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Wander South Georgia: Cumberland Island

This is part of our Wander South Georgia Week. Be sure to see our full list of our favorite recommendations, places, and trip itineraries from our recent Wander South Georgia road trip. While we spend most of our time wandering mountain peaks and chasing waterfalls, we have been itching to take our wandering spirit on a tour of South Georgia for a hot minute. Recently we got the chance to head south and explore the southern part of our great state. So we hopped in our car and headed south towards Thomasville with the goal of making it to Savannah in a week. We made stops in the Okefenokee Swamp, Saint Simons, Jekyll Island, Cumberland Island, and finally . . . Savannah. So buckle up and follow along. Be sure to check out our full Wander South Georgia Road Trip over on the Explore Georgia blog.

If you live in or have been around Georgia at all, it is only a matter of time before Cumberland Island ends up on your bucket list. For me, I have been in Georgia for 20 plus years and since day one, I have heard about this little pristine island that sits off the coast of the state. Like a lot of people over the past year, not traveling created an awful lot of wanderlust. I spent the year of COVID making trip itineraries, bookmarking spots to visit, and just generally daydreaming about being somewhere else. So about a month after our vaccine, we knew the timing was right to check at least one spot off our growing travel list. 

First up, a little history about the island then further down, some tips and thoughts on our actual trip. 

The History

We thought it was important to begin our post on Cumberland Island by talking about what has felt like a pretty complicated history. 

The island was originally inhabited by the Timucua people. Timucua was a native nation who lived in Northeast and North Central Florida and Southeast Georgia. They were made up of 30 plus chiefdoms, each representing thousands of people. The part of the Timucua nation that inhabited Cumberland Island was part of the Tacatacuru chiefdom and lived on the island as early as 4,000 years ago. Their village was located on the southern end of the island although there were other villages scattered across the island and even more back on the mainland as far south as what is now Jacksonville. Like the Timucua nation, the indigenous nations that preceded them migrated between the island and the mainland in seasonal fish camps living off the resources the island and surrounding areas provided. 

In the late 1500s, the island began the Spanish colonization period. During this time, one of the earliest Spanish missions was established in the main Tacatacuru village in the southern part of the island. Like the colonization that was happening all across the Americas, there was often conflict, wars and raids between competing colonial powers, and periods of turmoil. As these non-native outside forces competed for Timucuan lands, their nation was slowly eroded, and eventually, their people were either assimilated or forced to leave. By the late 1700s, the island was virtually uninhabited. 

The island then exchanged hands and went to a private owner, Nathanael Green, and with it, the plantation era of the island began. Green and his wife, Catharine Littlefield Green, brought slaves with them to the island and had them build the first mansion, named Dungeness. Catharine remarried Phineas Miller during this time and they used 210 slaves on their new cotton plantation. The couple assisted, helped, and were instrumental in Eli Whitney developing the cotton gin, which historians believe helped rejuvenate the slavery industry during this time. 

The island changed hands in varying degrees through the 19th century before Thomas and Lucy Carnegie bought a chunk of land on Cumberland for a retreat in 1880. They built a mansion on the ruins of the first. It eventually became a 59 room castle with dozens of gardens, pools, and a golf course along with the 200 servants who maintained the island and mansion. During the Great Depression, the Carnegies left the island and the mansion was eventually burned to the ground in 1959 – and if you believe the rumors – by a disgruntled poacher who was shot by the caretaker a few weeks prior. The Dungeness Ruins you see on the island today are from this fire.

Throughout the 20th century, the island underwent many changes. The Carnegies built estates for their children across the northern part of the island and then sold the rest to a real estate developer who fought with conservationists about the direction of the island (including legend Carol Ruckdeschel). During this time, descendants of the original slaves, and eventually the staff for the inns on the island, also created and maintained farms on the north side of the island. It is tough to keep track of the history during this period as so many changes were happening to the island. Eventually, it became a part of the National Park Service in 1972. The majority of the land on the island was established as the Cumberland Island National Seashore. While there are private landowners on the island, the majority of the land is now managed and run by the park service allowing annual visitors to wrestle with its complicated past while enjoying its largely unspoiled beauty in the present.

We highly encourage visitors to check out the museum on the south side of the island for a fuller picture of Cumberland Island and how the land and the people have been in conflict throughout the island’s history. This is also a good book for the native history of the island and this one for a conservation history. We hope you consider purchasing from a local book store if you have the opportunity. 

Our Visit

If you are planning on visiting Cumberland Island, there are a few things you should keep in mind. The first being that they only allow a limited number of people on the island every day so if you are wanting to visit, you really do need to plan a few months in advance. The only way to access the island is via a daily round trip ferry. The ferry departs every day at 9:00 am and 11:45 am with returns at 2:45 pm and 4:45 pm. They recommend arriving at least an hour early for check-in for the departing trip. We stayed on Jekyll Island the night before so it was an early 6:00 am start for us to get ready and make the hour-long trip over to the ferry in time for check-in. Tickets are $15 per person with discounts for seniors and children and an additional $10 cost for bringing your own bike. If you want to use a bicycle to get around the island, we strongly recommend bringing your own as the rental bikes are often booked in advance. You can also camp on the island in dedicated spaces. We recommend you book even further in advance if you are planning on camping as they fill up quick.

Cumberland Island is 17.5 miles long so if you only have time for a day trip, we recommend you plan on just exploring the southern portion of the island. You can visit the northern part of the island on a day trip but to do so, you really need to book a van tour and it means you will miss out on the Dungeness Ruins and the beachside of the island. So we spent the day wandering the southern portion of the island by foot and didn’t regret not having bikes or visiting the northern section. 

In five hours, we were able to explore the ruins of the Dungeness Ruins, a beautiful section of beachfront with less than a half dozen other people, observe plenty of wild horses and wildlife, and generally see everything that we wanted to see. If you want to go somewhere and feel like you have the whole place to yourself, Cumberland Island is about as close as you’re going to get anywhere in the country.

One of the most noteworthy parts of Cumberland Island is the wild horses that occupy it. Between 150-200 feral horses live on the island and roam freely between the beaches, the Dungeness Ruins, and the inner sections of Cumberland. Many people believe that the horses arrived during the Spanish colonial period but in reality, they probably arrived much later during the periods of English control. The horses are one of the more controversial parts of the island with many wanting them removed and others advocating that they stay. From ideas on how to prevent their inbreeding, to their ecological footprint on the fragile ecosystem, you don’t have to search far to find a variety of ideas, positions, and proposals on how to deal with the horse population. 

While observing the horses, the National Park Service recommends staying at least one school bus length away from them for your safety and theirs. All the horses we saw on our visit were relatively passive and went about their own business as we watched them from a distance. There are stallions on the island, however, who do find themselves chasing and protecting the mares. 

With all things in nature, please make sure you Leave No Trace. This applies to everything from packing your trash out to observing the horses and other wildlife from a safe and respectful distance.

After visiting the ruins, the old outbuildings, and exploring the beach, we came back to the grass lawn in front of Dungeness, spread out a blanket, and had a picnic, and watched the horses as they grazed on the grass and lounged in the sun. This was one of the favorite parts of our visit as it was spring time and the air was nice and cool with a good breeze. We spent about an hour just spread out on a blanket observing the horses doing their thing. 

I will say I feel as though we picked the perfect time of year to visit. If you read reviews of Cumberland Island online, the only negative you can find is how bad the bugs and heat are in the summertime. Having visited a few other places in coastal Georgia, we can agree that time of year can be pretty brutal. So unless you just enjoy oppressive heat and lots of gnats, try and time your trip closer to the Spring or Fall seasons, particularly if you are camping. 

One last note . . . keep your eyes peeled for shark teeth on the paths you are walking. Many of the small roads are paved with crushed shells that are dredged up from the river. Georgia’s coastline was previously a pre-historic ocean so you can often find shark teeth that are hundreds of thousands of years old. Sharktooth Beach on Jekyll Island is a popular place to find them on the beach but since Cumberland Island paths are made with what is dredged up from the bottom of the Atlantic and surrounding rivers, you can find shark teeth as you walk along. We found seven in just the few hours that we were there and walking along!!!

All in all, Cumberland was an amazing experience and one that was well worth the visit. While it had been on our bucket list for nearly twenty years, it did not disappoint at all and our only regret is that we wish that we would have come and visited years earlier. 

In terms of what to bring, here is a small list we recommend:

  • Camera (With a zoom lens for wildlife)
  • Blanket or beach towel
  • Bug spray
  • Suntan lotion
  • Plenty to drink
  • Picnic lunch
  • Rain jacket