The Beauty of Cumberland Island National Seashore

By Whitney Jones, Girls Who Hike Florida Ambassador

I've never been one for beaches. Leave it to the Florida girl to shirk what her state is famed for! But when I heard about Cumberland Island National Seashore, I just couldn't pass up a chance to visit.

 From Stafford Beach Access Trail

From Stafford Beach Access Trail

Cumberland Island National Seashore is only accessible by ferry from the small town of St. Mary's, Georgia. St. Mary's is a quaint little seaside town with beautiful bay views and a cute historic downtown lined with restaurants and shops. Right on the bay is the Cumberland Island Visitor's Center where campers and day hikers check in for their ferry ride and obtain camping permits. The ferry has a limited capacity so be sure to get your ferry tickets as soon as possible by purchasing them online.

 The Parallel Trail to Stafford Beach Campground

The Parallel Trail to Stafford Beach Campground

There are two ways to spend an overnight or multi-day adventure on Cumberland Island: Camping (cheap) or staying at the Greyfield Inn (ridiculously expensive). Luckily, Cumberland Island has a good range of options when it comes to camping. There are three types of campgrounds to choose from: 

Sea Camp Campground: This is the most developed campground with restrooms, hot water showers, potable water, and is a short half-mile walk from the ferry dock with quick access to the beach. 
Stafford Beach Campground: This campground is a bit more rustic with restrooms, cold showers, non-potable water that must be boiled or filtered, and is a three and a half mile hike from the docks. Stafford Beach also has quick access to the beach which is a more lightly-trafficked beach than the one at Sea Camp. 
Wilderness Campsites: Wilderness campsites are varying distances from the docks depending on which site you choose. The wilderness campsites do not have any amenities and non-potable water sources can be a distance away from the campsites. These campsites are also varying distances from the beach.

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I camped with my dad at the Stafford Beach Campground and it was the perfect choice for someone like us with limited experience in backpacking, but looking to build on that experience. The campsites are large with a fire ring and plenty of space between each site. The restroom is a very short walk from the campsite and is cleaned once a day by park staff. There is also a kitchen sink behind the restroom building for washing dishes and getting water to boil or filter. Water here MUST be boiled or filtered so be sure to bring the necessary supplies to do so. While bears are not a problem on the island, food must still be hung from a tree to prevent rodents from absconding with your breakfast.

The wildlife on the island is abundant! In our short three mile hike to the campsite we saw an Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, a gopher tortoise, and the wild horses the island is known for. In fact, the wild horses spent a lot of time walking around the campsites at Stafford. While there one of the rangers informed us that the annual horse count was in process that weekend and the total came to 141 horses on the island for this year. Not to mention the dolphins we saw on the ferry ride, raccoons, armadillos, and various birds. This island is truly a place where wildlife reigns.

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The hike to the beach from the Stafford campsite is well marked and the beach was absolutely pristine. It's amazing seeing a beach for the first time in its natural state. No development, no beach chairs and umbrellas, and free from heavy foot traffic. When we got to the beach we were the only people there. The fun thing about Cumberland Island is that you ARE allowed to collect and keep shells from the beach. Shells, sand dollars, and drift wood were so abundant here we had to pick and choose which shells we'd keep and which shells we'd leave for others to enjoy. 

One thing to note about Cumberland Island is that you cannot visit the entire island in one day. My dad and I had intended to rent bikes so we could explore more of the island, but unfortunately the bike rentals are limited and they ran out before we were able to get bikes for both of us. You can, however, bring your own bike on the ferry for a small fee. So, while we couldn't bike around the island like planned, we did manage to get some good hiking in by hiking from Stafford Beach to Plum Orchard Mansion. Plum Orchard Mansion was built as a winter getaway for George Lauder Carnegie and his family. The home oozes wealth and opulence and is a true sight to behold. The tour of the home takes about an hour and takes you through the history of every room in the house. Other homes, structures, and ruins on the island, which we didn't have time to visit, are the Dungeness Ruins built for Thomas Carnegie and his family, the First African Baptist Church established in 1893 by African American residents of the island, the Ice House Museum which was built to hold ice shipped to the Carnegie estate, and the Ranger Station which is the first building you'll see when stepping on the island.

Needless to say, the island is huge and requires more than a weekend to explore. In total for the two nights we stayed we hiked 24.5 miles, and that was only a small portion of the island we were able to see. Renting or bringing your own bike would allow you to see more of the island, but would still require more than just a weekend to truly explore the entirety of this beautiful place. Another option to see more of the island is to do a Land and Legacies Tour which is a five to six hour motorized tour that will take visitors to see the historical sights on the north end of the island. Much of the sights on the south end of the island will have to be hiked or biked, but is much more manageable than the north end.

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I was saddened when we had to pack up camp and hike out Sunday morning. There just wasn’t enough time to visit everything I wanted to see! This certainly won't be the last time I visit Cumberland Island!

Happy National Parks Week!


Whitney is the Ambassador for our Florida chapter. You can join her local meetups and discussions through the Florida chapter by clicking here. To become a member of Girls Who Hike, click here.