History, ruins, and beaches: Spending a day on Georgia’s Cumberland Island

The barrier island, located near Jacksonville, Florida, makes for an adventurous day trip—with camping options if you want to stay longer

A beach on Cumberland Island. | Photo: Kathleen Walls

It’s impossible to overstate the charm and mystique of Georgia’s Cumberland Island, which sees few cars and only 300 visitors per day. A barrier island located off the coast of St. Mary’s, Georgia, and designated as a national seashore, Cumberland Island can be reached by ferry or private boats. The ferry ride takes about 45 minutes, making its first stop at Dungeness Dock, the earliest settled area of the island. Feral horses, wildlife, and an abundant history all claim the island as their own. 

The ferry makes another stop at Sea Camp Dock for anyone looking to spend a night on the island. Sea Camp Campground is one option with beach access. Other campgrounds managed by the National Park Service (NPS) include Stafford Beach, Hickory Hill, Yankee Paradise, and Brickhill Bluff. All campsites are primitive and you must pack all of your trash out, as there are no garbage cans on the island. 

Here are seven things to do on a visit to Cumberland Island.

a small white building near the water's edge
Ice House Museum. | Photo: Kathleen Walls

1. Ice House Museum

Located near the ferry landing, the self-guided Ice House Museum is a good place to start to learn about the island’s past. Thomas M. Carnegie (brother of steel magnate Andrew) and his wife Lucy bought land on the island in the 1880s. Built to store ice shipped from the north before refrigerators made it obsolete, the Ice House tells the 5,000-year human history of the island, from Indigenous communities to the English settlers of the early 1700s, through the Carnegie period.

The Carnegie family donated its land to the NPS in the early 1970s to keep it preserved as a natural sanctuary.

a small cemetery with several headstones surrounded by greenery
A cemetery on the island. | Photo: Kathleen Walls

2. Footsteps Tour

A free, ranger-led Footsteps Tour walks you through some of the island’s history, from its original inhabitants to the first European settlers and beyond. English colonists under James Oglethorpe built forts and a hunting camp on the island. Hour-long, 1-mile walking tours are offered at 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. when staff is available. Other ranger-led programs are also offered.

ruins of a stone and brick mansion under a cloudy sky
Dungeness ruins. | Photo: Kathleen Walls

3. Dungeness Ruins

General Nathanael Greene died before his family home, Dungeness (named after Oglethorpe’s hunting lodge), was finished. His wife Catherine completed the home after marrying Phineas Miller. Abandoned and eventually destroyed in an 1866 fire, Dungeness was rebuilt as a 59-room Queen Anne-style mansion by the Carnegies and completed in 1886 after Thomas’ death. In 1959, the mansion was again destroyed by a fire. Preserved by the NPS since 1972, its ruins offer a backdrop to the island’s grazing feral horses. 

a group of brown feral horses gathered under a tree
Feral horses. | Photo: Kathleen Walls

4. The Lands and Legacies Tour

The Lands and Legacy Tour also departs from Sea Camp Dock. If you want to see the north end of the 17.5-mile island, take this tour. The 6-hour tour takes you through many of the island’s significant buildings, and your guide gives a detailed history of each stop along the route. Wildlife sightings might include feral horses, turkeys, deer, and armadillos.

5. Greyfield Inn

Greyfield Inn—surrounded by 200 acres of marshland and built in 1900 for Thomas and Lucy Carnegie’s daughter, Margaret—is the only non-camping lodging option on the island. Still run by the Carnegie family, the Colonial-Revival-style inn’s rates are all-inclusive and include round-trip ferry service, naturalist-led tours, and three daily meals.

a classical white two story mansion
Plum Orchard. | Photo: Kathleen Walls

6. Plum Orchard

The Plum Orchard mansion was a wedding gift from the Carnegies to their oldest son, George, and his bride, Margaret. The magnificent, 30-room home was designed by a Boston architecture firm that built most of the Carnegie family homes on the island. 

After George died in 1921, his widow sold the furniture and abandoned the house. The youngest Carnegie, Nancy, moved into the 22,000-square-foot mansion, furnishing it with pieces from Dungeness. The home had running water and electricity before it was available in most other places, as well as a rare, indoor squash tennis court. Today, visitors can take a free tour of Plum Orchard, which includes informational displays and historical artifacts—it’s also a stop on the Lands and Legacy Tour. 

a small white church with a red roof
The First African Baptist Church. | Photo: Kathleen Walls

7. The Settlement

After the Civil War ended, people formerly enslaved by cotton planter Robert Stafford migrated farther north on the island and lived in what they called The Settlement. Today, only a handful of buildings remain, including the First African Baptist Church, where John F. Kennedy, Jr. married Carolyn Bessette in 1996, and the former home of Beulah Alberty, a college-educated schoolteacher. Alberty left the island to go to school on the mainland, but returned to start her own school and helped the community with legal matters. She became known as “The Mayor of The Settlement.”