April 23, 2020

Cumberland Island National Seashore - Castaways on the Island

This post represents another installment in The Big Switcheroo series – tales from last spring’s epic journey from the northeast to the Florida Keys and back – involving family, friends and an extraordinary range of adventures.  Why is this series entitled “The Big Switcheroo?” Alan and I had booked a weeks-long camping loop of the southern states in the eastern half of the country for the Spring of 2019, but needed to change our plans when we found out that our son’s long-time girlfriend was graduating with her Master’s degree in May on a date we would be out of town.  We quickly swapped out the southern states loop for an extended trip to Florida that we had planned for the following year – hence, The Big Switcheroo.

Although Alan and I would have been quite content to simply enjoy some down time at our gorgeous campsite at Crooked River State Park, the main reason we had ventured to coastal Georgia was to explore Cumberland Island National Seashore.  Cumberland Island is Georgia’s largest and southernmost barrier island at 17.5 miles in length; it encompasses over 36,000 acres. 

There are no services on Cumberland Island, aside from restrooms and water fountains - no restaurants, no ice cream stands and definitely no tiki bars or craft breweries.  The Island is mostly wilderness with several camping areas, a few historical structures such as the Plum Orchard Mansion, the First African Baptist Church and the ruins of Dungeness, a mansion built by Thomas and Lucy Carnegie.  (Thomas was Andrew Carnegie’s brother.)  So, visitors need to be well prepared, packing in (and out) all of their supplies for the length of their stay.  As much as Alan and I loved tent camping when we were young adults, when we saw campers headed to the Island with their food, water, tents and other camping equipment packed in backpacks and rolling carts, we were extremely happy knowing we’d be driving back to Crooked River State Park and sleeping in our comfy bed with the A/C running that night.

There is a lovely waterfront park in St. Mary's, Georgia.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, let’s go back to the preparations necessary for a visit to Cumberland Island National Seashore.  Cumberland Island is only accessible via ferry or private boat.  Since we were traveling without our yacht (wink, wink), we made reservations for the Cumberland Island Ferry a number of weeks before our trip, a task which is easily done online.  Round trip tickets for the ferry currently run $30.00 for adults, $28.00 for seniors (age 62 and older) and $20.00 for children (ages 6 to 15).  Kids 5 and under are free.  If you’d like to bring your bike with you, the round trip cost is $20.00.  Bikes are also available for rent on the Island.  We had chosen not to bring our bikes with us, and that turned out to be a good decision for us.  While they certainly would have helped in covering distance on the main roads, it would have been difficult to keep them with us when hiking through the dunes or on the wooded trails.

The park on the St. Marys waterfront overlooks the St. Marys River.

In the spring and summer (and under normal circumstances which the current times definitely are not) the ferry makes two trips each day from St. Marys to Cumberland Island, and three trips back to St. Marys from the Island.  In the fall and winter, the ferry makes two trips out and only two trips back each day.  Currently, due to COVID-19, Cumberland Island National Seashore is closed and the Cumberland Island Ferry is not running.

We had never seen a "tide clock" before!

When Hurricane Irma blew through Georgia in 2017, she destroyed the ferry dock on the mainland, so the process last spring was to check in at the Cumberland Island National Seashore Visitor Center in St. Marys, confirm our ferry reservations, pay the National Park fee (or show your National Parks Pass) and walk several short blocks to the “new” ferry dock to board the Cumberland Queen II.  There is a free parking lot across the street from the Visitor Center in St. Marys; only handicapped parking is available at the ferry dock.  The Visitor Center has restrooms, a few exhibits and a small National Parks store where you can pick up a souvenir or two, and stamp your National Parks Passport.

The Visitor Center is on St. Marys Street in St. Marys, Georgia.

The Island is not that far from the mainland, but it’s a slow go when traveling by boat along the (very crooked) St. Marys River.  It was, however, a delightful 45 minute ride, filled with the anticipation of a day full of exploration, and we looked forward to docking at Sea Camp, the Rangers’ Station on Cumberland Island.

The Cumberland Queen II at the "new" dock, a few blocks from the Visitor Center.

Do you remember the television series “Gilligan’s Island?”  The captain and first mate on a tour boat (the SS Minnow), along with a handful of passengers, were shipwrecked on an uncharted island following a typhoon.  Well, we had a hot, but beautiful, day last May for our ferry ride with no storms in sight.  That being said, as we watched the Cumberland Queen II make her way back toward civilization after dropping us off on Cumberland Island, I really did feel like one of those castaways.


Ferry passengers who come to the Island to camp, grab their gear and set out, on foot, for their campgrounds.  Day visitors, like us, typically hike or bike the roads and trails of the southern end of the island, visit the ruins of Thomas and Lucy Carnegie’s home, Dungeness, and explore the lonely and lovely beach. 

The entrance to the ruins of Dungeness

In lieu of exploring the southern end of Cumberland Island, visitors have the option of taking a paid tour of the Plum Orchard Mansion (built by Lucy Carnegie for her son, George, and his wife) and the First African Baptist Church at the north end of the island.  This Lands and Legacies Tour includes several other historic areas and features on the Island, and reservations are made via the Cumberland Island Ferry website.  The cost is currently $45.00 per person.  Visitors, who have opted for the Lands and Legacies Tour, are picked up at Sea Camp by a tour guide with a van, and returned in time for the last ferry of the day back to St. Marys.

Sea Camp ~ the Rangers' Station on Cumberland Island

Since group tours are usually not high on our list of priorities and the sights at the north end of the island were a bit too far to hike to and back for day visitors watching the ferry schedule, we had already decided to stick to the southern end of the Island.  We packed enough food and water to sustain us through our Island exploration (along with sunblock and bug spray and all the other paraphernalia associated with a long day hike) and set out toward the ruins of Dungeness and the beach.  At the top of our “Hope to See” list were Cumberland Island’s feral horses, descendants of the stock brought to the island over 100 years ago by the Carnegies, and possibly even 100 years before that by Spanish explorers.

Throughout the day, we came across small groups of feral horses - so exciting!

Although you may get tired of hearing this, I never get tired of saying just how much Alan and I enjoy being outdoors, exploring our public lands.  Turn us loose for a day or a week in a State or National Park, and we’re as happy as pigs in mud.  Sometimes, we even get just that dirty, too.  There is something about feeling the wind and sun on my face, breathing in air fresh with the scent of pines or the salty smell of the beach, hearing critters rustling in the woods and feathered friends happily chirping in the trees, there is just something about all of that that whispers “home” to me.

Trail through the dunes to the beach

I’m not a city person and never will be, although I do enjoy, on occasion, the social, educational and cultural opportunities offered by one.  But it’s the peaceful solitude and magnificent beauty found in nature that never fails to revitalize my spirit and provide a deep sense of contentment.  The fact that the natural world always makes me happy is both inexplicable and reassuring.  I may not be able to come up with the words to convey my love for and appreciation of the great outdoors, but I can assure you that I feel both quite profoundly.

An enchanting island tree - I think he wants to give me a hug!

Alan and I spent the day on Cumberland Island hiking the Island’s trails, exploring the ruins of Dungeness and simply enjoying the presence of the wild horses.  We don’t need much of anything to piece together a great day or to make us happy.  Nature provides one delight after another, and we take the time to relish each and every one.

The cycle of life continues on Cumberland Island.

Our hike to the shoreline along the sandy portion of the trail was not for the faint of heart in the springtime heat, but we managed well with numerous breaks taken in the shade of the old, sheltering trees.  The beach was wild, lonely and quite appealing; I can easily understand why the Carnegies retreated to Cumberland Island with their family.

The solitude of a wide and wild beach fronting the Atlantic Ocean

Although the ferry had disgorged a decent number of passengers, due to the size and nature of the Island, it felt like we were two of only a small number of inhabitants – at least for that day.  Toward the end of the day, we followed a trail back to Sea Camp and the ferry dock, preparing for our re-entry to civilization.  The ride back to St. Marys on the Cumberland Queen II, with the quiet talk of fellow passengers, gave us a chance to ease back into the quicker pace of real life.

The River Trail near Sea Camp on Cumberland Island

Too tired to even think about cooking when we got back to “The Lodge,” as our travel trailer is affectionately known, we picked up takeout in St. Marys and enjoyed a quiet evening at our campsite in Crooked River State Park.  While reminiscing over the day’s experiences, we agreed that Cumberland Island National Seashore was worth every effort we made to visit, a fact that didn’t surprise us in the least.  The next morning would find us shifting gears, yet again, as we headed south toward Disney World.  (Talk about culture shock – YIKES!)  But before we arrived at the House of Mouse, we’d be stopping to visit someone we hadn’t seen in a long, long time.  I hope you’ll join us!

For more information on Cumberland Island National Seashore, be sure to visit the National Park Service website (link HERE).  From the NPS site, you’ll be able to link to Recreation.gov for camping reservations and the Cumberland Island Ferry service for ferry schedules, costs and reservations.  Let’s hope it won’t be long before this gorgeous Island re-opens and the Cumberland Queen II is once again plying the waters of the St. Marys River.


  1. Thanks for a tour of a place we won't be able to go. (We would be ejected from the NGS if they ever found out.) I'm curious; did you toss in the apostrophe on the first iteration of St. Marys in this piece to see if I would notice? I'm thinking you did, because you made such a point of the absence of it in your last post.) How naughty--thinking you'd slip that by me! I already had developed hives from your last post revealing this local grammatical abomination, and now this! Oh, the perfidy! I think I need more medication. (Um, it occurs to me you're wondering what 'NGS' stands for: National Glampers' Society, of course. All our members are inactive; active ones are booted out.)

    1. Mike, I could lie and say I put that one apostrophe in there just to see if you would notice, but the truth of the matter is that I just plain missed it - even though I proofread this post at least three times. I think those apostrophes just wore me out. Every time I typed "St. Marys," I would automatically add the apostrophe, then have to go back and delete it. Obviously, I missed one. I still don't understand why the town is actually called "St. Marys," instead of "St. Mary's." It makes no sense to me - but I did edit the post to correct my error. Thank you. I'm pretty sure I have too much mud on my hiking boots to ever be accepted as a member of the "National Glampers' Society." (How long did it take you to come up with that one?) But you can consider this post a public service, an armchair travel essay for NGS members who prefer locales with five star dining opportunities and the other accoutrements necessary to live a "glamporous" life.

  2. Wow, that is a beautiful island! AND, it has ruins... be still my heart. If it had an old cemetery (does it?) it would be pretty much perfect. If I ever travel east and visit Georgia again, I will add Cumberland Island to my must visit list.

    1. No, Janis, Cumberland Island doesn't have an old cemetery. It has TWO - the Carnegie Cemetery and the Greene-Miller Cemetery. Allegedly, the Greene-Miller Cemetery holds the grave of Catherine Greene Miller, the widow of American Revolution hero General Nathanael Greene. General Greene is allegedly buried in Savannah. Catherine's second husband, Phineas Miller, is allegedly buried there on the Island with her but there is no grave marker. Thomas Carnegie and his wife, Lucy, are both allegedly buried in Carnegie Cemetery, but Thomas Carnegie is also reported as being buried in Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It's all very confusing, and that's why I used the word "allegedly" so many times. It seems to me that there is a mystery here to solve amid the ruins and the cemeteries, so maybe you should move Cumberland Island up on your list of traveling priorities!

    2. Wow, two cemeteries! The island is definitely on my list now! (Did you get pictures?)

    3. Unfortunately, I have no photos to share. Although we walked around the ruins of the Carnegies' mansion, we somehow missed the cemetery and the ruins of a couple old outbuildings. The Greene-Miller Cemetery was north of Sea Camp, so we were heading in the wrong direction for that one. I almost think you'd need to spend two days on the Island to really do it justice - one to take the Lands and Legacies Tour to see the historical sites and one to hike the trails and explore the beach.


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