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Cumberland Island National Seashore

A trip to Georgia's Largest and Southernmost Barrier Island


Cumberland Island National Seashore

Sea Camp Visitor Center on Cumberland Island - courtesy of William Gardner

Over the Christmas holiday a few years ago, my wife and I took a mini-vacation, driving north from our home in Fort Lauderdale about 500 miles up the east coast of Florida and Georgia to the city of Savannah. On our return trip, we visited several of Georgia's offshore islands that are collectively referred to as "The Golden Isles." Among our stops included a trip to Cumberland Island, Georgia's largest and southernmost barrier island. Established as a national seashore in 1972 by the National Park Service, Cumberland Island provides a unique opportunity to view the flora and fauna of a natural coastal ecosystem as well as to learn about the coastal heritage of the region. Located about three miles off the mainland, the 18-mile-long island varies from less than one-half mile to three miles wide, with about 80% of the island owned by the National Park Service.

How to Get to the Cumberland Island National Seashore:

Unlike the nearby islands of St. Simons and Jekyll, which can both be reached by causeway, Cumberland is only accessible by ferry or by private boat. We booked our passage on the park service ferry several weeks in advance -- something I would recommend highly -- since the park allows a maximum of only 300 people on the island at any one time. By staying overnight in the nearby town of Saint Marys, it took us less than 10 minutes to drive to the park visitor center, which is located along the Saint Marys River. By 8:30am, there were already several dozen people mulling around, hoping to get on a waiting list or preparing to catch the ferry to Cumberland Island. Judging by the large piles of gear and equipment stacked along the dock, it was clear that most people were planning to spend at least a few days camping on the island. Armed with only a backpack and a camera, my wife and I looked conspicuously unequipped, even though we were only planning to spend the day.

From March through the end of November, the National Park Service ferry operates twice a day, leaving the mainland at 9:00am and 11:45am and departing Cumberland Island at 10:15am and 4:45pm. From March 15 to September 30, there is also a 2:45pm departure from the island Wednesday through Saturday. From December 1 through the end of February there is no ferry service at all on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and no 2:45 departure from the island at all.

About 15 minutes before our scheduled departure, a park ranger gave us a brief lecture on the facilities on the island and issued the following warning: "If you hear the boat whistle at 4:45 and you're not on the boat, your status just changed from day visitor to camper." The scenic 45-minute ferry ride to Cumberland Island took us down the mouth of the Saint Marys River and across the Cumberland Sound to the Dungeness Dock, located at the south end of the island.


Cumberland Island was inhabited by Indians as far back as 4,000 years ago, and more recently was the site of Spanish missions and British colonial forts. Revolutionary War hero Nathaniel Greene purchased land on the island in 1783 and his widow, Catherine Greene, built a four-story home that she named Dungeness. In the 1890's "The Settlement" was established at the north end of the island for black workers. The First African Baptist Church, established here in 1893 and rebuilt in the 1930s, is one of the few remaining structures of this community. In the 1880's Thomas Carnegie, brother of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, began building a mansion on the site of Dungeness, though he never lived to see its completion. Today, the ruins of the mansion remain on the southern end of the island. Plum Orchard, an 1898 Georgian Revival-style mansion built for son, George, and his wife, Margaret Thaw, was donated to the National Park Foundation by Carnegie family members in 1971.
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