Cumberland Island National Seashore in The Golden Isles

The most iconic image of Cumberland Island is its famous wild horses. Photo © Doug Anderson, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

The most iconic image of Cumberland Island is its famous wild horses. Photo © Doug Anderson, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Not only one of the richest estuarine environments in the world, Cumberland Island National Seashore (912/882-4335) is quite simply one of the most beautiful and romantic places on the planet, as everyone learned when the “it” couple of their day, John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette, were wed on the island in 1996. With more than 16 miles of gorgeous beach and an area of over 17,000 acres, there’s no shortage of beauty either, and the island’s already remote feel is further enhanced by the efforts that have been taken to protect it from development.

Cumberland is far from pristine: It has been used for timbering and cotton, is dotted with evocative abandoned ruins, and hosts a band of beautiful but voracious wild horses. But it is still a remarkable island paradise in a world where those kinds of locations are getting harder and harder to find.

Getting to and Around Cumberland Island

The most vital information about Cumberland is how to get ashore in the first place. Most visitors do this by purchasing a ticket on the Cumberland Queen at the Cumberland Island Visitor Center (113 St. Marys St., St. Marys, 912/882-4335, daily 8am-4:30pm, $20 adults, $18 seniors, $12 under age 13) on the waterfront at St. Marys. The ferry ride is 45 minutes each way. You can call for reservations Monday- Friday 10am-4pm The ferry does not transport pets, bicycles, kayaks, or cars. However, you can rent bicycles at the Sea Camp docks once you’re there. Every visitor to Cumberland over age 16 must pay a $4 entry fee, including campers.

March 1-November 30, the ferry leaves St. Marys at 9am and 11:45am, returning from Cumberland at 10:15am and 4:45pm March 1-September 30 Wednesday-Saturday, there’s an additional 2:45pm departure from Cumberland back to St. Marys. December 1-February 28 the ferry operates only Thursday-Monday.

One of the quirks of Cumberland, resulting from the unusual way in which it passed into federal hands, is the existence of some private property on which you mustn’t trespass, except where trails specifically allow it. Also, unlike the general public, these private landowners are allowed to use vehicles. For these reasons, it’s best to make sure you have a map of the island, which you can get before you board the ferry at St. Marys. There are no real stores and very few facilities on Cumberland. Bring whatever you think you’ll need, whether it be food, water, medicine, suntan lotion, insect repellent, or otherwise.

Area Information

Sights in Cumberland Island

The ferry typically stops at two docks a short distance from each other, the Sea Camp dock and the Dungeness dock. At 4pm, Rangers offer a “Dockside” interpretive program at the Dungeness Dock, Rangers offer a “Dungeness Footsteps Tour” at 10am and 12:45pm, concentrating on the historic sites at the southern end of the island. Also at the Dungeness dock is the little Ice House Museum (912/882-4336, daily 9am-5pm, free) containing a range of exhibits on the island’s history from Native American times to the present day.

Down near the docks are also where you’ll find the stirring, almost spooky Dungeness Ruins and the nearby grave marker of Light- Horse Harry Lee. Controversy continues to this day as to the cause of the 1866 fire that destroyed the old Dungeness home. Some say it was those freed slaves on the north end who lit the blaze, but others say it was the plantation’s final owner, Robert Stafford, who did it out of spite after his former slaves refused to work for him after the war.

Moving north on the Main Road (Grand Ave.) you come to Greyfield Inn (904/261-6408). Because it is a privately owned hotel, don’t trespass through the grounds. A good way farther north, just off the main road, you’ll find the restored, rambling 20-room mansion Plum Orchard, another Carnegie legacy. Guided tours of Plum Orchard are available on the second and fourth Sunday of the month ($6 plus ferry fare); reserve a space at 912/882-4335.

At the very north end of the island, accessible only by foot or by bicycle, is the former freedmen’s community simply known as The Settlement, featuring a small cemetery and the now-famous First African Baptist Church (daily dawn-dusk)—a 1937 version of the 1893 original—a humble and rustic one-room church made of whitewashed logs in which the 1996 Kennedy-Bessette marriage took place.

Sports and Recreation in Cumberland Island

There are more than 50 miles of trails all over Cumberland, about 17 miles of nearly isolated beach to comb, and acres of maritime forest to explore—the latter an artifact of Cumberland’s unusually old age for a barrier island. Upon arrival, you might want to rent a bicycle at the Sea Camp docks (no reservations, arrange rentals on the ferry, adult bikes $16 per day, youth bikes $10, $20 overnight).

Shell-and-sharks-teeth collectors might want to explore south of Dungeness Beach as well as between the docks. Unlike some parks, you are allowed to take shells and fossils off the island.

Wildlife enthusiasts will be in heaven. More than 300 species of birds have been recorded on the island, which is also a favorite nesting ground for female loggerhead turtles in the late summer. Of course, the most iconic image of Cumberland Island is its famous wild horses, a free-roaming band of feral equines who traverse the island year-round, grazing as they please.

Cumberland Island’s wild horses are not actually direct descendants of the first horses brought to the island by Spanish and English settlers, although certainly feral horses have ranged the island for most of recorded history. The current population of 250 or so is actually descended from horses brought to the island by the Carnegie family in the 1920s.

Gorgeous and evocative though these magnificent animals are, they have a big appetite for vegetation and are frankly not the best thing for this sensitive barrier island ecosystem. But their beauty and visceral impact on the visitor is undeniable, which means the horses are likely to stay as long as nature will have them. And yes, these really are wild horses, meaning you shouldn’t feed them even if they approach you for food, and you certainly won’t be riding them.

Accommodations and Camping on Cumberland Island

The only “civilized” lodging on Cumberland is the 13-room Greyfield Inn (Grand Ave., 904/261-6408, $475), ranked by the American Inn Association as one of the country’s “Ten Most Romantic Inns.” Opened in 1962 as a hotel, the Greyfield was originally built in 1900 as the home of the Carnegies. The room rates includes meals, transportation, tours, and bicycle usage.

Many visitors opt to camp on Cumberland (reservations 877/860-6787, limit of seven nights, $4) in one of three basic ways: at the Sea Camp, which has restrooms and shower facilities and allows fires; the remote Stafford Beach, a good hike from the docks and with no facilities; and pure wilderness camping farther north at Hickory Hill, Yankee Paradise, and Brickman Bluff, all of which are a several-mile hike away, do not permit fires, and have no facilities of any kind. Reservations are required for camping. All trash must be packed out on departure, as there are no refuse facilities on the island. Responsible alcohol consumption is limited to those 21 and over.

History of Cumberland Island

Like modern-day Americans, the Timucuan Indians also revered this site, visiting it often for shellfish and for sassafras, a medicinal herb common on the island. Cumberland’s size and great natural harbor made it a perfect base for Spanish friars, who established the first missionary on the island, San Pedro Mocama, in 1587. In fact, the first Christian martyr in Georgia was created on Cumberland, when Father Pedro Martinez was killed by the Indians.

As part of his effort to push the Spanish back into Florida for good, General James Oglethorpe established Fort William at the south end of Cumberland—the remains of which are now underwater—and a hunting lodge named Dungeness, an island placename that persists today. While land grants were made in the 1760s, they saw little follow-through, and by the time of naturalist William Bartram’s visit in 1774, Cumberland Island was almost uninhabited. But inevitably, the Lowcountry planters’ culture made its way down to Cumberland, which was soon the site of 15 thriving plantations and small farms. After the Revolution, the heirs of one of its heroes, General Nathanael Greene, established Dungeness Plantation in 1802, its central building a now-gone tabby structure right on top of an ancient shell mound.

Actual military action wouldn’t come to Cumberland until the War of 1812, when the British came in force and occupied the island for two months, using Dungeness as their headquarters. In the process they freed 1,500 slaves, who would then emigrate to various British colonies. In 1818, Revolutionary War hero General “Light-Horse” Harry Lee—father of Robert E. Lee—arrived on Cumberland’s shore, in failing health and determined to see the home of his old friend General Greene one last time. He died a month later and was buried here, his son returning later to erect a gravestone. Light-Horse Harry remained on Cumberland until 1913, when his remains were taken to Lexington, Virginia, to be beside those of his son. His gravestone on Cumberland remains to this day.

The Civil War—and another freeing of slaves—came again in the 1860s, when Union troops occupied the island. At war’s end Cumberland was set aside as a home for freed African Americans—part of the famous and ill-fated “40 acres and a mule” proposal—but politics intervened: Most of Cumberland’s slaves were rounded up and taken to Amelia Island, Florida, although some settled at the north end (the “Settlement” area today).

As elsewhere on the Georgia coast, the Industrial Revolution came to Cumberland in the form of a vacation getaway for a mega-tycoon, in this case Thomas Carnegie, industrialist and brother of the better-known Andrew Carnegie of Carnegie Library fame. Carnegie built a new, even grander Dungeness, which suffered the same fate as its predecessor in a 1959 fire.

Cumberland Island narrowly avoided becoming the next Hilton Head—literally—in 1969 when Hilton Head developer Charles Fraser bought the northern tip of the island and began bulldozing a runway. The dwindling but still influential Carnegies joined with the Georgia Conservancy to broker an agreement that resulted in dubbing Cumberland a National Seashore in 1972, saving it from further development. A $7.5 million gift from the Mellon Foundation enabled the purchase of Fraser’s tract and the eventual incorporation of the island within the National Park system.

Excerpted from the Seventh Edition of Moon Georgia.

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