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DO IT: Hiking - Cumberland Island National Seashore

Cumberland Island National Seashore -

With miles of wide, pristine beaches, excellent camping, dense maritime forests, historic mansions, and breathtaking ruins, Cumberland Island National Seashore is as enchanting as it gets. One trip to Georgia’s southernmost barrier island is all it takes to discover there’s no coastal escape quite like it.

The trek to Cumberland Island, which is only accessible by boat, begins in the quiet coastal town of St. Marys, GA. The walkable streets and waterfront make it a pleasurable respite in Camden County, which is also home to Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay. Cumberland Island Ferry reservations are recommended as ferry trips regularly sell out in advance; however, tickets can be purchased the day of travel no later than an hour before the desired ferry. You can also pay for your national park entrance fee at the ferry office, while overnight camping would need to be reserved in advance through the federal recreation site here.

There is plenty of day and overnight parking in designated areas but be sure to leave extra time to walk to the ferry dock, which is roughly three blocks from the ferry ticketing building. While bikes are available to rent once on the island, the $10 fee to bring your personal bike over on the ferry is not cost prohibitive and is in fact cheaper than a rental bike. If you have a bike you like with tires that can handle the sandy roads and bike paths, it will be worth it to bring it, especially if you want to cover ground as you explore.

However you decide to travel, be sure to pack light, bring plenty of water, and take your trash with you. There are no trashcans on the island as it is designated as a “pack out” preserve and only water on the south end of the island is potable from the tap.  

The ferry ride is pleasurable and allows visitors to soak up the sights, smells, and sounds of the St. Marys River that divides Georgia and Florida before turning north up Fancy Bluff Creek en route to the Sea Camp Dock and ranger station on the west side of the island.

Once on Cumberland Island, visitors should determine which direction they’d like to explore and how long they plan to stay, if they’ve not done so already. With 50 miles of hiking trails, a plan is essential to making the most of your trip.

The southern end of the island is the most popular section for day visitors because it is the most walkable and can be traversed in a daytrip. Not only does the south end feature several historic structures and multiple environments in a relatively small area, it is the most likely area to see the famed feral horses of Cumberland Island.

About North End Hiking

Hiking north on the Parallel Trail, or Main Park Road, will take you through the heart of the island under a draping canopy of live oaks, across forest floors packed with palmetto, through tall stands of stately pines, over open fields, near tidal creeks, freshwater wetlands, and lakes. For a true backcountry experience, consider taking Parallel Trail or one of the many other backcountry and wilderness trails that traverse the island. Biking is only permitted on the Main Road and other designated trails, so be sure to follow the park map and park signage. A sturdy bike and a decent fitness level would be the optimal way to cover most of the island in one day.

If you are planning on hiking or biking north, there are some critical points to remember. The only place to find drinking water north of Sea Camp is at the Plum Orchard Mansion. All other water – whether from a spigot or not – must be treated before drinking. The Wilderness boundary lies 5 miles north of the Sea Camp dock. Due to the distance, it is best explored when visitors have more than regular day visit hours.

Due to the remote nature of the island, hikers in the wilderness should:

  1. take time to prepare and pack properly
  2. let a friend or family member know their itinerary
  3. take responsibility for their own safety

If you are planning to trek some distance north, remember that the last ferry off the island leaves at 4:45 p.m. seven days a week, except for December-February when there’s no ferry service Tuesday or Wednesday.

Recommended Hike: South End Loop

Among the island’s most popular pathways, this series of trails totaling 4.3 miles will optimize time and allow hikers to see the maximum number of sights in the southern portion of the preserve. While there are limited NPS and residential vehicles on the island, it is best for walkers to avoid the dust and traffic along the sandy Main Road. We suggest following this trail loop for the best cross section of the island.

After the boat docks at Sea Camp, you’ll head south along the River Trail which runs parallel to the Intracoastal Waterway. Hikers will experience the intersection of an intracoastal and maritime forest habitat, which includes many species of bird in the canopy and along the water’s edge. The trail also provides several viewing points of Cumberland’s western-facing shore, along with intermittent benches where you can stop and rest.

River Trail’s southern terminus is in the Dungeness dock area, which features the Ice House Museum, the Captain’s House, and possibly some feral horse sightings. Once you reach Dungeness Dock, head southeast for 0.3 miles before bearing right on the Main Road for the final 0.2 miles as you come into view of the Dungeness Ruins.

As you approach, it may feel as if you are transported to another time. Those with an active imagination can almost picture lavish parties on the lawn and women with parasols roaming the grounds. Now, there’s only brick and tabby ruins; however, they are quite breathtaking and can make even a novice photographer look like a pro. Be sure to check out the west side of the property to see some excellent marsh and intracoastal views from the dock.

Dungeness is the most popular area for the feral horses that roam the island. The current herd has descended from horses left on the island by residents long ago. They are not fed or cared for by the park service and are not trained to interact with humans in any way. Feeding and petting is strictly prohibited by the park service. However, that is not an issue because the horses steer clear of human visitors to the island. Other animals on the island include armadillo, deer, and of course several avian species that can be seen and heard all over the island.

Once you’ve had your fill, you’ll head east along Dungeness Trail, making sure to fill up your water bottle and utilize the restrooms before advancing further. Follow the signs for the Green-Miller Cemetery, which begins a 0.6-mile pathway to the beach.

Past the cemetery you’ll take the boardwalk through the marsh to a scenic overlook where you’ll be able to see the southern tip of Cumberland Island and the northern end of Amelia Island in the distance. You’ll continue east where the boardwalk meets back up with the sandy Dungeness Trail before breaking off once again. The boardwalk descends toward the beach as the dunes open to showcase the Atlantic Ocean.

The wide, clean and quiet beaches only enhance the sights, sounds, and smells of nature. Swimming is permitted, although no lifeguards are on duty. Most hikers choose to rest near the tide line and dip their feet in before moving on.

If long walks on the beach tug at your heart strings, then this 1.5-mile section of the loop is for you. While the sand is compact near the tideline, making walking relatively easy, windy days can be a challenge if you’re walking against the breeze.

After your jaunt on the beach, you’ll kick off the sand and head west toward Sea Camp Campground. Here you’ll find drinking fountains and restrooms as well as showers for nearby campsites. Many of these sites are so secluded that you can barely see them through the underbrush of palmettos. Staying overnight one or two days gives campers the chance to truly experience the quiet and solitude of this sparsely populated isle.

Passing through the campground, you’ll cross Main Road one final time before returning to Sea Camp. Additional information and tidbits can be gleaned from the helpful park rangers, who give regular talks on the habitat and history of the island. The ferry leaves the dock on schedule, so it’s best to arrive a little early than the set departure time to ensure you don’t become an unplanned and unprepared overnight guest.

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