About Cumberland Island
Those familiar with camping on Cumberland Island know it requires a reservation weeks, often months, in advance. No more than 300 people are allowed on the island on any given day. But it doesn’t take long to see why Cumberland Island is worth the wait. Sunrises dazzle visitors as they sit on the white sandy beach. Wild horses casually roam the land, and wild hogs charge through thick brush, leaving guests in awe. History is so plentiful on the island that it takes new park rangers months to learn everything they need to know before they can share stories with visitors.
Cumberland Island is 16 miles long and 3 miles wide at its widest point, making it slightly larger than New York’s Manhattan island. It’s the largest sea island off the coast of Georgia and the only one that remains mostly undeveloped.
There are several ecosystems on Cumberland Island, including miles of beaches, freshwater wetlands, salt marshes and forests filled with its famous live oak trees. The natural diversity found on the island makes it habitable by lots of wildlife, including wild packs of turkeys and beach-strolling armadillos. Dolphins linger off the coast and large ospreys patrol the sky.
Cumberland Island National Seashore is one of 10 national seashores in the United States. The designation’s purpose is to preserve the natural shoreline while also allowing for water recreation, and Cumberland Island has been federally protected since 1972—but the history of the island dates back much further.
History of Cumberland Island
The Tacatacuru tribe of the Timucua Native Americans are the first known inhabitants of the island. In the 1500s, Spaniards came to Timucua’s homeland and claimed it as part of Spain’s colony, which spanned from South Carolina to Florida. After raids on separate occasions by the French and English in 1684, the Timucua people and Spanish settlers fled to present-day Florida. In 1736, a British general claimed Cumberland Island for England and named it after the Duke of Cumberland.
By the 1800s, the American Revolutionary general Nathanael Greene and his descendants owned several plantations on Cumberland Island. After the Civil War, the Carnegie family, who made their fortune in the steel industry, bought nearly 2,000 acres on Cumberland Island. Thomas and Lucy Carnegie built their version of the Dungeness mansion in 1884. It burned down in 1959, creating the famed ruins that visitors enjoy exploring today.
The federal government bought land from the Carnegies (and a few other land-owning families) in 1972 to create the national seashore on Cumberland Island. The preservation of Cumberland Island, which led to its national seashore status, wouldn’t have been possible without the advocacy of the Georgia Conservancy.
Georgia Conservancy’s Work
While private development has sprouted up on Georgia’s other barrier islands, Cumberland has remained relatively protected, thanks to decades of conservation work by advocates like the Georgia Conservancy. The group led efforts to persuade Congress to protect the isle as a national seashore in the ’70s and, later in 1982, to designate nearly 9,000 acres in the northern half as a federal wilderness area.
Hikers and other explorers can follow 50 miles of trails that have been restored, marked with signs and GPS mapped—the result of a trails restoration project that Georgia Conservancy completed in 2016. (REI Co-op provided the group $60,000 as part of the Every Trail Connects program.)
The National Park Service preserves the Dungeness ruins, and the trails were created and updated by the Georgia Conservancy and REI Co-op.
Most of the island’s visitors stay overnight by camping. Greyfield Inn is the only hotel in operation on the island, but there are several signs, especially along the main road, to make visitors aware of private property. Some members of the Carnegie, Rockefeller and Candler families still own land on the island today. NPS is negotiating with these families now to ensure conservation efforts are still met.
There are five campgrounds on Cumberland Island. Two campsites have a few amenities, and the other three are primitive with no amenities. There are no trash cans at any of the campsites, or anywhere else on the island: Campers and day visitors must be prepared to pack out all garbage. Reservations can be made through recreation.gov, and rangers recommend making a reservation months in advance.
Number of sites: 18, including three large-group sites
Cumberland Island’s most popular campground is a half-mile from the Sea Camp ferry dock. Those with reservations at Sea Camp can borrow National Park Service (NPS) wagons or bring their own to haul gear to their campsite. (Campers staying at the other sites are not allowed to use wagons of any kind.)
Sea Camp has the largest shower and bathroom facilities of all the camp facilities. It is wheelchair accessible and has potable water. There are separate spigots for refilling water bottles and for washing cooking utensils.
The campsites are remarkably private thanks to the saw palmettos that surround them. Each campsite has a metal fire ring with grills and a large bear box to protect belongings from raccoons. Cell service is available, but typically very weak.
Sea Camp has its own dock access to the beach. It’s also the closest campsite to the Dungeness ruins.
Number of sites: 10
The Stafford Beach campsite is about 3.5 miles from the ferry dock and is reachable by the main road or Pratt’s Trail and Parallel Trail. This campsite has a newer building with wheelchair-accessible showers and bathroom stalls. One of the newest features here is access to potable water, found on the side of the building.
The campsites at Stafford Beach don’t offer as much privacy compared with Sea Camp, but campers who want to be surrounded by low-hanging oak trees will enjoy the atmosphere. Each campsite also has a fire ring with a grill and bear box. These campsites also have quick access to the beach.
Wilderness Camping (Primitive Campsites)
Experienced campers looking for a more immersive nature experience can opt for one of the 12 camping sites in Cumberland Island’s three wilderness camping areas, on the northern side of the island. The wilderness campsites do not have bear boxes, so even though there are no dangerous animals like bears on the island, campers will need to hang their food and toiletries to avoid the clever raccoons who are notorious for grabbing whatever they can. Read Bear Canister Basics for information about protecting food from wildlife.
Well water is available at all three wilderness sites, but it’s not potable and must be treated. Read How to Choose Water a Water Filter or Purifier for more information.
Number of sites: 4
Hickory Hill is about 2.5 miles north of Stafford Beach or 5.5 miles from the Sea Camp ferry dock. Camping at Hickory Hill offers unique proximity to a freshwater wetland area.
Number of sites: 4
The Yankee Paradise campsite is nearly at the center of Cumberland Island. Campers staying at Yankee Paradise will need to hike 7.5 miles to the campsite, about a half-day’s walk. Campers can hike to the Plum Orchard Mansion, a historic mansion built by the Carnegie family, for tours as well as restrooms and water refills. Well water is also available but needs to be treated.
Number of sites: 4
The northernmost campsite comes with a 10.5-mile hike from the ferry dock to the place to set up camp. This campsite is ideal for seeing dolphins and manatees along the Brickhill River. Brickhill Bluff also gives campers easy access to historic landmarks like The Settlement, a Black American community established by freed enslaved people in the late 1800s.
The most common way to reach Cumberland Island is by a 45-minute boat ride on the Cumberland Island Ferry. The ferry typically makes two trips a day, one in the morning and another in the afternoon. Campers who are leaving Cumberland are asked to take the morning ferry back to St. Mary’s, since campsites must be vacated by 10 am. Visitors can use a private boat to get to the island, but private boats are only allowed to dock during daylight hours.
Ideal Camping Itinerary
For wilderness hikers who want to see as much of the island as possible, NPS education technician Robin Barker recommends this four-night itinerary: Spend the first night at Hickory Hill or Yankee Paradise, then two nights at Brickhill Bluff, which will give campers time to hike the north end of the island and see Lake Whitney, The Settlement historic area and hike the Roller Coaster Trail. Spend the fourth night at Stafford Beach for some extra amenities, including potable water and a bathroom with showers.
When to Camp
Year-round camping is available, but each season offers different benefits.
Winter – November and December can be ideal months to camp because the weather is cool, and crowds have lessened. Because crowds are smaller, campers need to plan around the ferry’s operation schedule: There is no ferry service on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from December through February.
Spring – Springtime brings the largest camping crowds, particularly in March and April, because the weather is temperate and birds are plentiful.
Summer – Summer camping is not for the faint of heart because the weather is hot and humid, which also brings lots of mosquitoes and ticks. (Read How to Choose Insect Repellent before your trip.) According to park rangers, hiking to the wilderness area is not ideal in the summer because of the heat. For those who are not deterred, August is the best month to catch a glimpse of loggerhead turtles hatching on the beach. Don’t forget to bring red lights so as not to disturb the baby turtles!
Fall – Fall is an ideal time to camp because temperatures have fallen, with highs in the 70s or 80s, and humidity levels that are more manageable. However, fall campers may need to be more flexible since Cumberland Island must occasionally close and/or evacuate campers due to threats of hurricanes.
Bringing a bike is a popular option for those who want to cover more ground on the island. NPS has temporarily stopped renting bikes, so visitors will need to bring their own. (Note: There is an extra charge for a bike on the ferry.) Park rangers strongly recommend bringing mountain bikes, since the sandy terrain can be hard on road bikes. Each ferry can only accommodate 10 bikes, so it’s best to reserve a spot early on the ferry’s website. Bikes are only allowed on the island’s main road and beaches, not on its hiking trails.
Barker says the biggest mistake he sees campers make is bringing too much gear. He says it’s especially common among people who are used to car camping. All the extra gear becomes a burden when campers must load and unload their gear from the ferry.
Campers are allowed to gather firewood on the island to build fires at Stafford Beach and Sea Camp, but campers will get more efficient fires by buying firewood on the ferry.
Ticks are prevalent across the island, especially in Stafford Beach and the wilderness campsites. Park rangers recommend not only bringing plenty of bug spray, but also a roll of masking tape or painter’s tape. If you have the misfortune of coming across a tick’s nest, use tape to take several ticks off at once.
Download the Cumberland Island park information on the NPS app before you leave for your trip. Look for the signs with QR codes at the Sea Camp ferry dock upon arrival. The map can help confirm campsites if you’re not familiar with the layout. It also follows your location on the island as you hike, even if you don’t have cell service.
The only hammocks allowed on Cumberland Island now are free-standing ones. Campers are no longer allowed to hang hammocks from trees because some trees have been damaged.
Rangers are quick to remind visitors upon arrival that no one is allowed to touch wildlife, including the wild horses.
The only natural items visitors are allowed to take home are shark teeth and seashells. Whether you choose to collect shells or not, everyone leaves Cumberland Island with fond memories of an amazing camping adventure.