May 26, 2023 - Things to Do

A guide to camping on Cumberland Island

There's nothing like being alone on 17 miles of beach. Photo: Katherine Roarty

This spring I checked off a Georgia bucket list item: camping on Cumberland Island.

Catch up quick: Cumberland Island National Seashore is a crown jewel of Georgia's 100-mile coastline. It's only accessible by boat (there's a public ferry from St. Mary's) and is almost entirely undeveloped.

  • It has been protected as a result of being largely owned by a handful of families — including the Carnegies, who built massive mansions around the turn of the 20th century.
  • The National Park Service took over management of the island in 1972 and entered agreements with many of the homeowners regarding conservation of the island. Some have committed to turning over property in their wills.

The big picture: You can visit Cumberland for the day or have a range of camping experiences. However, it is probably best to avoid the dog days of summer. There are bugs, folks.

Camping: You will likely need to book your campsites (and ferry!) in advance. Online windows open six months out. Choose your adventure:

  • Sea Camp is the most accessible and popular campsite. You can easily wheel a wagon with coolers and other comforts of home to the campground from the ferry.
  • Stafford Beach is about a 3.5-mile hike in. It's a backpacking excursion and more remote but still has showers, toilets, potable water and power. This is what we opted for!
  • Wilderness campsites Hickory Hill, Yankee Paradise and Brickhill Bluff are further away, without potable water and other amenities — but even more secluded.

Yes, but: If you have no interest in roughing it, the Greyfield Inn is the only hotel on the island. It is beautiful, all-inclusive and run by Carnegie descendants.

Of note: Cumberland is known for its herd of wild horses. They're admittedly beautiful to see roaming on the beaches and marsh. But a lawsuit is seeking to remove them, alleging they both lead difficult lives there and are damaging the ecosystem.

What you'll experience: The awe of being surrounded by coastal Georgia's live oaks, Spanish moss and saw palmettos. The magic of being alone on 17 miles of undeveloped beach.

  • You can visit the ruins of one old Carnegie mansion, Dungeness, and take a tour of another that's preserved, Plum Orchard.
  • There are also guided tours by vehicle available from the Park Service.

Be smart: Bikes are allowed on the ferry! They will help you cover more ground.

The bottom line: If you're living in Georgia and you have never been to Cumberland, you're doing it wrong.


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