This Little-Known Georgia Island Boasts Endless Trails And Pristine Beaches

Are you looking for a real getaway in nature? Sure, you could fly to distant locales on the other side of the planet, but there is a little-known spot off the coast of Georgia that is just about perfect. Cumberland Island National Seashore is a short 45-minute ferry or boat ride from St.Mary's, Georgia, and it's got everything you need to get away while not being away. No passport required here! One of the 15 barrier islands in Georgia and located just north of Florida's Amelia Island, this spot has hiking, camping, architectural ruins and buildings to explore, wild horses roaming everywhere, and miles and miles of beaches to enjoy. 


Cumberland Island was incorporated by the National Park Service in 1972, and it's a gorgeous mix of marshland, maritime forests, and beaches, 17 miles of them, in fact. A day trip might not be enough to see it all, and it'll definitely leave you wanting more. In addition to campsites, if you're feeling like a splurge, stay at the Greyfield Inn with its private beach, restaurant, and beautiful architecture and grounds. It's over $800 a night with a two-night minimum, but it's pure luxury when you get there. Here's everything you need to know about Cumberland Island, whether you're staying for a night or visiting for a few hours. 

Wandering through the past on trails and tours

A day pass for the island is $15 for visitors over 16 and free for those under that age. The Cumberland Island Ferry from Saint Mary's, Georgia, is $80 for two roundtrip adult tickets — for $10 more, you can bring your bike. Spots fill up fast, so reserve early and get there an hour beforehand. Private boats are welcome as well. Once you get to the island, there are plenty of tours available if you like some guidance. Land and Legacies is a driving tour that takes you all over the island for $65 per person.


You can also take a free tour of Plum Orchard Mansion, a late 19th-century Georgian Revival stunner once owned by George and Margaret Carnegie. Visit the Ice House Museum, the structure from 1900 once used to store ice and is packed with info on the Carnegies, the island, and its history. There is also the First African Baptist Church (1893), once the community of formerly enslaved peoples and the venue for the 1996 wedding of Carolyn Bessette and John F. Kennedy Jr. 

Wander the ruins of the Dungeness Mansion, built by Lucy and Thomas Carnegie (the latter died while it was being constructed), which was destroyed by fire in 1959. Self-guided tour on the National Park Service app or available if a guided tour isn't your thing. There are also ranger-led walks that start at the dock where the ferry arrives. 


Beaches, camping, and hiking on Cumberland Island

There are plenty of outdoor activities on Cumberland Island. The beaches are undeveloped, so there are no lifeguards, but they're great for swimming — at your own risk. Feel free to collect seashells (if they have no residents) as well as fossilized shark teeth found around the area. You may see wild horses on the beach and at Dungeness, but don't get too close — just enjoy them and take pictures for your souvenirs. You might see manatees, deer, turkey, raccoons, bobcats, sea turtles, alligators, and plenty of armadillos. 


There are several campgrounds on the island, but note that this is a pack-in, pack-out place with no garbage cans. There is some potable water, but treatment is recommended. There are also no stores on the island, so you should bring everything (including food) with you, including unexpected beverages to banish bugs from your campsite. Pack light (we recommend) the best backpacks for globetrotters) because you'll have to carry everything to the campsite from the ferry. 

There are lots of hiking trails and a convenient map here. The Dungeness hike takes you to the ruins 2.5 miles from the dock, and the short Nightingale Trail is less than a mile on the main road. It's an ideal walk for animal spotting. You can even hike to Sea Camp Beach, which takes about 20 to 30 minutes.