Wide, powdery beaches stretch as far as the eye can see, a strip of windswept serenity on the Georgia coast. The scene is surreal, deserted, and exceptionally beautiful. Despite the incredible beauty of Cumberland Island’s beaches, our only companions for miles are wild horses, armadillos, and shorebirds.
The island’s wild beauty is abundant. Giant live oaks twist and gnarl toward the bright blue sky, with tiny green leaves draped in smoky, wispy Spanish moss swaying gently in the breeze. Sunlight shimmers down through the forest canopy, catching in the moss like a veil and casting ever-changing patterns of shade and light on the forest floor. The island’s vegetation is lush, and alternates between fan-shaped saw palmetto plants and live oak forest, to groves of coastal pine and open, golden grasslands.
Though it’s now quiet and desolate, the island is steeped in history. More than a century ago, it was an oceanfront playground for the Carnegie family. Today, few structures punctuate the 16-mile shoreline and maritime forests. The most impressive is a stately estate the family named Dungeness. The mansion now stands in ruins, an ivy-covered shell of its former grandeur. Time seems to stand still on the island, frozen on the day in 1925 when the Carnegie family left, turning its horses free to roam the island and graze on sea oats. Their equine descendants, now wild, still roam the island in small herds.
Armadillos scurry throughout the maritime forests in search of grubs. Colorful, web-footed lizards bask in the island’s abundant sunshine, and alligators prowl the bay and marshlands. Horse bones lie scattered throughout the island, and horse whinnies carry in the wind. But what’s missing, despite the island’s exceptionally long and exceptionally beautiful shoreline, is an abundance of people.
The island is slowly returning to the formerly wild, untouched state of East Coast barrier islands. Many of the South’s coastal islands 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. This island is the exception, where wild horses vastly outnumber humans, and vestiges of civilization slowly decay in the island’s abundant sun, sand, and wind. Today, large portions of the island are protected as a National Seashore, accessible only by a ferry boat. It’s a blissfully remote place to hike and camp.
Cumberland Island top hikes: beaches and mansion ruins
The island’s windswept coastline and maritime forests offer more than fifty miles of nearly-level, sandy trails. Explore the island’s southern trails, hiking to serene, wide, powdery beaches and Dungeness, the ruins of a Carnegie family mansion.
Waves gently lap the island’s wide, powdery beaches, rolling conch shells and sand dollars onto the shore. Large horseshoe crab shells scatter among foggy, sand-pitted clusters of colorful sea glass and occasional intact antique bottles. Giant wooden beams and rusted metal dot the beaches, fragments of old boats and shipwrecks. Wild horses frequent the dunes lining the shore, grazing on sea oats in small herds, and shorebirds take flight above the island’s warm-water shallows, soaring in the beach breezes.
Other than the wildlife, most of the island’s beaches are usually deserted and serene, especially during the island’s colorful sunrises. When the weather is cool, the beach is an easy – and scenic – place to hike. The island’s northern beaches offer the best chance at isolated serenity; hike the beach in the hard-packed sand, or follow the Parallel Trail north from Sea Camp for the fastest access to the mid-island beaches.
Dungeness mansion ruins
The island’s marshy southern end wraps around the shell of the once-stately Dungeness mansion. It was a grand seaside palace built in the late 1890s, later abandoned by the Carnegie family. Dungeness stood unoccupied for decades until it was largely destroyed by fire in the late 1950s, and now, only the skeleton of Dungeness stands as a remnant of its former beauty. Wild horses, descendants of the original Carnegie herd, graze on the vast, open, grassy lawns surrounding the mansion, and trot freely past the grand stables where their noble ancestors once slept. A graveyard is tucked near the ruins, where family and friends are interred under gravestones weathered by rain, wind, and sand. Surrounding the Dungeness ruins, the recreation hall, stables, dock, servant’s quarters and accountant’s mansion remain as fragmented reminders of the island’s opulent history. Lining the sandy road to the beach, a line of antique vehicles stand frozen in time, rusting slowly in the salt-tinged sea breezes.
The mansion’s ruins, graveyard, and the abundant curtains of Spanish moss create a surreal yet placid atmosphere. There’s a sense of timelessness and serenity at Dungeness, mixed with a mysterious air. The ruins are simply stunning at daybreak, when sunrise casts its golden glow over the surrounding marsh and frames the estate in early morning light.
Hiking: what to pack?
The island offers no stores, public restaurants, or amenities, so remember to pack sunscreen, water, and snacks. Insect repellant is a must: ticks and biting insects are active nearly year-round. Don’t forget your usual hiking gear: check out our hiking gear list for packing inspiration. And our Atlanta Trails shirts and hats are printed and stitched locally in Atlanta and Asheville. They’re our favorite for trail adventures all over the South.
Cumberland Island camping and backpacking
While a day trip on the island is certainly memorable, there’s nothing quite like spending the night on these deserted shores. Camp at Sea Camp, or backpack to the island’s remote backcountry campsites.
Abundant nighttime stars, exceptional sunrises and sunsets, nighttime sea breezes, and access to the island’s treasures after the day-trippers leave on the last ferry: this is easily one of our favorite places to camp in Georgia. For easy access to the beaches, restrooms and the park office, the walk-in campsites at Sea Camp are a fantastic place to camp. These campsites are a convenient half-mile walk from the Sea Camp dock, and large wheeled carts are available at the dock, perfect for hauling gear from the boat to the campsite.
While Sea Camp’s amenities are limited, they offer rustic comforts compared to the island’s backcountry sites. The island’s level, sandy ground makes pitching and staking a tent a cinch. Cold water showers and fresh water are available at Sea Camp, and the campground offers sixteen level tent sites, each with a picnic table and a campfire ring. While they’re relatively close together, the island’s dense saw palmetto foliage offers plenty of privacy between the sites. And a beautiful beach is a short walk away from the campsites, perfect for an early morning swim or twilight stroll in search of shells.
Camping: what to pack?
Given the island’s usually warm climate, a well-ventilated three-season tent works perfectly, but be sure to pack a rainfly: mid-afternoon showers are frequent on Georgia’s barrier islands. Check out our camping gear list for our favorite tents, camp stoves, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, and camp cookware for a great night under the stars.
Backpacking to the backcountry campsites
If you’re up for a workout and willing to forgo Sea Camp’s amenities, the island’s three backcountry campsites offer abundant serenity and a more remote experience. Backpacking is our favorite way to explore the island: there’s a certain sense of adventure in pitching a tent on a remote island, miles from the boat dock and hours after the last ferry has left for the day. The island’s three backcountry sites include Hickory Hill (5.5 miles from Sea Camp), Yankee Paradise (7.5 miles from Sea Camp), and Brickhill Bluff (10.5 miles from Sea Camp, on the scenic Brickhill River). All three sites are large and accommodate multiple tents and multiple groups.
There are no bears on the island. But raccoons do roam the island, along with the herds of hungry, curious horses. To keep your food and fragrant items (like toothpaste) safe, you’ll need to hang your gear in a tall tree, so be sure to bring a length of rope long enough to hang a bag higher than a horse can rear up on its hind legs.
Falling asleep beneath the island’s abundant stars on a clear night is simply magical. The sound of the waves crashing, sea breezes flowing through the forest, and the continual hum of shore insects provides nature’s perfect lullaby. And breakfast on the beach is pretty much the perfect way to start the day.
Backpacking: what to pack?
Campfires are only allowed at Sea Camp, so if you’re backpacking to the backcountry campsites and plan on cooking your meals, be sure to pack a backpacking stove and fuel. And fresh water is scarce mid-island, so pack plenty of water. Lightweight hiking boots are perfect for hiking the island’s sandy trails, paired with lightweight hiking socks. Otherwise, we pack most of the typical gear that we pack for a backpacking adventure in the mountains. Check out our backpacking gear list for our favorite trek-worthy tents, sleeping gear, cookware and camp essentials, equally perfect for an island camping adventure or a backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail.
When to go and how to get there
Southern Georgia’s moderate winters and early spring months are prime times to visit the island, when temperatures are pleasant and mosquitos are scarce. Days are usually sunny and warm, and nights are pleasant and breezy, making for great hiking and camping weather.
The National Park Service allows a limited number of visitors to the island each day. The island’s ferry departs from the historic town of St Marys, a tiny, late-1700s seaside town just north of the Georgia-Florida border. The boat ride to the island is exceptionally enjoyable, cruising through brackish marshes while dolphins chase the boat’s wake. And spotting the stately ruins of Dungeness from the ferry for the first time is an unforgettable sight.
Ferry and campsite reservations are almost always required, and fill up weeks to months in advance. Visit the NPS website to make hiking, camping or backpacking reservations. And while dogs are technically allowed on the island, they’re not allowed on the NPS ferry or at the campsites, so unless you’re floating to the island on your own boat, please leave your four-footed adventure buddy at home.
Please leave no trace (and don’t pet the horses!)
However you choose to explore the island, please pack out everything you pack in and leave no trace to help preserve the island’s incredible beauty. And horse bites on a remote island are no joke: the island’s herds are wild, so please don’t approach, feed, or pet the horses.