Cumberland Island Backpacking Guide
Explore Cumberland Island's shores amidst wild horses and mansion ruins on an overnight backpacking adventure on Georgia's southern coast.
Cumberland Island Ferry
I arrive at dawn in St Marys, a tiny, late-1700s coastal town just north of the Georgia-Florida line. The Cumberland Island Ferry departs several times a day from St Marys, and I arrive early, having spent the night in Savannah after departing Atlanta the day before. After checking in at the National Park Service office, I return to my Jeep to grab my backpacking gear and head to the dock where other Cumberland Island visitors are assembling, most day-trippers to the island.
The ferry’s crew invite backpackers to board first and pile our gear on the front of the ship. Minutes later, passengers load the ferry, the engines turn and we push away from the mainland. Adventure begins. The ferry cruises through brackish marshes, a herd of dolphin chase the ferry, playing in the rippling wake of our boat. A submarine crosses our path, headed for the deep waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
And then, suddenly, Dungeness is faintly visible on the end of an otherwise deserted island. Cumberland stretches to the North far into the horizon. The island is much larger than I’d anticipated. Adrenaline and excitement start to build as the ferry approaches Cumberland. We follow the shoreline closely, drifting slowly, allowing glimpses of the stately Dungeness ruins behind the cloak of densely gnarled live oak branches. Spanish moss drapes the trees, blowing gently in the warm island breeze.
Cumberland Island Backpacking: Orientation
Finally, we dock, the boat’s engines reversing as we glide to shore. I grab my backpack, turn on my Garmin Oregon 600 GPS, and my boots land on the sandy Cumberland island ground. I’m here. I follow the other campers and backpackers into the Sea Camp lodge for a quick orientation and assignment of campsites and backcountry backpacking sites.
A friendly, witty National Park Service officer leads the orientation. She’s terrified of bear, she explains, and Cumberland is the only National Park land with no black or brown bear. But, she cautions, the beautiful horses of Cumberland Island are wild, and are to be admired from a safe and respectful distance. To make sure we’re listening, she proceeds to tell a few grisly tails of tourists who ignored the wild-horse-standoff rules and suffered horse bites requiring umpteen stitches. So don’t pet, or feed, the wild horses. Noted.
A note regarding backcountry campsite selection for backpackers: the site assignment is random and happens once you’ve arrived on the island and report in at Sea Camp. There are three backcountry camp sites, ranging 5.5 miles to 10.5 miles from Sea Camp. You’ll want to pack water and supplies assuming you’re hiking to the furthest campsite, just in case.
Orientation over, I grab my Osprey Aether 70L backpack and hit the Cumberland Island backpacking trail.
Cumberland Island Backpacking
Cumberland Island’s beauty is overwhelming, the landscape surreal. Giant live oaks twist and gnarl toward the great open sky, their tiny green leaves a brilliant contrast to the smoky, wispy Spanish moss that drapes their branches and sways gently in every breeze. Sunlight shimmers down through the forest canopy, catching in the Spanish moss like a veil and casting ever-changing patterns of shade and light on the sandy ground beneath my boots.
The main, and most direct, backpacking trail to the backcountry sites is the parallel trail, leading North towards Cumberland Island’s desolate, serene northern shores. The alternates to the parallel trail are limited: a sandy road, occasionally driven by National Park Service vehicles, or the beach, a decidedly more difficult – not to mention warmer and sunnier – hike. Knowing my beach-bound agenda once reaching my assigned site 7.5 miles to the north of Sea Camp, I choose the parallel trail as the most direct but scenic path to ditching the weight of my pack, making camp, and exploring the island.
Giant green-fanned saw palmetto plants carpet the sandy ground. Sand is soon everywhere – in my pack, socks, pockets, boots. Lightweight hiking boots are the footwear of choice on the island, paired with lightweight hiking socks.
Cumberland’s central island topography and vegetation varies, from saw palmetto and live oak forest, to groves of pine, to dry, open, golden grassland.
Cumberland Island backpacking and hiking is different from the mountainous terrain I’m used to in the North Georgia mountains. Underfoot, the sandy ground provides a soft cushion. The mid-island sand is compacted and held together by vegetation roots, providing good traction. Distances covered are surprisingly quick, a nice tradeoff for packing a considerable weight in drinking water. Elevation change is extremely gradual and comprised of mere feet of change.
Horse whinnies are audible throughout the island. In fact, horses are more often heard than seen. Chances are excellent, though, of catching a glimpse of the roaming wild herds, and I catch my first – a lone, brown horse grazing on a dune as the parallel trail leads my hike closer to the shore line. She raises her head, curiously, staring my direction for a moment before continuing her graze.
The same trails hiked by backpackers are commonly used by the horses, Cumberland Island’s permanent residents. Armadillos scurry across the hiking trail, searching for grubs. These odd, prehistoric, tank-like creatures flee in a bee-line when spooked – generally without consideration, often scurrying straight into an obstacle.
Camping and Hiking
I complete my hike, arriving at my assigned backcountry campsite (check out our Cumberland Island Camping Guide for more info on camping the island).
Settled at camp, I grab my day hiking bag and set off to explore the Cumberland Island’s southern half, including its serene, solitary beaches and the ruins of a once-grand Carnegie mansion.
Cumberland Island Backpacking: Directions & Details
Free parking is available in St Marys at the Cumberland Island Ferry dock. See the official Cumberland Island NPS website for ferry fee, camping fee and entrance fee information.
30.720477, -81.550551 // W30 43.229 W81 33.033