Cumberland Island backpacking, camping & hiking guide

Cumberland Island adventure guide

Explore Cumberland Island on Georgia's southern coast, hiking, camping and backpacking amidst herds of wild horses, Spanish moss-draped gnarled oak, and Carnegie family mansion ruins.

Wide, powdery sand beaches stretch as far as the eye can see, a strip of wind-swept serenity on the Southern Georgia coastline. The scene is surreal and deserted. Despite the incredible beauty of the beaches, my only companions for miles here on Cumberland Island are wild horses, armadillos, and shore birds.

The serene, wide powdery sand beaches of Cumberland Island in Georgia: hiking and backpacking

Though now desolate, the island is steeped in history, once an oceanfront playground for the social elite. Few man-made structures punctuate the shoreline wilderness in the island’s 16-mile length. The most impressive – and imposing – structure is a stately estate the Carnegie family called Dungeness. It now stands in ruins, its ivy-covered shell a mere suggestion of the immense grandeur that life once held for Cumberland Island residents nearly a century ago.

Hiking to the Dungeness mansion ruins on Cumberland Island

Time seems to stand still on Cumberland, frozen on the day in 1925 when the Carnegie family left, turning its herd of horses free to roam the island and graze on sea oats. Generations later, their equine descendants, now wild, still roam Cumberland Island today.

Wild horses roam the beaches of Georgia's Cumberland Island National Seashore

Reptilian life thrives on the island – colorful, web-footed lizards bask in the island’s abundant sunshine, and alligators prowl the bay and island’s internal marshland. Horse bones lie scattered throughout the island, a reminder of the fragility of life.

Cumberland Island is slowly, and intentionally, returning to the wild, untouched state that East Coast barrier islands once were. Many of these coastal island wonderlands are now littered with pavement, vacation houses, drive-through liquor stores, gas stations, and miniature golf courses featuring pink-tinted waterfalls, fiberglass dinosaurs and fake volcanos. Cumberland Island is the exception, where wild horses outnumber humans and the few signs of civilization left on the island slowly decay in time in the island’s abundant sun, sand and wind.

Backpacking the deserted beaches of Cumberland Island in South Georgia

Now a National Seashore, the erasure of signs of humanity’s presence on the island is a well-crafted effort in preservation. Accessible only by boat, the National Park Service controls the number of daily and overnight backpackers and campers on Cumberland Island to promote preservation and minimize further signs of use.

Cumberland Island: when and how

When to visit? South Georgia’s moderate winters and early spring months are prime, when temperatures are pleasant and mosquitos and ticks are infrequent. Days are usually sunny and warm, and nights are pleasant and breezy, making for great camping weather in a 3-season tent.

The coast of St Marys, the dock of the Cumberland Island Ferry

The National Park Service allows a limited number of visitors to the island per day to preserve Cumberland’s beauty. Of those day visitors, even more limited are the lucky who secure space at the campground or backpacker-accessible backcountry campsites. Access Cumberland Island by ferry from the mainland town of St. Marys; visit the National Park Service’s Cumberland Island site for details.

Cumberland Island: top hiking, camping and backpacking adventures

The island’s remote location make it worthy of more than a day trip. Miles of deserted beaches, serene shoreline ecosystems and vestiges of the Carnegie family’s opulent life on the island dot the island, waiting to be explored. With some advance planning, turn a Cumberland Island day trip into an overnight adventure with our backpacking, hiking, and camping guides.

share this: