home to the charming, historic city of Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island. For many, the journey to Cumberland Island, GA starts here on Amelia. This Florida barrier island is brimming with amenities (nearly 100 restaurants, two luxury golf/spa resorts, plus multiple other hotels and Fernandina’s charming bed & breakfast inns downtown).

Cumberland Island — Not To Be Missed!

Plenty of visitors planning to see Cumberland opt to book several day stays on Amelia Island since there’s ample lodging, eateries, and activities here. Nature lovers and history buffs should reserve one day to drive north about 45 minutes from Amelia to catch the St. Marys, GA ferry and spend a day exploring our next door neighbor. Georgia’s most southeast island is a destination not to be missed when visiting the Florida-Georgia border area.

Aboard the Cumberland Island, Georgia ferry. Photo by Amelia Island Living magazine.

Take a 45-minute voyage (each way), aboard a ferry from St. Marys, GA for a nice cruise to this largely wild sea island. (See Cumberland Island ferry schedule for spring and summer 2022 below). The ferry service runs 7 days a week during spring and summer seasons — March 1st through September 30th each year.

March 1st – Sept. 30th Cumberland Island Daily Ferry Times
Leave St. Marys, GAArrive CumberlandDepart CumberlandArrive St. Marys, GA
9 a.m.9:45 a.m.10:15 a.m.11 a.m.
11:45 a.m.12:30 p.m.2:45 Mon-Sat3:30 p.m.
4:45 p.m. 5:30 p.m
Arrival Docks At Cumberland Island National Seashore

The Cumberland Island ferry drops passengers at either the Dungeness dock or at Sea Camp (located a bit north of Dungeness). Logistically, this southern area of Cumberland Island is easiest for day trip visitors to explore, since in a closer vicinity of the ferry docks. Pictured below, the Ice House Museum on waterfront near Dungeness dock. On weekends, a park ranger typically meets the morning ferry arrival and then conducts a narrated walking tour to the Dungeness mansion ruins.

Ice House Museum, Cumberland Island, Georgia near Dungeness dock. Photo by AmeliaIslandLiving.com
Ice House Museum, Cumberland Island National Seashore
Recommended Trail — The Southern Loop

Those who wish to explore further, take the Southern Loop, a 4.5 mile route (round trip) on the south end of Cumberland Island that goes from the riverfront over to the oceanfront (pick up trail maps at Visitor’s Center when checking in to catch ferry). The loop can be done starting at either Sea Camp dock or the Dungeness dock. Visitors do a self-paced hike stopping at popular points of interest including the Ice House Museum next to the Dungeness dock and the Dungeness ruins (a Carnegie mansion that burned down in 1959). The Southern Loop also takes visitors along wooded trails through maritime forest, along the salt marsh on boardwalk, through impressive sand dunes and oceanfront on the Atlantic coast beachfront.

How Much Does It Cost To Visit Cumberland Island?

The basic cost (per adult) to visit Cumberland Island National Seashore in 2022:

  • National Park Service Admission Fee: $10 per adult.
  • Cumberland Ferry ticket cost: (Booked in advance online) $19.21 per adult ferry ticket one way, or $38.42 round trip (with taxes and fees). So figure it costs nearly $50 per adult to visit Cumberland Island. (See additional costs further below to rent a bicycle or take van tour to explore the remote north end).
Cumberland Island — Some Travel Tips

Visitors must bring all daily supplies for a trip to Cumberland Island. Pack your own food and beverages, sun screen, bug repellent and be sure to wear comfortable footwear. There’s no place to purchase food/drinks once you’re on Cumberland Island (but there are water stations to fill water bottles carried by visitors at Dungeness area, Sea Camp, and Plum Orchard). Also note it’s “carry on, carry off” this Georgia barrier island. There are no garbage cans, so all trash must be carried around during the day and removed upon departure.

No-see-ums (sand gnats) can be pesky on Cumberland Island, especially around the salt marsh and bug repellent may not help much. Some folks suggest Skin So Soft (Avon) or essential oils (like lavender, lemon or eucalyptus), but relief seems subjective. Do check yourself for ticks after a trip since they’re abundant on the island. Overnight campers, especially, should be prepared for what can be a very buggy adventure.

Plum Orchard Mansion, Cumberland Island

The marvelous Plum Orchard mansion (pictured below), a 22,000 square foot Carnegie “gentleman’s country home” dating back to 1898, is located approximately 7.5 miles north of the Sea Camp ferry dock.

Plum Orchard circa 1898, Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia. Photo by AmeliaIslandLiving.com
Plum Orchard circa 1898, Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia. Photo by AmeliaIslandLiving.com
Plum Orchard Tour Times in 2022

Three Plum Orchard tours are free (lasting about 45 minutes). The daily tours are 11 a.m., 1 p.m., and 2 p.m. (Note — the park’s reduced capacity policy is 10 people per Plum Orchard tour as of early March 2022).

The mansion has 30 main rooms, 12 bathrooms plus smaller rooms. A magnificent “Classical Revival” mansion of 22,000 square feet, step through the grand entry into another era of Southern comfort.

Realize there’s no direct public ferry service to Plum Orchard estate. The more remote location of Plum Orchard (compared to easier access areas of Dungeness and Sea Camp), means walking to Plum Orchard is not feasible for day trip visitors. (See more logistics about getting to Plum Orchard further below).

Magnificent Home A Wedding Gift

Plum Orchard was built during 1898-1899, one of several “country” homes built on Cumberland Island by Lucy Coleman Carnegie. The mansion was a wedding gift for her son, George Lauder Carnegie and his new wife, Margaret Copley Thaw (married in October 1898). Margaret and George were just 18 and 19 years old when they moved into Plum Orchard. After the original structure was built, a few additions were done until 1906-1907.

Plum Orchard Historic District

Visitors to Plum Orchard step back in time as they cross the home’s threshold into the front hall. However, guests are touring a home that was ahead of its time when built. For its day, this home had surprisingly advanced plumbing and an indoor swimming pool with heated water. Much of Plum Orchard is adorned in elegant finishes — parquet floors, intricate trim woodwork and cabinetry, and remarkably modern conveniences for its time, including an elevator.

“A gentleman’s country estate,” Plum Orchard’s significance is recognized as a historic cultural landscape.  The home offers an opportunity to glimpse turn of the 20th century lifestyle of one of the most famous families in the world at the time. But the home’s extraordinary setting, located on this wild Southern barrier island accessible only by boat, adds to its intrigue.

Logistics Of Getting To Plum Orchard

Those who arrive on Cumberland Island via the public ferry service from St. Marys, GA for a day trip have three transportation options to reach Plum Orchard: 1) personal pedal power, 2) a van tour, or 3) arrive by private boat.

Unfortunately, the the public ferry service DOES NOT go to Plum Orchard’s dock. Plum Orchard is not a reachable destination by foot for day trippers with its long distance from Sea Camp combined with limited tour times and ferry schedule constraints.

Three Options To Reach Plum Orchard, Explained:
  • Option #1 — Ride a bike approximately 15 miles round trip on sandy, unpaved road between Sea Camp and Plum Orchard estate. Remember, weather also plays its part adding biking challenges when hot. Or when storms roll in — sometimes sudden outbursts in summertime. BRING YOUR OWN BIKE — The ferry from St. Marys does accommodate ferry reservations for a very limited number of bikes — up to 15 personally-owned bicycles. For those desiring to bring a bike over to Cumberland, book ferry transport well in advance (cost is extra $10 for bike transportation). Bike rentals (only adult-sized bikes) cost $16 per person (pick bikes up at Sea Camp). CAVEAT: Rental bikes ARE NOT ALLOWED ON THE BEACH. Only privately-owned bicycles are allowed on the seashore. Note that biking rules limit personal bikes on the beach to the area between Dungeness and Sea Camp (about 1-mile), according to the National Seashore. ALERT — As of March 2, 2022, rental bikes remain unavailable. Unfortunately, a long-awaited shipment of new bicycles hasn’t shown up for months (due to supply chain issues). Call the National Seashore at 912-882-4336 (ext. 254) to check on bike status.
  • Option #2 — Make a reservation for the Lands & Legacies van tour, since Plum Orchard is one of the stops during the five to six-hour-long motorized tour. All stops are north of Sea Camp (Dungeness is NOT on this tour). Lands & Legacies tour tickets cost $50.85 per person (with taxes and fees), make reservations online.
  • Option # 3 — Visit via private boats. Plum Orchard has its own dock and private boaters can tie up boats at Plum Orchard’s dock on its northern end.  Docking is first come/first serve and not overnight — sunrise to sunset only — limited to boats under 25 feet.

Once a year in December, a special Christmas Tour of Plum Orchard happens. On this special, one-day-only occasion, a ferry load of passengers is transported north to the Plum Orchard dock on the Brickhill River. (During the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, the Christmas Tour was not offered, but it possibly will be revived for holiday season 2022.)

Preservation Work At Plum Orchard

Plum Orchard tours had closed back in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, not reopening until late November 2021. During the mansion’s closure to the public, maintenance and renovation work was completed. Southeast Georgia’s hot, humid coastal climate is harsh on structures. The more recent renovations at Plum Orchard included painting the mansion’s exterior, replacing its roof, and repairing the porch railings – the rotted balustrades (the columns of the railings). Back in 2007, over $3 million had previously been invested to complete major renovations to restore Plum Orchard.

Departure Dock & Visitor’s Center, St. Marys, GA

Cumberland Island National Seashore’s new ferry dock is located near the Visitor’s Center on the Georgia mainland in St. Marys. The address is 113 St. Marys Street St. Marys, GA 31558. (Ferry passengers no longer have to walk the extra distance to the “Gateway” dock that was used for a few years after a hurricane had damaged the city’s waterfront docks). Purchase Cumberland Island ferry tickets online.

No Day Trip Ferry From Amelia Island To Cumberland

Located at the Florida-Georgia border, Cumberland Island is on the north side of the St. Marys River inlet/Cumberland Sound, across from Amelia Island, FL’s northern tip. Although these two islands are in very close proximity, the ferry transportation concession contract for public ferry access to Cumberland Island National Seashore was solely awarded to a provider in St. Marys, GA. To travel from Amelia Island to catch the St. Marys ferry service to Cumberland Island, plan for 45 minutes to 1-hour drive, depending on traffic. (The only exception is a private ferry, the Lucy R. Ferguson (pictured below, exclusively for overnight guests of the Greyfield Inn who catch this private boat from Fernandina’s city marina downtown).

Greyfield, another home built back in 1900 by Lucy Coleman Carnegie (and still property of Carnegie family, a 200-acre estate), began accommodating guests in 1962. It’s the only lodging establishment on Cumberland. Greyfield’s 2022 room rates start around $700-plus per night (2-night minimum, typically), plus taxes and gratuity. The inn offers 15 rooms and rates are all-inclusive with three wonderful meals daily, plus ferry transportation, nature tours and transportation to historic sites, use of bicycles and more.

Besides the lovely, historic inn, also held in high regard is Greyfield’s culinary experience, farm to table fresh from their huge chef’s garden, and wild-caught shrimp from local waters. They’re also beekeepers, with Cumberland Island honey used in baked goods, meals and beverages. See the Greyfield Inn website for more information.

It’s well worth reserving time to visit Amelia Island’s northern neighbor, Cumberland. Enjoy these two barrier islands here at the Florida-Georgia border!

For further info, see also National Park Service website for Cumberland Island National Seashore .
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